NCSU grad becomes the talk of Brazil

jprice@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2014 

The dramatic news about Helena Price keeps coming, always in doses of 140 characters or less. And in Portuguese.

She had to undress in front of her uncle, others informed her on Twitter.

She is pregnant, but the identity of the father is unclear, according to another tweet.

“@helena, you did a blood pact with your boyfriend (who’s also your cousin) and then went swimming and nearly died,” tweeted someone with the handle @gacta.

“I do not remember this” @helena dead-panned in reply.

She had a good reason not to: None of those things really happened to Helena Price, a 26-year-old N.C. State University grad and New Bern native. But Price has become an instant cultural phenomenon in Brazil, famous, essentially, for not being someone else.

And for having a sense of humor about it.

It started Feb. 3 when a serialized Brazilian soap opera called “Em Familia” (In Family) debuted, featuring a character named Helena.

Instantly, Price began getting hundreds of tweets, as Brazilian fans of the show tried to connect with the real star, or accidentally typed Price’s Twitter username, @helena, rather than the topic #helena as they shared their thoughts on the show.

At first, Price thought little of it.

“I’ve had this before, just from people who don’t know how to use Twitter,” she said in a recent interview by phone from her home in San Francisco. “I could be mentioned in a tweet intended for Helena Bonham Carter, or a DJ named Helena or someone’s best friend Helena. But I’ve been everyone’s Helena at some point on Twitter, so at first it didn’t strike me as that weird.”

“But then,” said Price, “it blew up.”

Initially, Price wasn’t sure what was going on. Then she ran a couple of the tweets through Google Translate and began to figure it out.

She quickly adjusted her Twitter profile: “Tall, pale, and half-Norwegian. Full-time photographer who occasionally dabbles in tech. Not the actress, DJ, Brazilian soap opera star, or state capital.”

Her good-humored responses led to an almost instantaneous explosion of popularity. Within hours, she had more than 6,000 new followers on Twitter, most of them clearly in on the joke that she really wasn’t connected with the show.

Brazilians began circulating photos of her face digitally swapped into scenes from the show, and onto the covers of Brazilian tabloids, or Brazilian icons such as a dancer at Carnival.

“Omg, I think I’ve become a meme,” she tweeted.

Hundreds of her new followers begged her to come to their country. Others professed their love.

Then it spilled out of Twitter. The day after the debut show, her story began popping up all over major Brazilian print and digital media.

“American is confused with Helena of ‘Em Familia’ and turns meme on Twitter,” trumpeted a headline on the weekly news magazine “Veja.”

A Brazilian TV crew showed up on her doorstep to film this mystery Helena, and a British tabloid reporter and a New York Times tech blogger called.

Her new kind of fame was, of course, not even possible before the advent of social media, and she doesn’t know quite what to call it or quite what to think about it.

“It went from @replies to the entirety of Brazil being in on the joke, basically, and I became a meme,” Price said. “It’s all really hard to explain.”

Price is a serious citizen of the online world. She does photo shoots and creates marketing campaigns for tech companies, promotes her work and theirs via a network of social media channels such as Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, LinkedIn and Facebook and, of course, on her own website. Even before the Brazilian phenomenon, she had 14,000 Twitter followers.

As Price sees it, her odd adventure says as much about Brazilians as it does about social media.

“Brazil really has a good sense of humor as a culture, and I have never seen an Internet culture specific to a country that’s so coordinated and focused,” she said. “Someone finds a gem, and the whole country descends on it at once.

“It’s clear to me in watching them that this is a form of entertainment that is as significant to them as watching television or watching movies,” she said. “They’re on the Internet and they’re watching very carefully what the rest of Brazilian twitter is tweeting about and it’s like this giant organism that ebbs and flows.”

Price diligently recorded the presence of the TV crew, shooting selfies for Twitter showing the Brazilians behind her with their video camera, another mirror-image-of-a-mirror-image moment in this saga of odd fame. She still tweets about some of the odder twists in the saga.

But her new kind of fame has created a new kind of etiquette problem: she’s struggling to figure out how to balance her more than 10,000 new Brazilian followers with her 14,000 old ones, who presumably will still be around after this surreal bout with international fame is over.

“This thing is only super-relevent in Brazil, and Brazil is just all over it, but I’m sure a majority of people in my network are like, ‘Oookaaay, we get it,’ and I don’t want to annoy them,” she said. “So I have to be careful about how much I engage with the Brazilians. But at the same time I don’t want to tick them off and have them be like, why don’t you reply to us?

“So I’m in this funny position here, and I think the easiest solution for me it to not tweet very much,” she said

It’s also unclear how long her unusual role in Brazilian culture will last. It could be a tad more than the standard 15 minutes.

“You know, being a meme you kind of die as quickly as you grow,” she said. “So, it could be something that just fades away. But the show is on another eight months, after all.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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