‘Hawk Tuah Girl’ found a familiar path to viral fame. What happens now?

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At a June 29 concert in Nashville, country star Zach Bryan brought a surprise duet partner onstage to sing his hit song, “Revival.” She was dressed in Daisy Duke shorts, a crop top, white boots and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. She wasn’t a fellow country star, though, but rather the internet’s latest darling, Haliey Welch, better known now as “Hawk Tuah Girl.” She earned the nickname via a viral video that popped up a couple weeks earlier. In it, the 21-year-old factory worker from Tennessee is asked by YouTubers Tim and Dee to share what “move in bed makes a man go crazy every time?” Welch responds with a graphic tip. “You gotta give ’em that ‘hawk tuah’ and spit on that thang!” she says, in a deep Southern drawl.

That clip, released June 11, has racked up millions of views across social platforms, and Welch didn’t hesitate to capitalize on her raunchy sound bite. She partnered with a longtime friend, Jason Poteete of Fathead Threads, to launch her own merchandise line: caps with sloganeering taglines such as “Hawk Tuah ’24” sell for $30 ($10 more if signed), or $20 graphic tees with lines including “If she don’t hawk tuah, I don’t wanna tawk tuah” (say it aloud). Cannily, she asked that the firm not feature her face on any of the products, focusing instead on her catchphrase. Poteete said that he’s sold more than 2,000 of the hats alone with the largest orders for 100 or so at a time; Welch’s cut of the sales is unclear, but Poteete confirmed to Rolling Stone that she’s sharing in the profits.

Initial rumors even suggested Welch had signed with Hollywood agency UTA. “It’s untrue,” said a UTA spokesperson tersely, keen to emphasize there were never even discussions. Rather she’s now repped by Jonnie Forster, of music specialist agency the Penthouse in Nashville; he calls her “America’s sweetheart,” and has already helped her register trademarks for both merchandise and entertainment services, such as live comedy shows and podcasts. Welch’s new company, which owns those trademarks, is smartly named: 16 Minutes LLC.

Welch is the latest in a long line of viral celebrities, ordinary Americans minted by memes into a fleeting fame. Remember “Alex from Target,” the teen who went from working at a Target cash register in Frisco, Tex., to the couch on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”? Or Jonathan “I Like Turtles” Ware, the 10-year-old in zombie face paint who deadpanned his answer to a local TV reporter in Portland, Ore.?

Abbie Richards understands firsthand. The misinformation researcher saw her homemade conspiracy theory chart go viral during the early months of the pandemic. “It’s emotional and overwhelming, and not an experience I would describe as fun or pleasurable in any way,” she says now, after people on social media nicknamed her “Chart Girl.”

“You’re fundamentally smushed down to this tiny, tiny fraction of who you are,” Richards said. “Your brain is not built to process that many people having opinions about you.” The volume of such insta-stars is increasing, but only a handful manage to eke out more than a few days of fame. Hawk Tuah Girl is one of them. Richards says she made “zero dollars” off her own brief fame, and declined to create merch, despite requests. “[Welch] is certainly getting judged for it, without a doubt, but it’s just a matter of how much you care,” Richards said.

Welch, who didn’t respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment, granted her first sit-down interview to Brianna LaPaglia (a.k.a. Brianna Chickenfry) on the “Plan Bri Uncut” podcast. (LaPaglia is also singer Zach Bryan’s girlfriend.) Welch spoke there about the fake accounts that sprang up, purporting to be the real Hawk Tuah: “They got pictures of all my friends, like social media and stuff like that. It’s kind of creepy. Seeing your face on another account that [you] don’t belong to,” she said, noting the outré requests she declined. “The guy that does my hats, he got offered $600 three days ago for me to spit in a jar and sell it.”

The relative durability of Welch’s meme fame is intriguing, and lies in part with a shift in online subculture, said Max Read, a journalist who came to prominence at the news site Gawker for his viral savvy. He now writes a newsletter, Read Max, on internet culture. “For years, the internet was a nerd’s paradise because the outsiders came online first,” he said.

That changed with the arrival of a different and larger online demographic: “It’s the frat boy, jockish college sports-obsessed gambling type who likes to drink, with celebrities and personalities that collect around Barstool Sports,” Read explained, referencing the media company run by Dave Portnoy. Barstool also launched the podcast “Call Her Daddy” (now on Spotify), which has the same raunchy tone as Hawk Tuah Girl’s meme. Read calls this the “Zynternet,” a nod to the nicotine pouches (Zyn) also beloved by that audience niche. It’s no coincidence, he pointed out, that Welch has a Southern drawl, which better anchors her in this subculture. So, too, does her appearance: conventionally pretty, blond and White. It also helps that the raunchiness of her meme doesn’t just appeal to the Zynternet, but also keeps her off broadcast media’s roundups of social buzz. She hasn’t been smothered by mainstream overexposure.

Technical changes in social media have also bolstered folks like Welch, said Rachel Richardson, whose Highly Flammable newsletter chronicles the viral world. TikTok features such as “duetting” and “stitching” allow viewers to insert their reactions into a meme and then repost it, earning a shard of reflected fame as they do. (The punchline-like Hawk Tuah is particularly easy to repurpose.) On YouTube, it’s not uncommon to see fan-created content, such as analysis of a concert, earn more views than the original.

“It’s like letting go of a balloon in the park. The online audience will do what they want to do with it now,” Richardson said. She draws parallels between Welch and Alix Earle, a successful TikToker from New Jersey; she hawks, too, but in her case, it’s brand endorsements in paid videos. “They look the same: pretty, blond, they contour their faces, and have a quick answer for things. There’s a blueprint for her there.”

Welch’s story has also been propelled by misinformation: Errors are more feature than bug when it comes to meme fame, fueling the story rather than derailing it. In her interview on the “Plan Bri Uncut” podcast, Welch corrected a series of errors: She isn’t a teacher (she’s too young and works in a factory), her father isn’t a preacher and she didn’t drop out of school because of the video (she left years ago). “The idea she got fired from her job is a good story, because it rhymes nicely,” said Read. “One of the easiest ways for someone to try to get attention for themselves on the back of something going viral is to make up a story.”

Though untrue, “it’s such a good narrative: she talked about sex and now she’s not allowed around kids,” said Abbie Richards, “And a great headline will get you clicks, which are worth money to sell ad dollars.”

Welch is certainly following a template that many before her have tried. Gina Rodriguez is a former adult-film star who turned to management in 2009. She started by helping another X-rated actress, Joslyn James, parlay her role in the Tiger Woods cheating scandal into earning opportunities. Since then, Rodriguez has focused on managing meme-famers, including Patricia Krentcil (a.k.a. Tan Mom) and Nadya Suleman (who once ruled the tabloids as Octomom). For Tessica Brown, better known as Gorilla Glue Girl (after posting a video where she confessed to using that rather than hair gel when she ran low), Rodriguez brokered a hair-care line for damaged hair. “We hawked her out and were able to make it last for about a year, but now her route is reality TV — she has a very big personality.”

Rodriguez’s most recent breakout success was with Nathan Apodaca, or DoggFace, whose video of him skating to Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” while drinking cranberry juice broke out during the pandemic. “He was working in a potato factory, and living in a trailer with no running water, she said. “I reached out to him and said ‘I’ll make you a million dollars’ and we did that in four months.” She brokered merch deals: Rodriguez has a provider on standby for moments like this, and says she can have clients photographed in their own products within 24 hours.

Rodriguez also helped Apodaca snare endorsements and land acting gigs, including several episodes of the TV series “Reservation Dogs.” Rather than waiting to produce comedy podcasts under her own shingle, Rodriguez doesn’t understand why Welch isn’t already monetizing her Hawk Tuah fame more directly — and with far less effort — by setting up photographs with paparazzi wearing her own product, probably in a bikini somewhere warm.

“In a bathing suit, she could clean up,” Rodriguez said. “It’s summertime after all.”

correction

An earlier version of this article misstated that Haliey Welch had changed the spelling of her first name after signing with an agency. The article has been corrected.

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