Zoe Roth, 16, is not a pyromaniac. But it's true that, a few weeks ago, she and a friend spent two hours trying to light a campfire in Lake Tahoe, where Zoe's working a summer restaurant job.
"Everything was wet, and it was so frustrating," she laughs. "I was, like, 'C'mon, this is my meme!'" That meme, known as Disaster Girl, shows 4-year-old Zoe smiling slyly at the camera while a house burns in the background. She looks adorable... and creepy as hell.
For the record, Zoe didn't start that fire in the photograph. She was watching TV with her brother Tristan one Saturday morning in January 2004, when her mom said a house down the street was burning. Dave Roth, Zoe’s dad, quickly gathered the kids and his new digital camera.
News travels fast in Mebane, North Carolina, just 20 miles outside Chapel Hill. By the time the Roths arrived at the blaze, it was a community event. Any sense of danger quickly dissipated as onlookers learned the house had been donated to the fire department for training. Families watched the controlled inferno like they would a high school football game. Firefighters invited neighbourhood children to spray the flames with the hose. Meanwhile, the Roths studied the scene from across the street.
“There was no danger or stress in the situation at all,” Dave recalls. “The kids and I walked around to see the fire from different angles. It was cool — something you don’t see every day.”
Dave, an amateur photographer, snapped 20 or 30 photos before heading home, capturing Zoe and Tristan as they watched the blaze. When he reviewed his pictures, Dave thought the fire was the most interesting part. Three years later, he uploaded one of the images of Zoe on the photo sharing community Zooomr and titled it “Firestarter.” Comments started pouring in, forcing Dave to see his work in a new light.
“I guess because I knew the whole backstory, I’d overlooked the expression on Zoe’s face until then,” he says. “But someone with a blank slate has to make sense of the fire in the background and then the little girl with a creepy half-smile. It’s like something out of a horror movie.”
In November 2007, Dave entered “Firestarter” in a JPG Magazine “Emotion Capture” photo contest. Months later, he learned he’d won $100, a subscription to the magazine, and publication in the February/March 2008 issue. Instead of telling 8-year-old Zoe the good news, Dave decided to surprise her.
“My dad handed me a magazine, and I started flipping through it,” Zoe says. “Then I saw the picture of me — and I flipped out! I took it to school the next day and showed everyone.” She felt famous, but it was only the beginning.
JPG Magazine shared “Firestarter” on its website, and the image spread like, well, you know. Internet users began photoshopping Zoe into historic catastrophes, from the sinking of the Titanic to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to 9/11, and sharing their work on viral sites like Fark, Reddit, and eBaum’s World. Buzzfeed aggregated the doctored photos to make a timeline going all the way back to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Somewhere along the way, Zoe became "Disaster Girl." Dave didn’t know about the meme until Zooomr user Ben Dan Hawks sent him a link.
“I started showing Zoe some pictures and wrapping a history lesson into it,” Dave says. “Like, ‘Here’s Archduke Ferdinand just before he got assassinated, which started World War I…’”
Later, the meme was reborn in the more conventional style, with white text written over the original photo to explain the reason for the fire. One reads, “I told you I wanted a pony,” while another rationalizes, “They didn’t give me a Barbie so I gave them a barbecue.” Zoe’s favorite: “Next time just buy the damn cookies.”
Zoe’s proud to be Disaster Girl, despite seeing her face on some pretty disturbing images. “There was one with my face on Hitler’s body that made me a little uncomfortable,” she says. “Or last year, some Instagram account used the original picture with a caption about not being able to wave a Confederate flag, and I was like, ‘Ewww.’”
When Zoe became internet-famous in 2008, most memes remained anonymous. They didn’t go on the Ellen Degeneres Show like the boys behind Damn, Daniel or get endorsement deals like Grumpy Cat. Zoe grew up like any normal kid, except for the time a German fan bought an autographed poster of her for $20, or she was featured in an Israeli book about memes, or she lent her face to a campaign to save an endangered Polish dialect.
“A few years back, a guy in Spain wanted to buy permanent rights to the photo,” Dave says. “I don’t know what he was willing to pay, but I’d rather just hold on to it and protect it. This is probably the only picture I’ll ever take that generates this kind of interest, but I never took it with the idea of making money. I didn’t even edit it!”
Over the years, Zoe’s internet fame has become just another fun fact. Her classmates all know about Disaster Girl, but she no longer considers herself famous. Occasionally, friends and family will share a new version of the meme they’ve found online, but one of Zoe’s boyfriends didn’t believe it was really her, until he studied the picture. Dave’s co-workers have hung the meme in their cubicles with no idea that they know that creepy little girl’s dad. Tristan, who could’ve been Disaster Boy, still jokes, “I was there, too, in case you were wondering.”
On the internet, Zoe’s still 4 years old. In real life, she’s 16 — not a Disaster Girl, not yet a Disaster Woman, if you wanna be all Britney Spears about it. So who is the real Zoe Roth? She’s an honor student starting her junior year of high school in a few months. She speaks Chinese fluently and takes college-level calculus. Her Instagram account features photos of friends, outdoor adventures, and volunteer work in Haiti.
In June, the social media sensation known as FuckJerry launched a Kickstarter campaign for What Do You Meme?, a Cards Against Humanity-style game that matches captions and famous internet images, including “Firestarter.” It’s available for pre-order now and will eventually be sold at Urban Outfitters and other retailers.
“I’d love for the meme to help me get into or pay for college somehow,” Zoe says. “But I ultimately want people to know me for me.” So if you need something translated in Mandarin, help with math, or just an adventure partner, Zoe’s your girl. Just don’t expect her to start a fire.