Face of ‘Bad Luck Brian’ owes online fame to good fortune

“Bad Luck Brian” or Kyle

Mark Oprea

A Google search for the phrase “Bad Luck Brian” brings up pages of photos of a red-haired 15-year-old boy with straight cut bangs, sporting a red-and-blue striped sweater vest. His pink face is pockmarked with pimples. Grinning awkwardly, “Brian” shows green braces that line the top row of his teeth.

“Bad Luck Brian” is an Internet meme popular for its representation of the gawky, geeky teenager, often used on social media postings and image-sharing boards to detail serious, and many times unthinkable, events. In a little more than two years since its appearance on the Internet, “Brian” has exploded throughout online culture, making it one of the most iconic portraits in the history of memes. In 2012, Buzzfeed named the image second on its “Best New Memes of the Year” list.

Yet there’s a lot more to the man behind the braces.

“Brian,” whose real name is Kyle — he actively hides his name for privacy — is actually a Cuyahoga Falls native and a Kent State alumnus. He owns a construction company alongside his father, and has known his wife Nicol, a nurse, since the start of his studies in construction management. He’s got a biting sense of humor and a predilection for hard work. Aside from Kyle’s professional life, he’s more well-known from his Internet moniker, a type of character role he finds amusing. He calls it his “hobby.”

It all started in 2006. Kyle was standing in line for his sophomore yearbook photo at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. Being the well-known class clown, Kyle staged an absurd-looking photo: he held his breath to redden his face, worked up a laughing grin under the influence of his friends. Soon after the picture was printed, Kyle heard from the principal, who barged into his classroom. She wasn’t pleased.

“She said, ‘Kyle, we can’t use that picture in the yearbook,’ and I asked, ‘Why not?’” Kyle said in an interview at Starbucks. “Everyone thought it was just hilarious, but they made me retake it.”

Kyle held onto the first take, posting it on Facebook after he received it. He spent the rest of his high school years on the hockey team, getting a class superlative for his oddball humor, thinking nothing of the photo. However, 6 years later, an Internet celebrity was born.

In January of 2012, a Californian friend of Kyle’s got ahold of the photo. Nearing the end of his college career, Kyle was focused on joining up with his father and settling down with his soon-to-be wife. The morning of Jan. 23, Kyle received a call from his friend, stating that he posted the photo to Reddit and made him “Internet famous.” Kyle didn’t initially see the point.

“It kind of pissed me off at first,” he said. “But then it just kept on getting popular and popular.”

In the spring of that year, Kyle’s yearbook photo shot up to 48,000 “likes” on humor website 9gag, soon spreading to websites like Pinterest, Tumblr and BuzzFeed. By the summer, more than 104,000 people had downloaded the photo and made their own versions of the joke, some much cruder than others, but all making Kyle out to be a teenage klutz. The first post had the lines, “Takes driving test / Gets DUI” overlaying it — something which Kyle said was initially influenced from a real story. 

The image of “bad luck,” he said, is not.

“It’s not at all true,” he said. “If you ask any of my friends, ‘Who is the luckiest kid you know?’, they would say me. No joke.”

In actuality, Kyle said, Lady Luck is often on his side. He said that he constantly is winning giveaways and prizes, $1,000 payouts at casinos and resorts. Luck, he said, is exactly what catapulted him into the realm of Internet fame in the first place. People come up to Kyle in bars asking him to snap a photo with “Bad Luck Brian.” Others buy him drinks. A podcast crew out of California even offered $5,000 for the now-famous sweater vest that Kyle wore for his yearbook photo. Unfortunately, his wife got rid of it.

“Trust me, I’m still talking to her about that,” he said.

But Kyle doesn’t deny the sheer fun of being “a notch below C-list,” a celebrity, popular mostly to surfers of the social media site Reddit and visitors to meme encyclopedia Quickmeme. In fact, soon after “Bad Luck Brian” blew up the Internet, Kyle was approached by “meme management” for T-shirt deals, video series ideas — spearheaded by “top meme manager” Ben Lashes. Fellow Internet star “Overly Obsessed Girlfriend” — real name Laina — called him up that summer, asking him to fly out to her place in California to guest star on her Youtube channel. Intrigued, Kyle accepted.

After filming a Youtube comedy sketch with Laina, she introduced Kyle to the full stock of Internet stars. He’s met — and still is good friends with — the people behind the memes of Chocolate Rain, Grumpy Cat and the “Success Kid,” all of whom reside under the management of Lashes. The idea of “making millions off a cat video” pushed Kyle further into the meme scene. He soon started attending conventions, speaking on panels like those found at Indy PopCon or VidCon. He’s been to Google exec parties in Hollywood Hills, met comedians like Seth Rogen, partied with the guy behind the “Keyboard Cat.” Laina even influenced him to start his own Youtube channel — with his first video garnering more than 200,000 hits.

Still, Kyle denies most of his fame, putting it off as something purely incidental.

“People come up to me and they go, ‘Oh my god, you’re famous,” Kyle said. “And I say there’s a difference. Internet famous is way different than being actually famous.”

This doesn’t keep “Bad Luck Brian” from being an Internet cultural staple. It has its own Facebook page with 772,000 likes, along with its own subreddit on its website of origin. Today, entrepreneurs and producers approach him with video series in mind, others with “Bad Luck Brian” app ideas on the ready. Last year he did a car commercial with Volkswagen while “Brian” T-shirts fled the shelves at Hot Topic. Marketing researchers even approach Kyle to ask him the secret behind his meme’s success, hoping to profit off the cyber-humor train they believe he intentionally created.

But it doesn’t work like that,” Kyle said. “No one just goes, ‘Oh, I’m going to be Internet famous today.”

Although Kyle said he loves the excitement of the conventions, the trips out to Hollywood, the free drinks at the bars, he is constantly on his guard to keep his meme-life fully separate from his personal and professional life. 

The reason is simple: Internet stardom does not pay the bills; Kyle’s construction business does. He said he sometimes has nightmares that potential clients will run a quick Google search for “Bad Luck Brian,” and come upon one of the plentiful crude jokes splashed above and below Kyle’s high school face. Customers and partners might mistake Kyle as the creator of the many crass and sometimes humorless one-liners pasted on his image, ruining contract deals, tarnishing the family’s business reputation. It’s the biggest danger of the Internet meme, Kyle said: misrepresentation.

Along with Kyle’s penchant for good luck, he said that many of his “meme friends” are the opposite of what the Internet makes them out to be. Laina, the extremely wide-eyed over-obsessor, he said, is “nothing like her meme” and an “incredibly nice” person. The same goes for Youtube comedian Jenna Marbles, another associate in his circle. Misguidedness, he said, isn’t exactly true for all — especially for the shifty Boston native Scumbag Steve.

“He truly is a scumbag. He is the meme,” Kyle said, laughing. “You look at him and you say, ‘Yeah, that totally makes sense.”

What about Chocolate Rain?

“He’s a little…different,” Kyle said.

After two years since his meme-ification, Kyle’s mother and father have come to accept that “Bad Luck Brian” isn’t as trivial as it initially seemed. His mother, a teacher, even finds it “kind of cool,” thanks to her pressing students. 

As far as his wife’s thoughts go, Nicol finds the humor wrought by the meme to be dried up and wonders why its popularity continues to increase on social media. Like many inquisitors of the phenomenon, she and others wonder why “Bad Luck Brian” became such a thing in the first place.

“I just say it was like shooting fish in a barrel,” Kyle said. “It all was because of luck.”

Contact Mark Oprea at [email protected].