Of models and memes: Women are reclaiming their images via NFTs

Everyone from Emily Ratajkowski to Overly Attached Girlfriend is doing it.

Back in 2005, when Zoë Roth was four years old, a house in her Mebane, North Carolina, neighborhood was donated to firefighters, who set it aflame for training purposes.

It was a contained fire, so neighborhood families came out to watch the spectacle. Roth’s father took a picture of her, looking a bit sinister, in front of the burning house. It was a photo that would change her life.

A couple years later, her dad entered the image, titled Firestarter, into a photography contest through JPG magazine. When he won, his picture was posted online, after which people began sharing it as a meme. Now a senior in college, Roth has been known for most of her life as Disaster Girl.

Disaster GirlZoë Roth

It’s both a blessing and a curse to become an iconic meme. But for women whose faces go viral, the experience is even more fraught.

“People are always going to say something about how you look,” Roth says. “I did an interview with Buzzfeed [last year], and all the comments are like, ‘Damn, she needs to get her teeth fixed.’ Maybe it happens to guys, too, but I swear, every time I look at a TikTok of a girl, all the comments are about how she looks, things she’s wearing, stuff like that.”

But now a small group of women, including Roth, are shifting the gaze — at least somewhat — thanks to NFT technology. Over the past few months, Laina Morris, better known as Overly Attached Girlfriend, and Allison Harvard, a.k.a. creepychan, have sold NFTs of the memes that made them infamous, for substantial sums. And this Friday, May 14, the model/actress Emily Ratajkowski is auctioning off an NFT image of herself called Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution via the venerable auction house Christies.

Morris made the video that she's famous for in 2012, when Justin Bieber asked fans to write parodies of his song “Boyfriend” from the girlfriend’s perspective. She went viral for her in-character performance of her song about a controlling, obsessive girlfriend. (The clip has over 20 million views on YouTube to date.) The memes that resulted were inherently gendered, and she was sometimes the butt of the joke.

One of many Overly Attached Girlfriend memes

Morris leaned into it, making a career on YouTube. Last year, however, she quit the platform, referencing mental health issues she experienced in conjunction with her stardom. She reemerged in the spotlight in early April, when — with the assistance of Chris Torres, creator of Nyan Cat, and Kyle Craven, better known as Bad Luck Brian — she auctioned off an NFT of a still from her 2012 video via Foundation, a platform for NFT artists, for 200 ETH ($411,000 at the time of sale).

Roth, who knew Morris through the small community of people featured in classic memes, reached out after the Overly Attached Girlfriend NFT sale. “She told me about her experience [selling an NFT], and she feels the same way,” says Roth. “It’s kind of cool after you’re getting passed around the internet for your entire life that there’s some way you know that you still own this picture.”

In mid-April, Roth sold her image for 180 ETH (then $403,000) via Foundation. The buyer was 3F Music, the Dubai-based music studio that also purchased memes by Morris and Harvard. After she pays off her student loans, Roth plans to donate the rest of the money to charity.

“It really does feel like we’re reclaiming some sort of agency over our images,” Roth says.

Symbolic Precedent

If you think spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a meme like Disaster Girl or Overly Attached Girlfriend is wild, wait until you hear about contemporary conceptual art.

Since the 1980s, the American artist Richard Prince has been practicing “rephotography,” a form of appropriation art in which he photographs other artists’ photos. In the social media era, he’s pivoted to Instagram, screenshotting posts by others — often seminude women — and blowing the images up on six-by-four-foot canvases. The images include the comments he makes under the Instagram photos.

Prince is constantly embroiled in lawsuits, but if you’re rich and powerful enough in the art world, you can emerge from most any controversy unscathed. The only way to win is to beat him at his own game.

In 2014, Emily Ratajkowski visited the Gagosian Gallery, where Prince’s show New Portraits was on view. In the Madison Avenue gallery, a renowned artist she’d never met was selling a screenshot of a nude profile she posted on Instagram, for $90,000 and without her consent. Ratajkowski’s then-boyfriend insisted that it was an honor to be the subject of a Prince artwork, so they expressed interest in buying the piece together. However, a Gagosian employee purchased it before they could.

Emily Ratajkowski’s NFTChristie’s/Emily Ratajkowski

Prince’s studio had a different portrait of Ratajkowski available, so the couple paid $81,000 for that artwork, splitting the cost evenly between them. After she and her boyfriend broke up, she bargained with her ex to exchange two other artworks for the Prince, but later, she realized that she hadn’t retrieved the small, black-and-white “study” of the work that Prince’s studio gifted her.

Her ex-boyfriend asked for $10,000 in exchange for the artwork, so Ratajkowski approached Prince’s studio to settle the dispute. Instead, as Ratajkowski wrote in a devastating essay last year, “All these men, some of whom I knew intimately and others I’d never met, were debating who owned an image of me.”

This was far from the first time her agency as a woman and a model had been violated. In the same essay, Ratajkowski writes about a male photographer whom she alleges sexually assaulted her after a photoshoot. Years later, he sold the photos from that night as an $80 book called Emily Ratajkowski.

“I hope to symbolically set a precedent for women and ownership online.”

In the image Ratajkowski is selling through Christie’s, she stands in front of the Prince artwork she owns, striking a similar pose to the initial shot. “I hope to symbolically set a precedent for women and ownership online, one that allows for women to have ongoing authority over their image and to receive rightful compensation for its usage and distribution,” Ratajkowski wrote in a recent Twitter thread.

Ratajkowski’s sale flips Prince’s decades-old game on its head. As a medium, NFT art has only existed in the mainstream for a few months, and artists have only begun to explore the implications of a practice that emphasizes and depends upon ownership and authenticity.

“NFTs allow artists to stake claim on their images in an entirely new way,” says Lindsay Howard, head of community at Foundation and a digital art curator. She points to the Ethiopian art collective Yatreda, which recently minted a series of motion portraits that feature historical Ethiopian heroes and heroines.

“They are interested in the ownership of that story — of their history and culture — and preserving it for generations to come,” Howard says, “which is one of the most powerful ways to think about NFTs.”

A New Model

Allison Harvard brings together the worlds of supermodels, memes, and art. As a teenager, she would dress up in exaggerated gothic outfits and post the photos on Myspace. 4chan discovered Harvard, turning her into a meme called creepychan.

The memes circulated so widely that they reached Tyra Banks, who saw model potential in the photos. Harvard was invited to a closed casting call for cycle 12 of America’s Next Top Model. She ended up placing second in the reality competition, then returned for the All Stars cycle in 2011, when she was once again the runner-up.

The self-described “former unwitting queen of 4chan,” Harvard posted two creepychan images on Foundation, which sold in early April for a combined 75 ETH (then $156,000).

One of two creepychan images Allison Harvard sold as an NFTAllison Harvard

“When you’re a model, you sign all these model releases, and you do things in good faith for people because you respect their work and you’re excited to work with them,” Harvard explains. “As a model and as an artist, there’s something really cool about being able to reclaim your images and stake your claim on what you’ve been doing your whole life. That’s a really, really powerful thing, and it’s really liberating.”

Still, there’s a paradoxical nature to the idea that selling an image as an NFT is an act of reclamation. Like a traditional art sale, the artist retains copyright, but a buyer is still purchasing the artwork to own it. While the NFT market does benefit artists — they get a cut every time a buyer resells their work — the artwork is still a product.

“Creepychan finally got the ending she deserves.”

Katherine Frazer, an NFT artist who recently began selling webcam videos of herself eating fruit, embraces the complexities inherent in minting oneself on the blockchain. “Part of why I’m interested in exploring this space is that there’s so many questions in my mind,” Frazer says. “It’s a thing where the norms haven’t really been established, or ones that are so nascent that they can be changed at any time.”

When we talk about reclamation, the NFT functions most meaningfully as a metaphor. The artists’ ownership over their bodies — in this one precise moment, recorded forever on the blockchain — is immutable. Though this may not change the past abuse an artist has endured, the symbolism itself is empowering.

“She finally got the ending she deserves,” Harvard says of creepychan. “She’s been online forever, and now she gets to go to the big blockchain in the sky.”