Justin Wilhite always wanted to be famous, and after his second trip to the ER on March 16 he got his wish. “I have it. Don’t sleep on this thing people,” he tweeted. “I’m a very healthy Type 1 Diabetic. My body is fighting it very well but it’s kicking my ass. Don’t be a moron. Stay home!”
Attached to the tweet is a hospital bed selfie, the kind that have become so distressingly familiar during the coronavirus pandemic. Wilhite’s eyelids are heavy behind his glasses; a flower-spangled clinical gown slumps below his neckline, a surgical mask sits on the bridge of his nose, an Oakland Athletics beanie is pulled over his frizzy brown hair.
Maybe Wilhite, who is 39 years old, was young enough that his warnings carried a sharper weight. Maybe the image of an ordinary American coping with a severe infection was frightening enough to draw our attention during a time when the NBA season was suspended and inbound flights from Europe were canceled. Maybe we relished an unbiased, straightforward account of an unnerving medical trial we will all likely face. Whatever the case, his story caught fire on social media. Wilhite says over 16 million people have viewed his tweet, it’s also earned 44,000 retweets and 162,000 likes to date. His follower count before his diagnosis hovered around 50; today, it’s nearly 10,000. He even received a DM from David Kaval, president of the Oakland A’s, who offered his well wishes.
“To hear, ‘I’m scared I don’t know what to do, and then I saw you and it made me feel better,’ it’s heavy, but it’s cool at the same time,” he told me, speaking from his home in Northern California.“In a weird way, I’m glad it was me.”
Wilhite’s story is an increasingly familiar one: He’s one of a growing number of people who have earned a degree of newfound fame on the internet thanks to their documenting of their experiences with the coronavirus. Other recent Covid celebrities include Yale Tung Chen, a doctor in Madrid who posted frequent updates about his Covid-19 experience to his 68,000 Twitter followers; Tara Jane Langston, a woman in the U.K. who posted a heart-wrenching warning from her hospital bed that proliferated across British media; and Mark Jorgenson, a patient on the cursed Diamond Princess cruise ship who now keeps his fans entertained with sing-alongs on his Facebook page.
The opportunity to become a “coronavirus internet celebrity,” for the lack of a better term, has opened up over the last month or so. Experts estimate that as much as 70% of the world’s population may contract the disease in the years and months ahead. Already, actual celebrities like Tom Hanks and Idris Elba have documented their experience with the sickness, which means that experiences like Wilhite’s will become progressively less novel as the virus incubates a greater share of our personal and professional lives. The truth is that the vast majority of people with Covid-19 will get better. It is up to them to decide what to do with the followers that remain after the virus has left their system.
“I paint custom cars. I’m an electrician. I was always making videos showing what I do in the shop,” says Kevin Harris, 55, who spent 20 days in an Ohio hospital recovering from the coronavirus, accumulating a newfound digital influence thanks to the video updates he uploaded during his hospital stay. “I wanted to engage with my community, and now the community is worldwide. My normal 60 to 100 people watching and laughing has turned into thousands of people. I’ve got guys from all over the country asking me to paint their cars now.”
Clay Bentley, who is 59, a retired sheriff, and current minister from Rome, Georgia, contracted the virus before it had breached most American cities. He posted a harrowing video on Facebook for his loved ones in early March, where he detailed his oppressive experience with severe Covid-19. That video quickly led to TV spots on CNN and Fox. “It just went crazy,” explains Bentley. He received phone calls, interview requests, and hundreds of Facebook friend requests as Bentley accidentally asserted himself as one of the first American faces of the pandemic.
Today, Bentley has over 1,300 followers on Facebook, more than a thousand more than he had before. The most memorable moment of Bentley’s brush with fame came via a phone call from Vice President Mike Pence. (“He said he was praying for me,” he said. “He gave me his phone number, and told me if I need anything to call him and let him know. That made my heart melt.”) Bentley is out of the hospital now, and nearly every day, he livestreams for his newfound plot of fans, answering anxious questions about the virus with his own devotional brand of reassurance.
“My dad was an evangelist. He got killed in a car wreck when I was a year old. I’ve known all my life this day was coming,” Bentley tells me. “God told me that this day was coming, to be a voice to the world. I didn’t know it was coming this quick.”
Three weeks after Justin Wilhite’s fateful visit to the hospital, he is feeling better. His lung pain has dissipated, as has the coughing and headaches. As of last week, he considers himself symptom-free. Since his viral fame, he’s slyly peppered his Twitter feed with a few stray links to his band’s demos, “just in case anyone gives a rat’s ass.” His bandmates, of course, are very aware of their singer’s ascent. They’ve petitioned Wilhite to canvas his Twitter with their tracks. But Wilhite has held back; he doesn’t want to ruin anything. “The response has been nearly 100% positive. I don’t want to shit all over that,” he said. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh I’m famous now, buy my stickers and my floor mat.’”
It has never been easier to get famous in America. It happens all at once in a flash of circumstantial instinct; the right viral dance for the right viral song, the presence of mind to whip out a camera for a potent public freakout, a perfectly salty tweet in response to a person in power. The question that befalls them all is what comes afterward, which is a particularly pernicious query for someone who was just ill with a life-threatening sickness. Regardless, the first coronavirus celebrities are eager to find out.
“I don’t want to be famous for being the sick guy,” said Wilhite. “I’d rather be the guy who cared about people, and turned it into something.”