That Time Nicolas Cage Ruined My Life
And what happens when the internet, nor Anderson Cooper, will never let you live it down
Do you, like our author, "ironically love Nic Cage?" TIFF Bell Lightbox screens Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes, Friday, June 19 at 9 pm.
When I was 22, I wasn’t taking life seriously. I was a second-year psychology student at York University and my biggest aspiration at the time was to grow my blog to a point that I could make money from it. I was running a fandom Tumblr (my username was buenastardis, may it rest in digital peace). It had over 5,000 followers. And I was also making the mistake of deriving my worth as a person based on my social media stats. Thanks to Nicholas Cage, it would take years to fully heal from that mindset.
Like I hinted at earlier, I wasn’t totally in control of my mental health. I wasn’t doing a great job in university and my grades were at their lowest. I was disappointed with the post-secondary education structure and crushed by the debt I was raking in as I endured a program that I was starting to hate. Okay, I was a ball of anxiety 24/7. I assumed it was normal to be afraid of everything and everyone all the time because so many of my classmates were going through similar mental health struggles. (The irony here is that we were all psychology majors!) I was social, but I always looked forward to being alone.
At home, my blog was my escape. I was involved with a lot of overly active online communities and fandoms. Everyone was always online! There was always some new content to scroll through! No one ever slept! I made dozens of friends that I still talk to today. Most of the things I blogged about was fandom-related (Doctor Who, Supernatural). Occasionally, I’d vent about something personal. I was definitely an over-sharer, and I loved joking at my own expense.
One day, after a long week of freaking out about not having a summer job, I stumbled across a job board posted through my university's career centre. There was an ad for a front desk help position that I qualified for, so I wrote them a quick email. In retrospective, the actual copy could have been a lot better. The problem was that I had already written 30 similar job application emails, and by the end of the day I was tired, groggy and super frustrated with the whole process. I was blogging as I was sending out job application emails (I know, I know) and by that hour, my attention had completely flocked to the GIF sets of the latest Doctor Who episode.
After I was done sending emails for the day, I went to the “sent emails folder” to review my day’s work and saw the thing that would change my summer (and the Google results for my name forever). I hadn’t sent my resume to the job bank person. I had sent a picture that was saved in the same folder. And it wasn’t just any picture. It was the worst picture of Nic Cage ever taken. He’s wild-eyed, his hair is in shambles and his smile is like something out of The Shining. Like the hardcore blogger that I was, I immediately screencapped the email and posted it online.
On Tumblr, the response was instant. Hundreds of reblogs and likes poured in after a few minutes. I immediately started getting messages from strangers. They just wanted answers: can a human being really be this terrible at keeping their folders organized? People thought it was bizarre and hilarious, like a skit out of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. My friends’ reaction was quieter, of course this would happen to me. It was very on-brand with the rest of my life.
This didn’t feel like anything but an isolated moment: I had seen a lot of my content reach five, six, and even 10 thousand likes and reblogs in under an hour. The thing with viral Tumblr content is that it rarely leaves the site. It’s an isolated platform, and the millions of users that are members of the community stay there for the most part.
I went to bed, thinking of the incident as just another Tumblr success. I had a whole week of studying to do. It’s a good thing I went to sleep when I did. Those wee hours of the night were exactly when things started picking up social steam. It was massive. I could have never intended for something this stupid to get this big.
The next morning, I was doing exactly what every other student on campus does to survive the hot summer days of exam season: sitting inside a violently air-conditioned Second Cup, attempting to drown myself in espresso over ice. Then I got a weird email, which opened the viral floodgates to another dimension. It read:
I’m writing to let you know that various media outlets are trying to get a hold of you through our office regarding the viral Nicolas Cage e-mail blunder. They would like to get your phone number and email in order to interview you. Is it okay if I pass that information along?
We’re hoping you can plug York University during your interviews. Can you mention your program and how much you love it here? Let us know if you need a written paragraph on what to say and how to say it. Take care.
Jane Smith (name has been changed )
PR and Media Relations Coordinator
A lot of things went through my head at once in that moment. First of all, shame. How could I have been so lax about privacy? I mentioned my school and didn’t blur out my email or my name in the screencap. Then, skepticism because there’s no way that’s a real email from the actual public relations coordinator from York University. And finally: wow, this school must be really desperate for good publicity if they’re asking me to rep York University to media outlets for accidentally sending out a picture of Nicolas Cage in a job application. (A bit of background: at the time, the school was dealing with a string of rapes, the relentless racial profiling of its black students and the ongoing outcry against the closure of the Pro-Palestine club on campus. Go Lions!)
One phone call and two hours later and I was posing for a Toronto Star photographer in the York cafeteria, screaming internally and wondering if the whole thing was a joke. I was convinced that the Toronto Star wouldn’t run my story, that it would slip through the editorial cracks because there has to be something more important happening in the world right now than a girl accidentally emailing a picture of Nicolas Cage to a prospective job application.
I was wrong again. After the photographer left with a mumbled, “...this should be in tomorrow’s paper,” I got another phone call. This time it was an American number. On the other end, Jen Chaney introduced herself as the reporter who broke my story at the Washington Post. I was still not taking this seriously. It’s actually pretty obvious from the interview that I still thought I could turn the whole thing into some kind of bizarre performance art piece. At some point, I told the reporter: “My favorite movie is City of Angels. People think I’m kidding when I say that, but I’m not.” For the record, I was kidding. I was also patting myself in the back for somehow transcending irony.
In fact, my whole schtick back then was to never take anything seriously. Taking things seriously was the catalyst to all those middle-of-the-day panic attacks. During the interviews, I would always go with the journalist’s flow and be polite, but had a punchline planned at the end. It’s only been a couple of years since the Nic Cage incident, but I still facepalm at how much I was overdoing it.
That evening, I checked my Tumblr and saw that I had gained over 500 new followers overnight. I also had around 50 unread messages in my inbox. Before I knew it, my name was all over the internet. The story was running on the websites of TIME Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Gawker, Gizmodo, CBC, Uproxx and others that I can’t even remember. (I think at some point, I did an interview with a Brazilian newspaper via Gchat.) Jimmy Fallon mentioned the incident in one of his opening skits. Anderson Cooper did a whole segment on it for "the RidicuList." That was definitely the highlight: there’s a video of the Silver Fox using my name to tell me not to despair about job hunting. It’s one of my greatest treasures and no one can ever take it away from me.
“Maybe you’ll get to meet Nic Cage,” my friend Emilie said, one of the many friendships I made through online fandom. (We met after I went to a Misha Collins cruise in Toronto - it’s better if you don’t ask me what that was about.) “Maybe you’ll get invited to the Ellen Show. What if you and Nic Cage do a video skit where he’s like, looking for a new assistant? Then, you walk into the interview room not knowing that it’s him, and you’re like, trying to keep your cool and then you hand him your resume and BOOM, it’s THE PICTURE. You gone and did it again, chicken wing. Except this time you PRINTED IT by mistake.”
The next level of media coverage was TV and radio. I conducted a Skype interview with CNN’s HLN channel that only lasted five minutes. The closest I came to seeing it was when my parents played it at full-blast in the living room. The reporter asked me about the night of the incident: what were people’s reactions? How did I realize I had made the mistake? Did I get the job? Did I get any sort of job? These were the same questions my friends and family had asked. By that point, I had a list of answers ready. Knowing what to expect made it easier, and it eased my anxiety somewhat. I saw my follower count increase by the hundreds every day.
Then came the Kiss FM Devo and Maurie Show. They asked me to go live at six in the morning. My dad called me the night before to tell me he would listen to the radio at work that morning. I went with a friend and my boyfriend at the time. We were greeted by an intern at the main entrance who said, “Sorry we have to rush you in like this! Katy Perry is coming at nine and we’re behind on our prep.”
The day that the Toronto Star came out with my picture on the cover, I walked into a diner that I used to waitress at. Everyone behind the counter had a copy of the paper in hand and the hooting and cheering was so loud and overwhelming that I never went back. This whole thing was happening during finals so I had to deal with my 15 minutes of fame while I was living on three hours of sleep. During the last day of my exams, I was sitting in an auditorium packed with something like 500 students for my “Research Methods” final. My professor, wearing a microphone and holding a stack of Scantron sheets, called my name and mused on how funny it was that this had happened to me. Attention on the internet is mediated by a screen, but this was happening IRL. I was so taken back by the shout out that I almost had a panic attack. Then I had to write my exam.
Going viral is great when you’re a company that wants the traction. But when you’re an anxious 22 year old undergrad whose biggest achievement to date was having a popular Doctor Who blog, it’s a little different. My friends and family were unironically proud of me, and they told everyone they knew about what happened. (My parents even called their relatives in Poland. First, I had to explain to my mom what Tumblr was and how the internet works.) I never thought that the Nic Cage incident would be attached to my name forever. Sure, it’s not as tragic and damaging as some other internet controversies, but I wish I had known about the permanence that would come with it, and the fact that I would have to recount the tale for the rest of my life.
There was also a darker side: the surprising amount of hate I received. The Reddit thread was one of the worst things I’ve ever read. Redditors were quick to call my mistake a plea for attention. They picked apart my email, saying that I was so bad at applying for a job that I would probably always be unemployed. I remember one commenter summed up the incident with: “unfunny Tumblr woman fabricates an email mix up for fame.” There are some comments that still frustrate me. How was I supposed to know this would go so viral? This was completely beyond my power, like anything on the internet.
I also got a cryptic email from someone who claimed to be Nic Cage’s son. In it, he lectured me about how I should think about people’s feelings before calling their face “weird” and “hilarious.” I don’t know, dude, but if Nic Cage were my dad I’d never give him a break over his embarrassing pictures and movies. Going to the park and there’s bees everywhere? There’s a Cage moment for that. Halloween? There’s a Cage moment for that. I’d be on the clock with the teasing, the way I am with my own dad.
Here’s what you don’t get to hear about: in spite of how stressful it can get, it’s not all terrible. Now I have a great answer to the icebreaker question, “Tell us something interesting about yourself.” I still find comfort in looking at life through a lens of parody, jokes and memes (which is great when you’re a pathologically anxious mess like me).
Going viral also taught me a lot of important lessons. I’m more careful with the kind of personal information I share online. (I mean, I still play Pokémon Go.) I know how important it is to have a crisis management plan (personally and professionally). As a writer and a woman on the internet, it taught me that people respond differently to my so-called mistakes and blunders. I have a thicker skin for criticism and mockery. I’ll also never be able to look at Nic Cage without feeling one million emotions all at once.
Today, I still feel the ripples caused by the incident. I got an email from MTV’s Greatest Party Stories Ever Told last December asking if they could use my story. In the email, they asked me to tell them what happened in a video and send them a link to it. There was no mention of compensation, and no follow-up. (The episode never ran, and maybe that was for the best). My old Tumblr friends will occasionally find mentions of the story and link me to them, which leads us to reminisce about those wild blogging times with endless scrolling and no bedtimes.
I still have a lot of questions. Was there a way I could have made money from the incident? Was I supposed to ask the media outlets for monetary compensation? Could I have leveraged the attention into an actual job opportunity? And most importantly, what did Nicholas Cage think? I can’t help but wonder if his name trending that week, if he clicked on the link, if he saw me. But maybe, like all things on the internet, some things are better left unanswered.