In 2011, I was a senior in college. That March, I spent spring break outside the country, with no cell coverage and minimal internet access. I came back to campus on a Friday night and, after unceremoniously dumping out the contents of my backpack in my dorm room, quickly found my way to a party.
I was only there a few minutes before the opening strains of an unfamiliar song drew a roar of delight from everyone else in attendance.
Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
That was the first time I ever heard Rebecca Black's "Friday," and I'll never forget it. The second, third, and fourth times I heard it came soon after, as the track continued to play on loop indefinitely.
The music video had gone viral while I was away, on Friday, March 11—that's five years ago today.
Ark Music Factory, a vanity label based in Los Angeles, wrote and produced "Friday" for the 13-year-old amateur musician, whose parents paid $4,000 for the privilege. As of March 15, "Friday" had racked up five million views on YouTube. By month's end, it had dethroned—if that's the right word—Justin Bieber's "Baby" as the most disliked video in the site's history.
The video's universal notoriety was due in part to its unbelievably mundane lyrics (a favorite couplet: "Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes afterwards"), its aggressive use of Auto-Tune, and its cast of non-professional actors, who were Black's middle-school classmates.
One of these unfortunate teens—how could they have known what they'd gotten themselves into?—immediately captured my heart. She's on the left here, the girl in the pink dress, the one who Rebecca gestures to when she sings, "My friend is by my right."
There's no way you could have found this out back on March 11, 2011, but her name is Benni Cinkle. I was drawn to Benni because—braces, goofy dance moves, self-conscious smile—she was everything I remember about being 13 years old, distilled into its purest form. She's on screen for just seconds of the "Friday" video, but that was more than enough to immortalize the eighth grader as a meme.
When the internet smells blood in the water, a feeding frenzy inevitably ensues. As Black became an all-too-easy target for cyberbullies around the world, even receiving death threats, Benni too emerged as an object of derision. Commenters mocked "that girl in pink"—criticizing her appearance, sharing GIFs of her likeness, and even suggesting she commit suicide—without knowing so much as her name.
That's when Benni did something that, even now, strikes me as truly amazing: She told them her name.
One week after the fateful Friday when "Friday" permanently earwormed its way into the public consciousness, Benni and her mom, Pati Cinkle, established a (now defunct) official Facebook page under the title "Girl Dancing Awkwardly." Within six months, close to 90,000 people had liked it. Benni also took to Tumblr, YouTube, and other social media platforms, openly responding to hateful messages with humor and offering advice to other young people who were coping with bullying and personal struggles of their own.
In revealing her identity, Benni built a loyal fanbase of kids who were inspired by her resilience. She leveraged her accidental fame into an anti-bullying nonprofit, That Girl in Pink, and spoke to students around the country about her cause.
Now, Benni is 18, and a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. As you might expect, given how she's thrived despite what she's been through, she's remarkably self-possessed, bright, and warm. On Monday, she took a break from studying for her stats midterm to talk to me on the phone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How are you liking college?
I love it. It’s really cool. I’m a freshman, it’s my second semester at Cal. Classes-wise—I know I signed up to go to a school that’s really prestigious and really hard, for lack of a better word—it’s definitely challenging, but it’s worth it and I can already feel myself growing because of the community that I’m in.
I’m planning on double majoring in legal studies and in philosophy. It’s going to be hard, but it’s not going to be excruciating, because they’re both things that I’m passionate about. I want to go to law school, and they’re both going to help me get there.
Can you tell me how you got involved with the “Friday” video in the first place?
Oh, my god, it was, what, five years ago? Rebecca was my friend, and she was making this video. They weren’t going to hire actors or anything, so a bunch of her friends all did it with her. Then it just kind of blew up, and has followed me ever since.
What was the shoot like?
It wasn’t a huge production or anything. It was really just at her house, all in one day. It was half all of us hanging out, half shooting a video—that’s probably why it looked so unprofessional, because we were just a bunch of 13-year-olds. That’s why it was so surprising when it turned into something big—it was like, what?
What kind of response—if any—had you expected?
Honestly, nothing. I don’t know. I didn’t really see into the future, because I was 13, and I didn’t have the capacity to think about things like that. When it did go big, it was surprising to everybody. Not even that people had watched it, but that people hated it. That they were targeting me specifically for—I still don’t really know what they were targeting me for. I don’t really know why everyone was so mean.
Do you remember how you found out that the video had gone viral?
My cousin texted me, and I hadn’t told her about any of it. She texted me a [screenshot from the video], and was like, “Is this you?” And I was like, uh, yeah. And she said, "You should go see what it looks like." So then I went on the computer with my mom, and that’s how we found out. And my mom was just… She didn’t know what to do. She had never experienced anything like this. But she was really my sanity through the whole thing.
When I try to put myself in your shoes, even in your mom’s shoes, I can’t imagine—she must have been like, “Oh, my god, my baby.” But you sound like an amazing team.
My mom is the most brilliant, incredible woman I’ve ever met. She can intuitively handle anything. When this happened, she was like, I want you to see this, but you need to take it with a grain of salt—many grains of salt. Her solution wasn’t to keep me from it all. People ask me, why wouldn’t you just not read it? And what I say is, if you had a book in front of you that was anything everyone had ever said about you, would you read it or would you not read it? And everyone would read it. It’s the same exact thing. No matter what, you want to know what people are talking about when it’s you. My mom understood that. She just kept me from believing that those things were true.
A lot of writers I know, including myself, live by a philosophy of “never read the comments.” I was so impressed that you not only read them, but engaged, responded, and took back their power—and even made jokes about them. How did you find the strength to do that?
I have three brothers, and my entire family is hilarious. My parents tell us that, when we were little, they would have to tell us to be quiet in the car not because we were fighting, but because we were laughing too much. I remember when I was, probably, seven years old, getting out of the car crying because my brothers were making fun of me. My mom had to sit me down and explain to me that it’s okay to laugh at yourself. It’s okay if somebody says something mean, if they’re doing it from a place of love. Because they’re just being funny. And it’s okay for me to laugh at myself. And that was a preface, I guess, to what was to come.
I had to draw on that. I just had to assume that [online commenters] were coming from a place of positivity, or assume that they were going through something that made them come from a place of negativity, and that everyone was really a good person. If I hadn’t learned to laugh at myself when I was seven, I wouldn’t have been able to teach other people how to laugh at themselves. Had I not responded with positivity, other people wouldn’t have come up to me or messaged me asking, how did you do this? How did you get through this? How did you become positive? [That’s] what launched me to start my nonprofit.
Did any of that hateful feedback, especially from those first days, really stick out to you?
It was really just that it was everyone. There was nobody saying, why are you guys all so angry? It was also that I was 13. That’s a time when you’re really insecure, and it’s like, even people talking bad about you at school is so upsetting. And having that on a global scale, it was overwhelming. [It was] stupid things that teenagers would say, but adults were saying them. Just like, “Oh, she’s ugly,” or “she’s so awkward,” or whatever. Things that no 13-year-old wants to hear, because it feels like the end of the world if people think that you’re awkward.
That sounds like a worst-case scenario for a teenager.
Yeah, it was. And it wasn’t three girls at school talking about it. The entire world was talking about it.
I remember reading that you had seen that people were talking about you but didn’t know your name. What inspired you to come out and say, “Hi, this is me, I’m Benni?” Was that totally nerve-wracking?
I was definitely scared, but I was more scared that somebody else would create a profile for me. It was about embracing it and not letting anyone else take [my identity] from me.
I didn’t have to put my name out there. Rebecca had to put her name out there, because her name was on the video. But I could have just been another face. I think what made people respect me is that I took this on, that I chose to put my name out there.
But I mean, it sounds like we had it all together and we had this elaborate plan and everything was going to be okay, but it was day by day. Things were piling up and we were like, what do we do now? Okay, I guess we tell them who I am!
How did “Friday” affect your everyday life offline, in school or otherwise?
I really did find who my real friends were. The girls that I was friends with at that time, we’re still really, really close. And it’s because they were the ones who weren’t laughing at me.
At first—you know, it was middle school—people would bring it up. Like: “Oh, what day is it?” Every Friday they would play it over the P.A. system. But I think it died out at my school quicker than it did anywhere else, because everyone was just annoyed at it. It lasted about three weeks.
I forgot about it when I was at school, which was nice. The internet wasn’t over it. The internet still kind of isn’t over it. Literally last week, my friend texted me a photo of myself in that video and said, “Do you remember this?’
“No, I forgot!”
“Oh yeah! That happened?!” [Laughs.] It’s just crazy how it’s still coming to me now. Here at school, nobody knows. I only tell people that I’m super close with. Like, my roommates know, and some of my close friends in my sorority know, but that’s about it. I don’t have to be that person, which is cool.
I was going to ask you about that, because obviously, that was five years ago, and you’re a young woman now. Do you ever get recognized, or do people only know if you tell them?
Nobody says, “You look so familiar,” but if I show them that [image] of me, they’re like, yeah, this is totally you. If I get comfortable enough with somebody, I tell them, or if it comes up in conversation somehow—I don’t want to sound like I’m ashamed of it, because I’m not. I don’t mind telling people. It’s just not how I introduce myself. [Laughs.]
After you started a page in your name, all of a sudden—after dealing with all these haters—you started to get messages from fans and even marriage proposals. What was that transition like for you?
I didn’t expect it, but it definitely wasn’t unwelcome. [Laughs.] Any form of positivity coming from any of that was welcome. And I responded to it in the best way that I could.
It was almost like the people who were being awful didn’t understand that I was a real person, or that they thought I was a cardboard cut-out that they could just make fun of. So it was nice when people would actually talk to me and try to understand me, or let me speak. It was just cool to be treated like a real person.
The internet can be a really scary place because everyone is so anonymous—but you put a pin in that balloon, which is powerful. You’re a person, you have a name, you’re reading what they say.
It was hard. Are they going to hate me because they know my name now? Or are they going to understand that I’m a human? It was a leap, but I did it. For the most part, I came out for the better.
I’d love to hear about what led you to pursue charity work.
I’ve always been one to put others before myself. I know that sounds very clichéd… but in my childhood, I would always care for my brothers before I cared for me, [as well as] my pets. When I came out and started telling people my name and responding with positivity, I would get private messages from people and they would say, “I’m going through something right now, and I’m wondering how you’re responding with such positivity. How do you do this? Can you help me?” I couldn’t just ignore that, you know?
For me, it was very simple. Just because somebody says something about you doesn’t mean that it’s true. And I think that’s what’s really hard for a lot of kids. The pain that comes from people saying things about you is that it strikes you that they might be true.
That’s what I would tell people. It just turned into this platform—at some point I had like 10,000 messages in my Tumblr inbox. I was like, I can’t do all this. I’m starting high school. So we started a nonprofit. That made it a lot easier to respond, and I could just post on the nonprofit site: Helpful tips or things that would have helped me. That was really the point, to create something that would have helped me.
And then it just turned into more than that. I decided that what was most important to me was preventing kids from taking their own lives. It’s such an epidemic. These kids get bullied online and they feel so powerless and they can never escape it. I know it was a path I could have gone down, had I not been exposed to laughing at myself, and had I not grown up in a family that was so close-knit. A lot of kids didn’t have that. They never had a refuge. I could have gone down a really dark path, and it was my goal to make sure that nobody else went down that path.
That’s why I started That Girl in Pink—it’s named that, obviously, because I was wearing a pink dress [in the “Friday” video]. I got emails from school principals who had heard about me, and wanted me to come speak to their students, and so I went to schools in Texas, New York, Minnesota, all across California. It was just me talking to them about how to handle bullying when you see it or experience it.
I was somebody their age—I wasn’t 25 and telling them how to handle bullying, because it’s different. It’s different when an adult tells you how you should handle things, because that adult hasn’t gone through it.
After every speech, kids would come up to me and thank me. Like, “Now I understand what I need to do,” or “Now I can help my friend.” That was the best part for me: Knowing I could take something that was so awful and then, within myself, make it positive.
Do you find yourself connecting with the next “generation,” so to speak, of young teens? Is that still a part of your life today?
Once I started applying to colleges, I realized that my nonprofit work would have had an impact on that. I had to choose: Do I want to continue doing this or do I stop for now, go to college, get an education, get my law degree, and then pick it up later? And I chose the latter. It was a really tough decision, because I loved what I was doing.
I’m in a sorority, I’m a Chi Omega—I just got initiated, so I’m very excited—and the Make-A-Wish Foundation is our national charity. Even though I’m not doing stuff with my own nonprofit, I can still contribute and do something for the greater good, and it’s with kids. I also volunteer at the Berkeley Animal Shelter. Some people are extroverts, and they recharge with other people, and some people are introverts, and they recharge by being by themselves. I recharge by being in a room full of cats. It is wonderful. I highly recommend it.
Once I’m done with school, once I have a steady job, I want to turn [That Girl in Pink] into a program with [teenage] advocates who are trained to be like me when I was their age, who can go to schools and talk to kids. I don’t want my message to die.
Oh, gosh. That’s actually the part that I’m most embarrassed about. It was just to raise money, and we donated all the money that it raised to charity.
I’m not a very musical person, I don’t really play any instruments, and when I try, I’m really bad at it. The most singing I do is while I’m folding my laundry. [Laughs.] I don’t know why—I mean, I know why I did it. it was for charity, but it’s such an odd thing in retrospect. Who was I when I was 15 years old? That’s crazy.
How would you say your perspective on this experience has changed over the years? Do you look at it differently now?
Obviously, in the beginning, it was all negative. At first, I was confused, and then I was angry, and then I was sad. It was like all the five stages of grieving, at all once. But then, it grew into something positive, and then it was like I was changing people’s lives, and then it was like I was saving people’s lives—so it escalated pretty quickly.
Now that it’s all cooled down, I can definitely 100% say I would not be where I am today, and I would not be who I am today, had I not gone through all of that. I don’t regret saying yes to being in that video. I found my passion, which is helping people. I found who I am. And I don’t really know who I would be if that hadn’t happened to me. I feel like I would just be lost. Coming to college is this time when people question who they are, and I kind of feel like I went through all of that already. [Laughs.]
Do you still keep in touch with Rebecca or anyone else who appeared in the video?
Rebecca was home-schooled for two years and then went to my rival high school. We kind of lost touch. You need to be concerned with yourself at that time, and she especially needed to be concerned with herself, with her health and her safety. We kind of grew apart. But oh my gosh, who even was in that video? It’s hard, because I don’t think of these people as the people from that video.
They’re just your friends from childhood.
Exactly. I wouldn’t say that we all keep in touch, just because, you know, college. We’re all at different places. But when we go home and we see each other, it’s not like having somebody who I went through this deep emotional trauma with. It’s just a friend from high school, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, remember? That was awful.” And we laugh.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.