This week, The Ringer is taking time to travel all the way back to … last year. Or a few months ago. We’re diving into the not-so-distant past to check up on what happened to that one lady, or to track the rise of an online social movement. Welcome to Recent History Week, where we’ll explore events you may have forgotten about and remind you why they still matter.
On May 19, 2016, Candace Payne went into her local Kohl’s store to run a quick errand. By the time she’d left the parking lot, she was on her way to viral fame. On a whim, the Grand Prairie, Texas, mom of two bought an electronic Chewbacca mask, put it on, and used the new Facebook Live feature to broadcast the moment. She giggled at her new toy, triggering its hinged jaw to move up and down and make ridiculous Chewbacca whines, all while her high-pitched laughter intensified. The resulting four-minute clip, titled "It’s the simple joys in life …," would go on to garner more than 170 million views over the next 12 months.
"It’s like somebody just pulled out a calculator when you’re kids and you’re just punching in numbers and hitting the plus sign over and over and over again and you don’t have any clue what it really means," she told BuzzFeed two days later, around the time she hired a publicist to begin fielding interview requests from the media. "It is quantifiable but at the same time it’s such a mystery in my mind what it means for that many people to have watched it all over the world."
Payne’s video was exactly the kind of down-home organic content that Facebook was hoping would introduce the masses to the live video feature the company was aggressively pushing via algorithm tweaks and default notifications. It was apolitical, attached to a classic film franchise beloved by all, and the perfect sales pitch for brands looking to market their products. But for Payne, being jolted into the limelight meant navigating the tumultuous path of memedom — a labyrinth that’s often as cruel as it is predictable.
As a journalist who covers the odd cultural implications of social media, I lazily decided to follow the story by setting a Google alert for Payne back in May of last year. Since then, I’ve received 61 "Candace Payne" alerts. At first they were frequent—frenzied, really—and they brought tidings of free Kohl’s swag, a meetup with J.J. Abrams, and the obligatory morning-show appearances. As the year stretched on, the Chewbacca Mom digests became a little bit more obscure, and many times more bleak. My ritual of opening them changed, too. What began as bloggable online fodder unraveled into a dramatic narrative about the perils and pitfalls of temporary internet fame and the bizarre ways the media fuels it. Ahead of Payne’s forthcoming self-help book, Laugh It Up: Embrace Freedom and Experience Defiant Joy, allow me to offer a tale of her year, curated through the lens of Google’s news-tracking algorithm.
May 23, 2016
Two days after Payne posts her video, people are still unsure of what to call her, deeming her a "Chewbacca mask enthusiast" instead of her given internet name, "Chewbacca Mom." Kohl’s steps up to give the story legs, showing up at her door with a pile of Star Wars merchandise, a $2,500 gift certificate, and 10,000 "reward points." Her kids put on the Chewbacca masks and dance for the camera crew the department store brought along. The company successfully piggybacks on the moment, earning over 34 million views on a follow-up video, and a very effective back-to-school shopping plug.
ABC News: "‘Chewbacca Mom’ Candace Payne, Live on GMA"
"You just make us happy, Candace," Robin Roberts declares on the morning show. After some chit-chat about Payne’s shopping trip and her love of family, Roberts surprises Payne with yet another enormous gift basket of Star Wars swag and a $2,500 gift certificate, courtesy of Hasbro. Payne furrows her brow, shakes her head, and asks "What?" in a way that implies she isn’t thinking any further into the future than where to put all of her Star Wars merchandise. She subsequently tears up after describing the outpouring of gratitude she’d heard from people around the world. "We have not heard the last from you," Roberts says as she ends the interview. Everyone is enjoying the honeymoon phase.
May 22, 2016
The Washington Times: "Candace Payne’s Chewbacca mask laughter draws more than 135M Facebook views"
Payne’s video isn’t just joyous, it’s record-breaking. For Payne, this means that she gets to make some dopey jokes about deserving a gold medal on all of the national TV shows she’s touring. For advertisers, that means live-video platforms like Facebook are the future. Mary Meeker is put on watch.
May 24, 2016
James Corden finds more ways to surprise Candace, this time from a third entity that has benefited from her video: the creators and cast of Star Wars, old and new. She, Corden, and J.J. Abrams do "Carpool Karaoke" together. Corden informs her that she and her family will soon meet the actor who played Chewbacca. Payne delights the audience by making the same excited sounds she did in her viral video. It appears as though every television professional’s raison d’etre is to delight Payne.
May 23, 2016
As is customary with all living memes, personal details come out. In the case of Payne, it’s only slightly embarrassing: She tried out for The Voice and never got a call back. She does not choose to reveal this fact. Instead ET’s Jennifer Peros brings it up during an interview with Payne, in what appears to be the back of a moving vehicle. Technically it’s an "exclusive." But only because literally no one cared a few days ago.
Charisma News: "Worship Leader’s Viral Chewbacca Video Infects Masses With the Joy"
In interviews, Payne has made it readily apparent that she prays a lot.
May 24, 2016
USA Today: "Chewbacca mask video star visits Facebook"
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invites Payne to the company’s campus and has her pose next to what is likely some poor Facebook intern in a Chewbacca suit. He then shares professional photos from the visit in an enthusiastic Facebook post that details the reach of her video, making sure to name-drop the feature that made it all possible: Facebook Live. The symbiotic process between a viral superstar and her corporate overlords is nearly complete.
May 26, 2016
Chewbacca Mom is still astoundingly popular enough that others are leeching off of her temporary fame with parodies. In this case, an actor dresses in an off-brand Chewbacca suit and films himself placing a Candace Payne mask on his face and bursting into Wookie laughter.
Charisma News: "WATCH: How the Chewbacca Mom Received the Gift of Tongues"
Charisma News uncovers a video of Payne recounting her experience of speaking to the Holy Spirit in tongues.
May 31, 2016
Disney, the corporation that owns the Star Wars franchise, hosts Payne in its amusement park as Good Morning America films. It’s the last major business to join in celebrating Chewbacca Mom’s enthusiasm for enthusiasm. But the resulting headline is the first real foreshadowing of a coming backlash. Yes, Star Wars is one of many franchises that Disney owns, and the company has dedicated a portion of its park to the movies. But, at first glance, the degrees of relevance between Payne and her various tour stops are slowly winnowing.
May 30, 2016
Astoundingly, Payne’s story continues to reach new audiences.
June 2, 2016
For no apparent reason, Payne and her family receive full scholarships to Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida — what can only be a ploy for the college to advertise its name on the cheap. It’s a significant potential payout for a four-minute video that in no way qualifies as a college application, and relevant fodder for anyone who has begun to theorize that this meme’s 15 minutes should end soon.
June 5, 2016
James Corden kept his promise. The actor who played Chewbacca, who is much less famous than Candace Payne, meets Candace Payne. The popularity of a beloved furry fictional character lives on with the help of an enthusiastic suburban housewife.
The Beginning of the End
June 7, 2016
Spoiler alert: The major complaint among "some liberals" is white privilege. The Blaze has taken the side of Payne. The Daily Dot has taken another. The anti-Payne seed is planted, and battle lines are drawn.
MediaPost: "Millions of Us Don’t Care About Chewbacca Mom"
MediaPost, whatever that is, says what everyone has been thinking: No one asked for this much Chewbacca Mom. Why did we even like her in the first place? What did Chewbacca Mom ever do for us aside from entertain us for four minutes? It’s a humorous turn of sentiment precisely because it feels ridiculous to say it at all. Of course millions of people don’t care about Chewbacca Mom; the only reason we even know about her is because she did a funny thing in a mask.
Death and Taxes: "Chewbacca Mom is charging ‘fans’ for photos now"
Amid these initial rumblings, it’s reported that Payne charged $20 for autographed photos at the Fan Expo in Dallas. This makes people who are looking for a good reason to be mad on the internet even madder.
June 10, 2016
Huffington Post: "Not in Love With Chewbacca Lady"
A contributor writes a blog about all the other people in the world who are more worthy of attention and gifts than Candace Payne. The argument is true at face value, even if that’s not how the internet — or the world — works. The case against Chewbacca Mom worsens.
June 11, 2016
The Washington Post: "‘Chewbacca Mom’ helps Rays celebrate Star Wars day with a pretty good first pitch"
Despite a growing faction of critics, Payne continues to make public appearances — approaching Taylor Swift levels of media oversaturation circa 2015.
The Bad, Clingy Part
July 9, 2016
There’s pretty much one rule of being internet famous: Bad things happen when you veer too far away from what you became famous for. In other words, the insatiable online mob that made you wants to keep its living memes in very limited, precious cages. Payne, instead, inserts herself into the narrative of a highly divisive national tragedy. It is both a clear attempt to extend her 15 minutes of fame and the beginning of her downfall.
July 12, 2016
Payne’s magical streak of swag and adoration comes to a dead halt, and she has suddenly become a controversial figure. For the most part, it appears that people do not want advice on how to deal with a heinous shooting in the form of a "Heal the World" cover from a woman who has been internet famous for less than two months. "For Payne to have lasted long enough to even garner this kind of reprisal is, of course, another metaphor you can pin on her — for a tired, fractious society so bereft of true joy, it clings to these simulacra of happiness far longer than it should, and invests them with far deeper meaning than they should have ever had, only to end up resenting them when the novelty wears off and the pleasure proves fleeting," the A.V. Club piece concludes.
July 25, 2016
Taste of Country: "Chewbacca Mom Makes Her Grand Ole Opry Debut [Watch]"
Payne does not directly address the growing backlash against her desire to remain famous. Instead, she devises a new thing to be known for: country music. The pivot allows her to show off her vocal talent and play to her most dedicated base. And by the way, she’s not going to wear the Chewbacca mask for you anymore. She will just appear in a video adjacent to it.
July 28, 2016
Fox 4 News: "Chewbacca Mom going on tour with country singer"
Payne goes all in on her new thing.
October 13, 2016
Refinery29: "‘Chewbacca Mask Lady’ Candace Payne Got the Perfect Tattoo"
It’s unclear what happened with the country music thing, but after a hiatus of a couple of months, Chewbacca Mom returns to the headlines. She’s circled back to Chewbacca Momdom, this time by revealing a tattoo of a laughing cartoon Chewbacca that she sketched herself. The tattoo hints that she has resolved to stick with what made her famous, after all. Perhaps it is also a way to make her identity easily known without running into any copyright infringement laws.
December 5, 2016
Cosmopolitan: "You Haven’t Seen the Last of Chewbacca Mom Yet"
Chewbacca Mom disappeared for a few months, but now she’s back with Lasik eye surgery, "a mix of platinum highlights and burgundy lowlights," and a life philosophy to not Google herself. Payne has also returned to wearing the mask at public events. She even has a loving name for the irritation on her face caused from wearing the mask too much: "Chewy Chin."
December 15, 2016
Returning to her roots pays off temporarily, as Payne lands what appears to be a tryout gig as a web-series personality for the lifestyle network. This is the first and last time I hear about the show.
March 1, 2017
Entertainment Weekly: "‘Chewbacca Mom’ Candace Payne reveals title, cover for new book"
Payne takes another stab at refining her brand with the announcement of her forthcoming book: Laugh It Up: Embrace Freedom and Experience Defiant Joy. Its cover depicts Payne, made-up and smiling, her new highlights on full display as she points up to not-so-subtly reveal her new Chewbacca tattoo. Below that image sits an explanatory byline that describes Payne as a "Viral Sensation." This latest play is to sell something that does not require legal permission to promote in merchandise: happiness. Months later, when I reach out to Payne’s publicist for an interview, she says she’d prefer to hold off until the book’s release in November.
June 30, 2017
Broadway World: "Hasbro Rolls Out All-Star Lineup for First-Ever HASCON FANmily Event"
Candace Payne is finally bumped from the headline text of my Google alerts. In this case, her name appears in the third paragraph of an article listing the celebrity lineup for a Hasbro convention. Just over a year since her jaunt with fame, she’s still gunning for celebrity — but now it’s from the fine print.