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'Disaster Girl’ sells meme for nearly $500,000 to pay off student loans and donate to charity

Zoë Roth smiling as a building burned behind her is one of the more popular memes on the internet and was clicked by her father in 2005.

'Disaster Girl’ sells meme for nearly $500,000 to pay off student loans and donate to charity
Photo: Dave Roth

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 30, 2021. It has since been updated.

Zoë Roth was only four when her father, then an amateur photographer, asked her to turn and smile at the camera. Roth gave the most devilish smirk, as a house behind her was engulfed in flames, and thus "disaster girl" was born. The image would go on to become one of the most popular memes on the internet. It's only on rare days that the meme doesn't cross your timeline. Roth, who's now 22, has sold the original copy of her meme as NFT (nonfungible token) for nearly half a million dollars. Roth wants to take control of her own life and help others with the money. She also plans to use the money to pay off her student loans. The meme was sold for 180 Ether, a form of cryptocurrency, at an auction on April 17, 2021. While the value of Ether varies on a daily basis, on Thursday 180 Ether was valued at more than $495,000, reported The New York Times. The meme was purchased by a user identified as @3FMusic. The Roths retained the copyright and will receive 10% of future sales.


The photo of Zoë was taken in 2005. The firefighters had intentionally set a building on fire in Mebane, North Carolina. People in the neighborhood had gathered around to witness the event. There was no actual danger as it was controlled fire. Roth was 4 years old at the time and was present at the location along with her dad. As the house was up in flames, Zoë's father wanted to make a memory of it. He asked Zoë to smile. Her hair was flying and she smiled her impish, devious smile. “In 2005, my dad took a picture of me standing in front of a house fire. I was standing there looking evil as if I started the fire — but oh my gosh, no, I didn’t,” said Roth reported Herald Sun. Little did they know it would walk into the meme hall of fame and eventually earn them half a million dollars. The image found its way into the internet after Dave Roth submitted the image for a photo contest in 2007 and won. Since then the image has been edited against various disasters including the sinking of the Titanic.



Roth is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying peace, war, and defense. While she isn't commonly recognized as the "Disaster girl," her friends and loved ones are aware. She was surprised how it continues to surface every now and then. “People who are in memes and go viral is one thing, but just the way the internet has held on to my picture and kept it viral, kept it relevant, is so crazy to me,” said Roth. “I’m super grateful for the entire experience.” Roth felt it was also a way to take control of her situation. Roth also consulted with people who are the face of other popular memes such as Bad Luck Brian, whose real name is Kyle Craven, and Laney Griner, the mother of Success Kid. “People who are in memes didn’t really have a choice in it,” she said. “The internet is big. Whether you’re having a good experience or a bad experience, you kind of just have to make the most of it.”



People have approached Roth's family to use her image. A group from Poland had sought permission to use the meme for educational material about a dying Indigenous language. A mural with the meme sprung up in Portugal. “You just make it fit however you want to fit it,” said Roth. “I love seeing them because I’d never make any of them myself, but I love seeing how creative people are.” Roth has seen hundreds of versions of the original image but her personal favorite is one shared during racial justice protests last year. “It always finds a way to stay relevant with whatever new kind of awful, terrible bad thing is," added Roth. NFTs are a means of owning digital art, ephemera, and other media. Each NFT is stamped with a unique bit of digital code that marks its authenticity and is stored on the blockchain, a distributed ledger system that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.


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