On 11 March 2017 I was interviewed at home on the BBC’s World News program about the impeachment of South Korean president Park Geun-hye. My two young children broke into my home office while I was live on air. My wife then careened into the office to pull them out. It was all captured live on global satellite TV, and the video of the blooper quickly went viral. I acquired a new moniker, one I will likely carry with me for the rest of my life: “BBC Dad”.
My family and I released a press statement in the wake of the video and extraordinary global attention it received. Revisiting the statement one year later, I still feel like it is broadly correct and clarifies many of the questions and conspiracy theories about the video.
Two are particularly persistent: that we somehow staged the scene to become famous, and that I did not stand up because I was not wearing pants. To this day, I am still asked about these topics.
So, to settle both issues definitively. First: no, we did not stage this. Our children were 9 months and 4 years old, respectively, at the time. I cannot imagine trying to coordinate anything this complicated with children of that age. Sorry, it was just a legitimate family blooper.
Second: yes, I was wearing pants. I did not stand up because, as they say, the show must go on. Had I stood up and broken out of frame, any semblance of professionalism would have been lost. I was hoping throughout the 45-second interruption that the BBC correspondent, James Menendez, would simply end the interview and I would be saved. Hence, I held my seat.
People often ask me and my wife what it has been like to suddenly become virally famous. It has mostly been fun, and sometimes weird. After a year, here are some reflections on the things I am most often asked about.
1. We are no longer anonymous
This seems like a banal observation, but it can be pretty weird when people regularly photograph you out and about, often without asking, simply because they saw you on television. I was photographed buying milk at Costco once, because apparently BBC Dad’s calcium consumption is a hot issue.
Korea has a robust celebrity culture, so perhaps this effect would be less pronounced in the West, but losing anonymity has easily been the biggest change in our lives since the video. People recognise us a lot – at the store, on aeroplanes, in movie theatres, while shopping.
Total strangers routinely ask us for pictures or autographs, or just photograph us anyway. A cop in South Korea once pulled me over to ask for a selfie. A couple in Brooklyn got so enthralled by the video that they tried to build a YouTube cartoon series around it.
It is quite a curious sensation to be a quasi-celebrity, especially when you haven’t really done anything to earn it. People often ask me if it is fun or cool to be famous, and I suppose it might be more so if my fame was based on something meritorious.
As it is, we are famous simply because our children are cute and precocious, which is pretty much how everyone’s kids are. But whatever the reason, my wife now tells me I cannot go outside wearing grungy clothes because someone will recognise me. A loss for me but a gain for civilisation, I suppose.
2. Yes, we have made some money off the video, but not very much
This is one of the most common questions I am asked, so in the interests of full disclosure, yes we have profited from it a bit. In the months after the video, we were solicited a lot for commercials and things like that. But most of the offers fell through.
We did something for Johnson & Johnson once, and we were on a German end-of-year talk show. And I have been invited to speak more regularly at events, some of which are compensated. But the total amount was not that much, and was more like a one-time windfall than a major change in income.
3. I get invited to more events
This has been the big upside. I am solicited more frequently for my opinion on North Korea and North East Asian security, and I get invited to interesting places I would not visit otherwise. This is flattering. And it is fairly amazing how far the video travelled.
I was asked to speak at the Omani National Defense College in Muscat. The coordinator had seen the video, and so had most of the students at the event. Who knew BBC Dad was a hit in the Arab world too? I was also invited to the Philippines and China, where I was introduced on one panel as “BBC Dad … and, oh yeah, an expert on Korea.”
4. Our positive “virality” was lucky
We were lucky that our 15 minutes of fame were due to something positive. Many viral experiences are quite negative: people do something foolish, it is caught on film, and it destroys their reputation.
5. The politics of it was weird
There was not much of this, but the political scientist in me caught it. From the right, one of the very first messages (of the thousands we received) was from a neo-Nazi type calling me a “race traitor”. This was predictable; anyone in an interracial relationship has experienced it. But to be fair, there was little of that.
More curious were the responses from the left which tried to read some kind of race-gender narrative into the video. So my wife’s scuttling along the floor (in a vain attempt to stay out of frame) became some sort of metaphor for white-male social power in Asia. There was also the early controversy about whether my wife in the video was actually the family nanny.
My wife and I were not really put out by any of this, but there was enough of it that we felt compelled to address the subject in our press release. We personally see no ideological content in the video. The episode was just a family blooper.
6. Parents everywhere saw themselves in it
This was the most overwhelming reaction. We received thousands, perhaps ten thousand, communications following the video. People wrote emails, called us, solicited us via social media, sent us gifts, and so on, and 99% of it was positive. Parents in particular saw themselves in our shoes, struggling to balance work and life.
As work becomes more flexible due to smartphones, super-light laptops, the cloud, and so on, it increasingly follows us home. I do a lot of my job from my home office, including most of my TV appearances. Many of the comments we received were from parents who had had similar experiences, such as locking themselves in the bathroom so their kids could not interrupt a radio interview.
These reactions were positive and empathetic. We were very moved by them.
We anticipate that this is our final major public statement on the video and that, on its one-year anniversary, peak interest in it has passed, making way for the next dancing cat video. So, to all the people who wrote to us, thank you for your kind thoughts and generous comments, especially about our children. We were flattered by the outpouring.
Special thanks to The Interpreter’s Sam Roggeveen and Daniel Flitton for allowing me to wander outside my normal East Asian area to publish these thoughts this month.
Robert E Kelly