In the small city of Mebane, North Carolina, way back in 2004, a meme was made and a social media superstar born. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s Disaster Girl.
Meet Zoë Roth, otherwise known to millions on the World Wide Web as her alter ego, Disaster Girl, which rose from the ashes of a burning house and has since been superimposed over scenes of mass destruction and pop culture alike.
Nothing is safe from the Disaster Girl meme.
Not the Titanic, nor Pearl Harbour, or the World Trade Centre. According to Reddit, the front page of the Internet, a four-year-old Zoë and her coy smile is responsible for the world’s greatest tragedies.
It’s weird for Zoë, now 18 – a Disaster Woman, if you like – to see her childhood likeness conflated with the dark side of humanity, she tells UNILAD.
She hates it when online trolls use Disaster Girl to publicise ‘gross captions’, and warped political sentiments, citing an alarming instance when someone photoshopped her face onto Hitler’s body.
Zoë recalled one particularly offensive incident when a Confederate Instagram account used the original photograph alongside a caption about not being able to wave a Confederate flag, which the North Carolinan found ‘disgusting’.
But, ‘there’s no way to stop it so I just ignore it’, she lamented.
After all, memes are sometimes enlisted do the bidding of humanity’s dark side:
So, UNILAD tracked down Disaster Girl to ask the big questions.
Namely, when was the last time she actually started a fire? She laughed:
I’m always camping and doing stuff with fire!
For the record, Zoë didn’t start the fire at aged four back in 2004.
The story goes a little something like this.
News spreads fast in Mebane, especially on a dreary January Saturday morning.
So when her neighbourhood got word of the local fire department’s live drill training, Zoë and her family walked the two blocks from their home to watch the spectacle from across the road alongside a crowd of fellow curious local residents.
The fire department in our town was test burning a house so we went down to check it out.
My dad just got a new camera so he took pictures of me and my brother in front of it.
I think I just thought it was super weird and dangerous. I didn’t know it was a test fire until later so I was pretty worried.
Luckily, her dad Dave Roth, who she explains ‘does photography recreationally’, had grabbed his camera before they left the house.
He snapped about 20 pictures of Zoë and his son, Tristan – now 19 and perpetually ‘pissed’ at his close brush with fame, according to his sister – watching the controlled fire, focussing on the flames as the obvious focal point of the photos.
Or so Dave thought.
Three years later, he uploaded one of the images of Zoë on the photo sharing community Zooomr and titled it Firestarter. The commentators were quite taken, not with the fire, but with ‘the little girl with a creepy half-smile’.
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 an early 2008 issue.
Once JPG Magazine published his story to their website, the photograph of his daughter spread across the World Wide Web like… well, wildfire.
The rest would become history. Literally.
People were so taken with Zoë’s smile, they started superimposing her face onto famous moments in history, from the extinction of the dinosaurs to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in Reddit photoshop battles.
So much so, her dad used to use the reams of Disaster Girl memes to teach her about historic world events.
The pair would revisit scenes such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which started WW1, like Baldrick and Blackadder in their immortalised meme time machine.
Then came the caption competitions. Some choose to use Zoë’s meme in the conventional style to explain the fire with varying degrees of hilarity.
One reads, ‘They didn’t give me a Barbie, so I gave them a barbecue’. Another says, ‘Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s gasoline’. A third warns the new neighbours not to ask for a house-warming gift.
Other photo-shoppers empower Disaster Girl for saving the world from house spiders:
Disaster Girl stood idly by as parents the world over debated whether they could really trust their children.
She also became somewhat of a pop culture barometer, with her likeness being used to condemn the works of Twilight and Rebecca Black and other stains on creativity. But she can be used to indicate musical success.
In fact, ‘When you rap the whole verse correctly’ is Zoë’s favourite meme:
Despite the dark corners of the web, Zoë said she does love being Disaster Girl, and adds she occasionally has requests from friends to do ‘The Face’ as a party trick, even though her ‘face always kind of looks like that!’
Zoë told UNILAD she’s avoided viral fame for the most part:
Funnily enough, some people asked to take a picture with me the other day at work for the first time ever! It affects me when people make games and books with me in, but mostly my life hasn’t changed.
In case you missed it, Zoë is referring here to F*ck Jerry’s gaming sensation, What Do You Meme?. If you haven’t played, it’s basically Cards Against Humanity for Internet veterans.
Fan photos aside, she’s just a regular teenager who takes calculus, she adds:
I’m a senior in high school and I’m pretty sure I’m going to American university next year to study international affairs and Chinese. I speak Chinese and I love Chinese culture!
Saying that, she does have her own merch, for meme addicts to check out:
Dave, Zoë’s dad, explained the proceeds go to helping his daughter study on his blog.
And she has big plans, she tells UNILAD:
I love travelling and plan on studying abroad a lot. Right now I spend most of my time working and hanging out with friends before we graduate.
Now, in almost-adulthood, Disaster Woman now helps others deal with their own very real, very traumatic disasters.
Zoë explained her own disaster relief work, saying:
I also do a lot of volunteering in Haiti which I love so much. It’s such a beautiful country with beautiful people.
Me and my mom work with an organisation called Streethearts which takes boys off the streets and puts them into schools and teaches them life skills.
Maybe it’s karmic payback for the work of her meme alter ego. Maybe it was all a meme.
For more stories from behind the memes, follow UNILAD’s new series of interviews with the people who star in your favourite viral content; ‘That’s Meme’.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.