It was over six years ago, on a sunny day in Norman, Oklahoma, that 16-year-old Sean Kickham released his inhibitions, felt the rain on his skin, and became forever inscribed in the meme canon, whether he liked it or not.
Sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s car that day in May 2015, Kickham belted out an impassioned rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 hit “Unwritten” in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A, where the high schoolers had gone for their lunch break. His friend filmed it from another car, and his life — still unwritten — changed forever.
Kickham’s video has repeatedly gone viral in the years since; on Wednesday, Bedingfield herself posted it on TikTok and asked if anyone knew the identity of the mysterious redheaded crooner. The TikTok has now been viewed over 7 million times — but Kickham was completely unaware of his resurfaced fame until he was contacted by BuzzFeed News.
“I’m just now coming to terms with how big it apparently is,” Kickham, now 23, said.
This kind of serenade wasn’t out of the ordinary for Kickham in high school; he'd regularly sing at the top of his lungs in the car, he said. And doing so was nonnegotiable when “Unwritten,” his longtime favorite song, came on.
“I think it was on the Ice Princess soundtrack. It was this Disney movie about an ice skater that me and my sister really liked,” Kickham said. “It’s just a song I’ve always loved ever since.”
His friend who filmed it, Halie Hames, also 23, said Kickham’s love for the song was well known among their circle of friends.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that song while being friends with him,” Hames told BuzzFeed News. “He’s the reason I know it so well, and whenever I hear it out[side] of that video, I always think of him.”
Hames filmed him singing that day and then tweeted the video and posted it on Snapchat, thinking it’d just make their friends laugh. They were all stunned when it started going viral.
“Going back to school was kind of really different,” Kickham said. “A lot of people were a lot more willing to talk to me and take pictures with me, and that lasted pretty much until I graduated. It didn’t feel very good, because it felt like it was all just because of the video.”
Shortly after that, Hames deleted the tweet at Kickham’s request, who had started to feel uncomfortable with its reach — but there was no stopping the video’s viral spread. Several months later, another Twitter account reposted the video, captioning it, “Pulled up to a red light and looked to my left.” Divorced from its original context, it quickly blew up far bigger than it ever had before. (Hames reposted the video in 2018 with Kickham’s permission.)
“It was one of those accounts that just wanted the fame off it, where they took multiple viral tweets and made them their own,” Hames said. “My original video was just captioned 'my heart 🥺❤️' or something like that because I’ve always valued him and his friendship and he always made me laugh.”
For a while after that, Kickham’s life was unlike it had ever been before. Wherever he went — the drive-thru, the Walmart — people regularly recognized him as the kid from the video. “I felt like a celebrity for two or three months, and then it started dying down,” he said. “By 2017, nobody recognized me anymore.”
But despite his renown, Kickham has never made any money from the video — a frustrating but common truth of viral fame. “I have never made a dollar,” he said. “I got a paycheck yesterday from Jimmy John’s for $24.44.”
If you’ve spent much time on TikTok over the past few months, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Kickham’s video was primed for a comeback. A remix of “Unwritten” became a huge dance trend on the platform, and Bedingfield even performed it on TikTok alongside the dance’s creators in May.
But Kickham, who does not use social media very much, had no idea — until he was contacted for this story. He was stunned to see Bedingfield post his video and say she would like to meet him, something he said would be “amazing.” The two have not yet been in touch, but in a statement on Friday, Bedingfield said she'd "love to chat with him."
"I am really fascinated by the talent of the creators connecting with my music and how artistic and entertaining they can be," Bedingfield said. "I have been enjoying meeting some of them recently. This had me start wondering about the kid singing ‘Unwritten’ out the car window from a video that went viral six years ago. What is he up to now? And how did it originally come together? I’d love to chat with him. It occurred to me maybe TikTok users could help me find him."
Though Kickham appreciates the people who’ve said they love the video, viral fame has been unsettling, he said. In the TikTok comments, rumors claiming he had died started to spread. Many others somehow knew — and posted — his full name, which left Kickham baffled as to how they'd identified him.
“A lot of those people, I have no idea who they are, and it really creeps me out that they were able to get that information. … I don’t feel like I have my privacy right now,” he said.
It’s been a disconcerting experience, to say the least, but Kickham said the downsides of his online stardom haven’t stood a chance of souring him on “Unwritten.”
“It’s done nothing for how much I like the song,” he said. “It hasn’t made me like it any less at all.”