What do you do when you're broke, Christmas is around the corner, and you need to buy gifts for your five kids? If you're Hostgator M. Dotcom, you do what you've gotten into the habit of doing and sell advertising space on your face to someone via eBay .
Since 2005, Dotcom had been slowly auctioning off parcels of his skin to companies, acquiring more than 30 tattoos in the process. At first he got thousands of dollars a pop by directly contacting companies with the offer, which kept his family out of the streets for an extra month or two each time. But the real estate value of his body declined. Finally, around 2008 (Dotcom can't quite remember, because the meds he now takes make dates fuzzy), it plummeted to rock bottom: $75 bucks for a face tattoo. Not even enough to pay a phone bill, let alone save Christmas.
He went through with the deal anyway. "I had to do it, because I didn't want to go against the eBay policy," the 34-year-old tells me. "But it was really hard."
Dotcom became famous as an early online curiosity in the mid 2000s, but after the media attention faded away, the poverty and mental illness that drove him to sell his face remained. Today he's trying to turn his life around, but before he can do that he needs a clean slate, literally. And the sad irony is, now that "Billy the Billboard" needs the attention more than ever, he can't raise the money he needs to erase the tattoos and get a fresh start.
Before he was Hostgator Dotcom, he was William Gibby, a white kid with holes in his clothes who grew up in a poor neighborhood in the Bay Area. His father, Mel, was a meat manager at Safeway, and his mother, Sandra, worked in a fast-food restaurant until heart problems forced her to quit. After they divorced, the then 16-year-old decided to move with his ex–merchant marine dad to Anchorage, Alaska, where he got his GED and made a life for himself.
As a young adult, Gibby spent a lot of time meeting people on Yahoo Messenger and in chat rooms. Six years after the move, in 2003, Dotcom started chatting to Myra Avila, a 18-year-old high school senior. The two eventually married and had a son. A couple years later he started talking to a 34-year-old woman named Kathy Lee who needed a kidney—and who would become his motivation for his initial sponsored tattoo, for GoldenPalace.com, an online casino. He donated his kidney to Lee, and used the money from the tattoo to finance his recovery time.
At the time, his altruism made headlines—in 2005, it was unusual to get to know someone via the internet, let alone decide to give them one of your kidneys. But Gibby seemed sanguine about the sacrifice . "I figure the more people I can help, the better place the earth will be," he told Bloomberg News.
Gibby wasn't the first to join the so-called skinvertisting trend. That title would have to go to boxer Bernard Hopkins, who in 2001 wore a GoldenPalace.com temporary tattoo on his back during a match, which earned the fighter a reported $100,000. (The gambling site made this sort of stunt a hallmark of its advertising campaign in the early 2000s.) In 2003, a 22-year-old Illinois man named Jim Nelson got a permanent etching of a web hosting company's name on the back of his head and another guy sold temporary advertising space on his forehead; in 2005 a Utah woman got a GoldenPalace.com tattoo on her forehead in exchange for $10,000 that she said would go to private school for her son.
Gibby's motives seemed purer than those of other skinvertisers, but his manic generosity had a flip side, Avila tells VICE. She remembers him sliding into deep depressions, drinking and cheating and being all over the place emotionally. "If he missed one day of work, he'd say he ruined everything and couldn't go back," she says. "He would be so excited about stuff and then just so down. I told him to get help, and he said nothing was wrong with him."
In 2006, the couple separated, according to Avila. Gibby wasn't destitute—he boasted a 19-0 record on the local Alaska boxing circuit and balanced that with jobs as both a mail clerk and liquor store clerk—but like most working-class people, he could always use extra cash to help make ends meet. So he decided to sell his chest to the highest bidder on eBay. Although he says now that companies like Toyota expressed interest at his idea, no one bit.
Then, when the economy tanked in the late 2000s, Gibby was laid off from his two jobs. He knew what he had to do to keep his kids of the streets. "I didn't want to get tattoos on my face, but I kept thinking, I'm gonna get old anyway, and I'm gonna look like shit anyway someday, " he rationalizes. "You have to be willing to sacrifice for your children. I didn't want them to be homeless and live on the street."
Several adult companies cut him checks, he says. But the money struggles didn't end there. After all, who would want to hire someone with XXX etched onto his face? The only choice, then, was to get more tattoos. In 2009, Avila finally filed for divorce, according to court records. His money problem apparently grew worse, with creditors taking him to small-claims court soon after. In 2010, he sold his name to Hostgator.com for an undisclosed sum.
Through all this, he was dating a woman named Mailyne, whom he met when they both worked at Sam's Club. They would later marry and have two kids.
"The first time I saw him, I was thinking bad things about him because of his tattoos... But he's got a big heart once you get to know him." —Tonya Muse, a co-worker of Dotcom's
By, 2012, when Dotcom appeared on ABC's 20/20 to tell his story, his face had been inked 22 times; some of the domain names scrawled across his visage contained words like "porn" and "fart." When the segment was being filmed, a company called Pawnup had just paid $4,000 to colonize his forearm. "What kind of company would pay to advertise like this?" host Nick Watt asked. "Isn't it taking advantage of people in bad circumstances?"
Actually, Dotcom attributes his decisions to rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, which he was diagnosed with a couple of years ago at the Anchorage Community Mental Health Center. Now he's medicated, has a job counseling other people with mental illnesses, and is struggling to make his way back into the working world. "The first time I saw him, I was thinking bad things about him because of his tattoos," a co-worker named Tonya Muse remembers. "But he's got a big heart once you get to know him. You can tell he really cares about his kids."
Even though his mood swings have evened out, every time Dotcom looks in the mirror he's depressed. A study published in the Annals of Plastic Surgery in 2005 found that people who had experienced facial trauma had a lower satisfaction with life, as well as higher incidences of unemployment, substance abuse, and marital problems, than a control group. Dotcom could be said to have facial trauma of a sort—albeit a self-inflicted trauma spread out over the years. Now he's working on getting his face back.
So far, the mental health center has helped him get a $2,000 grant to remove most of the tattoos on his cheeks. "I have about 15 on my head and maybe eight on my face of varying shades," he says. "When you wear makeup you can barely see them, but I feel like a woman." Now he walks around in a hoodie and baseball cap even when it's the middle of summer and is desperate to start fresh.
To that end, in 2013 he offered to sell other areas of his body to raise money to get the face tattoos wiped, but there weren't any takers, though a porn site did pay to have some of the tats removed. Last year, he started a crowdfunding campaign, but he noticed that the media that had covered him as a freakshow was less interested in the aftermath. The attention faded away, and he was only able to raise $20.
When he looks in the mirror, he doesn't even recognize himself. But for some of his kids, their tatted-up dad is the only dad they know.
"My daughter knew I wanted to get them removed and she was like, 'No! I don't want you to get your tattoos removed,'" Dotcom says. "And I'm like, 'Sweetie, no, it will be better for us. I can get a better job and take care of us better.' She'll cry, because that's all she's known."
Now he both wants to get the tattoos off and change his name back to something that won't raise eyebrows on a résumé. To take care of the former, he's started another crowdfunding campaign.(Progress is slow, and he's only raised $5 in 24 days.)
But technically, he could have already changed his name. He says that the hosting company has changed owners, and he doesn't really have a contract with them anyway.
So why doesn't he?
"It's just like, people laugh about it," he says. "I don't really care what people think, but it's fun to see their reactions."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.
You can donate to Hostgator M. Dotcom's crowdfunding campaign here.