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'Star Wars kid' emerges as an Internet hero

Caught on video imitating a Jedi knight, the Canadian teen has become an unwitting Web phenomenon.

June 06, 2003|Maureen Ryan | Chicago Tribune

In our celebrity-obsessed age, where even the dippiest reality TV contestants appear on the covers of magazines, the "Star Wars kid" is a refreshing anomaly.

The star of a video that he never intended to make public, he has survived the kind of ridicule that would make the average celebrity head straight to rehab -- and he has emerged as a bona fide grass-roots hero to the Internet community.

Last fall, a Canadian 10th-grader named Ghyslain (his last name has not been made public) did something a lot of "Star Wars" fans have done when they thought no one was looking: Using a golf ball retriever instead of a light saber, Ghyslain spent a couple of minutes jumping around and doing his best Jedi knight imitation.

What made Ghyslain's antics different, however, is that his performance with a "light saber" (actually, it was a golf ball retriever) took place with a camera rolling: He used the video equipment at his school to record it, then forgot about the tape.

A couple of classmates at his Quebec high school eventually found the tape, and in April they posted it on Kazaa, a Web site that lets people easily download music files and film clips.

Word of the "Star Wars kid" video spread quickly online, and by late May, the 15-year-old's knight moves had become an international Internet phenomenon, with millions of Web surfers viewing his routine on different sites.

Some folks went so far as to add real "Star Wars" sound effects to the two-minute video, and someone even came up with a "Matrix"-inspired version. What's more, seemingly everyone who saw the video felt the need to comment on Ghyslain's performance in various Web sites and forums.

Unfortunately, but predictably, many of the comments about the chubby teen were cruel. "The little-known Jedi, Luke Piestalker," snarked one user on, one of the first sites to post the video.

Jish Mukerji, a San Francisco resident who maintains a Web log, did the first interview with Ghyslain. Mukerji's friend Andrew Baio, of, was one of the first to showcase the "Star Wars kid" videos, and Baio was contacted by someone who had Ghyslain's phone number. Ghyslain is not fluent in English, so Baio asked Mukerji, a French speaker, to talk to Ghyslain about his sudden fame.

The youth sounded guarded, Mukerji said in an interview with the Tribune, and, given the nasty reaction some people had to Ghyslain's video, Mukerji says he understands why. "I had to delete a lot of [negative] comments from my site," he says.

He adds that he was especially surprised by the mean-spirited comments he saw on "Star Wars" Web sites: "When you think of 'Star Wars' fans, you don't think of frat boys, you think of some guy who spends a lot of time in front of his computer. How could they make fun of [Ghyslain's] geekiness?"

"The other side of the coin," he adds, "was that in the end, a lot of people did end up identifying with him." Indeed, it wasn't long before Ghyslain became something of a mascot, a 15-year-old Everygeek who mirrored every private dance move, air-guitar riff or Jedi battle scene anyone has ever tried to copy.

"When I saw the first video ... I laughed and cried, it was so funny and pathetic at the same time," one Waxy user wrote, using the name IwuzThatKid. "Then I thought, oh yah [sic] that was me when I was that age."

Mukerji and Baio decided to start a fund drive to buy Ghyslain an Apple iPod, to compensate him for the mocking he had encountered and as a token of appreciation from fellow geeks everywhere.

They wanted to raise $400, but by May 21, the end of the fund-raising drive, they had raised more than $4,300.

"The clips did make me laugh, partly because, well, it's funny, and partly because they reminded me about videos I made with friends and such when I was a teenager," said Roland Blais, who donated money to the fund. "I also did feel a bit sorry for the guy because I was an overweight teen."

More than 400 individuals and groups contributed to the Ghyslain fund, and noncash gifts poured in too: a Darth Maul light-saber replica signed by "Star Wars" actor Ray Park; a T-shirt from Industrial Light & Magic, the firm that supplied the "Star Wars" special effects; and software programs and games.

Baio was overwhelmed. "The outpouring of support has been staggering, far beyond what I ever expected," he wrote on his site.

Ghyslain, whose last name is being withheld from news stories and Internet articles in an attempt to protect his identity, has become a minor celebrity, especially in Canada, where several newspapers have written about his unsought brush with Internet fame. The New York Times even ran a short piece about the campaign to buy him an iPod.

But his fame hasn't come without a price. In an e-mail to Amy Harmon of the New York Times, Ghyslain wrote: "People were laughing at me. And it was not funny at all."

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