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MEMES, Bonus: Zoë 'Disaster Girl' Roth21:01
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Four year old Zoë Roth in the original photo that became known as "Disaster Girl" (Courtesy Dave and Zoë Roth).
Four year old Zoë Roth in the original photo that became known as "Disaster Girl" (Courtesy Dave and Zoë Roth).

Most of us hate the photos our parents take of us. But what happens when one goes viral?

Zoë Roth was four years old when her dad took a photo of her smiling mischievously in front of a burning house. That photo would later spread like wildfire as the internet meme "Disaster Girl." Twelve years later, the photo is still used all the time. Last April, it even joined the series of memes purchased as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, by user @3FMusic.

In this bonus episode of our meme series, we hear more about how the photo came to be, how it just might help Zoë pay off her student loans, and who really started that fire.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory Sivertson: You know those stories about how some enterprising young person paid their student loans in record time?

Ben Brock Johnson: No, no I don’t. ‘Cause in my life it took 40 years.

Amory: Yeah, who? Who has done that?

Ben: No, I’m just kidding. Yeah, advice like, save on rent and live with your parents.

Amory: Or, hey, cool it on the avocado toast, will ya? Skip Starbucks and brew your coffee at home.

Ben: Yeah, the advice is kind of ridiculous and totally irreplicable — like, get in a freak accident and use the money from your legal settlement to pay off Freddie Mac.

Amory: Or be born to very wealthy parents. You forgot that one.

Ben: That always works, yeah, that’s a good move.

Amory: Well, a woman named Zoë Roth is about to pay off her student loans at the age of 21.

Zoë Roth: Yeah, I’m thinking about moving to Hawaii or something for, like, a few months.

Amory: She graduated from a public, in-state school: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the same town where she went to elementary and high school. She shaved off a whole year of that sweet in-state tuition by graduating in three years instead of four. And she kept a job at a restaurant.

Ben: And she studied Chinese, so she has some actual marketable skills.

Zoë: (Speaks Chinese) 

Ben: What did you say? 

Zoë: “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” 

Amory: But...this isn’t a story about how to pay off your student loans through good ol’ fashioned hard work, saving and pragmatic language learning. No, this one’s hard to try at home. The way Zoë is paying off her loans? Well, that’s thanks to a recording studio in Dubai, who paid a considerable amount in cryptocurrency for an NFT of Zoë’s face.

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Ben: And now, Zoë can let loose a little.

Amory: But not that loose. She’s not the type to blow the money all on bottle service in a couple of nights, or take it all in cash and light it on fire, and then smirk while it burns, just because she can.

Ben: I mean, she’s still even careful when it comes to her coffee.

Zoë: My go-to order is a lavender oat milk latte until I find something better, that's what I order. But it usually ends up being like seven dollars so maybe I should shift away. 

Amory: It sounds delicious. 

Zoë: It is delicious. But you know, the lavender is a dollar, the oat milk’s a dollar. Then you've got a tip and it’s something like eight.  

Ben: Until those student loans kick in, I say live your life. 

Zoë: Yeah, keep getting extra large. 

Amory: How many lavender oat milk lattes can you get for your NFT money?

Zoë: Oh, my gosh. That's the real question. 

Amory: I’m Disaster Amory.

Ben: You are a disaster. I’m just kidding.

Amory: Some days, yes.

Ben: I’m Disaster Ben. And you’re listening to a bonus episode of Endless Thread, in our memes series. We’re coming to you from WBUR...Boston’s NPR station. And today, we’re talking about how sometimes, a meme turns into money.

Amory: Which happened for Zoë relatively recently, when the NFT of her meme sold for a record-breaking amount, although she ultimately didn’t benefit quite as much from that as headlines might lead you to believe. But first!

Zoë: My name is Zoë Roth. I'm a recent college graduate from North Carolina and I'm also the disaster girl meme

Amory: What does it feel like to say that out loud? Have you have you owned that? I am the disaster girl. 

Zoë: Honestly, every time I do it, even now, if I had my camera on, like I just rolled my eyes after I said that, like, whenever I have to identify myself like that, like I get it. Like that's how the world knows me. That's how the Internet knows me. But I don't I don't like usually ever say that much. I'm getting interviewed or have to talk about it. 

Ben: Can we dig more into the eye roll? 

Zoë: Obviously it's super interesting and I like talking about it every once in a while, but I feel like the last three months it's been like disaster girl overdrive. Like it's almost like taken over my life. It's been like more disaster girl than it's been Zoë, which has been like Hannah Montana, kind of. 

Amory: Zoë was four years old when her dad, Dave Roth, took the photo that would give life to her meme alter-ego. You’ve probably seen it. It’s a picture of a little girl, smiling coyly — mischievously you might say — as a house blazes, on fire, behind her.

Ben: The house is fully engulfed in flames. And she has this look on her face that’s like yes I did this. It was a snapshot taken by her dad.

Ben: Can you tell us about the day? 

Dave Roth: Sure it was, it was a Saturday in January of 2005, and I was home with the kids, and it was just a typical Saturday in January. The weather is not great. You can't really do much outside. And my wife was away, I don't remember. But she came home and she came inside and said, I can't believe you're not at that huge fire up the street. We're like, fire up the street? And then we get there and there it is, this house is very fully engulfed in flames and there's fire trucks and people and as we watched it, it didn't take long before we realized that they weren't working that hard to put it out.And then we realized that, oh, maybe this was intentional. And we weren't familiar with the concept of an intentional burn of a house, especially in a residential neighborhood like ours. So that thought hadn't occurred to us to until that point. So it became less of a oh, my gosh, this is an emergency or a terrible tragedy to this is just an interesting occurrence that you don't get to see every day,

Ben: Zoë doesn’t remember if she understood that it was an intentional burn at the time.

Zoë: I just remember being at the site, we were across the street and I was looking inside the windows of the house that was burning. And they had some stuff on the walls and it was all burning. I was like, oh, that sucks. I remembered there was a painting and I was looking at it and hoping they didn’t love that painting.

Amory: You didn't know you didn't know at the time what was going on? 

Zoë: No, I think my dad knew. But I was also like four, so even if you had explained it to me, I don't think I would have understood. 

Amory: Do you remember the moment of the picture being taken? 

Zoë: I don't remember that moment. My dad was also like a very staunch photographer. So he was taking pictures of everything all the time. So he's probably just like, Zoë, smile. And so there I did my smile and then we just moved on with the day. 

Amory: Dave posted the photo onto a site called Zoomer, which was kind of like Flickr, or an early Instagram. People in his network pretty quickly started assigning Zoë a certain… malevolence — or at least, she was scheming.

Dave: Zoomer is where that picture of Zoë, that's where I, I kind of found out that it was significant because I took a lot of pictures that day. And but on that one, I got a lot of comments from people. And that's when I realized, oh, there's something to this one. 

Ben: was it people making this joke like essentially like, oh, she look like she started the fire or was it mixed or what was the positive feedback you were getting on the photo? 

Dave: Yeah, there was there was there was a lot of that like, oh my gosh, she looks like she she started that fire. Many comments about the Zoë looks like she was up to something then I really took that to heart from that point and realized what they were talking about. 

Ben: Did you put a caption on the photo when you submitted it or a title or anything like that? 

Dave: Yeah, I think at the time I was calling the photo "Firestarter." Because it had reminded me of the kind of the iconic image from the Drew Barrymore film

Ben: And so you later you leaned into the you leaned into the mythology. 

Dave: I did, absolutely. You got to work with what you got. So I did. Yeah, I did that. And it wasn't till later and I have no idea who came up with the term disaster girl. It wasn't us. Somebody did. And that just kind of stuck and overtook it. 

Amory: Zoë actually wasn’t the only Roth offspring out at the fire that day.

Ben: Zoë’s older brother, Tristan, was there too.

Was the photo an accurate avatar for Zoë's personality at the time now?

Dave: No, not at all. Zoë, she was a really easy kid, didn't give us much trouble at all, did well in school, made friends easily, still does. That's another part that makes it fun for us to have it look like she was this, you know, this handful.

Ben: Tristin, same story, a different story? 

Dave: he was more of a handful, as we joke with Zoë, that she basically raised herself because we were busy with him, but not not that he he would have started fires or anything. He wasn't a bad kid, but he definitely required more attention. Him in a picture like that would probably if you knew him, you might think that was that was more in line with his personality than hers for sure. 

Amory: There’s also a picture of Tristan from that day. He’s six at the time, and dressed like Harry Potter.

Ben: I think you say it (British accent) Harry Potter.

Amory: (British accent) Harry Potter. Who maybe isn’t a great MWAHAHA kind of avatar?

Dave: Tristan's photo, I think he's a little out of focus in it. I think I messed up the focus on him. It's still a pretty neat photo because it's apparent that there's a, you know, a raging house fire right behind him. But he's he's a little blurry. It's not framed quite as well. And he's wearing those Harry Potter glasses that I think if  he was not wearing them, it maybe be better. But and he wasn't making a face. And neither I mean, even Zoë, who was making a face  — that wasn't intentional. That was just, the kids from a very young age got really good at comfortably posing for photos. 

Ben: Dave submitted the photo of Zoë to JPG magazine in 2007.

Amory: Today I learned, JPG Magazine exists? Existed?

Ben: Not only does it exist, it won a contest and was posted on their website. And the Roths think this is when it began to go viral. Zoë was about 8.

Zoë: Initially the meme was like you had cropped my face and put something awful, like a disaster behind me. And so that was like the first wave. And I was also like eight when that was happening. So obviously, like not really comprehending, like why I was in front of all these, like, horrible things that were happening I was like, oh, you know, that's kind of weird. But I was also kind of like, oh, but I'm famous when I was like eight or ten. 

Amory: Of course, since Zoë was so young when the picture was taken — it wasn’t like people were seeing her on the street and recognizing her as Disaster Girl.

Zoë: I'm glad that I have like a level of anonymity that I know some of the other memes do not have. 

Ben: Over time though...it did pop up. Especially as the Disaster Girl meme continued to have staying power, both as something getting posted online, and for instance, as a meme included in a card game called What Do You Meme.

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Zoë Roth promoting the "What Do You Meme" game on her Instagram page (Courtesy Zoë Roth).
Zoë Roth promoting the "What Do You Meme" game on her Instagram page (Courtesy Zoë Roth).

Zoë: Both of the the people that I've dated before, they knew about the meme before they knew me. And one of them actually had the game in his house like, oh, I played that game with my family. I'm like, that is so weird. Like, I get it like that “What do you meme” game is very popular, but it's still like that's so crazy. Like you've seen my picture probably 10 years ago and now we're dating. But my boyfriend now actually doesn't have any social media. So he has seen it. But actually I don't even yeah, he had seen it, which is surprising to me because he's like never had any social media. That's kind of nice because while this is all happening, he doesn't have any social media at all so it’s a nice like opposite like grounding.

Amory: For the most part,  Zoë has not had any issues with being meme-famous. And the family even made some money off of licensing the image for things like the card game. With some mixed success.

Ben: And then along came NFTs. Non-fungible tokens. The NFT trade is kind of like art collecting, except instead of a physical painting, it’s something digital, and its value is stored in the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

Amory: How did the how did it even come up to sell the NFT? 

Zoë: So we hadn't heard about them at all. And then I think sometime in February or March, someone with a sketchy email emailed us and was like, I'm interested in selling your meme as a digital token for six figures. This was somebody random who initially brought up the idea of us selling it. And so I forward it to my dad and we're like, what is this? What's an NFT like? I've never heard of any of this. And then so we're doing our research. And a few people, a few other people like services were like, hey, we can sell your NFT for you. Like we can like we'll do all the hard stuff. We'll get the cryptocurrency, like we'll figure out when to mint it, but like, we can do it for you. And then eventually we were like, what if we just do it ourselves. 

Amory: So what who do you know who purchased your NFT? 

Zoë: Yeah, it was this guy named 3F Music. He's buying all of the like. I think he's about pretty much all of the names from that have sold. He also bought “Charlie Bit Me” the video. 

Amory: What do you do you know anything about this guy? 

Zoë: I think I know he's in the Middle East and he like when you look at his Instagram, it's like a like audio, like a sound producing studio or something. After he bought it, he messaged me on Twitter, was like, thank you. And I was like, thank you, sir. I think I need to thank you. And that was the only time I'd ever talk to him. But yeah, it's I have no idea. Everyone's like, what are you planning on doing with these? Like, why is he like buying them all? Like, it just seemed like a plan. I have no idea. 

Amory: A note about 3F Music: they have bought several high-profile NFTs of memes. The music studio, or whoever owns it, has bought more than a hundred NFTs just this year — and when they enter a bidding war for a NFT, the price goes way up.

Ben: So, Zoë’s NFT sold for 180 Ether. At the time of the sale, that translated to about $500,000. Now, it’s up almost $700,000: enough to pay off that first year of college, and then some.

Amory: But all of that money isn’t just Zoë’s. She split her crypto-fortune with her family, four ways. Remember, her brother Tristan — the kid dressed like Harry Potter — was there that day too. And so the Roths always wonder, could he have been Disaster Boy?

Zoë: So for as long as we've done negotiations pre-NFT and NFT, me and my dad mostly have done like a 50/50 for at least like smaller things, ‘cause most of the time it's like a five hundred dollar something or other, like a five hundred dollar interview or five hundred dollars like I sign something or there's like a game that comes out and we split it with the NFT where we also had to discuss this. We're like, what are we going to do? Like there's four people in our family like my mom and my brother and my dad's like, well , Tristain could have been disaster boy. Boy like that wasn't his fault that he didn't get famous. And I was like, obviously. 

Ben: Screw that, Dad.  

Zoë: I know. But I'm also not going to like, you know, I don't need all this crazy amount of money. Like my brother's also in school. He also has student loans, like I don't want like I want him to be financially stable as well. Like, so we ended up just splitting it between my family, like, evenly. 

Ben: That’s very kind of you 

Zoë: Thank you

Amory: Also technically, her dad owns the photo.

Dave: I took the picture, I own the copyright. like if we had taken this photo and sold it to whatever, it would have been like a release from me, the owner and then a model release. And Zoë at the time was a minor. So it would have been me signing a model release for her. And this is something that that they'll inherit when I die and it'll go to both of them. This could have been either of them, it doesn't make sense that that just that Zoë would get it when it could have been either. And the both kids are pretty cool with that. 

Ben: How come you didn't just say it's yours? 

Dave: Just give it to her? 

Ben: Yeah 

Dave: Well, yeah, I could have it, but at what point, you know, because if like, you worry about you look at this isn't quite this, but like trust fund kids or celebrity kids that come into a, you know, a lot of money at a young age, you know, often that's not a blessing. Often, it ends really badly. So, you know, we certainly won't want to do that. Wouldn't it hurt your kids by doing something like you're giving them more than they can handle? 

Amory: We should note — and Dave knows this — that Zoë isn’t the type to blow a fortune of any size on impermanent luxury.

Zoë: I'm not going to just like, take it all out right now and just start, like, living like a crazy person. Like, I'm obviously still going to work. I just — it's kind of nice to have to know, like, I could, like, fall back on it or if I need to, like, put like a down payment on a car or a house eventually, like, that's probably what I'll use it for. Like, I'm not going to stop working, obviously. 

Ben: Zoë also doesn’t want to spend the money before she has it. The value of Ethereum keeps changing. It’s gone way up.

Amory: But it could also crash out. It’s hard to say.

Zoë: at least after it sold it, like Ethereum almost doubled in like two weeks. And we’re like, jeez, this is so crazy. Like, obviously it’s super volatile. And when it goes down, it's like awful. But as long as it keeps doing well, we're kind of like — ehh. it's super tricky. We honestly have no idea what to do. 

Ben: Still, Zoë has plans. Not EVIL plans... surprisingly. Paying student loans. Donating to her uncle’s charity in Kenya. And helping other people pay for school, too.

Zoë: I feel like scholarships, just like higher education in general is like super inaccessible. And I needed help. Like I was always on scholarship websites trying to figure out, like, how to get a scholarship. And obviously, like, the problem is not like making one scholarship isn't going to solve the entire problem and accessibility of higher education, but hopefully, like, it would do a little to help, you know. 

Ben: So Amory, we really wanted to talk to Disaster Girl. And she has an interesting story, because she had a bullet to doge relative to people getting famous on the internet. She’s not really recognizable when she moves around the world. She’s in pretty good shape as meme subjects go, in terms of what they’ve faced.

(A child starts speaking to Ben)

Amory: Ben’s child has broken into Ben’s recording studio, and she’s talking and I think we should just leave this in. And that’s a wrap.

This bonus episode was produced by Grace Tatter. We’ll be back in your feed on Friday with another full episode in Endless Thread’s meme series. Bye!

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