Viral Video’s Greatest ‘Stars’: Where Are They Now?

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

In the age of YouTube stardom, fame is both fleeting and forever. Fleeting as in the ability to follow it up with similarly grabbing "followup projects," but forever in the sense that that singular moment that captured the public imagination will live on racking up hits forever. Life goes on, meanwhile, for Obama Girl, Rebecca Black, Antoine Dodson, Tay Zonday, and Chris Crocker, so why not catch up with the viral sensations who brought us such pleasure once (and usually only once) upon a time?

[Is Kate Upton too sexy for YouTube?]

"Chocolate Rain" YouTube views: 80,689,738

Who says there are no second acts in American YouTube lives? Zonday will never again rack up a fraction of the 80 million views "Chocolate Rain" got after becoming an unlikely sensation in 2007. But, he has a current comeback "hit": His own version of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," which at last look had accumulated 2,643,000 looks of its own. He's tried to make a cottage industry out of deep-voiced covers of current hits, with usually lesser results. (His month-old version of "Somebody That I Used to Know" is stalled with a mere 328,000 views.) But riding Jepsen's coattails has given Baritone Dude a lift back into the laptop-sensation spotlight.

"Bed Intruder" YouTube views: 103,055,713

Dodson falls into the category of accidental superstars, as his appearance in news footage got the "Auto-Tune the News" treatment. His "fans" took to him with or without a backing track: While the musical-ized version has 103 million hits, the raw news-footage monologue has 44 million views of its own. The Alabama housing-projects resident parlayed his notoriety into appearances on the BET Awards, the George Lopez and Jay Leno shows, and Tosh 2.0—not to mention merchandising lines that included a Halloween "Bed Intruder" costume.

Although he was reported to filming a reality show about moving from Huntsville, Alabama to Los Angeles last year, nothing more has been heard of it. Most recently, Dodson appeared with several other YouTube and/or Idol "celebs"—including Miles Jai, DeStorm, GloZell, Katie Stevens, Vonzell "Baby V" Solomon—in a ghetto-set "Beauty and the Beast" spoof called "Beauty and the Beat."

"Friday" YouTube views: 34,508,048

Like it or not, she's "in the studio recording an album right now," Black told reporters as she attended the premiere of Katy Perry's new movie—adding, "It's a little bit different than what I have put out so far." Which may come as a relief to the tens of millions of non-fans who found "Friday" to be an unforgivable ear worm. A new single, "Sing It," was released in early May, but it's only drawn in 1.4 million YouTube viewers, so it's no "Saturday."

Weirdly, she's also gotten involved in presidential politics—Mexican presidential politics. The just-turned-15-year-old from Anaheim made news last month by going south of the border to hold a press conference endorsing Enrique Peña Nieto, a decision that seems just a little less odd when you learn that her uncle is also a member of the candidate's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) party. Since Black only spoke English at the media event and had to have her remarks translated into Spanish, it's not clear how much cachet her opinions are likely to hold with of-age Mexican voters.

"Crush on Obama" YouTube views: 24,937,605

Could there be any greater sign that the 2012 election might be a squeaker than the fact that "Obama Girl" isn't in the bag for Obama this time? Well, maybe there are better bellwethers than the fickle opinion of apparently fair-weather viral-video friend Amber Lee Ettinger. Still, it seemed strange that 2008's presidential pinup girl told the Daily Caller in early June that she was "not as excited as last time, that's for sure" and keeping her voting plans "to myself. If I'm not making videos, I'm not sure it's anyone's business who I'm voting for this time around." And if she's not making videos, what is she doing? "Going back to school full time, acting and developing my jewelry line." (And apparently turning down requests from "Meet the Press.")

But the erstwhile Obama Girl tipped everyone off to her discontent early in 2012 when she made a video calling out the President, sung to the tune of "You"re the One That I Want" from Grease. Sample lyrics: ""You better step up, 'cause I need that man, if my old crush on you was true.../'Cause across the land all our hearts were bet on you." So far, though, her ambivalent-about-Barack video only has a scant 110,00 views.

"Leave Britney Alone" YouTube views: 43,904,395

He's the only one of our viral video sensations to merit his own HBO documentary, which premiered last week. The New York Times said it was "affecting." The Atlantic Wire called it "a strange and depressing look at Mr. Leave Britney Alone himself, Chris Crocker." The Huffington Post called him "the self-proclaimed transgender twink from Tennessee" and wrote of the HBO doc, "Chris Crocker will always be a byproduct of Britney Spears. And it's easy to hate him for that, as easy as it is to hate Paris Hilton, Perez Hilton and anyone on reality TV. In the new documentary Me at the Zoo, I got the sense that we've made very easy for Crocker to hate himself too."

According to the HBO doc, his videos have been viewed 270 million times. In case you've somehow been able to scrub it from your mind, Crocker rose to fame—or infamy—with his tearful, profane, and is-it-or-isn't-it-tongue-in-cheek defense of Spears' performance at the 2007 MTV VMAs. The confusion over just how seriously to take him made it clear: Crocker was, in his fashion, an old-fashioned performance artist. He's continued to be an attention magnet and released several singles that made the iTunes and/or Billboard dance charts. He told the Times, "A lot of trans people want me to be the voice of them, and I'm not that. I have gender fluidity... Even when I dress female, I don't feel either/or. I identify as myself. And a lot of gay people don't want me to be the face of gay, because they say I'm why they get bullied. But if you're pro-gay, you have to root for someone who lives in the South, where even going to the gas station is a terrifying experience."

YouTube views: 24,965,169

Unlike Crocker, Keyboard Cat has probably never received any death threats. But then, he's been dead since 1987. That's right, "Fatso," the original Keyboard Cat, who was made by owner Charles Schmidt to appear to be cranking out a tune in 1984, met his maker decades before becoming a viral video star in 2007. It was Brad O'Farrell who had the idea to use the footage to "play off" less deserving stars. The footage became such a meme that Weezer actually used the clip to play themselves off each night on tour.


It's impossible to calculate just how many views their breakout "treadmill video" for "Here It Goes Again" accumulated, since so many versions of it appeared on YouTube and racked up tens of millions of hits before the label decided to divert it to their official channel. But if anyone here is not a one-hit video wonder, it's OK Go, who've done more than anybody since Peter Gabriel in the 1980s to make music videos a bona fide art form again. "This Too Shall Pass," aka the "Rube Goldberg video" of 2010, turned out to be even more transfixing, and currently stands at 36 million views on the band's channel. Their latest, "Skyscrapers," released in April, is less elaborate, but continues their streak as the band making the most creative use of videos in the post-MTV-showing-videos era.


The Columbus Dispatch put a video report online that had homeless man Ted Williams basically doing a "Will Do Deep Radio Voice for Money" schtick. It was as if you suddenly found the guy who says "In a world where..." in movie trailers trolling for spare change on your street corner. Everybody loves a redemption tale, and former DJ Williams seemed primed for one, but as anyone who's followed the news over the last few years knows, it hasn't been that simple for the Man With the Golden Voice. He was hired for voiceover gigs by MSNBC, Kraft, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, even as he appeared to have detoxed. But in January 2011, he admitted on the Dr. Phil show that he'd relapsed, and immediately entered treatment, only to leave after 12 days.

In May, he published a memoir, A Golden Voice: How Faith, Hard Work, and Humility Brought Me from the Streets to Salvation, and appeared on The Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda to promote it, saying he's been sober for over a year, following his in-and-out rehab experience. One thing's for sure: If his saga ever does get made into a movie, he needs to do the trailer narration.

YouTube views: 198,045,718

Judson Laipply also chose to be in on the joke—and probably always was, since he does, after all, bill himself as an "inspirational comedian." The Ohio-based comedian still has a healthy gig on the motivational speaker circuit and has released a sequel to "Evolution of Dance."


Jill and Kevin: still not divorced! That's happy news for fans of the bridal procession boogie that exploded around the world in 2009 after being filmed in a Minnesota church. The bride and groom weren't the only ones who benefitted. T-Mobile did a parody featuring a fake Prince William and Kate Middleton, featuring East 17's "House of Love" as the music, immediately upping that band's stock. But the biggest beneficiary of the most popular wedding video of all time—for better or (some might say) worse—was Chris Brown. The constant exposure to his "Forever" song, at a time when he was still widely considered a pariah, shot the then-year-old song back into the iTunes top 10. Thanks largely to Jill and Kevin's choice of soundtrack, the baddest of bad boy was seemingly safe for public consumption once more.