retty much everyone remembers the golden days of early meme culture when Advice Animals and characters like Bad Luck Brian or Overly Attached Girlfriend ruled the web. While most of us remember seeing these iconic formats, only a very select group of people can say they were actually in one of these memes. Among this particular group, even fewer of them “grew up” as a meme by being associated with a viral image ever since they were a kid.
Easily one of the most well-known examples of this phenomenon is Zoe Roth, better known to the internet as Disaster Girl, whose image wound up becoming a viral sensation when she was only 5 years old. With its famous grin and burning building setting the scene of the now-legendary photo, Disaster Girl is among one of the most popular memes of all time, so we spoke with Roth to get a glimpse into what it was like growing up with your image plastered all around the internet — even to this day.
Q: Hey, Zoe. Thanks for giving us the chance to interview you. Could you start things off by telling us more about yourself and what you’ve been doing lately?
A: I’m a college student right now and I’m actually graduating next semester, so I’m doing a lot of planning for the next few years and grad school. Meme wise, the last few months have been pretty crazy, especially following the BuzzFeed interview I did in November. After they posted it, it got like 15 million views on TikTok and I gained a lot of new followers, which has been crazy!
Q: So leading up to the meme, can we hear about your backstory a little? Give us some insight into your childhood, what it was like and where you grew up.
A: I grew up in Mebane, North Carolina with my parents and older brother. We were a typical family — you know, doing neighborhood walks and all that. My dad was an amateur photographer and always excited to bring his camera to whatever we were doing because he’s super sentimental and loves capturing moments.
Q: The iconic photo that went on to become the meme was snapped in January 2004, which your dad aptly titled “Firestarter.” Can you give us some more details about that day? How old were you back then, why was the image taken, what was the context, and do you recall the photo or anything interesting about it?
A: It was actually captured in January of 2005! My family and I heard all the fire trucks super close by so we looked outside to see what was going on. We saw the smoke billowing about a block or two away, so my dad grabbed his camera and we went to go check it out. I remember running down to the fire with my brother to see what was going on and looking into the windows and noticing all the stuff inside was burning. I was kinda worried, but no one else was freaking out, so I figured it was safe.
Q: Ha! I’ll have to fix that date then. So, by 2008, the photo really started to gain some notable attention around the web as it solidified into the meme “Disaster Girl” by October that year. Although you were still pretty young then, do you remember seeing it online anywhere or how your parents reacted to it becoming an online phenomenon?
A: We thought it was super weird, especially when acquaintances and like second-cousins would tell us that they saw it on their Facebook wall or someone in their cubicle had it up. I remember seeing it on iFunny and Facebook and thinking it was really cool.
Q: At the time, memes were a relatively new concept to most people, so were you or your parents familiar with meme and internet culture in any way, or was it a totally new experience for everyone?
A: My dad has always been a big internet guy, but I honestly feel like there wasn’t a huge meme culture before around 2008 when I started to go viral. Obviously, we knew it was an odd thing and not something that happens to everyone, but we always thought it was really cool.
Q: Given how young you were in the image and how widespread it became online, did your parents think it was funny to see it used in memes, or were they concerned that it was being used so abundantly?
A: My parents were always really chill about it. Honestly, after it was originally posted we knew it wasn’t really something we could have any control over, and we didn’t really mind. Of course, some people use it in ways I don’t condone, but my parents and I know that just because my face is on a meme/text doesn’t mean that it reflects my opinions.
Q: Aside from your parents, do you remember how any of your other family members or even friends felt about your likeness becoming a meme?
A: All of my friends thought it was really cool. I don’t tell people really until we’re close because I love telling someone for the first time and seeing if they’ve seen it before. Everyone’s thought it was pretty funny and has been happy for me and the cool experiences that have come along with it. My older brother, Tristan, who was also at the fire that day, is definitely a little salty he isn’t the one who got famous, but he’s a good sport about it.
Q: Okay, let’s fast forward a bit to when you were older. Since the meme became such an iconic image during the early days of meme culture, I’d like to hear more about how it impacted you later on. Was it known among friends or classmates that you were Disaster Girl? Did you tell people or discuss it, and how did they react?
A: My friends and classmates in high school pretty much all knew about it since we had all grown up together. Usually when I was introduced to people by my friends, it would be like, “Oh she’s the one that’s the meme!” which I always thought was funny because people always thought it was cool and wanted to know the story. There were a few times I got “exposed” to a large group of people at once, which were overwhelming, but it’s something I’m used to talking about so I didn’t really mind. I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool things as a result of the meme too, like getting flown out to LA or NY for interviews and staying in hotels, all that.
Q: Also when you grew up and started using the internet and social media more, how did you react to seeing your image online? Even today, is it weird stumbling into an old photo of you via memes, or have you become adjusted to it?
A: I’ve pretty much adjusted to it. Probably every day or two I get a DM of the meme in a foreign language and save it into an album. The only thing that’s weird now is like when someone writes an article or makes a video and uses pictures from my current Instagram without asking, but that’s also something that I’ve come to terms with. I think when I was younger I tried to flex it more, like when I would meet new people, but have become more lowkey as I’ve grown up.
Q: With many of the interviewees we’ve spoken to about their memes, they either love or hate the association they have with them. What do you make of your particular case? Do you like Disaster Girl now that you’re older, or is it more like something you want to distance yourself from?
A: I like my meme and the association I have with it. I think I’m in a really unique circumstance for a few reasons — being that I was really young in that picture and pretty much unrecognizable to this day. Obviously, I don’t want my whole legacy to be this one picture of me when I was 5, but I have a lot of things in my life that I’m more proud of and passionate about, so I don’t let this define me in any concrete way.
Q: Although you were young when the photo was taken, does anyone ever recognize you in public from the meme? If not, how do they react when you tell them, and what sort of interactions with fans have you had over the years?
A: No one has ever recognized me outright, which is good. Sometimes I’ll be at work and my coworkers will tell their customers (I work at a restaurant) that I’m the meme and they freak out and look it up, but besides that, I get to live most of my life in peace, which I’m grateful for.
Q: Seeing how the photo has become such a well-known image around the world, have you or your dad ever attempted to capitalize on it in any way? Also, was your dad open to the internet using it freely, or did he try to control its use?
A: We’ve thought about trying to capitalize but honestly don’t know how possible that would be. The photo is already so widespread it would be sort of impossible to try to copyright it or anything. We have a partnership with Fuckjerry where he owns the rights to physical products for five years, so he’s used that to make the "What Do You Meme" game, which is lots of fun. I’ve gotten to fly to LA for a NatGeo interview and participated in BuzzFeed Live in NYC, which were both super fun and surreal experiences.
Q: You’re part of quite an iconic group, so have you ever met any other “meme celebrities” or attended any events like over the years for being in the meme?
A: I’ve always thought about reaching out to other memes but never really get around to it. I think it would be funny if we all had a group chat or something, but I never put in the work to make it happen. I’ve met the guys from Damn Daniel and really liked them, as well as Ava from Vine.
Q: All these years later, how well do you keep up with memes and other types of internet culture? Is it something you find interesting, or do you not pay too much attention to them?
A: I think memes are great. In college, I wrote a whole paper on memes about how and why they can become viral, and I really think it’s such a niche way of communicating, especially in the 21st century. I don’t think being a meme has made me hyper-involved in meme culture, but I definitely like meme pages on Instagram as much as the next person. One of my favorite memes right now is the Sue Sylvester meme from Glee [laughs].
Q: Now that you’re older and knowledgable about Disaster Girl, do you have any favorite versions of the meme, which ones do you think are the funniest? Also, do you ever make any yourself that you can share?
A: I never use my own meme to make a meme because I think that would be corny. One of my favorites was over the summer someone used my meme and wrote “racists beware” as a threat during the BLM movement, which I completely support. There have definitely been incidents where like a hate group or someone uses my meme, which I never condone but also know that I can’t control.
Q: Speaking of which, are you aware that KYM has used Disaster Girl for our 500 error page for several years?
A: Ha! I had no idea. I remember one of the first times my meme fame hit was watching the KYM YouTube video in like 2008. I honestly learned a lot about my own meme from that.
Q: Given the impacts that the meme has had on your family and yourself since it was taken over 15 years ago, I’m curious if you reflect on it all positively or negatively. What was it like to be among the first select few to “grow up as a meme,” so to speak? Do you think you’d change anything about it if you had the chance?
A: I think about this pretty often and don’t think I would change anything. I always wonder like, “Why me, why did this happen to me like it did and how will it affect my future?” I think because I got to have a normal life and live kind of anonymously that the meme played a pretty minimal role in my life growing up and even now. I’m always down for some cool meme opportunity or interview, but I like living my life as a college student.