High Stocks: Caleb Heidel ’15 on his overnight Internet fame

The photo in question, shot by Blair Connolly.

From superheroes to Hannah Montana, the “double life” story has been a touchstone in American popular culture, and Caleb Heidel ’15, graphic design, is one more addition to that pantheon. In real life, the recent UMBC graduate is a designer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, working on business communications and, as he puts it, “making the science look sexy.”

But on the internet, thanks to one fateful shoot in Old Ellicott City, Heidel is the subject of a stock photo that’s appeared alongside a diverse array of online content. According to a recent Retriever Weekly profile of Heidel, a reverse Google image search turns up countless uses of his plaid-shirted likeness, everywhere from stock photo sites to Christian dating blogs.

“I had no intentions of this happening,” Heidel says, but when a friend from UMBC’s Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) needed models for her grad school portfolio, he agreed to help.

“One of the photos she snapped while I wasn’t looking, she posted to Flickr, for free, full resolution,” says Heidel. A few months later, the storm began.

He can remember the exact moment he learned of his internet fame: he was studying when one of his friends posted a link to a blog post bearing the image on his Facebook wall, asking if it was Heidel. Later that night, a different friend asked the same question…about a completely different post that used the photo.

“It was ridiculous. [I didn’t sleep much] that night because it was just so hilarious,” he says. “I kept Googling myself [and] seeing all these hits of my photo.

“It’s just like this thing that was growing that I had no idea was there until months later, until suddenly it just exploded.”

He’s found some of the associations made to his face flattering, like this one ranking the top 11 countries with the hottest guys. That article casts Heidel as Mr. Canada, much to his amusement: “I beat out Justin Bieber, because they clearly could have put him on there, but they put me instead. So that’s a win.”

Others, he says, are just plain “strange.” He’s less than thrilled, for instance, about having his face attached to an article on meth addiction, something he says doesn’t represent him at all.

Responses from Heidel’s friends and family are split, generationally speaking. His younger friends, the ones who grew up on the internet and know meme culture inside and out, have provided whole folders’ worth of Photoshopped images of his face, which graces, among others, a be-sweatered Drake in the “Hotline Bling” video, a shark’s mouth, and a very sad-looking banana. (Heidel himself has even joined in on the tomfoolery.)

Older people in his life have a more dour outlook on the situation, expressing concern for his safety and future career prospects, or annoyance over the free use of his likeness. The photo was posted under a Creative Commons license, so Heidel “[hasn’t] seen a single penny” from its use.

Worries aside, Heidel says he’s more amused than aggrieved by it all. “It fulfills this secret desire in me to be famous and be in the spotlight,” he says, “so it’s been fun for that reason.”

Julia Celtnieks ’13

Ever had a brush with fame? Tell us about it on our new Retriever Stories site!


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