The Alexa Meade show

'Double Take,' a self-portrait. Courtesy Alexa Meade

A year ago this week, Alexa Meade went viral. After a photograph of her living paintings, as they're called, was first posted on Kottke.org, it went on to become the top link on Digg and Reddit. It was "liked" on Facebook, and retweeted countless times. Meade was on CNN, then the subject of a glowing profile in the Washington Post, and then appeared on Andrew Sullivan's blog under the headline "An Internet Star is Made," all within a few days. She was offered a show with the Saatchi Gallery in London. Then word about her art spread to dozens of foreign TV stations, and it wasn't long before she was turning down commissions for music videos from pop stars and trying to paint in the presence of a dozen Japanese cameramen, shouting over her, bewilderingly. Viral internet fame, as it turns out, is just as pathogenic as its name suggests: It takes over your life and robs you of energy, until you fight it off.

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Long story short

Internet fame was the first step in Alexa Meade's untraditional art career.

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"I would get 100 emails an hour," says Meade about her life last spring. "I'd get my inbox down to zero and I'd be writing an email and by the time I finished I'd have 20 emails."

She no longer replies to commenters on internet forums, or checks her Google alert. These days, "I don't know what is being said about me on the internet," says Meade. For her, that might be the biggest change of all. A year later, Meade's inbox is a little lighter – not for lack of requests, which come in an an ever-steady stream, but because the team at Irvine Contemporary has taken the reins. Getting representation has given Meade the chance to do something that most artists do before they get famous: to learn how to actually be an artist, instead of a meme. In her attempt to simplify her life and concentrate on her art, Meade's relationship with the internet has grown no less complicated.

alexa meade
"Query," courtesy Alexa Meade

Meade began her post-collegiate career as a political flack on the Obama campaign, not an artist. But after her unique style of painting – she paints flesh tones directly on flesh for a trompe l'oeil effect that, when photographed, makes the subject look like a painting – attained a gee-wiz popularity online, the reporters came calling, and her political experience meant she knew their game. When Meade and I sat down for pizza at Matchbox earlier this year, she began our conversation with a casual heads-up: "Stop me if I go into monologue mode." She's done so many interviews, she says, that she's able to speak purely in TV-ready soundbites.

"Everyone was asking the same things, so I figured I should kind of sharpen my message and handle it that way," she says. "But now I really only take interviews that have more substantive questions. So I try to give not-soundbite answers."

Reporters often ask Meade where she gets her models, what techniques she uses to apply the paint, and how she is best able to capture the optical illusion of photography that appears to be painting until the second that you look at the subject's eyes. They also ask her, as I did, what it's like to be famous on the internet. The answer: It's like hundreds of thousands of anonymous eyes are always watching your every move.

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