You've probably seen the GIF a million times: a black woman wearing oversize aviator sunglasses, sitting perfectly still on a bed, her ankles crossed. She's wearing skinny jeans and a tight white tank top. The expression on her face is ambiguous: It could either be mild bemusement, or barely suppressed rage. She could also very well be asleep.
Anyone who watched inordinate amounts of VH1 in the early-to-mid aughts knows that the woman on the bed is Tiffany Pollard, a.k.a. Tiffany Paterson, a.k.a. New York—one of the more mercurial, memorable contestants on the dating show Flavor of Love. Flavor Flav could not remember contestants' names, so he gave them nicknames based on various biographical details; Pollard was born in Utica, becoming "New York," Patterson was so popular that she later starred in her own spinoff, I Love New York, and two subsequent spin-offs, New York Goes To Hollywood and New York Goes To Work, both of which followed her fledgling acting career and were less memorable for the sole reason that they were far more depressing.
New York's appearances on "celebreality" TV series represented a unique moment in the history of trash popular culture. Reality TV was a nascent enough genre that VH1 and MTV could rake in viewers merely by sticking a D-list celebrity in a house with other D-list celebrities. (Indeed, that was the premise of one of their most popular shows.) Shows like Flavor of Love and I Love New York could never have aired today: Critics accused them of being lazy, cynical takes on a garbage television genre (which they were) that trafficked in outrageous, often racist stereotypes (which they often did). Yet New York continues to live on in the form of the sitting on the bed meme, as well as a number of other memes.
For someone whose heyday was during the last days of the Bush administration, New York has spawned an awful lot of content. There's the GIF of New York incredulously saying "Beyonce?! Beyonce?! Beyonce?!," in response to fellow FOL contestant Hottie's claim that she resembled the singer (she did not, though New York's counterargument that she more closely resembled R&B singer Luther Vandross was also false). There's New York chewing while holding a comically oversize steak knife, her mien too blasé to be overtly threatening. And there's New York's frenzied response to news of David Bowie's death on the UK's Celebrity Big Brother, mistakenly believing that fellow housemate David Gest had passed away. (Gest actually did pass away two months later.)
New York memes got their start on black Twitter, where most memes that are actually worth sharing originate; they have since become fairly mainstream, with the former "Beyonce? Beyonce" meme going viral after Beyonce reportedly had her twins. On the surface, New York's virality can be attributed to the same factors that made Cash Me Ousside Girl momentarily famous. In a culture embedded with barely concealed racism and sexism, a woman who exhibits behavior that runs counter to our expectations of well-bred white women will either become one (or both) of two things: a pariah or a meme.
It must be said that both New York and the Cash Me Ousside Girl have been accused of trafficking in negative stereotypes about people of color, although New York has refuted the accusations that her behavior perpetuated racist stereotypes about people of color in typical New York fashion. "She was trying to make it seem like we were looked down on by white America because we fit the stereotypes," she told the LA Times in an interview about Charm School, a Flavor of Love spin-off hosted by a pre-Oscar-winning Mo'nique. "[But] white girls shake their asses too. It's every race."
But unlike Cash Me Ousside Girl, who became famous solely for her ridiculously un-self-aware posturing, what makes New York eminently unique and memeable isn't her aggression—it's that she's defiantly, unapologetically, outrageously herself, at a moment when it has never been more OK for women to be defiant and unapologetic and outrageous. On Flavor of Love—and, to a lesser extent, I Love New York—she was combative and rude to the other houseguests (though not nearly as combative as Pumkin, the contestant who famously spit on her).
But as she repeatedly told the other contestants, she was also "there for Flav"—meaning she had genuine affection for him. Indeed, there were more than a few similarities between the two, and when she was rejected over the leonine-eyed, improbably dull Hoopz in the first season, everyone who watched the show knew that Flav was making a big mistake. (So did Hoopz, who later became best known for dating Shaquille O'Neal.)
In the second season of Flavor of Love, VH1 producers brought New York back to the show, where she once again made it to the final round before Flav picked Deelishis over her. What happened during that final chain ceremony no longer lives on in GIF form, but anyone who watched the show remembers the moment when New York, tearful and humiliated, pled with Flav as to why he didn't choose her. "Why'd you bring me back?" she kept asking him. "Why the fuck did you bring me back?" It's a moment that resonates with any woman who has ever given her heart to a man on a silver platter and watched him, open-mouthed and blinking, as he dumps it in a sewer; any woman who has ever been deemed "too much" by a man, when in fact it is he who is not enough for her.
Most important, the scene represented a singularly raw and vulnerable moment in a genre defined by its artifice—perhaps the main reason why New York, a product of what is now an essentially irrelevant genre, lives on on the internet today. Becoming a meme requires a perfect storm of various factors: a perfectly timed entrance by your adorable children during a live interview, a subtle yet flamboyant flick of the wrist while you're just doing your job curing some meat. But above all else, the one quality that guarantees virality above all others is being genuine; nothing goes viral if it's sent out into the world with the intention of such. If nothing else, New York is a font of genuine emotion, and there's nothing that resonates more with people on the internet than that.
In a recent Cut piece on I Love New York and The Bachelorette, Shamira Ibrahim wrote: "What made Pollard so loved was the fact that she spoke her mind. Proclamations such as, "When I make these motherfuckers cum I do it with my heart!" are the sort of unadulterated, bona fide emotion that both entertained and bonded her audience to her journey for love." After three unsuccessful attempts to find love on her own series, that's what Pollard is still searching for. (In fact, she's set to appear on the E! TV show Famously Single, a celebrity dating show whose premise is almost as retrograde as its cast members, including Jersey Shore's Ronnie Ortiz-Magro.) She's no longer standing in front of Flav, nakedly pleading for him to love her, but she's still standing in front of us demanding the same, both on our screens and on our timelines. And ultimately, there's nothing so inherently sharable as that.
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