Friday, May 25, 2018
Features and More

The story behind the permullet that has dazzled the Web

In the space of an hour Sunday night, both a family member and a childhood neighbor had contacted me because they thought they had seen my photo online.

My aunts sent me the link to mom.me, an AOL blog that I certainly would never have seen without prompting. The post in question was about kids' hair trends through the years.

This is probably a good time to admit that for about 48 hours in 1987, I had a permullet. And that permullet was inflicted upon me the night before fourth-grade school pictures were taken.

How my fourth-grade photo ended up on a blog I'd never heard of is no mystery. Back in 2009, I shamelessly posted the photo on Facebook after a trip to my dad's house. A friend said that I had to send it in to AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com, where they were having a permullet challenge.

The site didn't post it then, instead asking for my permission to publish it in a book they were making. I signed off, but my fourth-grade self didn't end up in the book. Instead, they used my image in an online contest to promote it.

So that was all way back in 2009. I've been busy since then — bought a house, got engaged, stopped being Ellen Freiberg and became Ellen Clarke. At 34, I have a low threshold for embarrassment, to the tune of having worn a giant tbt* bee suit in public a few weeks ago. I'm wholly entertained by the old picture, referred to by my family as the French Poodle Picture.

The blog using my image doesn't name me, just mocks my 'do and takes a jab at my sweet pink suspenders. They credit AwkwardFamilyPhotos. This annoyed me mildly, just enough to fire off an email politely requesting that they remove my image from their site. I haven't gotten a reply and don't really expect to. A newspaper editor with a fair-use booklet sitting on her desk knows better. So I shrugged off the annoyance and posted the link on Facebook.

Then I got to thinking: How the heck did they come across a picture posted a solid five years ago? That had to be a lot of digging, right?

So I googled "permullet." There's 9-year-old Ellen, smiling in the top five results. I appear a few times in an image-only search, so the shot's been reblogged before now. The current user just happens to advertise well to women still using AOL email — those of my parents' age — some of whom were well-acquainted with that girl in the pink suspenders.

At least my claim to Internet fame is kind of sweet. As my friend and fellow journalist Janet Keeler commented Sunday, "That photo, that hair belongs to the world."

Ellen E. Clarke is deputy editor of tbt*. Email [email protected]

 
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