Whatever happened to Star Wars Kid? The sad but inspiring story behind one of the first victims of cyberbullying
Long time ago – well, 14 years ago – in a galaxy that really isn’t all that far away, there was no Facebook and no Twitter. Myspace was in its infancy. But there was still cyberbullying
If you remember 2003, you probably also remember a viral video of a teenage boy enthusiastically practising some Darth Maul-style moves, using a home-improvised version of the villain’s famous double lightsaber (actually a golf ball retriever).
Dubbed “Star Wars Kid”, 15-year-old Quebec schoolboy Ghyslain Raza went on to achieve unwanted international fame, after the footage– which he had never intended to release online – was shared across the world. It’s difficult to count how many times it’s been viewed, but some estimates (via NBC) place the figure at over a billion.
At first glance, there was nothing particularly sinister about the video’s online popularity. Raza’s concentration and obvious delight in what he’s doing, coupled with the fact that he makes a somewhat unlikely-looking Sith Lord, are both endearing and hilarious.
But Sudden online fame had a dark side – especially after Raza’s name was revealed on a Quebec television programme.
In a 2013 interview, Raza, now an adult, revealed that the video had led to cruel bullying from internet strangers and his peers at school.
“What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” he told journalist Jonathan Trudel.
“No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living,” he added, before recalling how his fellow students would “climb on to tabletops” in order to hurl insults at him.
The footage, shot on VHS in 2002 when its subject was 14 (this was the pre camera-phone era), was transferred into a digital format and released online in 2003, without Raza’s permission, after it was discovered by some of his classmates.
Later that year in an email interview with the Canadian National Post Raza, who left school because of the bullying and chose to study with a private tutor, said: “I want my life back.”
His parents launched a $160,000 lawsuit (Some websites claim the sum was higher) against the parents of the children who released the video, claiming that their son had suffered severe distress and needed ongoing psychiatric help. They later reached an out of court settlement, but the final figure didn’t even cover the family’s costs (Raza, via Mashable).
There was some support – according to Business Insider, after the video first went viral a group of well-wishers collaborated to send Raza an iPod and a donation, while a petition to secure him a part in the 2005 film Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith seems to have been well-intentioned.
But invitations to appear on various chat shows only exacerbated the humiliation.
“Every single talk show in North America wanted me as a guest,” Raza recalled in the 2013 interview. “I still have Jay Leno’s invitation. A Japanese show offered me a lot of money.
“But why were they inviting me? They wanted to turn me into a circus act.”
Today, if you click on the video – which is still on YouTube, after first being uploaded to the site in 2006 – and read the comments underneath, there’s a mixture of admiration, amusement and plain old bullying.
Some commenters berate the bullies by claiming to know the fate of the boy in the video: “ I heard he changed school because he got bullied and then committed suicide after they got to know”.
Luckily – as others are able to point out – the story has a much happier ending.
While Raza temporarily dropped out of school, he managed to complete his senior school year, and later went on to graduate from Law School.
His decision to speak out in 2013, when he was 25, was motivated by a desire to raise awareness and combat cyberbullying – something that has become much more prevalent in the decade or more since “Star Wars Kid” first went viral.
“You’ll survive. You’ll get through it… you’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who love you,” he said.
All in all, it’s worth remembering that today – May the fourth – isn’t just Star Wars day: since 2012, it’s also been the United Nation’s official Anti-Bullying day.
May the force be with you, Ghyslain Raza.