Earlier this summer, I was afforded an experience that is a dream for many journalists: a story I wrote went viral. Within the span of twenty-four hours, my story rose to be the seventh most popular English-language Google search in the world. In the days that followed, it inspired a Maureen Dowd column, received coverage from just about every news outlet in the country, and had flown as far as Bogota, Colombia, where a reporter friend heard the story on the national radio station there.
The story, which ran on the cover of the Village Voice, where I am a staff writer, was about a gorgeous woman, a low-level banker named Debrahlee Lorenzana. She was fired from Citibank, allegedly after her bosses found her body to be so distracting that they couldn’t concentrate on work. The story was accompanied by a set of photos—some were taken in her lawyer’s office and featured Debrahlee in her work attire, which was largely appropriate, and the rest were from our photo shoot, in which she posed sexily in her Saturday night get-ups.
I watched this unfold in real-time—a punch-drunk, surreal, I-don’t-want-to jinx-myself-but-I-don’t-think-this-will-ever-happen-to-me-again sort of experience— extremely pleasurable, and also slightly disturbing. As a journalist, you spend so much time plugging away at stories that you hope will impact society. Then, suddenly, you hit on a sexy banker who lost her job, and, delighted as you are, you also can’t help but wonder: Is this what it takes to be talked about all over the world?
Prior to Lorenzana, my biggest stories for the Voice had been about territory battles—tenants living in cubicles in Chinatown, the downfall of a kosher meat-packer, an investigation of the worst landlords in New York. The maximum number of comments I’d ever received on a story was about seventy. The Lorenzana story has nearly 600 comments on our Web site alone.
The idea came out of a routine conversation with a source. From there, I read the months-old lawsuit that Lorenzana had filed against Citibank, parsed out its implications, and sent my editor a pitch with the words “fired for being too hot” in the subject line. In my mind, this story was somewhat light—people who aren’t good-looking, of course, routinely suffer from worse discrimination—but fascinating and counterintuitive all the same.
We published the story online on June 1st, a Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, when our print version hits the stands, a couple of Web sites had already picked up the story, and had even devoted mini-essays to its implications. By mid-day, the New York dailies had found Debrahlee through her lawyer, and had published their own versions of the story (most, but not all, credited us). By afternoon, I was fielding calls from local news channels, Good Morning America, and The Colbert Report. AOL News, USA Today, HuffPo, the links paraded across my Google Alert feed. At some point in the day – sometime before her name peaked in search engineland—my editor shot me an e-mail: “This is about to go viral.” How right he was.
The following day there was a slew of international coverage as the story spiraled outward from New York: a radio show in Ireland, TV channels in Los Angeles, my reporter friend in Colombia, a woman in the Netherlands who suggested Debrahlee would be well-served if she went to work for Donald Trump. Soon, the herding effect was in full force: Every print organization had to weigh in with commentary, every news network had to invite Debbie on TV in order for her to retell the identical, sound-bite version of her story. The New York dailies set about the task of excavating every last detail of Debbie’s personal life.
Everyone I met knew about the story. I didn’t have to send out those shame-inducing mass e-mails beseeching far-flung acquaintances to click on my link. When I asked random people if they’d heard a story about a “hot banker,” people actually said, “Oh, I was just talking about that at the dinner table last night.” That’s an extraordinary, delirious feeling.