behind the news

Watching My Story Go Viral in Twenty-Four Hours

How Debrahlee Lorenzana became the banker heard 'round the world
August 17, 2010

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.

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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.

It was also unsettling. I never had any illusions that this was my most important or best story (as the 574th commenter wrote on our Web site, “Shouldn’t we be focusing on trying to stop the oil spill?”). Everyone knows about stories that ‘go viral.’ There’s always a story, usually popping up the upper left hand corner of your Yahoo news feed, that you click on because you just can’t help it. Having one’s story go viral has become a huge barometer of success. When that can’t-help-it story is yours, the experience affords the opportunity to examine just what it is that that barometer, which is so seductive and mystifying to news organizations, actually measures. The story was fascinating in its own right, but its success also depended on the herding mentality and the Web’s tendency to legitimize commentary as news.

For us at the Voice, a question—one which many news organizations that break a story which generates buzz struggle to address—was how to maintain (and wrest back) control of the story, and the page views. Our paper was on a constant Lorenzana beat. I was assigned to cover straightforward news and developments in the case–I broke the news that her current employer, Chase, had threatened to fire her if she kept talking about the lawsuit—while our bloggers had lots of fun following the tabloid craze, spinning out new angles, and writing pieces with hilarious headlines like, ‘Which Debrahlee Lorenzana Facebook Group Is Right for You?”

There are certain stories that every news organization is expected to weigh in on. These are big breaking stories, or stories with widespread societal ramifications. For those kinds of stories, the normal bars of journalistic judgment–Should we run this? Is this relevant to our audience–are subsumed, presumably by a collective understanding of the story’s value. The publication of war documents on WikiLeaks, for example, is one such story. But Lorenzana? No one expected the media frenzy that followed—certainly not me. In the span of twenty-four hours, it had transformed from a very interesting feature to something like breaking news of national and even international import.

In one sense, that might seem overblown. In another sense, it’s absolutely fine: we too often forget that a simple story can be an access point for huge and deep questions. Lorenzana, as a friend pointed out to me, is the ultimate water cooler story. It struck a major chord with so many different kinds of people, and that in itself cannot and should not be discounted. Maybe the majority of people were engaging with it on a ‘that chick is hot’ or ‘that chick is slutty’ sort of level, but a lot more was at work here. It turned out that the story tugged at so many points of cultural fascination that once it got out there it was almost unstoppable.

For one, it’s about Citibank. (Never mind that this story is about a low-level banker and who worked far from the world of bonuses and exotic derivatives). Second, it took place in the news media capital of the world. (One gets the feeling that if the same thing had happened to a low-level banker at a Citibank branch in Birmingham, the story wouldn’t have managed to traverse state lines). Third, the nearly 600 comments on my story are a testament to the universality of an obsession with work attire—though men and women are obsessed in different ways (Which makes it even better water cooler fodder). And finally, yeah, Lorenzana is really hot, and the story belies the assumption that the kind of people everyone else is jealous of have things easy.

Then there are the pictures. Even though I’m the writer, I know that the pictures made the story sail around the world. As many readers have pointed out, the thrust of the photographs (Look at how sexy I am! Objectify me!) runs counter to the thrust of Lorenzana’s story (Don’t treat me differently cause I’m sexy! Don’t objectify me!). The pictures created a psychological puzzle; they unleashed contradictions in Lorenzana’s character. From the getgo, she was never a heroine, a universal victim, or proof of some wave of discrimination against attractive people, as subsequent news accounts painted her to be (When news goes viral, the amplification factor itself seems to suggest something like a trend). A few weeks into the story, a local paper uncovered a Discovery Channel video on plastic surgery, which featured a twenty-six-year-old Debrahlee Lorenzana, gushing about getting her second breast augmentation and wanting to transform herself into “tits on a stick.” The contradictions about Debrahlee—readily apparent from the first pictures—multiplied. Why would a woman fighting a lawsuit against oversexualized attention desire so much sexualized attention?

People love stories about people getting treated unfairly, they love stories where they can privately and pettily bash the subjects, and they also love puzzles. Lorenzana’s story was all three, which was one of the reasons why people loved talking about it. ‘I don’t know what to make of her!’ was by far the most common response I heard about this from strangers and friends. They couldn’t figure out what kind of person would go forward with such a lawsuit; what kind of gutsy (or foolhardy) person would refuse to do something as simple as change her clothes, even when doing so, however wrong in principle, might have eased things for her. (She claims that she was such a target that she would have been attacked for anything she wore).

The story is as much about what is permissible in the workplace as it is about the sort of person that makes drastic choices and ends up in drastic circumstances—the kind of people who disproportionately end up as the subjects of news stories. Lorenzana has had a difficult life. Some people comfort themselves through food, some people through drink and smoke, and some people make themselves beautiful. If you have the discipline and the desperation, and some good genetics to begin with, hell, you can make yourself drop-dead gorgeous. Her vanity, her desire to get attention and be loved, exert a strong influence on her judgment. Maybe that’s pathological. Maybe that makes her so different from the rest of us, but more likely than not, it doesn’t.

I caught up with Lorenzana on a Sunday morning, a couple days after the story broke. She was driving away her boyfriend’s house, in Queens. She was going to McDonalds. Her e-mail inbox had maxed out, her Facebook page had been cancelled for too many requests, The New York Post had camped out on her stoop. She was thinking of changing her cell phone number (She eventually did). The thought flashed in my head: this person’s life will never be the same. Clearly, this was all the attention she’d ever wanted, but when it actually happened, she was overwhelmed. She got to the drive-thru. I overheard her order pancakes. Then somebody called. It was a Spanish-language television channel, calling to arrange a sit-down interview in her home. She had to go.

As for me, I recently published another cover story. I’m proud of the story—about the commissioner of the state’s juvenile justice agency and her battle with a powerful union. It’s been just over a week, and every day a number of thoughtful comments pop up on our Web page—we’re up to about thirty. After Lorenzana, that feels really slow. I might have to begrudgingly accept that it could be that way for a while. I also might just have to find another hot banker. There’s nothing so motivating as being in the spotlight.

Elizabeth Dwoskin is a staff writer at the Village Voice.