The perfect guide to understanding how an idea traveled in 2018—the Dante, if you will, of the year, navigating the circles of the internet’s underworld—is a dragon princess named Bowsette.
For a brief, shining moment in late September and early October, Bowsette took over the internet. The brainchild of an anonymous 20-something in Southeast Asia, this piece of Nintendo fan art was originally shared with a handful of Twitter followers before exploding into an international sensation. Conferences were organized in honor of Bowsette. Fans created tributes to Bowsette. More people searched in 2018 for pornography related to Bowsette—a cartoon character that did not exist three months ago—than they did for Stormy Daniels, an actual human adult performer who has had an extremely newsworthy year.
On Sept. 19, a Twitter user named @ayyk92 posted a cartoon to his 78 followers. The comic’s full backstory requires a fairly detailed explanation of the Nintendo Super Mario Bros. universe, but to summarize, the drawing showed the Nintendo villain Bowser putting on a crown that turned him into a sort of dragon/sexy-lady hybrid, to the apparent delight of pudgy plumber Mario.
Bowsette was immediately so popular that on Sept. 25, Google searches for Bowsette surpassed those for Donald Trump.
According to his profile on DeviantArt, a social media site for artists, ayyk92 is a 26-year-old man in Malaysia. His sporadic pre-Bowsette tweets were of his drawings or random ephemera: a picture of an optimistic cookie fortune, vacation photos, a tribute to a late pet bunny. He was more active on DeviantArt, where a scroll through the gallery dating back to his teenage years shows manga-inspired cartoons with an accessible, endearing quality.
The Bowsette cartoon didn’t seem that different from the other Nintendo-inspired comics he’d shared on social media platforms previously, or the countless pieces of fan art that get posted to the internet every day. But something about Bowsette, as the character came to be known, tapped a desire the internet—or at least, a very active subset of the internet—didn’t even know it had.
“Man, that Bowser comic just exploded out of nowhere. I went from 78 followers to 1000+ in a day!” he tweeted the next day. ”also no I don’t do smut but you can have this,” he wrote, above a sketch of Bowsette seated at a table, wearing an expression somewhere between flirty and friendly.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of fanart of the character, they’re all really good!” he tweeted on Sept. 21 to what were now 44,000 followers. “Sorry if I’ve not responded to them, there’s just way too many but keep up the good work!”
Bowsette fans no longer had to rely on ayyk92 for new images of their favorite dragon lady. Thousands of Bowsette takes were floating around the internet, with some of the world’s best-known manga artists contributing their versions.
“there’s a top trending tag on Japan Twitter,” aykk92 posted on Sept. 23. “What the hell is happening, I’m flattered but also a bit scared now.”
Eight days after she first appeared, #Bowsette had been tweeted 150,000 times. In Japan, where the wildly-popular character was called Koopa-hime (Princess Koopa) a group of fans organized a mini-convention dedicated to Bowsette cosplay and fan art. A Change.org petition to make Bowsette an official part of Nintendo canon garnered 18,000 signatures; the video game company declined to comment (and did so again when Quartz contacted it).
Almost as quickly as people realized they wanted more Bowsette, they realized they wanted to see Bowsette in porn. On Dec. 11, the world’s largest porn search engine, Pornhub, released its annual year-in-review statistics. In the 12 weeks since the character’s creation, there were more searches for “Bowsette” than for any other individual figure in the whole year.
The second-most searched name was Stormy Daniels, the adult film performer who in March filed a lawsuit against US President Donald Trump, related to a payment Daniels received to not disclose an alleged affair with the president. There were 30.2 million searches on PornHub for Daniels in 2018, and 34.6 million for Bowsette. The next-most popular video-game character on Pornhub was Brigitte, from Blizzard’s 2016 game Overwatch.
People still ask ayyk92 for new Bowsette content, or sexier Bowsette content, or cosplay costumes or other spinoffs, but more often fans have just gone ahead and created their own. The character had taken on a life of its own.
That’s the thing about birthing a meme. A phrase or image that captures the public’s imagination is transformed by its virality into something the creator can no longer control.
After celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died in June, Kyrell Grant, a Toronto writer in her 20s, tweeted a tribute to Bourdain that included the phrase “big dick energy.” The term, she recently explained to the Guardian, applied to “guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive.” Months later, a viral tweet used the phrase in reference to singer Ariana Grande’s then-boyfriend Pete Davidson, and then it was everywhere—on T-shirts, in think pieces, even on the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” shortlist. Grant tried to correct outlets that misattributed credit, but it didn’t matter. Her phrase belongs to the internet now.
“I’d love to move on, but the culture won’t let me,” she told the Guardian. “The phrase is utterly useless to me and it doesn’t even matter that I coined it; I’m still poor.”
Bowsette’s creator surrendered her to the public without apparent protest or animosity. He has posted a few more sketches of the character, and retweeted a couple of his favorite pieces of fan art. But unlike so many people who try desperately to hang on to their brief moment of viral fame, ayyk92 moved on from the character even before the internet did. He posts art more regularly than he did before Bowsette, but hasn’t tried to spin off or profit from the character. He doesn’t have an online shop. He’s still an artist sharing work he cares about with an audience, just one far bigger than he started the year with.
“2018! The first 8 months were easily my worst yet,” he tweeted recently. “Then Bowsette happened and I started drawing again At the start of the year I made a deal with @ahrenk_where he’d start doing commissions and I start doing comics, I guess we accomplished this but not the way we expected to 😅”.
When contacted by Quartz on Deviant Art, ayyk92 politely declined to comment, saying he “doesn’t really do interviews.” He also questioned the point of doing an article in the first place. “It’s 3 months too late to report something like this anyway,” he wrote, “memes come and die fast.”