Confetti falls from the ceiling as smoke envelops the dance floor. From behind his DJ booth, Moby waves his arms in the air as if he’s conducting an orchestra. The crowd sways to his pulsing disco beats and deep bass lines. “Keep it moving ’cause you gotta be strong,” the song goes. “It won’t be long ’cause life goes on.” Cocktail servers carry glow-in-the-dark bottles of Grey Goose, scantily clad dancers parade around on stilts, and hordes of paparazzi are snapping photos.
Yet this isn’t your typical nightclub scene. The dance floor is packed with people who, on any other Saturday night at Hollywood’s Avalon, might be denied admission by a bouncer who determines they’re not hot or famous enough. But these are celebrities of a new breed, their names on the invite-only guest list: There’s Jennifer Adams, the paraplegic who was crowned Miss Wheelchair America 2014; Whitney Way Thore, the plus-size star of the TLC reality show My Big Fat Fabulous Life; Damienne Merlina, the one-armed comedian whose videotaped response to a fat-shaming bully recently went viral; Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who turned her humiliation into a moving TED Talk about cyberbullying; and Matt Diaz, the 22-year-old New Yorker who became Internet famous last month when he posted a video displaying the stretched-out skin that resulted from shedding 270 pounds from his average-size frame.
Formerly cast as outsiders and pariahs, all of them have one thing in common: They’ve transformed their insecurities into empowerment, reinventing themselves as role models for a growing movement that trumpets positivity and acceptance in the face of shaming and embarrassment.
But even the biggest names are upstaged tonight at the Avalon by a man who was completely unknown 11 weeks ago, without so much as a Facebook profile or a Twitter account. Today, he boasts more than 84,000 Twitter followers—just short of Lewinsky’s roughly 93,000. Like many viral phenomena, Sean O’Brien is better known by a catchphrase: Dancing Man.
The name flashes on floor-to-ceiling LED screens. It’s plastered on T-shirts and printed across the back of O’Brien’s white baseball jersey, a gift from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have invited him to throw the first pitch at their game tomorrow. Wearing a glow stick atop his bald head like a neon halo, Dancing Man swigs a can of beer while a harem of young, beautiful women shower him with hugs, kisses, and selfies.
Shaking his hips and flashing a toothy, giddy grin, he looks as if he’s still not sure whether he dreamed it all up: the corporate sponsorships, the celebrity supporters, the phalanx of international TV reporters who won’t stop shining lights in his face. Dancing Man is living the new American dream—becoming famous for doing nothing—except he’s from London, and though technically this is someone else’s dream, he seems elated to have been cast as the lead.
Sean O’Brien always knew he’d be famous—he just didn’t know what for. The 47-year-old bachelor was born in Liverpool and lives in London, where he works in finance for a hotel company. “It’s the best job in the world,” he says. “I call that living the dream, because it’s just the ideal job.”
On the weekends, he enjoys drinking at pubs and occasionally hitting the dance floor. “It’s just a normal mundane life,” he says. That is, it was until a photo of him dancing landed on the anonymous message board 4Chan, which is known for extreme cases of bullying and harassment that have led to suicide. Last summer, a post originating on the site leaked a trove of stolen celebrity nudes.
The caption on the photo was intended to humiliate O’Brien for his weight: “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”
That didn’t sit right with Cassandra Fairbanks, a journalist who has built a massive social media following based on her reporting on protests against police brutality for alternative news websites Sputnik News and Photography Is Not a Crime. Her popular Twitter feed is inundated with hashtags like #FreddieGray, #TamirRice, and #BlackLivesMatter.
On March 5, she tweeted a screen grab of the 4Chan post to her 63,000-plus followers: “Anyone know this man or who posted this? There’s a group of ladies in LA who would like to do something special.”
Like Fairbanks, Hope Leigh first saw the photo posted in a Facebook women’s networking group. An L.A.-based singer-songwriter who supports herself working as a nanny, Leigh took Fairbanks’ move a step further, designing an invitation and posting it to Twitter. “We want to see you dance freely and if you would have us, we would love to dance with you,” she wrote to the anonymous stranger dubbed Dancing Man. “We are prepared to throw quite the dance party just for you.”
At around 2 a.m., less than 24 hours later, the Internet hunt driven by the hashtag #finddancingman yielded results. A Twitter user sent a photo of a man at an airport; it looked like it could be the same person as in the 4Chan post.
“It looked like him, and he was wearing the same bracelet,” Leigh remembers. She and Fairbanks, working in cahoots now, told the person who had taken the photo to help O’Brien set up a Twitter page and contact them.
“I got a phone call from a friend on a Friday morning, and he just said, ‘Your face is all over the Internet,’ ” O’Brien says. “He sent me the link to Cassandra’s tweet, and I couldn’t believe what was happening or where it came from. I went into work and had a laugh with me boss, to tell him I was famous like I always said I would be.”
Social media has been leveraged to reunite identical twins separated at birth and to find a BuzzFeed reporter’s stolen iPhone in China, but this seemed too much, too soon, to be believed.
It was 5 a.m. in L.A. when O’Brien tweeted a photo of himself in his office, holding a sign that read, “Hi Cass + Twitter (as requested)!” Others had claimed to be Dancing Man, only to be revealed as imposters, but this was clearly the guy. #finddancingman descended, #dancingmanfound trended, and the Internet rejoiced.
The story has since been rehashed on major media outlets and cited as Exhibit A of the Internet’s ability to do good rather than inflict harm. It’s the kind of organic, viral phenomenon a brand manager would kill for, and like any successful media campaign, this one was backed by celebrities. Pop stars Pharrell Williams and Ellie Goulding, rocker Andrew W.K., and the L.A. sister band Haim tweeted their support for Fairbanks’s and Leigh’s plan to throw Dancing Man a party. Moby, a friend of Leigh’s, volunteered his DJ services, tweeting that “no one should ever be ashamed about dancing.”
The Internet privacy and security lawyer Parry Aftab, a consultant in the field of cyberbullying, says the advocacy from people like Williams, Goulding, and Moby—“the cool kids,” as she calls them—elevates O’Brien’s story above other instances of supportive backlash against shaming.
“This is the first time I’ve seen somebody as cool as Pharrell turning around and saying ‘Uh-uh’ [to bullying],” she says. “That’s a shift. It’s the first time the cool kids turned around and said, ‘Come sit at my table.’ ”
This is the first time I’ve seen the cool kids turn around and say, ‘Come sit at my table.’ That’s a shift.
Parry Aftab, cyberbullying consultant
There has always been bullying, and damage from it. But the Internet aggregates, magnifies, and multiplies it, all of which makes it easier for anonymous perpetrators and more painful for their targets. Much online bullying starts as some form of shaming—publicly ridiculing someone for some perceived imperfection, often related to their physique—with others piling on. Fat shaming, in particular, has been shown to contribute to poor self-image in women and girls, which can lead to reduced self-esteem, body dysmorphism, anxiety, and eating disorders.
Most Internet users have witnessed someone being bullied online, with more than half having seen efforts to embarrass someone, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. The practice has been taken to deadly extremes on sites like 4Chan, where 23-year-old transgender video-game developer Rachel Bryk was repeatedly and abusively harassed until she jumped off a bridge in April.
“For decades there have been various people who take the anonymity of Internet-based communication and use it to be a jerk to other people,” says Sameer Hinduja, a professor at Florida Atlantic University and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
As a few ghastly incidents resulting from teens harassing their peers online made the news, anti-bullying and bullying-prevention programs and educational tools have exploded. They’re also extremely profitable, often regardless of their success rate. In 2012, the number of English-language books tagged with the key word “bullying” was 1,891, an increase of 500 in a decade, according to a New York Times analysis of library collections worldwide. “There’s a lot of snake oil being peddled. People are [making a] killing on this,” says bullying expert Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.
Beginning with Georgia in 1999, every U.S. state except Montana has passed anti-bullying laws focused on schools. Some of these have been more robust than others. In New Jersey, for example, school districts in 2012 sought to implement anti-bullying policies by spending more than $2 million—twice what had been budgeted—by simply hiring additional staff or increasing compensation to existing staff.
There’s no evidence that such programs reduce bullying. A state audit in California found that most schools don’t monitor whether their services have made campuses any safer. Students who attended schools with programs like New Jersey’s were more likely to have reported experiencing victimization themselves, according to a 2013 study conducted at the University of Texas and Michigan State University, though that could be good news, meaning the programs destigmatized victimization.
As bullying has—stop the presses—continued and possibly even expanded despite government intervention, an organic shift has developed, fortifying victims of bullying, cheering on those who fight back, and celebrating people like Merlina, the comedian who shut down her shamer, a fellow comedian who said during a comedy special that Merlina “had that fat smell.” Today, few remember his name, but thanks to a YouTube video that was picked up by traditional media and viewed more than 200,000 times, Merlina has been hailed as a hero.
The Dancing Man phenomenon is no doubt the apotheosis of this trend; Hinduja sees it, like online bullying, as a function of increased attention on social and other electronic media. “You see it featured at the end of the nightly news shows, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Today Show—all of that continues to positively reinforce this trend. Honestly, we are sort of conditioned to continue to do the good things only when it’s reinforced,” he says. “Typically, that’s how human nature works: We want to be validated for doing the right thing. Otherwise it’s like, ‘I don’t want to go and do the extra effort because nobody will care.’ ”
But others worry about how shaming backlash and anti-bullying viral movements like Dancing Man affect the people leading them—especially those, such as O’Brien, whom the masses anoint and who are not themselves the agents of their celebrity.
“I would be cautious about drawing more attention to people who have already been singled out,” warns Faris. “Even though [O’Brien] has clearly embraced it, I think it’s probably a tough thing to be a poster child for some kind of movement—especially if it was thrust upon you in a really unpleasant way.”
“[O’Brien] was just a fat guy at a club, and now he’s got celebrities that want to hang out with him, and he’s part of this movement. When the movement gets boring and people lose interest, where is he going to be in a year?” adds Faris, who consulted on the new documentary about Lizzie Velasquez, a 26-year-old woman who was called “the world’s ugliest woman” on YouTube and has since reinvented herself as an anti-bullying activist. “I sometimes find myself wondering who this movement is for. Is it for the people [such as O’Brien]? Maybe the do-gooders’ motives are not as totally altruistic as they’d like to think.” Or would like us to.
O’Brien thought the Twitter search would be the end of it. Dancing Man is found, Dancing Man has a laugh, Dancing Man continues his perfectly ordinary life as “a normal average Joe,” as he describes himself. Maybe, he imagined, someday he would go to L.A. to meet the women who had so passionately launched the online campaign to track him down. “I’d fly over one weekend, we’d meet with five or 10 of the girls, and we’d go to a bar and have a little drink, and I really thought that would be it,” he said.
Even when he realized the party was taking shape, it still seemed like a long shot. But 10 weeks later, there he was, on a transatlantic flight to go to a party with Monica Lewinsky. The L.A. Tourism & Convention Board picked up the tab for O’Brien, his brother, and a friend, who came along for the wild ride. They made a pit stop in New York, where O’Brien was interviewed on The Today Show on Friday morning.
Following the interview, O’Brien found himself dancing beside 21-year-old pop star Meghan Trainor as she performed her big-booty anthem “All About That Bass,” a song that has been embraced for its message of body positivity (“Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top”). Its video features a dancing man of its own: the 420-pound Polynesian social media star Sione Kelepi.
At some point word arrived that O’Brien would be having lunch with model and burlesque dancer Dita von Teese, who asked the organizers if she could meet him. “Again, just another statement I’m saying that I’m starting to believe is a quite natural thing to say,” O’Brien said. “It just doesn’t make sense in my head at all.”
With O’Brien attracting attention from celebrities, companies sought to capitalize on the momentum behind Dancing Man by aligning themselves with his positive message. The man who was once laughed at and humiliated online quickly become an unofficial spokesperson for a new app aimed at fighting online bullying, Güdly, which seeks to create a “troll-free zone” by controlling the user’s experience online. (The company’s husband-and-wife founders, Internet and electronics entrepreneurs David and Leila Centner, donated $30,000 to anti-bullying organizations The Trevor Project, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Program, Cybersmile, and Kidscape.)
“There are now apps and new technology and new programs that are popping up everywhere because I think frankly, everybody’s tired of [bullying]. It’s not funny anymore,” says Aftab, who’s been working in the field of cyberbullying since 1995. Her advocacy has made her a target for bullies, who have shut down her website; falsely reported to police that a crime was taking place at her house, which resulted in militarized police surrounding her home; and circulated false accusations of criminal activity.
Leigh and two of her friends, Katy Dolle and Elyse Berger, are also looking to build on O’Brien’s recent fame, which—granted—they helped create. They’ve turned their media-savvy dance party into a bona fide brand, dubbed the Dance Free Movement, which will be “hopefully a permanent platform that will release positive content [and make] body positivity cool,” says Leigh. “Essentially [we’re] just trying to be a network where everyone else who feels like Sean felt can all come together and speak and be represented and be part of these events.”
Leigh’s original song, “Home to Me,” an acoustic folk tune with a wholesome refrain, has become the soundtrack to the movement. Its star-studded music video was shot and directed by Dolle, who is also making a documentary about the whole thing. Meanwhile, Leigh has taken on the role of mentor to O’Brien and Diaz. She and Fairbanks reached out to Diaz after seeing his emotional video and later dubbed him an ambassador of the Dance Free Movement.
“She jokes constantly that she’s my manager, which she essentially is. We just don’t have a contract yet,” says Diaz, who is still adjusting to strangers who stop him on the street for highly personal advice about body image. “The one thing Hope told me is make sure you take time and decompress, because not only will you get tired, but you’ll lose the passion for it. It’s helped a lot,” he says.
Diaz plans to move to L.A. in the fall to become a motivational speaker. Before he can pursue his newfound dream, though, he needs to schedule his surgery to remove excess skin, for which he raised $57,000—nearly triple what he’d asked for on GoFundMe. He says he is in talks with networks including TLC for a reality show about the procedure, which celebrity plastic surgeon Matthew Schulman has agreed to perform free of charge.
While Diaz says it’s tempting to use the $57,000 sitting in his bank account to pay off his student loans, he knows he has an opportunity to leverage his social media influence and has a bigger plan in mind: launching a nonprofit speaking tour and donating the rest to others in need of surgical procedures that will positively affect their self-esteem.
He and O’Brien have emerged as unlikely champions for body positivity at a time when much of the conversation is centered on women. “Body image issues come to everybody who has a body—it’s that simple,” says Diaz. “Everyone knows what it’s like to not feel like you belong. And that’s the one connecting thing between Sean and I and everyone else involved with this, is we’ve all been there. And we’ve all felt afraid and ashamed to be us, and now we’re realizing we don’t have to.”
But the image of himself as a nearly 500-pound social outcast with depression and anxiety is tough to get rid of. “At the core of everything, I’m just a 15-year-old fat kid who’s not sure of where he’s going to go,” he says. “Those insecurities stay with you, and you’ve just got to figure out how to contextualize them and move past them.”
Saturday night, Dancing Man is mobbed by cameras from the moment he walks through the door to when he takes a break from dancing, hours later, and sits down in a V.I.P. booth a little past midnight.
A GoFundMe page raised $40,000 for the party, but donations from the venue and others covered all the expenses, enabling Leigh and Fairbanks to give all the money to charities including Cybersmile, Kidscape, and the Megan Meier Foundation, named for a 14-year-old who took her own life after being cyber-bullied on Myspace.
Lewinsky, who has become a spokesperson for anti-bullying organization The Bystander Revolution, looks nervous, as if she might at any moment need to defend herself against harassment. Wearing jeans and a leather jacket under the blue lights of the Avalon stage, she says bullying prevention is rooted in one thing: compassion. “We often don’t know the magnitude of someone else’s pain, and we don’t know what it can actually mean to throw them a life saver in just a very, very deep, dark moment,” she says.
Then Andrew W.K., who is famous for early aughts party anthems like “We Want Fun” and “Party Hard” and has since reinvented himself as a motivational speaker and a self-help guru, takes the stage to make a brief speech. He calls bullying prevention “a kind of alchemy—turning bad experiences into good ones.”
Two months ago, a photo snapped anonymously at a club—O’Brien can’t remember exactly which one—made him a target for global shame and embarrassment. Now, each photo is vindication. He says doesn’t mind all the cameras—the better to remind him, when he arrives back to London, that it wasn’t all a dream after all.
“The good thing is it’s getting filmed by everybody so at least I’ll be able to look back on it,” he says, then pauses. “Of course next week it will all kick off again when all this hits the press back home and everyone will be wanting pictures again.”