Imagine being immortalised on the Internet at the tender age of 11 months old. This is life according to the Success Kid meme, known to his friends and family as Sammy.
Sam Griner, otherwise known to the world wide web-dwelling collective as the Success Kid, is now 10, he proudly tells UNILAD days before he heads off to summer camp from his home in Jacksonville, Florida.
He’s also one of the most recognisable faces in meme history:
In case you missed it, baby Sammy’s downwards fist pump is generally used to describe a moment of gentle stupidity which turned out much better than expected.
Like drinking expired milk and not throwing up, or when your mum asks you to tidy your room and you just push all the clothes under the bed but get away with it.
Disclaimer: Neither UNILAD nor this writer condone drinking expired milk or disrespecting your mum.
Sometimes Sammy’s ever so slightly smug face is used in a more pure sense to illustrate life’s little wins, for instance, the blissful moment of buying six chicken nuggets and getting seven in the box.
But the real success story of the piece wasn’t made up on the Internet in the name of relatable humour and upvotes. Nope, the real success of Success Kid is firmly based in real life – and threefold.
The original story of young Sammy’s own little win is held right there in the framing of the photograph, for all to see on closer inspection.
Sam’s mum, Laney Griner is amused to hear a lot of people don’t realise she captured her son at the precise moment he attempted to eat some sand; his clenched fist trying to keep hold of the tiny grains and his tightly clamped lips giving away a few guilty crumbs.
The amateur photographer snapped the shot of her 11-month-old son at the beach, on a family day out with her husband, Justin, on August 27 2007.
This charming portrait photograph was taken just moments before:
Laney recalled the day which would change her family’s life forever, telling UNILAD:
Justin and I took Sam to the beach that day specifically to take photos. I’d recently purchased my first dSLR camera and wanted to get some nicer family photos with baby Sammy, who was just 11 months old at that time.
We went to the beach and as soon as I would put Sam down in the sand, he’d get a handful of sand and try to put it in his mouth, as babies that age do with everything.
The Success Kid shot was taken just as he was about to put his hand in his mouth. If you look at the photo closely, you can see sand in his hand and around his lips.
Frankly, any kid who can chow down on a fistful of sand and not feel quite ill is bound for success.
But Sam was always a lot of fun to photograph as a baby, and even still today, Laney said, ‘because he always made the funniest, silliest faces’.
In fact, the scene captured in Success Kid – which Laney later uploaded to Flickr with the caption ‘Why I Oughta…’ – is just one of many moments which could plausibly have received the meme treatment.
Doesn’t this particular photograph look like a newborn Sammy is simply screaming out for a caption competition?
Another is equal parts ‘Y THO’ and ‘Wait, what’ with a sprinkling of ‘OH REALLY’, topped off by ‘Are you f*cking kidding me?’
Just see for yourself:
Laney doesn’t really consider herself a photographer, but her eye for a composition is undeniable in the collection of images she’s posted to Flickr. Still, the image which would become ‘Success Kid’ is ‘by far [her] most recognised work’.
So, she said, the recognition is ‘incredible’ and humbling:
I’m a photographer, if that only means I have a camera and enjoy taking photos. I don’t get paid to take pictures and I have no formal training. It’s incredible having a photo taken by me become so well known.
For her family, photographs like these of Sam as a baby are priceless memories.
And yet, it was the clenched fist and thin-lined mouth which garnered the attention of the collective Internet on 4Chan and Reddit way back when MySpace was having its heyday in 2008.
Just four months after the photograph was taken, scene kids and anonymous social networkers alike were using Sammy’s face as their profile pictures.
However, Sam’s sand taste-testing baby antics were initially interpreted differently to the narrative peddled today.
The first version of the meme read into Sam’s clenched fist as anger and aggression, and was shared with the caption, ‘Imma f*ck you up’.
Next, someone got creative with PhotoShop and added another kid into the background of the photograph, standing next to a sand ruin, with the phrase ‘I Hate Sandcastles’ superimposed over the scene of childhood devastation.
The doctored image was posted anonymously on various Damn Funny Websites like Damn Funny Pictures and Daily Haha to moderate lols and occasional rolling around on the floor laughing.
But Laney, who wasn’t even sure what a meme was when the image was first picked up, was glad when some clever sausage saw and shared a different message among those peddled by purveyors of plagiarism.
Someone saw past the clenched fist and realised it could be interpreted as a personal expression of joy – because reading too much into a little kid’s sand habits is a good way to spend a few hours on a slow day online, apparently.
His likeness has also been transformed by fans of Angry Birds, zombies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Laney was happy to see the shift, she explained:
I definitely prefer the ‘Success Kid’ version over any other I’ve seen. It’s the most positive and I feel lucky that it’s the one that stuck! The first versions…portrayed my son as a bully and I never liked those.
Apparently others agreed and ‘Success Kid’ has stuck around for over a decade since… Which brings the narrative of this so-far Success Story right up to the real miracle of 10-year-old Sam’s unusual meme-story.
Aside from one visit to ROFLcon where he was a ‘huge hit’, and his mum having to hire a ‘meme manager’ to deal with licensing requests, Sam’s life has remained pretty much the same.
He was used to being considered a success by his family after being born prematurely and battling through a tough first few months.
But his Success Kid persona had a life-changing effect on a family member too.
Long before Sam celebrated his tenth birthday, his dad, Justin had been diagnosed with kidney disease and had been on dialysis for several years.
Laney, a self-described ‘part-time couch enthusiast, full-time Success Mom’ with a killer sense of humour, shared how scary it was for the whole family, as Sam’s paternal grandmother had passed away from kidney disease.
But times got harder when the Griners realised they wouldn’t be able to afford the medications needed to heal Justin, a 42-year-old tattoo artist, after a much-needed and hoped-for kidney transplant.
The family were told they needed to show proof they could pay for the post-transplant medications ‘in order for Justin to be put on the transplant waiting list’, Laney explained.
After so many of their friends offered financial help to save his life, Laney and Justin decided to set up a GoFundMe page where their relatives could donate.
Laney was initially reluctant to use Sam’s success to reach out, adding:
I didn’t mention Success Kid on the GoFundMe page because I wanted it to be about Justin.
Later I decided to post a link to the fundraiser on my Twitter page and said, ‘If everyone who ever created a Success Kid meme donated $1, we could save Success Dad’s life’.
Here’s the tweet:
If everyone who ever created a Success Kid meme donated $1, we could save Success Dad's life. http://t.co/UqDgUyTPxq
— Laney Griner (@laneymg) April 12, 2015
A few hundred shares later – from meme admirers and large publishing companies alike – the family went globally viral… Again. Nearly 5000 people raised $101,125 of the family’s $75,000 goal.
With more donations than Sam could shake a fist at, Laney said they hit target, adding:
People from all over the world donated to it and it was the most humbling, incredibly intimate interaction and personal connections with humankind.
It was amazing, truly dumbfounding. People were just so giving and kind and we never ever could have expected that response. It’s something our family will never forget.
There were so many nice comments and people sharing similar stories. I wish everyone could experience the best of humanity in the way that we did. It’s a reminder to me that people are overwhelmingly good.
Justin had the transplant in 2015, and today ‘is doing so well’ returning to work free from dialysis, said Laney, who’s become a great proponent of being an organ donor.
Meanwhile, Sam cannot believe an ill-considered beach dinner all those years ago could’ve served to save his dad’s life.
He told UNILAD:
I’m really happy my picture could help him.
I didn’t understand it at the time but I’m so happy he’s okay now.
Like most kids, though, Sam is preoccupied with the end of school for another year and escaping to a summer camp in Denmark, where he gets to be a Normal Kid with a passion for gaming, anti-Trump politics, the Justice League and his French Bulldog, Oscar.
Laney, who describes her family as ‘regular folk’, chipped in to say, ‘we’ll keep living life as usual’.
We like traveling a lot. Sam wants to keep learning more about art, and he and Justin draw together a lot. Justin’s tattoo business is doing well and we’re a happy family. Whatever comes next is just icing.
After all, Sam said he doesn’t remember the photo being taken – and he’s hardly ever recognised for his viral superstardom.
Sam was ever-so chilled about his Internet career, telling UNILAD:
It’s cool, but it doesn’t effect my daily life at all. People only know if I tell them or my mom does. People never know me from my baby photo. I look very different now.
But he’s not tired of having to relive it just yet, and has his sights set on a career in the online realm, perhaps as a YouTuber or an artist like his dad.
He said he’s ‘always’ asked to do the pose, explaining:
Yes, always. When people find out, they always want me to do the pose.
Sam’s fame reached much further than the family could’ve ever expected, Laney said, citing a Virgin Media billboard campaign featuring a mirrored version of Sammy’s photo.
The campaign changed the colour of Sammy’s top to red and called him Tim, which many traditionalists didn’t like, but Laney confirmed they paid her fair and square for the right to do so.
But she added:
You know, it actually wasn’t lucrative for us, but it was the first advertising to ever feature the photo. When the photo first became popular, when I started seeing it regularly, I wasn’t sure what to do in order to protect it.
I assumed that my photo would be recognised as mine (in legal terms) simply because I took it. I was wrong and needed to get an official copyright.
However, I’m very happy with those billboards, regardless of the money they generated. It was one of the first big uses of the photo in advertising, and that they appeared in London is fantastic.
Moreover, Laney has no regrets about her part in creating a viral young superstar, and mused its popularity will ‘never stop blowing [her] mind’.
Even though the whole world recognises her son’s face, Laney simply said:
I took a photo of my baby boy and posted it to my Flickr account. It becoming a meme had nothing to do with me. It’s come with so much positivity and seems to make people really happy.
I have no regrets. I could’ve never imagined this, but it’s been a mostly awesome experience.
It’s quite astounding to think so many people who are immortalised in meme-form are followed around by one single image which the world thinks defines their whole lives.
Sam, thankfully, hasn’t fallen foul of the same fate.
Instead, for his whole family, his picture has become a symbol of strength and human kindness in the face of adversity. Rather than defining Sam by a silly face, it serves as a kind of bizarre modern-day saviour for his own dad.
How’s that for a Success Kid?
If you have a meme-story you want to tell, contact UNILAD on [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.