Becoming accidentally famous must be an unpleasantly surreal experience. Rebecca Black is the most cited example of the phenomenon these days (as though she was just dancing down the street one day and accidentally passed through a terrible music video) but she's far from the most mind blowing example.
For instance, imagine driving through the streets of, say, Beijing, and suddenly seeing your face on a billboard for instant noodles. Imagine you then find out your face is the Chinese equivalent of the Gerber's Baby, and has been for decades, and you never had a clue. This apparently happens all the time.
You've almost certainly seen the famous World War II propaganda icon "Rosie the Riveter."
What started as a simple motivational poster for the millions of women working in factories while their husbands were away fighting became one of the most iconic symbols of feminism and equality in the workplace. It's one of the most well known American cultural images of all time, up there with the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima and the drawing of Uncle Sam.
In 1984, while flipping through a copy of Modern Maturity, 59-year-old Geraldine Doyle spotted an article about the inspiration behind the Rosie the Riveter character: a photo of a 17-year-old girl working in a factory in 1942. Her name? Geraldine Doyle.
"Geraldine the Metal Presser," doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well.
Doyle, incredibly, had no idea of her connection to Rosie the Riveter. In fact, she didn't even know about the original inspirational photo, which given her posture, lends an unsettling peeping-Tom vibe to the whole thing. At the time, she'd just graduated high school and, like many other women, had taken a job in a factory in order to support the war effort. American Broach & Machine Co. had her on a metal press in no time at all, probably after a vigorous and thorough safety-training program that only that decade could deliver.
"Wearing dresses around whirring, metal crushing machinery? Why, that's almost as dangerous as letting women wear pants!" - The 1940s
Fearing an injury that could impact her ability to play the cello, Doyle quit after only two weeks on the job. She endured the potential hand crushing long enough for a photographer to snap the picture without her noticing. Someone who did notice, however, was J. Howard Miller, an artist commissioned by the government to draw up some motivating pieces of art.
He kept Doyle's pretty face and red bandanna, but gave her slender build a shot of super-heroine sized muscles. Rosie, though not named as such right away, was born, and went on to inspire countless women.
Doyle told the Lansing (Michigan) State Journal, in the understatement of the century, "You're not supposed to have too much pride, but I can't help have some in that poster. It's just sad I didn't know it was me sooner."
"So, I'm as well known as Mickey Mouse? Yeah, that might have been good to know."
In 2002, Russell Christoff, a kindergarten teacher, coasted through the grocery store just like any regular shopper looking for Bloody Mary mix. Coffee wasn't on his list, but, to his astonishment, he noticed that he was on the coffee.
Yeah, that's Russell Christoff smelling up a bunch of sweet coffee heat, courtesy of Nestle. And he didn't know how it got there. Also, he didn't even like Taster's Choice. But his coffee clone seemed to love it deeply ...
Modern day Christoff appears much less likely to be whispering, "Oooooh coffee, it is going to be so fine when I make love to you."
Christoff had knowingly modeled for a Taster's Choice ad in Canada back in 1986 that, as far as he knew, never got used -- he had been paid $250 for the session and sent on his way. Not being good enough for Canada isn't the sort of thing you want to dwell on in a world with so many tall buildings with roof access, so Christoff pretty much forgot about it and went on with his life.
Unbeknownst to him, a Nestle employee, looking specifically for an image to embody Taster's Choice, ended up stumbling across the photo again. Naturally, Nestle called up Christoff and asked if they could use the photo in a new worldwide ad campaign. And of course, we're kidding. This was Nestle, a company famous for being somewhat unscrupulous.
"A phone call? To a customer? How quaint. Send him a cookie."
Over the years, Christoff's face would be plastered on coffee labels in about two dozen countries (including several Latin ones, for which they darkened his skin and added sideburns to the picture for some reason) and he had no idea. He sued and won $15.6 million, which he lost on appeal. He's back in court now, still fighting Nestle over the use of his face. Nestle, on the other hand, tried to settle things outside of court for the sum of $100,000. Christoff countered with the sum of $8.5 million. Nestle respectfully declined before chuckling softly into a handkerchief and leaving the bargaining table to add a new warning label to their jars.
Via USA Today
"Warning: May contain images of people who can't keep their damn mouths shut!"
No matter where you live, there is a pretty good chance that at some point in the last couple years you have seen this image. It's become the face of revolution in half a dozen countries, a Che-like icon.
The young man who apparently hates the sky can be found on T-shirts, in promotional materials for rock bands and as graffiti all over the world. And that was all before the guy in the photo had the slightest idea. It was just a picture of his face he had stuck on his Flickr account.
That guy was Noam Galai, an Israeli living in New York City who took up photography as a hobby. One day he thought about how scary people look when they yawn and decided to take a self-portrait with his mouth wide open as if screaming. Then he promptly forgot about it.
A few years later, a co-worker noticed T-shirt sellers around the city doing a brisk business shilling Galai's face to tourists, and asked him why he hadn't told her he had sold the rights to his face, at which point Galai probably asked her which Pink Floyd song that was from because he hadn't sold the rights to anything.
By this point it wasn't just a local thing -- Galai searched for the image online and found more than 50 examples from places as far flung as Chile, Canada and Germany. Eventually he showed up on this magazine cover:
Not bad for the visual equivalent of "meh."
You might notice the headline says "The Face of Democracy." That's because the image of a random young man scream-yawning had become a rallying image for political movements in places like Honduras, Bhutan and China. Something about the power of this image spoke not only to Manhattan teens trying to annoy their parents but to oppressed people around the world.
National Geographic, the parent company of Glimpse magazine, did actually pay Galai for the use of his image for their cover, marking the first and only time he's seen a dime. Instead of getting lawsuit-happy and attempting to sue everyone from small businesses to freedom fighters, though, he took the popularity of his stolen picture in stride and started a website where people can send in pictures of the image.
Galai isn't the first person to have his image used without his permission. In fact, if you've ever posted your photograph online, you might already be famous. Danielle Smith and her family became literally huge overseas after she posted their Christmas card photo on a few social networking sites and ... that's it. She didn't sell the photograph to a modeling agency. Just posted it online and forgot about it.
And that would have been the end of the story if she didn't happen to have a friend in Prague, who happened to be walking by a high-end grocery store that was displaying this life sized ad:
How many friends do you have in Prague? You might be the Eastern European equivalent of the Jordan jump man logo right now. You'd never know. And thanks to Facebook settings, it's only going to get weirder from here. Tomorrow it could easily be your sexy face staring back at you from a cheap T-shirt.