Turns out a meme can be life-changing.
When Dieunerst Collin was just 9 years old, he was waiting in line holding a lemonade cup at a Popeyes in Irvington, New Jersey, for his family pack of chicken, biscuits and fries.
A stranger pulled out their phone to record Collin and compare him to Lil TerRio, a boy who was internet-famous at the time for his dance moves.
Collin gave the man filming a side glare and, at that moment, he became a meme.
The man posted the clip to Vine, the now-shuttered video-sharing app, where it went viral and ultimately became a widely used GIF.
Collin, 18, is now a freshman in college and plays for the football team at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, and — a decade after the meme stream — he’s embracing his former glory.
He’s making the most out of his viral moment, signing with Popeyes for a sponsorship that will use his name, image and likeness on billboards and other advertisements.
Collin’s family wasn’t too happy with his social media fame at first, but now that it’s turned into an opportunity — and they’re not so mad about it.
“When it happened, we didn’t want to be in the spotlight. And just having that out there, people were coming to my dad and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve seen your kid on this,’ trying to make a joke of it. My dad didn’t like it for his kids to be joked on,” Collin told CNN. “But now, the fact that I switched it into a blessing, he likes it.”
The partnership came to be thanks to a social media campaign fed by Collin and his fans — with other fast food chains chiming in to help.
“The @Popeyes meme kid @CollinDieunerst is now a freshman offensive lineman at Division II Lake Erie College and if this guy doesn’t have an NIL deal by tomorrow, the Louisiana kitchen needs to clean house on upper management,” one person tweeted.
Collin quoted the initial tweet and added: “SAID IT BEST @Popeyes.”
“Let’s chat over lunch @CollinDieunerst,” KFC responded.
“@Popeyes do it for the vine,” Buffalo Wild Wings chimed in.
“Hey @Popeyes do the right thing!!! This kid has given you SUBSTANTIAL free marketing over the years!!!” someone else tweeted.
Popeyes ended up sending Collin a private message within just a few hours and a representative called him with an offer.
The fast food chain announced the partnership on social media a few days later with a post captioned: “Proud to welcome Dieunerst Collin to the fam.”
“A lot can happen with the power of the internet behind you,” Collin said. “I can’t believe I can say I’m officially sponsored by Popeyes. Thank you to everyone who helped spread the good word!
Popeyes posted a video to Instagram of Collin narrating his journey “from memes to dreams” to kick off the partnership.
The video starts with the viral meme on top of a background of a Popeyes location.
“This is where our story started,” Collin narrates. “The moment that made us a meme. We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t understand it. But don’t worry little man, we didn’t let it stop us. Because the more we grew, the tougher we got. We learned to lean in. We turned the attention into motivation and the motivation into championships. This is where our story started and now it’s where a new one begins.”
The first Popeyes billboard with Collin went up in his hometown of East Orange, New Jersey, last weekend, showing the college athlete copying his 9-year-old expression from the meme.
But Collin never thought the meme would be as viral as it was.
“I just never thought it would get that big,” he admitted to CNN. “I just thought people will move on and forget about the meme. When I talk to my father, he actually gets really emotional because he never expected this (success) for me.”
Collin hopes to one day get his own meal at Popeyes, similar to other celebrities at different fast food chains.
Apart from turning his meme into a dream, the communications student hopes to play professional football and eventually become a sports analyst.
As for whether or not Collin uses the meme himself, he said he’d rather not.
“I’ve used it less than 10 times,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of using it, because it’s me — but sometimes I’ll send it just to be funny.”