Gavin Thomas is a typical Minneapolis 8-year-old. He’s got curly hair and a mouth of unevenly spaced teeth. He takes cute photos with new backpacks on the first day of school. But there's one thing that separates him from your everyday kid: Gavin is huge in China.
Chinese teens know him from a meme as "Fake Smile Boy.” Whenever someone is grinning through the pain, trying desperately not to rock the boat, or making the best of a garbage situation, Gavin’s face is the image they use to express it. There are photos of him with captions that translate to “study makes me happy” and “STOP.”
“A lot of people have said over the years that Gavin’s face is pretty relatable,” his mother Kate Thomas told the BBC. “People are able to kind of see themselves in Gavin.”
As the BBC put it, people seem to see a sense of “polite uneasiness” in his toothy but clenched smile. He has a grin that you might associate with someone in a hostage situation – trying to play it cool while sweating bullets. That’s something Chinese millennials can really get behind.
“Chinese people tend to be less direct and want to save face,” says BBC correspondent Zhaoyin Fengshe. So they've been using Gavin’s face to “mock themselves and ease awkward conversations.”
me looking at everything I should’ve done before finals week but put off until now: pic.twitter.com/DJmU4xqS27— brookelynn (@brooke_sullyx3) December 13, 2018
But the real Gavin seems pretty chill. The 8-year-old’s internet fame began in 2014, when his uncle started uploading cute videos of him on Vine. His followers loved the earnestness. They had no idea the second life Gavin’s face had taken on until 2017, when his dad’s co-worker asked him why he had a framed picture of that funny internet kid sitting on his desk.
Now Gavin’s face has earned him 1.5 million followers on Facebook, 450,000 on Twitter, and 1.8 million on the Chinese social media site Weibo. He has his own manager and legal team, and has made appearances in China and at the grand premiere of Wreck-It Ralph Breaks the Internet.
The smile, he insists, is totally real. That’s just how his face looks.
Gavin’s mom says he wants to be a YouTuber himself when he grows up, making videos and streaming video games. And if the internet’s capricious attention shifts away from her son and the ride eventually ends, they will always have this experience, says his mom.