I learned almost everything I know by hanging out in AOL and Yahoo chat rooms. I picked up practical knowledge, like basic HTML and how to talk to boys, but I also discovered that all my weird idiosyncrasies weren’t actually that weird—there were people in the world who found me funny and maybe even a little charming. When he was in high school, 27-year-old Peeje T was hanging out in chat rooms, too, learning that he could be himself online and that attention from strangers can sometimes feel good, especially for a shy, socially anxious kid from Kansas.
Today, Peeje has gained viral fame in certain web pockets for what he reluctantly describes as his “digital art”: seamless photoshops that drop him into a front-row hug with Rihanna or onto a bike with Beyoncé and Jay Z. His Instagram account started popping off in 2013, now to the tune of 221,000 followers. Strangers all the way from Russia requested his friendship on Facebook, and stars like Nicki Minaj and T-Pain shared his images with their millions of fans. Eventually, Peeje quit a post-college job at a ticket reselling company and flipped his photoshops into a new life in New York, friendships with rappers, and invitations to crazy parties. Sometimes women approach him in bars, recognizing his big blue eyes and sheepish grin.
Peeje’s story is one of microfame and how odd talents can become macro in the internet age. When we meet for an interview, Peeje is thoughtful and meditative, reflecting on what social media notoriety means not only for himself but also for the broader world. “This is too deep of a conversation to be having about memes,” he says at one point, reminding me that he’s just a guy who put his face near Nicki Minaj’s ass. But can anything be too deep?
What made you start sharing these photos?
PEEJE T: I don’t even know why I did it. I used to make horrible pictures on Microsoft Paint and put them on Facebook, and three people would be like, “That’s kind of funny.” When I got Instagram, everyone just posted the same thing—like, a picture of a tree or a waffle in the morning. So I just put all my pictures from Facebook on Instagram. Then random people would follow me, and I was like, “Who the hell is this person?” One time T-Pain retweeted me, and it snowballed from there.
When did the photos start having a material effect on your life?
One day at work, I looked and I was on the front page of Yahoo. I got scared. At that point, I was like, “I don’t want this attention.” If you google my name, it’s just pictures of me looking all weird with these people. And so I was like, “Fuck, I’m never going to be able to get a real job or something.” I got super anxiety about it. Then my dad was like, “Just go with it. See what you can do with it.” Then next thing, I got on the plane [to New York] with a duffle bag and a computer.
Do you consider yourself a designer?
Just a guy that knows how to do Photoshop. When I first started getting attention online, tech websites would post it cause it’s digital art or whatever. And the comments would be like, “Oh my god, the color correction is so wrong on this photo.” And I’m like, “It’s just a picture of Nicki Minaj’s ass on my forehead, and you’re like talking about the shadows on it. Relax.” When I post a picture, I love just seeing the comments coming in. I’ll sit there and read them for an hour. It’s a super narcissistic thing, I guess. Everyone just writes the same comments—the crying face emoji and stuff. And I’m lucky cause there’s never really any negative comments.
Are you obsessed with the stars you photoshop?
Some people think I’m obsessed with these celebrities, which I’m not at all. There is a reason why I use the same six people— because they’re the biggest stars in the world, and they get the most attention. I learned over time that if I do a picture with Kim or Beyoncé, it’s going to get a lot of attention. When Nicki Minaj reposted me, it was like the coolest fucking thing ever. I’m embarrassed that I think that’s so cool.
It seems like you understand what makes something go viral.
Yeah, it’s really all about timing. When something happens, I can make a picture super fast. Like with the crying Michael Jordan face after a team loses in the playoffs—I can do that in like 45 seconds, putting that face on someone. That goes viral pretty fast. It’s frustrating; no one creates content, they just repost other shit. Like the crying MJs—is it really that funny or are people laughing because it’s supposed to be funny? You see the same thing on people’s pages 40 times in a row.
What do you think, ultimately? Is it funny?
Twitter jokes—in real life, they’re not funny. The show Wild ’N Out to me is like Twitter jokes in real life, and it’s not funny. I think people think stuff is supposed to be funny, so they just go along with it. Twitter is very much groupthink mentality. Deep down, I think I hate social media. I look at my timeline on Twitter and I’m like, “This is so stupid.” It’s the same shit everyday. People just want to flex their morality on the internet. They want to come off as super moral people. I mean, it’s messed up, but no one cares about Baltimore anymore. No one cares about Ferguson. It’s like, what are we doing?
How do you reconcile hating social media but depending on it for your work?
Because I do love it, too. I think social media is amazing. What I’m saying is very contradictory: I hate people that crave attention, but I’m one of those people. I hate it, but I can’t unplug. I’m too deep into it. If I lose my phone, I’m freaking out. I’m on the subway, and I’m praying to God that I can get like a bar of service, like, “Aw, I wonder what is going on Twitter right now.” It’s sickening. It’s like the most ironic thing ever. Because of my whole gimmick online, people always want to take pictures of me, and I’m like, “Oh fuck, I hate taking pictures.” Online I’m super outgoing and a goofy guy. But in real life, I’m just super shy and have social anxiety.
Has social media given you confidence?
Yeah. It’s hard to approach a girl at a bar, but they come to me now, which is fucking amazing. Like, “Hey, are you that guy?” and I’m like, “Yeah!” Sometimes I’ll see a girl looking over and laughing with her friend, and I’m like, “She probably knows who I am.” It’s cool. But I kind of feel like such a douche saying that. I hate internet people thinking they’re famous or whatever—it’s so corny. That’s the last fucking thing I want to do: flash my internet fame. I’m very self-aware of what I do and my level of internet fame, and how it can all go away tomorrow. It could not be funny tomorrow.
But internet fame comes with real-world perks.
I know, but it’s not that cool, I promise. I’m still broke; I don’t get any money from it at all. I get [design] jobs, but I don’t make a dime off of being internet famous. I guess I’m not hustling the right way like I should be, like other people do. But you’re not going to see me hosting at clubs.
Do you feel like this is your 15 minutes of fame?
Yeah I do. Because there’s going to be a new platform. All my eggs are in one basket. That’s kind of my fear. Eventually Instagram is not going to exist. Then what am I going to do? Then I’m done. Then Peeje is over.