Few things in this world unite people the way that internet memes do: a single picture that’s so recognizable and full of implication, everyone immediately knows that the jerk who posted Foul Bachelor Frog on your status is suggesting that you’re lazy, probably single, and have questionable hygienic practices. Loads of memes gained their popularity because the person in them was already famous (like the Strutting Leonardo DiCaprio and the excess of memes that highlight Nick Cage’s disconcerting facial expressions). However, there's also a handful of memes that happened the other way around – a regular Joe who rose to fame because of a really unfortunate photoshoot, or a childhood photograph that accurately depicts the stuff that nightmares are made of. Check out these 15 backstories of everyday people who became some of our favorite ultra-famous memes.
15 The Ermergerd Girl
Ahh, the meme that launched its own pseudo-language: The Ermergerd Girl, whose “fravrit berk” is most definitely “Gersberms.” Her name is Maggie Goldenberger, and she was on an international trip with a friend when she got word that a picture of her as an 11-year-old was all over Facebook. Fortunately, the pigtails, terrible vest, and ridiculously unattractive expression were all intentional. Goldenberger was playing dress-up with her friends when the photo was taken, and they loved coming up with ridiculous characters. Even her retainer was worn just for the shot, and Goldenberger held the infamous Goosebumps books as a final prop to create her character, “Pervy Dale.” She put the picture on her fridge for years until it was finally uploaded to Myspace and Facebook, where it started circulating. Goldenberger has been a great sport about the whole thing, and feels the internet is laughing with her, not at her.
14 Overly Attached Girlfriend
Everyone’s favorite murderous female, Overly Attached Girlfriend (AKA Laina Morris), got her start in the meme world when she uploaded her own personalized version of Justin Bieber’s single, “Boyfriend,” to YouTube under the title “JB Fanvideo.” She changed the lyrics so that they were particularly stalker-like and unnerving, and during the whole video, she donned her signature facial expression: wide, dead eyes and a blank stare. It received over a million views within two days after being uploaded, and of course, Reddit went crazy over it. One particular user took a still of her creepiest face in a thread called, “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” and the meme gained even more recognition from there. While Morris denies that her last name is actually Morris, she’s continued to make videos and tweet tweets that show how cool she is about the whole thing.
13 Scumbag Steve
The Scumbag Steve meme got its start with a picture of a boy in a fur jacket and a sideways fitted cap. The overlaid text features phrases you’d probably hear from “that one guy you know” who’s sketchy, unreliable, immoral, and, frankly, a massive tool. He’s also the type of guy who throws up on all your stuff at parties. In reality, the boy in the picture is named Blake Boston, also known as “Weezy B.” The original picture was uploaded to Myspace, and apparently taken by Boston’s mom. According to an interview that Boston did with KnowYourMeme, the picture was pretty close to his actual high school identity. He dressed “hip hop” and wore a “flat bill to school.” He also played lacrosse, always got in trouble, and had parties all the time, but he makes it clear that he never stole anything in his life. Boston started getting harassed when the meme reached its height of popularity, receiving phone calls and messages from people who tracked down his information. While he didn’t particularly like the way it happened, his rap career did gain a fair bit of recognition from it.
12 Kid That Needs To Fart
“Kid That Needs To Fart,” or “Trying to Hold a Fart Next to a Cute Girl in Class,” is a picture of a boy sitting at a school desk, face red, veins popping out of his forehead. It got its start on Reddit, and quickly spread across Twitter and Facebook with phrases that moved away from farting and into the realm of making fun of people who can’t stop talking about their social causes. The subject of the photo, it turns out, is 18-year-old Michael McGee, who was sitting next to his friend, Amber, in class. In an interview with The Daily Dot, McGee explains that he and his friends were just goofing off in class. He’d made that face before for comedic purposes, and his friend Matthew snapped a picture and tweeted it. It didn’t blow up for another few months, and while McGee is cool with all the internet fame, he regrets not copyrighting the picture right away, because dude would be loaded by now.
11 Hipster Barista
The Hipster Barista meme, a picture of a tattooed man in glasses and a low V-neck, was first uploaded in 2011. It’s normally accompanied with phrases that are both hypocritical and judgmental, as well as loads of cracks about the world of specialized coffee. The man in the picture is named Dustin Mattson, and he’s a blogger as well as a real-life barista at Octane Coffee in Georgia. Apparently, Mattson isn’t too happy with the spread of the meme, as he believes that it’s an insult to the culinary industry and the work he does for a living. Shortly after he found out about the meme, he tweeted, "yeah it's real representative of what I do to feed my family,” and in an interview with Atlanta Eater, Mattson said, “I do find it discouraging and disappointing that there was so much exposure brought to an attempt at making a joke of a culinary industry and the professional barista,” but he’s taking the whole incident as an opportunity to work harder at his job and prove all the stereotypes wrong.
10 Success Kid
It’s one thing to gain recognition for an embarrassing picture of you in your teenage years, and an entirely different thing when you’re famous before you can even talk. Success Kid portrays a small child with a determined face and a fist of triumph, and is normally accompanied by anything and everything that would constitute as a small victory for most people. The original picture is of Sammy Griner, who was 11-months-old and on the beach. His mother Laney took the photograph right before Griner put a fist-full of sand in his mouth, and the meme went viral within a few years. Sammy (now ten) and Laney are both very positive about the meme, saying, “There's not a single thing we regret about Success Kid,” and have even used the meme to raise money for a kidney transplant for Justin Griner – Sammy’s father.
9 Really High Guy
“Really High Guy,” also known as “Stoner Stanley,” or “ Guy,” features a young man with a sweaty face, wandering eyes, and a smile that indicates he’s not all cognitively there (Hint: because drugs). The meme gained tons of recognition on Reddit, typically alongside phrases and comments that have to do with marijuana use or typical stoner behavior. Actually, put any text over this picture, and it’ll be hilarious. Since its rise in 2011, this one has collected dozens and dozens of spin-off memes, but despite the fact that it’s one of the most popular in internet history, very little is known about who this man actually is. He’s pretty much the Sasquatch of the meme world, and only one thing’s for certain: these three pictures came from the same crazy night, though what he was actually on, the world may never know.
8 College Freshman
It’s a little too easy to poke fun at all the noobs in college, and perhaps that’s why the College Freshman meme gained so much widespread recognition. It showcases a happy-go-lucky student with earphones and a wide smile, and is meant to express the naivety and enthusiasm that comes with your first year of school. In actuality, the picture is of Griffin Kiritsy, who was a student at the University of New Hampshire. The photograph was first used for an article in Reader’s Digest about the effect that technology has on people’s lives, and Kiritsy was told to wear a UNH shirt (which he didn’t own), so he borrowed one from his sister. Kiritsy says that it’s pretty awkward when people recognize him, and none of the memes really apply to him, but he finds it hilarious all the same.
7 Sheltering Suburban Mom
Whether it’s our own mother or a mother of a friend, we all know a lady like the Sheltering Suburban Mom. She grounds you if you’re two minutes late for your curfew, video games and horror movies are on the “definitely forbidden” list, and she’s a little bit hypocritical when she comes to her parenting practices. Carly Phillips, the woman in the picture, is actually a best-selling romance novelist, and the picture in question was used for an author bio. When she first found out about the meme, Phillips was upset and hurt, but once the joke was explained to her, she decided to let it go and laugh along. After all, the meme doesn’t really describe her at all. “I was the mom who let them watch R-rated movies young and the other parents would be frustrated with me for that,” says Phillips.
6 Bad Luck Brian
Ohio native Kyle Craven, the real Bad Luck Brian, woke up to a phone call at 2 AM when his embarrassing image went viral. This unfortunate-looking boy with braces and a sweater vest picked up momentum in 2012, when the school photo was posted to Reddit by Craven’s long-time friend, Ian Davies. From there, it circulated on sites like 9gag and Funny or Die. The theme of this one is pretty simple: the poor kid just cannot catch a break. Apparently, the bad school picture was all a joke – Craven, class clown, always took advantage of picture day, and this particular year, he bought a plaid sweater vest at a thrift store and rubbed his face beforehand to make it all red. The principal forced him to retake the photo. Craven still gets calls from people who want to use his photo in ad campaigns, and he says, “It’s something to show my grandkids one day, right?”
5 Skeptical Baby
Skeptical Baby features an adorable little lump with a raised eyebrow and a quizzical look. It normally begins with the phrase, “You mean to tell me…” and continues with some kind of childhood realization, like, “She doesn’t really have my nose?” and “Spoons don’t actually sound like airplanes?” The original picture was taken by family photographer Jarod Knoten, and was then uploaded to his blog alongside other pictures of North Carolina family Dave (father), Raleigh (mother), and Skeptical Baby. Unfortunately, Skeptical Baby doesn’t look all that skeptical in other pictures. Dave submitted the photo to Reddit shortly after, it landed on the front page within one day, and the rest was history. Now this picture is one of the most beloved running jokes in the parenting category, and it’s been used for other memes such as “Baby Godfather” and “Baby Courage Wolf.”
4 Ridiculously Photogenic Guy
While everyone surrounding him looks a bit like they’re going to cough out a lung and/or drop dead, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy dons a gorgeous smile, flawless hair, and the running stance of a stock photo fitness magazine model. The subject of this meme is a New York City resident named Zeddie Little, and the picture was taken by photographer William King. He saw Little weaving through the crowd as he competed in a South Carolina race, and King snapped the picture because of how excited Little looked while jogging. He posted the image on Flickr, where it later became the biggest thing on Reddit, mostly due to Little’s charming good looks, and he’s really down-to-earth about the whole thing. "I find the humor in all of it. I just think it's great," Little says. "It's the most flattering way to get spread across the Internet."
3 Senior College Student
This one features an elderly woman in a college classroom. She raises her arm, pen in hand, to make a comment, while her much younger classmates look particularly irritated behind her. The overlaid text mostly pokes fun at senior citizens who apparently “know it all” and continuously inconvenience the people around them. The woman in the picture is actually Nola Ochs, Guinness World Record holder for the world’s oldest college graduate. Ochs began taking community college courses after her husband passed away in 1972. She finally finished her Fort Hays State University education in 2007 (the picture taken for media coverage of the event), and apparently, her experience has been nothing like the meme. "Everybody has accepted me, and I feel just like another student," Ochs says. "The students respect me." Adorable.
2 Disaster Girl
It’s very rare that anyone looks at a picture of a four-year-old girl and immediately thinks, “murderous pyromaniac” – at least, until the rise of the Disaster Girl meme in October of 2008. She appears particularly sly and calm while a house burns to the ground behind her, and people have since Photoshopped her face in front of thousands of disasters including the Titanic and Hiroshima. Zoe Roth, now 16, was watching TV with her brother on a Saturday when the house started burning, so she went outside with her whole family to see. Her dad, Dave, snapped the picture with his new digital camera (along with dozens of others of just the fire), and hardly noticed his daughter’s creepy face until others started commenting. Zoe said she’s proud to be Disaster Girl, even if some of the memes can get a little disturbing.
1 Musically Oblivious 8th Grader
Remember middle school, when you pretended to love loads of things you didn’t actually love in a desperate attempt for approval from your peers? Musically Oblivious 8th Grader is the digital manifestation of that phenomenon – a girl who knows nothing about current and/or past bands and artists, but tries relatively hard anyway. This meme was created by a girl named Grace Spelman, who used a middle-school graduation photo of her friend Emilie Ferreira – the mousy face you see in front of the advice animals color wheel background. She first posted the meme to her Tumblr, where she used it to make music theory jokes among her group of friends. It was later picked up by 4Chan users, where it became less about theory and more about popular music and bands.
Sources: vanityfair.com, knowyourmeme.com, knowyourmeme.com, dailydot.com, atlanta.eater.com, dailymail.co.uk, yourknowmeme.com, tnhonline.com, dailydot.com, washingtonpost.com, knowyourmeme.com, newsfeed.time.com, abcnews.go.com, nbcnews.com, refinery29.com, knowyourmeme.com