What does this mean? That is the question Paul Vasquez first asked six years ago when he filmed a double rainbow – all the way, across the sky – and a question he is answering now.
“God speaks to me and through me,” Vasquez tells me via a Skype call from his farm in Yosemite, California. “I am a vessel for God.”
Vasquez’s video went viral in July 2010, half a year after he filmed it, when his joyful reaction to two rainbows in the sky caught the attention of TV host Jimmy Kimmel. Since then, the video has been viewed over 43 million times, turned into a song, and featured in the 2013 comedy We’re the Millers. But Vasquez says he realised the video’s significance during his first ever media interview. “Someone asked me, ‘What does it mean?’ and instantly it was like someone tapped me on the head,” he says. “I’m supposed to spread a message. I am God’s servant.”
Vasquez certainly has a messianic aura, with his long, curly hair and beard, and a laugh that reverberates after almost every sentence he says. Yet he was much the same before he shot to fame, telling me that three weeks before he went viral he sat in a sweat lodge (a hut used by native American peoples for ceremonial steam baths) during a ceremony with his son and told God he would do what He wished. In many ways, then, he insists his life is still “99 per cent” like it was before. “It’s that one per cent, though,” he laughs. “That’s really mind blowing.”
Sitting in the exact same spot where he was when the rainbow first appeared, he tells me about everything that’s changed. “I went from being this starving artist, you know, subsistence farmer, to being the most Googled person on the planet for that month. I was on a magic carpet ride; I was flying all over the world. Everyone wanted to talk to me, every door was slamming open.”
Although things have died down a little since then, Vasquez’s unique personality means he has lingered longer in public memory than many other viral stars. People still call him up, he says, for interviews, adverts, and requests, and many people recognise him in the street. “I get recognised like I’m a rock star. I get fangirled, and hugs and kisses, and invitations. People are so happy to meet me, and that shit’s all good, especially when it’s a beautiful woman. And that’s the majority of what it is.”
Yet even this, he insists, isn’t too different from how he lived before. His self-sustaining farm just outside of Yosemite National Park has always attracted volunteers, since well before the viral video. “I have all these beautiful women from all over the world, they come and they cook and they clean and they go places with me, and when they ask to come here they don’t know anything about me being famous,” is how he describes it.
One encounter, however, is different from the rest. In 2011, Vasquez filmed an advert for Smartwater with Jennifer Aniston. “When I walked into the room she excused herself from who she was talking to and walks up to me and goes: ‘I’m a huge fan! Can I take your picture?’ Yeah, she’s a big fan. I got to hug her, it was awesome. She smelt good.”
The Smartwater advert is one of a few Vasquez has starred in, and he estimates his total earnings as “in the hundreds of thousands”. Yet he has also turned down many other opportunities. “The video is a video of God and you can’t use God for some things,” he explains. “I’m not going to use him for fast food, or soda, or for beer. Here’s another thing that’s trippy, I never put any ads on the double rainbow video on YouTube. It’s the only viral video with no ads on it. YouTube contacted me and said ‘you can monetise this’ and I said ‘no’ and they didn’t understand. It’s a video of God and I’m not going to put an ad on God.”
The money he did make, Vasquez says, didn’t actually change his life all that much. Because he already owned his farm, and his daughter and son – now aged 29 and 27 respectively – had already grown up, everything he made was “extra”. “I fixed my teeth, I fixed my land, I fixed my cars,” he says when I ask what he did with the money. “And I think I bought some silver and some guns.”
Nowadays, Vasquez spends most of his time on his farm, which he describes as his own Noah’s ark, with a well, an eco-village, vegetable gardens, and solar power. “If society crumbles, I can still keep going,” he says. He does, however, ask those of us in Great Britain to pray for the environment. “The way the planet is going . . . I’m looking out my door right now and the mountain is dead. The fauna that I look at in the double rainbow video, the mountain, is dead. Everything is dying around us because we’re polluting ourselves. We need prayers for humanity.”
Vasquez also continues to make videos on his channel, Hungrybear9562 (now Yosemitebear62), though – at the time of writing – his last only has seven views. “‘Want’ is not in my vocabulary,” he says when I ask if he’d like to go viral again. “The videos are just me documenting my amazing life; I don’t really care if people want to see it. As long as my descendants can see what I’m like then that’s what makes me happy.”
Despite the fame, Vasquez appears to have remained grounded. His advice to others who go viral is: “Don’t make it about yourself.”
“Fame can destroy you if you let it,” he adds. “So I never make it about me. I’m a humble servant to my fellow man.
“My life is so amazing that this is just another thing. I live in the most beautiful place on the planet, my children are native American from Yosemite National Park. We have our ceremonies. It’s like our life is just so mind-blowingly incredible that this thing is just like, ‘eh, that’s another thing’.”
Rainbows, however, still play an important part in his life. The best thing that came of going viral, he says, was when a high school in Iceland raised money to bring him over, and performed a concert for him. “It was so insanely powerful that I was just bawling,” he says. The trip involved a tour around the country, and on the last day the school took him to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa.
“It was like this hot lake in Iceland,” he says, “and I get out there and I’m like, ‘Am I really supposed to go hot tubbing with all these high school kids?’
“And when I said that – I said it out loud – a rainbow appeared in the sky.”
“Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the rest in the series here.
To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.