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Damn, Daniel: A Year in the Life of a Teenage Meme

“I still go to high school, I’m still on the swim team, I’m still swimming. I haven’t dropped out or anything,” Daniel Lara says

Damn Daniel, Teenage meme, Vans, Vans meme,

Daniel Lara (right) and Josh Holz (left) say the "Damn, Daniel" video that became a viral sensation was a "total fluke."

Sami Drasin/Trunk Archive

This spring, Riverside Polytechnic High School sophomore Daniel Lara plans to attend prom with his girlfriend of two months. He attended last year as a freshman, but that was only after an invitation to Gigi Hadid failed. For the most part, Lara is a pretty normal 15-year-old: He competes for his school’s swim team, likes the rap group Migos and hanging with friends. He says he plans to go to prom every year of high school – a feat that sounds ambitious, but Lara’s the most famous current high school student in Riverside, California. It shouldn’t be that hard to pull off. 

In February 2016, Lara’s good friend, Josh Holz, turned his camera phone to pan Lara’s outfit and posted to Snapchat. The minimal commentary caught a foothold in the internet’s attention, reaching viral meme status quickly – totalling 45 million views in a matter of days. It was just some 14-year-old kid and his smart sartorial choices: one day in blue Nikes and a blue windbreaker, a navy hoodie and tan Dickies and a white T-shirt. The next Adidas track pants and a tie-dye hoodie. Eventually, the famous white Vans come into play, a disembodied voice says, “Damn Daniel, back at it with the white Vans.”

The rest is internet history. 

Lara wasn’t simply some hot shot freshman rolling up to prom, he was Damn, Daniel, a cute teen meme in those iconic skater sneakers getting mobbed by fans with television appearances on deck, including an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Holz’s pseudo-fashion voice hisses across an EDM remix that racked up almost three million views. Lara and Holz, the two buddies, who first met through playing Minecraft on Xbox in middle school, also appeared in a Weezer music video and were referenced by literally everyone, including Pharrell Williams. Vans gave Lara a lifetime supply of the famous canvas sneakers, he turned around and donated them to a hospital. His popularity managed to wreak momentary havoc worldwide in the lives of Daniels everywhere, but it was all in good fun. In a second, Damn, Daniel was a teenage meme, heartthrob and celebrity. 

“I never set out to make a viral video, this was a total fluke,” Holz tells Rolling Stone. So Damn, Daniel started the way so many goofy-ass teen jokes do: just two bored kids trying to make each other laugh. “And some have reported that I posted my video on Vine and YouTube first, but that’s not true. The clips were from my Snapchat story. My friends kept telling me how funny they were so I decided to make a compilation video and tweet it. That’s how it all happened. Having my video go viral was mind-blowing. All the things that come with it is crazy.”

Most high schoolers sans ones with Disney contracts don’t total around 127,000 Twitter followers. Perhaps most shocking of all, both Holz and Lara remain relatively levelheaded. “I’m thankful I was a teenager when it all happened – having my parents to lean on, guide, and support me through it all has kept me grounded,” Holz adds.

Although Holz’s disembodied voice enjoyed a unique celebrity of its own, Lara became a living, breathing meme. He was crystallized as the face of the video series, caught in his natural state of what he calls “streetwear style.” As it turns out, memes – even when proclaimed dead by authorities such as Cosmo – never actually disappear.

“When it first happened, it was crazy,” Lara says, noting the throngs of new people at swim meets when the meme hit viral status. His Instagram follower count sky-rocketed from 1,300 and hovers around 700 thousand today. “The pool deck had to get shut off and stuff. It’s not like that anymore. I still get people coming up to me but it’s not to the point where I need security guys.” He doesn’t get overwhelmed in public the way he used to, but he still indulges anyone who asks for a photo together.

“My life hasn’t changed all that much,” Lara admits. “I still go to high school, I’m still on the swim team, I’m still swimming. I haven’t dropped out or anything.”

A tan, easygoing, objectively attractive kid, genetics already dealt Lara a decent deck – even considering the cruel politics of high school. Surely Lara’s peers don’t score more than 17,000 likes for a blurry-as-hell Instagram post, yet he retains a modest confidence. After all, Lara enjoyed the hallmark of teenage popularity pre-meme: validation from older kids. “I knew quite a few people before that,” he says. “I was a freshman but I knew a lot of upperclassmen and stuff like that.” He doesn’t bring up the older woman he took to prom last year again, but he doesn’t need to. At this point, those friends have since graduated and now attend college.

In a way, Lara is a modern iteration of his half-jokingly identified hero, Ferris Bueller. Though, instead of ripping through Chicago in a “borrowed” 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California, Lara leads a much more carefully curated existence. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film that dropped about 15 years before he was born, captures a time Lara never experienced. Ferris’s shenanigans were so stealth in an analogue era during which you could literally blink and miss them – as Principal Rooney did Ferris’s attendance at the Cubs game, while blowing off class. All Lara’s moves are heavily documented, in the typical modern teen protocol – across multiple social media channels – and amplified by the remnant echoes of his internet celebrity.

“The character [Matthew Broderick] played was a really cool guy,” Lara says. “I think that’s why I look up to him.”

Ferris’s hubris, ironically mixed with a lack of classic asshole behavior, make him an incredibly likable “cool guy.” He’s the guy both peers and adults respect and want to be around. He’s not the guy doling out swirlies or, in a present-day sense, a healthy heaping of shade served via public social media. Ferris is too cool to flirt with the petty bullshit – and Lara relates.

“We’re similar in a lot of ways,” he says. “He sounds like the type of guy I want to be hanging out with. And like, the guys I hang around with are kind of similar to me.”

Lara describes his group of friends as diverse, a spread from sophomores to seniors. “We’re just funny,” he said. It’s believable, too, considering the advent of Damn, Daniel. The kicker of that video series may be arguable, but Lara’s clear discomfort while being filmed with commentary stands as the fibrous, truth core – the aspect that makes the series so relatable and endearing. As Holz approaches Lara, despite a stylish get-up, the latter typically calcified in a cross-armed position, laughing nervously.

Unlike Ferris, who had the privilege to focus on his role as class clown in lieu of a part-time job, Lara still works. Since going viral Lara has signed with LA Models and a number of other talent agencies. He also continues to swim for his school’s competitive team and occasionally travels for Damn, Daniel appearances, including a single day in Japan to try out reading lines.

The meme, Lara admits, forever changed dating for his young life. “Obviously it opened up a lot more, – a lot more [girls] knew me so I got reached out to a lot more,” he says. “I have a girlfriend right now. But before that, I mean, obviously it made a difference. … It was enjoyable. It wasn’t a negative thing.”

Daniel Lara, Joshua Holz

Not surprisingly, Lara’s nerves began to melt more with exposure. He moved with expert finesse by the time DeGeneres enlisted the duo to take over MTV Movie Awards’ red carpet for her. Lara and Holz handled the mic and slew of star-studded interview subjects with slightly more grace than your average teen, bouncing from Ice Cube to Seth Rogen with ease. Lara has grown to be as smooth a talker as you would expect an almost-16-year-old – confident yet always a little awkward, not exactly eloquent but definitely charming.

Lara embodies some of Ferris’s similar winking qualities, outside of the playing hooky trope. Namely, he posts on Instagram and tweets In Title Case. “Some people type [in] lowercase,” he said. “Some people type [in] uppercase. I don’t know. I like a switch. I don’t really have a specific reason. … It’s just a little thing I do.”

Lara and Holz hardly mirror the exact chemistry of Ferris and his best friend, Cameron “Its [sic] Not Necessarily A Competition,” Lara tells me over Twitter direct message when I followed up after our phone interview. “When Josh And I Come Across Things, We Go To Just Have Fun. No Competition In Who Has More Fun Really.”

The brush with fame has fused the boys more tightly in friendship, Lara says.

“Our friendship has grown ever since [the videos went viral,]” Holz said. “No one really understands what we’ve gone through, but us.”

Again, Lara asserts that the success of Damn, Daniel was far from calculated. He laughed off a scientific analysis of how the video went viral and adds, “The videos are just pure randomness. There was nothing planned in any of those videos. It was us being stupid together. I don’t know if that’s what made it go up. I don’t know if that’s what triggered it. … It’s so crazy. I never thought it would have been viral – you know, like that.”

He doesn’t have huge plans of launching a full-out catwalk modeling career, despite his 6-foot-frame, but he does want to “maybe shoot for some of my personal or favorite brands. That would be cool.” He’s also appeared on red carpet film premieres, but never elaborates when asked about compensation figures. Lara has a lot of fixings for a long-poised seat in the spotlight, but is that what’s in the cards – or even what he wants?

As of late, while Holz mulls over college options as a high school junior, Lara is focused on what most almost-16-year-olds fixate over: learning to drive.

“I have a lot of friends that drive so … I’m chilling in that sense,” Lara, who was gunning for a driver’s permit at the time of press, said. “Honestly, I kind of want to drive. It would be cool for me but it’s not like I don’t have … other options. [I’ve tried driving] just a little bit. I’ve always done a good job of it.” Then, a flash of less relateable teenage reality. “I also liked to drive [my parents’] boat and I’m pretty good at that,” Lara adds. “So I’ll be fine.”

It’s true life moves pretty fast and for Lara and Holz, it can have the capacity to re-calibrate to fairly moderate speeds. Though we still haven’t seen how Lara drives, so that stands open to debate.

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