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As the "Star Wars Kid" Ghyslain Raza was one of the first viral video stars, and also one of the first victims of cyberbullying.
As part of the preparation for a fan film he was making with some schoolmates at St. Joseph's Seminary in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, the slightly overweight 15-year-old recorded a video of himself trying out some Darth Mail moves using a golf ball retriever as an improvised lightsaber.
It didn’t go well.
Ghyslain abandoned the embarrassing videotape in his school’s multimedia room and forgot about it.
That was in November 2002. Six months later a fellow student, Cory Homertziem found the clip and uploaded it to the Internet with the title Jackass_starwars_funny.wmv.
That clip is estimated to have been viewed over a billion times.
For a sensitive teenager, the effect was devastating. Ghyslain ended up having to leave the school because the non-stop mockery made it impossible to get any work done.
And the mickey-taking wasn’t just at school. The shy, nerdy teenager had an entire country laughing at him.
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In his one interview about the Star Wars Kid phenomenon, Ghyslain said he was inundated with offers from late-night talk shows trying to get him on TV for a cheap laugh.
"I still have Jay Leno's invitation," he told French magazine L’actualité.
"A Japanese show offered me a lot of money. But why were they inviting me? They wanted to turn me into a circus act.
"Having your 15 minutes of fame, when you've done something truly worthwhile, is one thing. When you earn it for something humiliating, that's entirely different."
Some people took pity on the lad. Andy Baio, who would one day become the boss of Kickstarter but in those days ran a blog called waxy.org, was stunned by the huge traffic the clip brought to his site.
But he was also horrified by the heartless comments from the millions of viewers, who called the hapless would-be Jedi names like "Luke Piestalker" and made comments such as: "If there were more portly Jedis like that, I’d totally leave the dark side". One commenter called him "a pox on humanity."
When Andy found out that Ghyslain wanted an iPod and launched an appeal to raise the money for one. he quickly raised $30,000 — enough for dozens of iPods – so he sent Ghyslain the Apple MP3 player plus 18 $200 gift cards.
"I know that the people who sent me gifts had good intentions," Ghyslain said, "but they were only drops in the ocean of contempt that I faced.
"No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living."
Seeing Ghyslain’s reaction to the millions of hurtful comments, his dad first called the police, who suggested hiring a lawyer and suing the St Joseph’s pupils who had uploaded the clip. The $250,000 claim was quietly settled out of court.
It's been reported that the settlement didn't even cover the family's legal costs.
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Ghyslain’s unwanted fame continued. Over 140,000 people unsuccessfully petitioned George Lucas to cast him in the upcoming Star Wars movie, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.
These days, what happened to Ghyslain would be described as "cyberbullying" or "body shaming" but in the early 2000s
Ghyslain did all he could do; he kept his head down, refused any and all interview requests, and worked hard. He attended McGill, Canada’s most prestigious University, and came away with a degree in law.
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Today he’s a successful lawyer and president of the heritage society in his home town Patrimoine Trois-Rivieres. He also works to support victims of cyberbullying.
Ghyslain avoids talking about his brief, uncomfortable brush with fame but he has a message for anyone else who finds themselves caught up in the fast-moving and sometimes brutal whirlwind of social media.
"You will survive. You will get over it. You are not alone," he says.
He adds that no matter how bad viral celebrity might feel at the time: "You are surrounded by people who love you. I hope my experience helps others deal with bullying.
"You are strong," he says, "seek help and be happy".
It's probably just a coincidence but today – May the fourth – isn’t just Star Wars Day.
In 2012, the date was adopted for the United Nations' official International Anti-Bullying day.
For emotional support, you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
- Star Wars
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