Jessica Curry is still processing. The mom of two, whose daughter Parker became an online sensation after a photo of the toddler — awestruck by Michelle Obama’s portrait — went very, very viral, has spent the past two weeks juggling juice boxes and giant expectations.
“When I go into my phone and I look at pictures of Michelle Obama carrying my little girl around on her hip as if she were her own, I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ ” Curry, 29, said during a recent phone interview.
Since Parker’s photo began orbiting the social media globe on March 1, mother and daughter have spent 45 minutes with the former first lady in her downtown D.C. office, appeared on CNN and flew to Los Angeles on Wednesday to chat with viral-kid whisperer Ellen DeGeneres.
And there’s that word again — viral. It sounds ominous and clinical, like something catchy, something you protect your littles from as Curry did for the early part of Parker’s young life.
In those pre-toddler years, Curry — a stay-at-home mom in Washington who writes a parenting blog called Happy Mama Happy Babies — didn’t post photos of her daughter’s face online. So what was her gut reaction to the photo with thousands upon thousands of likes from strangers? To be honest, she was bothered.
“We’re talking about a picture of my daughter who’s just 2,” said Curry, whose soft Sunday-school-teacher voice belies her fierceness. “So when I see this picture floating around with my kid, I’m like, ‘Whoa. This is a lot.’ ”
A lot — that’s a common refrain for Curry these days. The media attention? A lot. The emotions? A lot. The pressure? A lot.
Just over 24 hours after the museum visit, the photo began racking up more shares and likes and hearts. Curry decided to reach out to a friend who works in public relations. She told the mom of two not to worry. That this would all probably blow over in a day or two. No need to panic. Life would be back to normal soon.
“I was like, ‘Okay, if you say so.’ Tomorrow we can go back to our regular scheduled programming,” Curry said. Then Obama’s office called.
In the meantime, Curry connected with Ben Hines, the man who snapped Parker’s photo. He sent Curry a heartfelt explanation/apology via Facebook. He hadn’t meant to invade the Currys’ privacy.
That same day, the media requests rolled in. “Not, like, one or two,” Curry said, “but 10 or 15.”
A candid moment caught on someone else’s camera suddenly thrusting your tiny human under a potentially harsh spotlight that’s nearly impossible to control? Most parents don’t plan for that. Curry certainly didn’t, but now that it’s here, the self-described “millennial mama” is trying to wade through the surreal to get to something concrete.
Curry could take notes from other parents who've gone before her and Parker, who has been dubbed "Portrait Girl." Remember Robert E. Kelly? No? How about "BBC Dad"? Exactly. Kelly and clan unwittingly struck Internet gold last year when his then-4-year-old daughter, Marion, and 9-month-old son, James, crashed an interview that dad, a foreign affairs expert, was conducting with the BBC.
The Kellys, completely uninterested in fame, were overwhelmed by the avalanche of attention threatening to bury them hours after that clip went viral. So they turned off their phones.
“It was just insane,” recalled Kelly in a phone interview from South Korea. Media requests were coming from Israel and Brazil. DeGeneres’s team left multiple messages. Reporters were showing up at Kelly’s job, at his parents’ house in Ohio, at his aunt and uncle’s in New York.
After some discussion, Kelly and his wife, Jung-a Kim, made the decision to do a grand total of three media appearances: an interview with the BBC, the scene of the crime; one with the Wall Street Journal, because Kelly had a friend there; and one news conference for the Korean outlets at Pusan National University in South Korea, where Kelly works.
The “family blooper” reel seen round the world celebrated its first anniversary this week. During that time, they got some “offers,” most of which never panned out. The Kellys have appeared on a few South Korean family shows and were paid to do an ad for Johnson & Johnson. Their daughter, Marion, whose general cuteness (those glasses!) started it all, will star in her own children’s book out this year. But there was no major financial windfall.
Although the moment might seem unreal, the potential to make money certainly isn’t. Several families have banked on the kind of viral fame that the Kellys shunned. Take the McClures, a family of five from New Jersey whose 4-year-old twins, Alexis and Ava, have more than 800,000 YouTube subscribers and 1.3 million Instagram followers. All that influence came from a video that mom Ami shot of the twins getting angry at dad Justin for eating all their snacks. Other videos, which the family says they were documenting just for fun, followed suit.
“We’re doing well,” Justin said of the family’s financial situation.
Forbes Magazine named the McClure twins among its Top Influencers of 2017. They recently closed a deal with Walmart. Now Justin, a filmmaker and photographer, works on the family brand full time. Ami, a comptroller on maternity leave after the birth of their son, Jersey, is considering leaving her job as well. They won’t talk specific numbers, but on the low end, when the family began monetizing their channel with ads and branded content, the McClures pulled in $15,000 a month.
New York talent agent Keith Bielory, who represents the McClures, explained that how much a digital star makes is contingent on several “verticals,” including audience size and engagement. Online personalities draw income from ads, sponsored content, multi-video deals and exclusive campaigns. One YouTube video could net its star more than the average American makes in a year.
“We’ve seen a single video go for six figures,” said Bielory, of Abrams Artists. “It’s a lot, but it’s really good content.”
Though for the most part they steer clear of negative comments on their social media posts, they have an answer to the “What kind of nightmare stage parent makes money off their kids?” question.
“I get to spend all my time with my family making high-quality memories,” Justin said. “So enjoy your day job.”
Engagement, branding, influence are all vocabulary words in households such as the McClures'. But there is one that is banned: fame.
“We don’t even use that word,” Ami said.
The Kellys have a similar stance on the notion of fame, mainly because life, for the most part, has returned to their version of normal.
“She has no sense that she’s some weird global celebrity,” Kelly said of Marion, who just turned 5 and could be heard squealing in the background as Mom and Dad tried to conduct an interview they hope will be their last.
“I hope it can be some happy memory,” Kim said of the entire viral experience.
Parker is just getting started.
While Curry and her fiance never planned to have Parker and her 1-year-old sister, Ava, in “any spotlight of any kind,” the fact remains that the kids are cute. Parker is bubbly, being trumpeted online as an IRL embodiment of black girl magic. So yes, the kid has a publicist now, Aba Kwawu, a woman of color and mom of two whom Curry contacted after being overwhelmed by “the unbelievable amount of attention.”
For now, Curry chooses to see all of this as “a blessing, an honor.”
“At the end of the day, if she is inspiring people, I am glad to share her,” Curry said. “She amazes me and inspires me every day, and who am I to keep that from other people?”
If any financial boost comes from Parker’s online fame, the family would be open to it, she said, “for the sole purpose of securing Parker’s financial future.”
In the meantime, there is one benefit that Curry discovered while diving down the rabbit hole of the Internet, usually a no-no in these situations.
“When you become a mom, especially a first-time mom, there is a lot of self-doubt, like: ‘Uh, am I doing this right? I hope I’m doing this right.’ ” she recalled, getting choked up all over again. So the messages she’s received from strangers praising Parker (“She’s amazing!”) and cheering on her parenting (“Keep it up!”) have been particularly affirming.
“To have people who don’t know me . . . compliment me on something I take very seriously,” Curry said through tears, “it’s just very touching.”