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'Queen of disaster': star of disaster girl internet meme graduating from UNC

Zoe Roth, a senior peace war and defense major and subject of the meme 'Disaster Girl', holds up the card game What Do You Meme? on Tuesday Apr 13, 2021 in Chapel Hill.

Zoe Roth’s face is synonymous with disasters, all because of a picture her dad took when she was almost five years old.

Zoe Roth, now a senior at UNC, was once the subject of the often-circulated "Disaster Girl" meme.

The picture — which features Roth standing and smiling in front of a burning house — has circulated the internet for years in different forms. But seeing as it’s been over 16 years since the original picture was taken, she's not as recognizable as she once was.

In fact, it wasn’t until a tweet by UNC student Kaitlyn Boeckel gained traction that people realized Roth is not only a meme, but a Tar Heel, too. Roth is now a senior majoring in peace, war and defense. She transferred from American University in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2019. 

From Roth's perspective, it’s just a picture from a controlled practice fire, two blocks away from her family home in Mebane, NC.

“Sometimes I like to think, ‘I wonder how many people see my face,’” Roth said. “I always think it's really cool, but when I meet somebody for the first time, I don't usually bring it up. I don't think that it's something that defines me very much. When I meet people, I like to tell them other things about myself because this isn't something that I chose or something that I think reflects who I am.”

On the day the picture was taken, Dave Roth, Zoe Roth’s dad, had recently gotten his first digital camera. When his wife came home and told the family about the burning house, they took a family field trip down the street. The famous picture of Zoe Roth was just one of many they took that afternoon.

In 2008, Roth submitted the photo of Zoe Roth to the JPG Magazine's “Emotion Capture” photo contest. It was published in the print edition of the magazine, then later online, which is where Dave thinks the photo was picked up.

“It was just pretty neat just to see this house fully engulfed in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Mebane, but not for bad reasons,” Dave Roth said. “So, we got a lot of pictures of it. I got pictures of Tristan (Zoe Roth’s brother), other pictures of Zoe and different angles of the thing. And the photo we ended up with, I'd love to tell you that it was some brilliant master plan on my part to get that photo, but it was just one of many photos taken that day, and she just happens to have this great look on her face.”

Since she went viral, Zoe Roth has had many opportunities for interviews, such as working on a documentary with National Geographic and filming a video with Buzzfeed. She is even featured on the back of the box of the game “What Do You Meme.”

Nupur Shah, a junior and one of Roth’s close friends, said that watching her interact with the internet is entertaining from a friend's perspective.

“Since the time I've met her there have been a few really cool things that have happened to her,” Shah said. “One really big one that happened sort of recently was that she was asked to do a Buzzfeed video about how her meme happened. That got super viral on TikTok and YouTube." 

Even though she is not a stranger to the internet, Roth instead chooses to focus her energy on her passions.

“I love traveling,”  Roth said. “I've been to China a few times and also Haiti. I love exploring new cities. I also speak Chinese, I think that's kind of cool about myself. I actually co-founded an organization called RISE, which is ‘Realizing Inclusivity and Student Excellence' with Nupur, and we offer free tutoring services for the SAT and the ACT for local high schoolers.”

Whether Roth’s exploring new countries or finding internet fame again, she'll always have this meme as a fun fact to reveal to new friends — and she knows that her smile has been seen by millions.


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