When Watkins Little ’09 laced up for the Cooper River Bridge Run last spring, he had no idea that he was hotfooting it straight toward Internet stardom. Seemingly overnight, his face was plastered all across the Internet, the media were clamoring to talk to him and he was being recognized everywhere he went. He had, in a flash, become the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.
by Alicia Lutz ’98
Photography by Leslie McKellar
Watkins pressed his back into the hallway wall, trying not to breathe as his socked feet slid deliberately, inch by inch, over the wooden parquet floor toward the safety of his bedroom.
“Zeddie? Zeddie Little?” the woman’s voice shouted again – this time muffled not just by a fist pounding on one side of the door, but by the dog’s barking frenzy on the other. “We just want a word with you. It’s Inside Edition.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and tensed his shoulders. A vain attempt to buffer the clang of the spoon that dropped from his left hand, flinging a sticky glob of granola up onto the 2001 Summerville Flowertown Festival poster hanging on the opposite wall. He was startled to realize he’d still been gripping the spoon at all. One minute he’d been enjoying his breakfast and listening to records, the next—
“Please, Mr. Little,” the voice topped off the commotion. “We just want to ask you a few questions …
“… How does it feel to be famous?”
Glancing alternately up at the door and back at Watkins, Jamma wagged her tail and continued to bark in confused excitement. The pounding subsided for a few seconds, and then started up again, accompanied by the pleading: “Please, we’re looking for Zeddie Little? Does he live here? … Mr. Little, is that you? … Please, it’ll only take a second!”
Taking a deep breath, Watkins scooted into the bedroom, leaving Jamma and the Inside Edition reporter to duke it out on either side of the apartment door while he called his buddy Todd for help.
“Dude, Inside Edition is outside my door,” he murmured into the phone. “They’re actually in the building. What do I do?”
Todd, a senior VP at a Manhattan PR firm, was amused. “Do you want to be on Inside Edition?”
“No, I don’t want to be on Inside Edition!” Watkins yelped, incredulous.
“OK, so don’t show your face,” Todd shrugged. “Let them think they’re barking up the wrong tree. They won’t let up if they see your face.”
Watkins nodded. It still felt bizarre that people recognized his face at all, although he’d finally stopped doing double takes every time he saw his face smiling back at him online. He didn’t even see that as himself anymore. That was the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy – the persona the Internet had created.
In fact, Watkins had nothing to do with any of this, really. All he did was run the Cooper River Bridge Run. He just happened to get caught on camera when he smiled at a friend on the sidewalk. It was the photographer who posted the picture, the photag’s friend who gave him the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy moniker and, yes, the people in cyberspace who ate it up, causing it to go viral in a matter of hours.
“The great thing is that all the jokes are positive,” Watkins says now, noting that cyberspace is often a hostile environment for its viral stars. “If your face is going to be splattered across the Internet, this is definitely one of the better ways for it to happen.”
So, that’s the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy – the guy in the photograph that’s taken the Internet by storm. The star of cyberspace.
That’s not who Inside Edition was beating down the door for. They wanted Zeddie Little. He’s the one everyone wants to meet. He’s the one getting all the attention in the real world. The real-life celebrity.
And then there’s Watkins, born Zeddie Watkins Little V, the music lover, the cook, the runner, the introvert. The all-around good guy. He’s the humble, poised and appreciative recipient of all the attention.
Watkins doesn’t think of himself as a celebrity. In fact, Watkins himself isn’t a celebrity.
Before all of this, his biggest brush with fame was getting the thumbs-up from Jay-Z at Torrisi Italian Specialties, where he cooked when he first moved to New York City with his girlfriend Nicole Luedemann ’07 in May 2011.
This is a guy who loves cooking. In college, he followed the Charleston City Paper food writer Jeff Allen around town. He learned from both his writing style and his culinary aesthetic. Allen’s column is what turned him on to Extra Virgin Oven (EVO) Pizza in North Charleston. The owner of the restaurant was still hanging the blinds in the window and installing the light fixtures when Watkins walked in and applied for a job. He was the first employee. He stayed for four years. He learned a lot.
In his heart, Watkins misses cooking in a restaurant. Whenever he eats out, he can’t help but be jealous of the guys in the kitchen. Sometimes he peeks in on them, just to see what they’re doing.
Of all the things he’s done, Watkins is most proud that he graduated from the College of Charleston and moved to New York.
He graduated in 2009. A communication major.
He spent the last year or so interning at Mexican Summer Records and doing public relations for Union Pool, a “pretty rad” music venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s just interviewed for a job doing brand strategy at an award-winning independent media agency.
He was more nervous in that interview than he was in the interview for Good Morning America (because, well, it mattered in real life).
Watkins loves the idea of being a morning person, but he still enjoys sleeping in.
Around the corner from his East Village apartment is a Filipino market that sells cheap flights to the Philippines during the week; on Saturdays they roast whole suckling pigs. He likes that, in New York City, anything goes.
Watkins grew up in West Ashley. His parents divorced when he was 15. He stayed with his dad – his little brother and sister went with his mom. The farthest he’s been away from home is Costa Rica. He went there for two weeks his junior year in college.
Watkins is left handed. And looks more like his mom than his dad. He doesn’t like his nose. His hair is thin, so he uses a pomade to thicken it up. He goes to a barber called Freeman’s.
He’s not perfect.
This guy – the one who didn’t answer when Inside Edition called him Zeddie Little – doesn’t want to be remembered in life for his face. He just wants to be remembered as someone who had a good, positive impact on people.
LOOKS INTO A BROKEN MIRROR: FIXES IT
Watkins Little woke up the day of the Cooper River Bridge Run with a huge zit right between his eyes. It was so big, he could feel it throbbing. It was the kind of zit that lasts for weeks and there’s nothing you can do about it.
He didn’t bother showering. Who showers before a race?
He didn’t bother brushing his hair. His bed-head would relax once he started sweating.
He didn’t bother eating. He’d be doing plenty of that later.
He hadn’t really hydrated properly, either. And it was hot. Like, muggy hot. Things weren’t getting off to a great start.
In fact, the entire race had to be delayed. Not because of Watkins’ pimple or his bed-head or his lack of fuel, but because there were 10,000 runners and walkers still stuck downtown and on buses when the bridge was scheduled to close. The other 33,635 runners and walkers had no choice but to stand around for an hour in the 70°-and-climbing heat until the race could start.
Worried that he wasn’t hydrated enough, Watkins used the time to hunt down some liquid. He jumped the temporary fence installed all along Coleman Boulevard, ran into the Kangaroo Express for a Gatorade and chugged it.
It didn’t seem to help. In fact, things only got worse when the race began.
It was uncomfortable. And it was hot. Miserably hot. And it was steep. He’d trained for the incline on the Williamsburg Bridge, running to Brooklyn and back without any trouble. But this, this was different. This was a long, long stretch of incline. He wasn’t primed for this. And his legs were starting to cramp.
Of all of the runs, this was definitely not his best. Watkins had been running all his life – ever since he was a kid, tagging along on his dad’s night runs around Village Green in West Ashley. He loved those runs – he felt like he could keep on going forever. Not today. Today, it took everything he had not to stop. That’s all he wanted to do: just stop.
But he didn’t stop – not until the end.
“That sucked!” he moaned, greeting his friend Johnny Battles – Charleston chocolatier and owner of Sweeteeth Chocolates, whom Watkins cooked with at EVO for years.
“Yeah, it was brutal,” agreed Johnny.
“Man, it was so much better last year.”
Last year – the first year Watkins had run the race – it’d been a breeze, so easy and fun that he’d convinced a group of friends to meet back up in Charleston to run it together in 2012.
One person he’d failed to convince, however, was Mike Scognamiglio ’03, chef and owner of Mt. Pleasant’s Bacco Italian Restaurant, where Watkins cooked for a brief stint shortly before he left for New York.
“Slap me five when you run by Bacco,” Mike told him via Facebook. “I’ll be sipping on a cappuccino, watching y’all and saying to myself, ‘Next year I’ll do the Bridge Run.’”
That was the plan. And, as Watkins approached the restaurant’s location at the intersection with Houston Northcutt Boulevard, a little over a mile into the race, his eyes scoured the rows of spectators: looking, looking, looking. Suddenly, the young chef popped out of his restaurant with a cappuccino in his hand.
“Mike!” Watkins yelled through the swarm of runners.
“There he is!”
It was a fleeting conversation – shouted across hundreds of people, all doing their own thing, lost in their own thoughts, focused on their own pursuits, their own goals.
Among that crowd, Will King was taking pictures.
DOESN’T WIN MARATHON: FRONT PAGE OF NEWSPAPER
Oh, my gosh. What happened in Charleston over the past four days? What did I do?
Momentarily paralyzed by panicky dread, Watkins Little sat stiffly in his burgundy 1999 Chevy Blazer, an uneasy feeling spreading in the pit of his stomach.
He and his girlfriend Nicole had stopped to pick up some cheap (relative to NYC prices) groceries at the Marlton, N.J., Whole Foods on their way home from Charleston, and when he turned on his iPhone, it was blowing up with messages: “Your face is all over Reddit!” “You’re Reddit’s No. 1 post!” “Your picture is at the top of Reddit’s front page!”
Watkins knew enough about the social news website Reddit (which allows users not just to submit content, but also to vote submitted content up or down, thus ranking its position on the site’s front page) to know that random negative and embarrassing things are often what end up getting floated to the top. His mind raced, furiously shuffling through all the places he’d been, people he’d been with, things he’d done while he was in the Holy City for the Bridge Run.
And then he saw the photo.
A relieved laugh burst out of his lungs. And the laugher kept on coming.
The photo – captioned, “My friend calls him ‘Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy’” – was the silliest thing he’d ever seen. Sure, it was a decent photo of him (and he noted gratefully that his gigantic pimple wasn’t visible), but he couldn’t for the life of him understand why it was so popular.
“I didn’t get it at all,” Watkins says, noting, “I’m not active with my own social media footprint, but I have a lot of friends who are Redditors [registered users on Reddit], so they were scouring through all the threads and briefing me on what everyone was saying”:
My god. He looks like a stock photo.
He’s the only person in the shot that doesn’t look like he’s painfully slogging through the event. (“If only they knew!”)
I’m a guy, and I have an unmanageable desire to see more of him. He’s just so … photogenic.
He’s Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother; unable to take a bad picture under normal circumstances.
And then there were the tributes, to be read in the voice in the Bud Light Real Men of Genius ads:
Here’s to you,
Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy
You force a smile while you run and you angle your hair just right always making sure any photo of you will come out perfect
You appear nonchalant in every photo you appear in while everyone else looks confused, panicked, or simply downright stupid. A photobomb from you is a true gift only few can enjoy.
Also buried in the comments was the story of how Watkins’ face ended up on Reddit in the first place. It all started with one Will King, a computer programmer with the Medical University of South Carolina, who used the Cooper River Bridge Run as an opportunity to practice his photography hobby. After the race, he uploaded 112 photos to Flikr and Facebook, and shortly thereafter his friend had dubbed Watkins “Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.”
That was on Saturday. Around 1 p.m. the following Tuesday, Will King submitted the photo to Reddit. By the time Watkins got wind of it at 5 p.m., it had already climbed to No. 1.
“It was kind of cool, just seeing something happen that way,” Watkins recollects. “It was all really flattering. It was kind of like a little rush to see it going on.”
And, as exhausted as he was from the 13-hour drive from South Carolina to New York, Watkins couldn’t stop checking the site to see if anything had changed – to see how long his 15 minutes of fame would last.
The photo held its own at the top of the page until the very end of the night, when it began falling in the ranks.
“Whew!” Watkins breathed with satisfaction. “That’s over!”
It was, of course, far from over.
EXTRA IN MOVIE: WINS AN OSCAR
It was early when Watkins Little woke up the next morning, roused by Jamma, his golden-colored mutt from Sol Legare Island, just off Folly Road. Bad Ma’ama Jamma, as Watkins calls her, was one of five five-day-old puppies found in a box on one of the little tufts of land that make up the Sol Legare. Watkins loves this dog.
He pulled on the pants he’d left on the floor the night before, splashed his face with water, clipped Jamma’s leash to her collar and headed through the living room for the door. He paused, eyeing his MacBook Pro on the coffee table.
“Hold on, Jamma,” he said to the dog, and – awkwardly standing over the computer – logged onto the Reddit site.
“What the … ?”
There, on the screen, was meme after meme after meme. [See the opposite page for a few examples of these memes.] There must have been 50 of them already, most cropping Will King’s photo to put the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy front and center. Watkins blinked at all of the – his – faces smiling back at him.
“Cra-a-zy,” he said slowly. What is going on? What the hell happened between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m.? He looked at Jamma, who stared back at him, wagging her tail. He smiled at her and led her out to the swirling smells and sundry sounds of the East Village. It was a far cry from the dog park at James Island County Park, but Jamma was adjusting to this new life.
Watkins looked down at his iPhone and shook his head. His friends were freaking out – saying that he was an Internet sensation, a cyberspace star. It was bizarre, he had to agree, but he wasn’t famous. The Ridiculously Photogenic Guy was – the Internet persona. He was just Watkins Little, no celebrity at all.
It’s just so weird that it’s my face, he thought, shaking his head.
He looped the block and headed back toward his building, nodding at the two old men who are always standing outside the Irish bar that’s always open and playing music at 8 a.m., even though they always ignore him. He let Jamma and himself into his building, climbed the four flights of stairs and went into the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee before perching himself in front of the computer once more.
It turned out one of the Redditors had posted a facebomb version of Will’s photo (pasting the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy’s face over all the other heads in the photograph) shortly after it hit the front page the day before. The first meme – which shows Mr. Photogenic, an unidentified woman and Tina Fey, and reads “Sees a couple of girls taking a disastrous photo: Turns it into a work of art” – appeared early in the morning. By the end of the day, the Quickmeme page for the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy had more than 1,000 submissions. (Today it has more than 11,900.)
It was official: The Ridiculously Photogenic Guy had gone viral. Watkins picked up his iPhone and called home.
“Dad, you’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I’m famous on the Internet.”
GOES FOR A JOG: WHOLE TOWN FOLLOWS HIM
Watkins Little’s world kept getting more and more bizarre. There were suddenly 26 new Facebook accounts for Zeddie Little. A fake Twitter account had 50,000 followers. Interest was mounting – but it had shifted from the Internet-created persona to the real, live person behind the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. And the only thing that was really known about him was that the name on his race bib was Zeddie.
“Son, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not just famous on the Internet,” Zeddie Watkins Little IV, a.k.a. Jack, chuckled into the phone the next evening. “I’ve been getting calls all day from the media. They think they’re calling you.”
Watkins had just returned from a run through SoHo and Tribeca to the Hudson River and back up to the West Village. He was starving. Craving ramen.
“What? Who? What reporters?” he asked, distractedly pulling off his Brooks Racers. A representative from Brooks had actually contacted him that day; he’d been wearing his Racers and Brooks shorts in the now infamous photograph, and the running-shoe manufacturer offered Watkins and Will King $500 in gear and $1,000 in cash to license the photograph for an online meme-captioning contest. In their first conversation together, Will and Watkins decided to turn the offer down (though Watkins did manage to get some free gear out of the company).
“Well, besides Charleston City Paper and Post & Courier, we have CBS Morning Show, Today Show and IBTimes’ Daily Mail,” Jack said. “Apparently, you’re huge in England.”
Apparently, he was big in America, too.
“Oh, and Good Morning America,” Jack added.
“Yeah, GMA somehow got Nicole’s email address, too,” Watkins said, thinking smugly, They still can’t find me, though, which is pretty cool.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger. These people want something and these people want something and these people want something,” he told Nicole over burgers at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Back Forty. “It’s all so flattering.”
Nicole was just impressed how poised Watkins was in all the chaos: “He was as cool as a cucumber! I would have crashed like the Titanic!”
An apparent natural at fame, Watkins, however, just kept his options open, playing the odds, so to speak. When Today Show couldn’t figure out how to pitch his story, he used Good Morning America as leverage.
“Let us know if you get, you know, a modeling gig or something,” the rep from the Today Show said hesitantly.
“Well, Good Morning America wants me, so I guess I’ll just sign with them.”
“Wait a minute,” the rep said. “I’ll call you back.”
When he didn’t hear anything by Monday, Watkins signed the GMA offer. Of course, Ellen called on Tuesday, but lost interest when he said he’d be on GMA the next day.
“I was just watching everything escalate, and I had to go ahead and play my odds,” Watkins explains. “The demographic is a little larger with GMA, too. So I just went for it.”
And he nailed it. He seemed as comfortable on set as he would be chatting with a friend.
He shrugs: “All I had to do was look into the camera.”
Oh … right.
And, in true meme fashion, GMA’s ratings beat out the Today Show for the first time in 16 years, ending one of the most epic streaks in the history of TV.
TOURISTS ASK HIM TO TAKE A PICTURE: OF HIMSELF
“Hey! Aren’t you that runner guy?”
Watkins Little faltered. He’d been working at a bar for some extra change, and it was the middle of Sunday brunch. He was slammed – orders being thrown at him right and left. He had enough to grapple with for the moment, and he was doing good just to keep up with people’s drinks.
Watkins shook his head, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. What can I get you?”
The guy made his order and turned to his friends. “There’s this guy who’s got this picture going around. He was running this race. …”
It was the first time Watkins had been approached by a stranger – and he wasn’t exactly sure how to handle it. But when he came back with the guy’s drink, he grinned at him. “OK, it’s me,” he said. “It’s me.”
Watkins had to get used to it.
Soon, it was happening four or five times an hour: He’d go to the grocery store, and elderly ladies would stop him, ecstatic that they’d seen him on TV. He’d go out to eat, and well-respected chefs would come out of the kitchen to have their pictures taken with him. He’d go on a run, and people would shout out to him every few blocks. They called him Ridiculously Photogenic Guy; they called him Zeddie. Sometimes people didn’t know what to call him, so they’d just point at him and say, “You’re the dude! You’re the dude!”
This became his normal. But, of course, it was not normal. Not at all. Somewhere along the way, his cyberspace stardom had gotten confused with his normal, everyday life, rendering the two indistinguishable.
“It was just surreal,” Watkins says. “It’s still surreal.”
Slowly, though, it started to sink in. This whole thing was no longer about the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, the famous Internet persona. It was no longer about Zeddie Little, the real-life celebrity behind the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. It was about him – Zeddie Watkins Little V. This was his life now. He couldn’t escape it.
And so, when Watkins stepped off the L Train at the Lorimer stop on his way to work, he knew how to handle the kids who caught him there – reaching out toward him and squealing, asking for pictures.
“OK,” he agreed, even though it meant he’d be late to work.
“I made their day, apparently,” he recalls later. “All I was doing was walking to work, and I gave these kids a little thrill – something to tell their friends about. That’s pretty cool.”
ENTERED THE HUMAN RACE: WON
Watkins Little didn’t ask for this. He didn’t pose for the camera, didn’t tag himself in the photograph, didn’t publicize his identity. He certainly didn’t aspire to be famous. He had no say in the matter whatsoever. It was completely, incomprehensibly, beyond his control.
But this was his reality now – a backdrop to his every day – and what he did with it was completely up to him.
It had become about how he was representing himself and his life – not just about how his image was represented on the Internet or in the media. It was, therefore, time to take ownership of it, make it meaningful, make it count.
And so he did three things: He stopped leaving the house with bed-head (“There’s just so much scrutiny on my hair!”), he adjusted (though could never be accustomed) to strangers stopping him on the street – sometimes three people a day, other times more like seven or eight – and he accepted the opportunity to represent the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health in the 2012 ING New York City Marathon.
“I am so completely honored to be asked to join Team Ritter,” says Watkins, whom Amy Yasbeck, actress (The Mask, Pretty Woman, Wings, etc.) and widow to John Ritter, contacted directly a day or so before his appearance on Good Morning America.“I’ll be running to raise awareness of aortic health – it’s such a cool cause.”
As part of the marathon’s promotional campaign, Watkins brings a little taste of pop culture to the race. And it’s brought him a little taste of celebrity hobnobbing: He’s not only rubbed elbows with Amy Yasbeck, but he’s also joined up with Olympic marathoner Carey Nelson, world record–holder Patrick Makau, former New York Giants player Amani Toomer, Olympic distance runner Carrie Tollefson and tennis star James Blake at the ING New York City Marathon Opening Day in Columbus Circle, where they were filmed for a spot in an online broadcast feed for the New York Road Runners’ website.
“They’re trying to hype up the popularity of the marathon,” says Watkins, who has also partnered with ASICS’ Support Your Marathoner program, a technology platform that allows friends and family of marathoners to record motivational videos which are then delivered to the runners (who are wearing trigger chips) on giant screens along the course. “The New York City Marathon is a lot of people’s first, so they’re going to need all the support and motivation they can get. It’s kind of cool, too, that I’m joining it as my first marathon. That’s part of my selling point. It all fits together so nicely.”
Most important, it all fits together with who the real Watkins Little is. The one who’s been running since he was a little boy. The one who discovered a love for public relations campaigns while studying at the College. The one who hid from Inside Edition because he wants to be known for something more than just his face.
This is the guy who wants to be remembered as someone who had a good, positive impact on people. The guy who wants to make people’s lives better.
“It feels great to be able to use all of this as a platform for something positive,” says Watkins Little. “Any way I can promote healthy living and positivity is really humbling.”
To which his adoring fans in cyberspace respond with yet another meme: “Promotes heart health: Mine skips a beat.”