I always imagined after a video you post goes viral, the timeline unfolds as such: Your follower count increases, you become the most popular person at your school or in your town, you get a call from the Ellen Show.
There were at least 365 meme moments in 2016, one for every day of the year. More than half were unknown people putting their content into the ether for laughs or due to boredom. Some participated unknowingly. All were chosen by the billions of people who use the internet every day and deemed worthy of their attention.
Nicholas Fraser, better known as the guy from the “You Always Lying” video, became an internet sensation two summers ago. The day after he posted the video, his phone started blowing up. “I had to get a new phone because it started overheating from of all the notifications that I was getting,” he says. His followers started to increase and his video received millions of views, but, he says, he didn’t receive the credit he should have because he didn’t watermark his video in the beginning.
“People used the fact that I didn't put my name on the video as an opportunity to capitalize on it,” he says. “What a lot of people did was make fake pages, so people didn’t really know where to find me and all my other videos. It became difficult… that's part of the reason why I don't have a crazy, unbelievable amount of followers right now.” Regardless, Fraser was acknowledged for his work by some. Outlets like MTV and BET reached out for him to appear on shows (No Ellen, though, which Fraser thinks might’ve been due to the fact that he used the F-bomb), talent agents called wanting to represent him, and his name was out there.
Kayla Lewis, known on the internet as Peaches Monroee, had a more low-key viral aftermath experience. Her friends from school were the ones who initially brought to her attention that her six-second video was gaining popularity. Lewis mostly shrugged it off. “And then, when I saw celebrities started using it, I was like, ‘Oh, okay this is something big,’” she tells us. “It” being her signature “eyebrows on fleek” line. From there, Lewis says, “People started noticing me, my peers started wanting to take a picture, everybody just started seeing me.” She made minor appearances and had a few people hoping to mooch off of her sudden acclaim reach out, but, for the most part, things were tame.
Neither Fraser's nor Lewis’ scope of “fame” compares to that of Natasha Payne, aka Chewbacca Mom. She describes the days following her 15 minutes of fame (or, in her case, four minutes and four seconds) as a “whirlwind.” The morning after posting the video on Facebook, it had more than 30 million views. That’s when the calls started rolling in. “The Monday after the video went viral, I started in-studio at Good Morning America in New York and ended the day with James Corden in L.A.,” she says, “I did more traveling in an airplane during those days than I had previously done in 15 years!” There was no Ellen appearance in the cards for Payne either, surprisingly. But where Fraser and Lewis got recognition, more followers, and good SEO, Payne got a video series with TLC, two book deals, and, reportedly, $420,000 worth of gifts.
While it’s notoriously hard to turn a viral moment into money, it’s even harder if you’re black. Fraser has managed to make a profit off of his videos, but it’s not six-figure numbers. He first posted his video on Vine, and, after noticing how popular it was becoming, he released the full version on YouTube. YouTube allows you to monetize your content through the company’s AdSense program. Vine doesn’t (or didn’t, RIP) have that option. He explains:
When they put the advertisement on the video, it's like you get a certain amount of money based on how many times people go to the advertisement or how many times the advertisement plays. Like if I get a million views, that doesn't mean I get a million dollars. I wish. But, it accumulates over time and it builds. I have like 20-something million views on the video, so I got a good amount out of there, I'm not gonna lie.
Back in February, Lewis started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a cosmetic collection and haircare line she’s hoping to launch. The description explains that, though everyone’s using the phrase “on fleek”—including celebrities like the Kardashians and retailers like Nordstrom and Forever 21—she hasn’t received any money from it.
Lewis also posted her video on Vine, which is part of the reason. She thought about also posting it on YouTube, but, at that point, so many other users posted it already, she didn’t see a point. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, in a lot of these cases, you have to already have money in order to make money. Especially in Lewis' case, where trademarking would’ve been required. “My peers, they think, ‘Oh, you should have did this, you should’ve did that, girl, I would have done this.’ It's like, 'No, that stuff takes a lot of money and time,'” she says. Not to mention, she was only 16 when the video took off. “I was in high school at the time in my sophomore year, so then I still had to worry about that and the ACT coming up.”
The internet has a tendency of disposing of the previous sensation for the next as quickly as it takes to compose a 140-character tweet. It’s also not the best for giving credit or compensation where credit or compensation is due. And while it’s easy to get mad at the short end of the stick Lewis was dealt, it’s hard to stay mad because, well, she says she’s doing fine. She’s enrolled in college and studying to be a nurse. Her hair line will be coming out sometime this month, and her cosmetic line in the near future. And she and her mother have plans to meet with a lawyer to finally get “on fleek” trademarked. Of course, it would’ve been nice to have seen some checks from the beginning but, fame longevity or not—and even money or not—Lewis says she’s grateful for everything the internet has given her. “At the end of the day, just 'cause I didn't get sponsors or anything, I still was recognized. People still knew who I was, people still see me,” she says. “I felt somewhat in the light… I was a little dim, but I was in the light.”
Similar to Lewis, Fraser doesn’t hold any grudges. Everything happens for a reason is the outlook he holds on to. “You gotta take everything as a sign, you know. I do believe that if I did get like a million followers, two million followers, I probably would’ve ended up getting lazy and I wouldn't have created even a quarter of the things that I've made recently,” he says. “So I'm just actually glad that it kind of happened that I didn't get the amount of exposure that I should have gotten.”
He’s since taken a break from making videos because he felt like people (i.e. talent agents, people on the street, people interested in booking him) were trying to mold him into something he didn’t want to become. “As time went on, it started to not be fun anymore. I hated everything about it.” He also took a break from college to pursue his career as an entertainer. Now, he has a couple of projects on the way and is going to start putting out YouTube content again. More than ever, he’s determined to move past the one-and-done trope that often befalls viral stars. “I could make a billion things that are so funny, but, in the back of people's minds, that will forever be there. They're focused primarily on that one thing that they don't realize there's so much else to that person,” he reflects. “At this point, it’s up to me to go even harder to make real straightforward funny videos… I'm not thinking about topping my other video, I'm just thinking about making other things.”
And, he's holding out hope that those “other things,” are what finally prompts a phone call from the mecca of all things viral. “I'll be on Ellen one day,” he says, very matter-of-fact. “Quote me on that. I'll be on the show.”