Ken Bone’s hustle shows how fast internet celebrities are cashing in

The before photo.
The before photo.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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He appeared more than an hour into the second US presidential debate in St. Louis. An undecided voter chosen at random to pose a question in what had become a dark contest, the man in the red sweater stood up to ask: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?”

That’s when America fell hard for Ken Bone.

His tomato red sweater, 1980s mustache, and last name made an immediate impression. And then his earnestness clinched the deal for those watching the debate at home. Could there be a nicer, more salt-of-the-earth guy? At the end of the event, Bone calmly snapped a few photos of the candidates on the town hall stage before casually walking off-screen.

Since then, Bone has become an internet star to rival Texas’s Candace Payne (aka Chewbacca Mom), whose video of herself laughing it up in an electronic Chewbacca mask went viral last spring. Bone has inspired a thousand memes, a pizza menu215,000 followers on Twitter, made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, and is the muse behind a few songs. Snoop Dogg invited him to get together and “smoke 1.”

For someone who trades on his unfussy innocence, and a story of an olive suit that he almost wore to the debate but had to change out of when he split the pants, Bone hasn’t wasted time capitalizing on the attention. Three days after the debate, he began selling official Ken Bone t-shirts and sweatshirts through the custom products platform Represent. The shirts sell for $19.99, and 2,000 and counting had been ordered as of this afternoon (Oct. 13). He has also partnered with Uber to launch UberSelect service in St. Louis. Yesterday, Bone announced that he will auction off the original red sweater he wore to charity, though he hasn’t said when.

Ken Bone tweets about his new t-shirts

He appears to be an open book for the media, and has balanced the publicity blitz with reminders of his mundane existence. “Now off to the DMV to fix my expired license while on the line with the next interview!” he wrote on Twitter. (Who else could be so chipper about the DMV?)

Bone told a Toronto radio station that he doesn’t think the fame will last. Instead, he’s positioning his courting of the spotlight as an opportunity to earn something for himself and some yet-to-be-named charities (he said some proceeds from the t-shirts sales will go to charity). “When the 15 minutes is over, it’s over,” he said. He isn’t quitting his day job (in a power plant control room).

dry sense of humor could buy him some time, lasting at least through the election. There is, after all, a template now for riding the long tail of internet fame. The question is how long he’s willing to endure being panned, even as others sing his praise.