Laina Morris had just returned home from her part-time job at Pack ‘N’ Mail in Denton, Texas, when she remembered the Justin Bieber video contest she’d seen online. It was 6th June 2012. Morris had one more day to perform her own version of the song “Boyfriend” for a chance to be in a commercial and win concert tickets. She changed from her uniform top into a dirty green T-shirt crumpled on her bedroom floor, sat down in front of her webcam, and got started.
Morris wasn’t what you’d call a Belieber. She was more intrigued by the singer’s origin story — how he’d been accidentally discovered on YouTube and then mentored by Usher — than she was his music. Besides, wouldn’t it be creepy for a 20-year-old college student to be super into a barely legal Canadian pop star?
Morris did a few takes of the parody she’d written to “Boyfriend.” To fill time before the song started, she decided to make it weird and stare into the camera, widening her eyes as much as she could. Then she uploaded the video, shared it on Facebook, and waited for comments from the usual friends. She couldn’t have imagined what happened next.
“When the video had 52 comments, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have 52 friends who are gonna take the time to comment on this,'” Morris says. “‘Who are these people? I don’t know these people.’”
But that was just the beginning. The video found its way onto some website called Reddit that Morris had never heard of. Within hours, it had a million views. The next day, a Redditor by the name of yeahhtoast took a screen grab from the video, added some words in white text, and Overly Attached Girlfriend was born. (Years later in a Reddit AMA, he admitted to feeling somewhat slighted for not getting credited as the originator of the meme, but conceded, “I gave my idea to the internet, how can I be mad at the internet for running away with it?”)
Morris wasn’t sure what she was doing with her life when she went viral. She’d been majoring in Education at the University of North Texas, but was starting to doubt her decision and had taken a semester off to figure things out. Working in entertainment had been a lifelong dream, but she was a small-town girl with zero connections. This newfound internet fame, or whatever it was, was an opportunity. But it also terrified her.
“Strangers were finding my personal Facebook page and talking to my friends,” Morris recalls. “They were finding where I worked and trying to access my college records.” She turned 21 shortly after becoming a meme and couldn’t go out in her small college town without being stopped for photos. When she was interviewed on a radio show that first week, a DJ advised her to set up Twitter and Facebook accounts with a fake last name. She chose Walker, after Annie Walker, Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids.
As Overly Attached Girlfriend gained momentum, it triggered a tsunami of media requests, thought pieces, and imitators. There was Misunderstood Girlfriend, a meme that used another still of Morris, but offered rational explanations for seemingly obsessive behaviour. Later, Underly Attached Girlfriend paired a picture of Kristen Stewart — or occasionally, Taylor Swift — with blasé captions to turn the stereotype on its head. Patrick Gill, a high schooler with an uncanny resemblance to Morris, created Overly Attached Boyfriend, but it didn’t really take off.
"Whether you’re a guy or girl, people relate to Overly Attached Girlfriend, because everyone’s dated someone a little nuts or felt a little crazy in a relationship," she says. "There’s definitely a crazy girlfriend stigma out there, though. If a guy’s really devoted, he’s sweet. If a girl is, she’s desperate."
Morris was six months into a relationship when she became Overly Attached Girlfriend, and remains healthily attached to the same guy four years later. “I’m lucky that I haven’t had to date someone new since the meme.” When asked what it would be like to put her famous face on Tinder, she laughs, “Oh, I’d milk that for all it’s worth!”
There’s no clear-cut career path for people who stumble upon internet fame. Four months after going viral, Morris quit her job and withdrew from school to become a full-time YouTuber with professional management. She started making weekly YouTube videos and struggled with her new meme girl identity. “Part of me wondered if I was supposed to just perform this character forever,” she says. “Even now, I wonder if I should have created two separate accounts for my own videos vs. Overly Attached Girlfriend.”
Since then, Morris has performed in a sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, beaten Jessica Alba in a staring contest at the 2013 Social Star Awards honouring international social media stars, and been overly attached to a flight attendant in a meme-tastic Delta Airlines safety video, to name a few. But 1,288,328 YouTube subscribers later, many people still don’t realise she’s more than a creepy face. “A lot of people know the meme, but don’t know about the videos,” Morris says. “Or they know the original video, but don’t know that I’m a real person making new ones every week.”
Four years later, life as a professional YouTuber isn’t exactly what she expected it to be. It’s lonely sometimes without co-workers or a normal work environment. The travel schedule can be intense. Staying in Texas, instead of relocating to Los Angeles, has made it harder to pursue an acting career. Morris doesn’t know the secret to making a viral video — in fact, she doubts the same Justin Bieber parody would even go viral in 2016. And no, she’s not a millionaire.
Instead, Morris rents an apartment, drives a Kia, and in case you’re wondering, has never worn that same green T-shirt again, though she did buy a few others in that colour at Target just in case.
“It’s a little scary sometimes,” Morris admits. “I’m really just making this up as I go along. I don’t know if this is going to ‘work out.’ Maybe someday this will just be a cool thing that happened to me, but I’ll make videos as long as I enjoy it and people are watching.” She recently took improv classes and plans to hit comedy open mic nights next. Overly Attached Girlfriend probably won’t be part of her set.
“I feel very detached from the meme, to be honest,” Morris says. “I see it and think, ‘Oh, that’s Overly Attached Girlfriend.’ It’s not me.”