In an article about memes, a photo of Grumpy Cat
Faces like this are familiar to those who grew up on the internet in the 2010s, but most people don't know much about the person or animal behind the photo. (Image via Instagram/@realgrumpycat)

The Faces in the Memes: Who Are They and Where Are They Now?

Who are the people behind these first few viral sensations, why were they chosen and who created them?

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In an article about memes, a photo of Grumpy Cat

Who are the people behind these first few viral sensations, why were they chosen and who created them?

We all know them and even love some of them, yet we don’t know much about them or how they came to be. They are a roster of faces that are so oddly familiar, you’ve already subconsciously conjured the framework of their backstory. Well, maybe you haven’t, but I have. I’m not referring to the cast of your favorite TV show or any of the images that litter household products. I’m talking about Scumbag Steve, Success Kid, Ermahgerd Girl and Grumpy Cat.

No, I didn’t make these names up. I promise there’s a commonality among this list of otherwise unrelated aliases: They’re all memes. But what are memes? Honestly, I had to triple-check the meaning of the word on different platforms because what I initially found was so filled with technical jargon, it was hard to wrap my brain around. By definition, memes are “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non genetic means, especially imitation.”

Basically, memes are pieces of media that are sometimes rendered with satirical text that is then transmitted via the internet. The first modern meme was the 3D animation known as “baby cha-cha” back in 1996. Who was responsible for that creepy bald baby that was featured on everything from local broadcasts to comedy series like “Ally McBeal”? Graphic designer Michael Girard created software focusing on the ways in which movement could be visually programmed, and in order to demonstrate the software’s capabilities, he birthed a baby doing the cha-cha to include along with the software’s demo.

For the purpose of this article, the memes discussed will strictly be those that include real people and animals but no celebrities, aside from Grumpy Cat. The reasoning? There’s no “Where are they now?” story for that big-lipped frog Pepe, and most of us are so fan-obsessed with our favorite famous person we don’t need a rundown of their background. Oh, and because Grumpy Cat is amazing, so let’s start there.

Grumpy Cat

Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce, became famous for her ever-present frown — one of the side effects of her feline dwarfism. In addition to the condition creating an exaggerated pouty mouth, the dark coloring surrounding her low-lidded, scowling eyes and the bright white upside-down Y running from the bridge of her nose around her mouth and whiskers combined into the perfect trifecta for her iconic mug.

Rising to fame in 2012, Bryan, the brother of Tardar Sauce’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, uploaded images he’d taken of the cat to his Reddit account. It caught on quickly, and by the time 2013 hit, the cat’s success had reached a pinnacle that required Tardar Sauce to have her own talent agent. Unfortunately, feline dwarfism also coincides with a short life span, and after only seven years of reigning meme supreme, Tardar Sauce passed away in 2019. She’ll always be internet royalty though, as her legend lives on still to this day.

Ermahgerd Girl

Maggie Goldenberger, also known as Ermahgerd Girl or “oh my god” girl, was utterly confused while on a trip with her family to the Philippines when she received a video call from a friend breaking the news of her sudden internet stardom. Goldenberger was 25 at the time she got the news that an image of her 11-year-old self had suddenly made her infamous on the internet.

In the image, she is rocking an odd brown and orange vest over a light-colored sweater, has her thick light brown hair in two high pigtails and has a look of joy immortalized across her face. What’s giving her that ecstatic expression? Probably the three R.L. Stine “Goosebumps books that she’s holding in her hands like fanned-out money as her backpack hangs askew and half unzipped off her arm, caused by what can only be sheer excitement.

But who made the meme? Reddit user Jeff Davis remembers being 16 and coming across Goldenberger’s photo while randomly scrolling through different images on Facebook. He states that he couldn’t pass up spreading the delight that the image brought him. This led another Reddit user, who chose to remain anonymous, to see the image and instantly be reminded of the “South Park character Shelly. Using that as inspiration, he created the image’s notorious caption of “Gersberms, mah fravrit berks,” translation, “‘Goosebumps,’ my favorite books.”

Goldenberger is now a trauma nurse in the city of Phoenix. She’s gone from saving people from a bad day with laughter to legitimately saving people.

Scumbag Steve

Standing in a doorway is his puffy fur-lined jacket, he sports a sideways flipped baseball hat and bears a vacant expression on his face, but who is he? Known by most as Scumbag Steve, Blake Boston became a meme sensation in 2011 when a Reddit user posted the photo and made several different captions, all of which included actions that were blatantly scummy. Some of the memes Boston admits to be true, but most are comically awful.

The title of the Reddit page was “I hated this dude,” and it was obviously clear that they had a personal vendetta against Boston. The image was from the cover of Boston’s rap record, but the photo was originally taken by his mom for her photography class, an action she claims to regret as it blew Boston up as an internet celebrity, which wasn’t as exciting as it should have been due to all the negative responses he received. But he’s made peace with the unwanted fame, and sharing the spotlight with spinoffs like Scumbag Stacy and Scumbag Brain has definitely helped lighten the onslaught of negative feedback.

Now, Boston is a father, engaged and a guitarist in a band. He also recently sold the Scumbag Steve NFT for over $57,000.

Success Kid

In 2007, Laney Griner posted a picture she’d taken of her son from earlier that day while on the beach. In it, he faces the camera with his tiny chubby arm bent at the elbow while he holds a fistful of sand, but what really completes the image is his firmly set mouth and determined chin. Griner thought the image was adorable — rightfully so — and uploaded the image of her son Samuel to Flickr, never anticipating that it would become one of the first viral sensations on the internet.

Success Kid is now just your average 13-year-old, and apparently, he hates the meme. Two years ago, his mother sued Republican Steve King for the unauthorized use of the image in one of his recent campaigns, yet for the most part, their lives have remained relatively the same.

We often save and send, or forward, these memes to our friends and family, hoping to share a laugh or brighten someone’s day. But the next time you come across a new viral meme, ask yourself: Who are they, and how did their image get here?

Writer Profile

Megan Heenan

Nevada State College
B.S. in Environmental & Resource Science, Minor in Professional Writing

Hello! My name is Megan. I’m originally from San Francisco, California, but now live in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m currently completing my last semester at Nevada State College. I love animals, photography, reading and gardening.

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