The Internet was always a sampler of hasty amusement. Kids biting people, drunks eating cheeseburgers, adorable animals playing music. We watched, chortled and moved on, reducing the quasi-celebs to word association.
Double Rainbow. Pants On the Ground. Chocolate Rain.
But then, the Lord bequeathed unto us a glorious enigma named Antoine Dodson. Dodson, a 24-year-old hairdresser from the housing projects of Huntsville, Ala., was interviewed on local news in July after someone allegedly tried to rape his sister, Kelly. He wore a red bandana and a black tank top. He waved a rolled-up bus schedule.
"He's climbing in your window, snatchin' your people up, tryin' to rape 'em, so y'all better hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husbands cuz they rapin' everybody out here."
The flamboyant clip had legs on its own. But when comic musicians the Gregory Brothers turned it into an auto-tuned R&B song with gospel claps and an epic chorus ("You don't have to come and confess, we're looking for you"), Dodson was everywhere. He reached a level of recognition so ubiquitous, he landed a guest spot Monday on Lopez Tonight, following the hotly anticipated premiere of Conan O'Brien's comeback on Conan.
"I'm really excited," he said by phone Monday from Los Angeles. "This is the first time since all this was happening that I've actually been nervous."
Dodson hasn't gone away after more than three months of fame, a long stay in viral video land. It reaffirms the power of pod people to elect celebrities on personality. The song, priced at $1.29 a download, topped the iTunes charts, and the band split the profits with Dodson. There were Antoine Dodson T-shirts and key chains. He became a spokesman for a sex offender tracker application. People dressed like him for Halloween.
He spent last week in Orlando with phonegreetings.com recording Christmas, Valentine's and Three Kings day messages, even a motivational order to get your butt out of bed and get a job. He was also in Tampa last week. The MJ Morning show sent a limo for him.
"Once somebody is in the spotlight, they do start to build a fan base," said Josh Autenrieth, vice president of phonegreetings.com. "It's always like 15 minutes of fame and you're gone. But in that 15 minutes, if he can showcase other capabilities of why he should remain in the spotlight, that's a good thing."
The celebrity threshold has degraded. People are famous for having babies at 16, baking cakes, drinking wine at noon. You just have to exist. But to be enduringly famous, you have to have something intangible.
Dodson is gay and black, and some have criticized him for magnifying stereotypes, of making a joke of rape. Dodson has long disagreed. He is a sexual abuse survivor, he has said, who grew up with seven brothers and sisters. By being so over the top, Dodson may have given us license to laugh things we shouldn't.
"We've been through too much in our lives to let one incident take us down," Dodson said. "Remember. Antoine got his message that there's a rapist out there. While you're laughing and cackling, remember the message."
When the so-called bed intruder (who has never been caught) came, he didn't feel victimized or vulnerable. He was just over it. In frustrating times, people responded.
"Everywhere I go, I get, 'I can tell in your face that you were angry. You were not scared to speak your mind, you weren't scared if he was going to come back after all of us,' " Dodson said.
"A lot of people say all the time, 'I want to put my foot down.' Really, you're not. You took your shoe off, but didn't put your foot down."
And that. That right there. Dodson speaks in catch phrases, even when he's not trying. He has an assistant with whom he is writing a "dictionary" of catch phrases.
"He's doing a better job than most at controlling ownership of his brand and profiting from his fame," said Kelli Burns, a public relations professor at the University of South Florida who wrote Celeb 2.0: How Social Media Foster Our Fascination with Popular Culture. "It might be a little early to estimate his staying power. It fell into his lap, and time will tell if he has anything else to offer."
Dodson thinks he does. His family is moving to Hollywood, he said, where they'll film a reality show.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.