“Excuse me, this is my son, do you know him?”
Ten-year-old Sammy Griner is doing an impression of his mum, imitating what she is like – complete with hand gestures – when she tells a stranger that he is Success Kid. This isn’t an arrogant title, or a strange nickname, but the name of the meme that Sammy became when he was just a baby. When his mother, Laney, shot a picture of him holding a fistful of sand on the beach when he was 11-months-old, she had no idea that the determined expression on her baby’s face would lead him to become internationally famous online.
“It’s actually really funny because some people think babies can’t pose like that,” says Sammy, after Laney recalls that he made that facial expression because he had accidentally eaten some sand. “They think it’s so amazing but like any baby can just pick up sand and go ‘Om’.”
Laney and Sammy are Skyping me from their home in Jacksonville, Florida. Nine years after the picture was taken, Sammy is an animated child, and he often makes comical hand movements to illustrate his mum’s points. He has bright blonde hair expertly swooped to the side and a graze on his nose and just above his lip from falling off his skateboard a week ago.
“I wasn’t riding it the right way, I was riding on it laying down and this stupid rock just stopped me,” he explains.
In many ways, then, despite going viral as a baby, Sammy is a very ordinary ten-year-old. He tells me he enjoys skateboarding and hanging around with his friends at weekends, and is currently home-schooled by his mum after he got in trouble for talking during class and for high-fiving a classmate in the hallway. “I would always get in trouble for stuff that’s not that necessary like I would use too much soap,” he says. In his spare time, his favourite thing to do is draw.
“Mostly cartoon characters,” he reveals when I ask what he likes to draw, and he runs to get his sketchbook to show me his latest work. Laney explains that her husband, Justin, is an artist, while Sammy shows me a character he designed – a man whose entire right-hand side is just a skeleton, before flicking to an illustration of a green and blue illuminati eye.
“He’s drawn his whole life,” says Laney. “Not inside your belly!” Sammy shoots back.
Laney explained that Sammy was “beginning to feel some embarrassment” about being a meme, when we were emailing back-and-forth before the interview. “He mostly says stuff like, ‘They only want to talk to me about Success Kid, but I’m not just that!’,” she wrote in one email. “I don’t want you thinking he’s not into it. He likes talking about it. He just gets embarrassed by all of the attention on a picture he has no memory of being taken.”
Like David, the boy who went viral after a trip to the dentist, Sammy wants to be known for more than just his viral fame. “Yes,” he replies confidently when I ask if he wants to be an artist when he’s older. “I actually want to be many things… well, it might be embarrassing but I want to be a beatboxer when I grow up, an artist, erm, whichever.”
But would he mind if people still remembered him for the picture?
“It’s actually a really hard question. Let me be a detective,” he replies slowly, stroking his chin. “I mean, I’m already famous and stuff, as you can see” – Sammy strikes another pose, one hand behind his head like a model – “but I think I would rather be known for my art.”
Over the years, much has been made by academics and internet commenters about how people who go viral as children will fare when they get older. Sammy is lucky that no one recognises him when he’s out and about as he – quite obviously – looks completely different from his infant self. He says he doesn’t mind if people still remember him for the picture but when his mother agrees with the words “yeah, it’s not bad”, he adds: “It’s not good either.”
Unlike some other parents with children who have gone viral who I have spoken to, Laney doesn’t want to put words into her son’s mouth, and is happy for Sammy to admit if he is embarrassed about aspects of his viral fame. She asks him to explain why it’s “not good” and it seems that the only real thing that annoys Sammy about being a meme is when people ask to take pictures with him. “Because they ask me for the freaking pose and stuff,” he says. “I’m tired of it.”
Laney also allows Sammy to have the final say on any media appearances or interviews. “We were asked to do a gameshow recently where people try to guess what you’re famous for but Sam didn’t want to do it so we told them no,” she says. “I don’t want to be shown on TV unless it’s like just the picture.” says Sammy.
The Griners were also asked to be on a TLC reality show about people who suddenly became rich, but Laney disapproved of the concept. When her husband, Justin, needed a kidney transplant last year, the family crowdfunded the money for his medical expenses, and when Reddit realised they were helping Success Kid’s dad, they raised over $100,000. “We’re not rich,” says Sammy, whose mum explains the money went on hospital bills.
The family has made money from the picture in other ways, however, as Sammy’s agent – Ben Lashes, a meme manager whose clientele also includes Grumpy Cat and Scumbag Steve – oversees sales of the picture, which has been used in adverts around the world. Most recently, the image was used to advertise an American cereal, Honey Bunches of Oats.
“People say I’m exploiting him but he doesn’t even do anything now,” says Laney. “It’s just a picture, we get paid for it. I just took a picture and now I get paid for it, I don’t think many people wouldn’t do the same. It’s his future and his present that it pays for.”
On the whole, Sammy doesn’t care much about either the money or the fame:
“The only thing I’m happy for now with that picture is because it saved my dad from dying. He could’ve died so that’s the only time I’m happy – not when people say, ‘Oh, take a picture with me’. I’m just happy because I probably wouldn’t have a dad anymore.
“When I was little I never thought it was a big deal, I never thought it would save my dad from dying. When I see a bunch of these commercials I’m like ‘Oh my gosh’, just from a baby holding a fist makes everybody happy.”
It is unclear what Sammy’s future holds, though his mum admits she is wary about home-schooling at a high school level. She wants him to go to the same arts school his father went to, and in the meantime Sammy is considering making a YouTube Channel. He loves YouTube, although sometimes finds it strange when people use his meme in their videos.
“Like I’ll go on YouTube and there’ll be people explaining something and then I’ll see like my picture pop up and stuff. It’s a little bit weird – I just think it’s weird for people to put my picture on a YouTube video.”
Despite his online aspirations, however, when I ask if he would like to viral again or was happy with it happening just the once, his reply is firm. “Just once,” he says.
“I’m really happy that I’m famous because I’m glad that people like it, I’m glad it makes people happy when they’re sad. I’m also really happy that I still have a dad.”
Photographs courtesy of Laney Griner.
“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.