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The 'Big Sister' Mash-Up Maker's New Account

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Phil de Vellis, the man behind the viral mash-up that starred Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as " Big Sister," is back! This time, he has Paul Wolfowitz spliced in as Michael Scott in NBC's "The Office."

Big Sister became a YouTube blockbuster as the apparent work of an anonymous grass-roots backer of Sen. Barack Obama. When it turned out that de Vellis, 33, worked for the online strategy firm advising Obama, he was fired. Now he's been hired by an advocacy group to concoct this virtual hit on Wolfowitz, who's struggling to stay at the helm of the World Bank after recent disclosures that he orchestrated a generous pay package for his girlfriend, a bank employee. (On Monday he said he's considering hiring a "coach" to help him change his leadership style.)

A petition on the MoveOn spinoff Avaaz.org-- the group claims the name means "voice" or "song" in several languages -- calls for Wolfowitz's resignation and lists more than 45,000 signatures from 189 countries. We chatted with de Vellis about his latest viral zinger, appropriately titled " The Bank."

-- Jose Antonio Vargas

When I was writing about the Big Sister mash-up, I must have e-mailed you 20, 25 times. Never got an e-mail back. Zilch. Zero. Nada. And now . . .

But I didn't respond to anyone. I'm sorry. I had to keep my anonymity. You know, I just heard about this new term -- e-mail bankruptcy.

Say what?

A lot of prominent people online get a ton of e-mails, and they feel horrible about not responding. So they publicly declare e-mail bankruptcy and ask for forgiveness.

Okay, fine, I forgive you. . . . Are you rich now, too?

Umm . . .

You know, from making this new mash-up. You must have gotten paid a lot, right?

[Laughs.] A lot of business opportunities have opened up since the Hillary video, and I can't really talk about them. Let's just say I'm weighing my options. But this is a one-time deal with Avaaz. They commissioned me to do this video. I've been following this scandal at the World Bank. I'm not a fan of Wolfowitz . . .

Kinda figured that from the inclusion of the infamous comb-spitting episode . . .

Right. I'm not a fan of Wolfowitz. I thought it was outrageous when he was appointed as president of the bank, especially because of his role as one of the architects of the Iraq war. . . . He's been on this anti-corruption campaign and meanwhile . . . I think the mission of the World Bank -- helping poor nations -- is too important to be run by a hypocrite.

So Wolfowitz as Michael, the Steve Carell character from "The Office"?

It's fitting, I thought. Michael is an incompetent, bumbling, annoying boss. Wolfowitz is an incompetent, bumbling, annoying boss.

So what do you think makes an effective viral political mash-up?

There's no magic formula, really.

Is it kind of like making a political television ad?

Well, there are less restraints when you make a viral ad, at least the way I've made them. I didn't have to answer to the campaign, or the candidate, or the media firm that's handling the candidate. It's just my own sensibility. But what makes an effective mash-up depends a lot on timing and luck. Having said that, I think it helps to pick a topic that a lot of people are interested in and visualize it in a way that crystallizes what everybody's been thinking but haven't said out loud. All I really did with the Big Sister and now "The Bank" is say something publicly that people are saying privately.

Hillary as Big Sister. Wolfowitz as Michael. What's next -- Obama? Gonzales? Dubya?

We'll see, we'll see. This won't be the last you'll hear from me.

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