The Perils Of Personal Branding: The Kiki Kannibal Story

Being in the business of publicity, I love exploring the elements that contribute to specific examples of someone who is successful at building their profile. I’m interested in figuring out how someone unknown can build a large following and public interest, particularly online.

When recently presented with one such example, it got me thinking about the reasons someone chases publicity, aside from the obvious (making money!)

Kiki Kannibal – Teenage Social Media Sensation Or Little Girl Lost?

Kiki KannibalRecently, the controversial story of teenager Kiki Kannibal (Kirsten Ostrenga) came to my attention.

Back in 2006, Kiki first made her appearance online as a lonely 13 year old girl, searching for belonging, having just moved from Chicago to Florida with her family.

She filled her MySpace page with pictures of her dressed in punky “scene kid” fashion (a teen trend that is gothic with piercings and heavy make-up, yet also cutesy with vivid 80s colors and Hello Kitty accessories). Her profile online was brash, confident and outrageous – completely the opposite to the girl she really was. The result is an intriguing mixture of adult and infantile.

Within a few months, her friends count had skyrocketed to 25,000, all keen to see her latest photos. Unfortunately, not all her “friends” were admiring, with plenty of kids also sending her hate mail.

When she was kicked off MySpace, she joined, a site where teenagers streamed themselves live, while instant messaging with viewers. Her debut was a video of herself lip-synching and dancing crazily while wearing a hoodie with kitty ears. That was in 2007 and the video, now also on YouTube, has been viewed 500,000 times to date. There are now hundreds of facebook pages claiming to be her, and she has a YouTube channel and 14,000 Twitter followers.

Kiki’s journey on the road of publicity has sadly not been an altogether easy or bright one.

When she was 13, an 18 year old boy connected with her via MySpace, and they began a relationship that tragically resulted in him being charged with statutory rape by Kiki’s family. Kiki and her family’s were also subject to late night drive-bys, abusive calls and stalkers to her home. The family were forced to move, leaving their jobs and home.

They now all live with Kiki’s grandmother, have filed for bankruptacy, and have been sued by the family of the young man who was charged with Kiki’s rape (he died while trying to escape a police arrest). Not really a happy ending for Kiki or her family – yet Kiki is still online, despite the fact she feels lonely, stating –

I feel like a butterfly in a jar. They’ll watch me. And they’ll take from me. But no-one ever connects.

The Purpose of Publicity

The story of Kiki Kannibal got me thinking about the “why” rather than the “how” when it comes to publicity. My job is helping my clients create their public profile and generate publicity, and most certainly part of the strategy addresses the reason they want to become well-known.

From a business perspective, I don’t really see the point of becoming well-known or even “famous” just for the sake of it. Interestingly, I have been approached by clients who have asked me to build their profile, and many of them actually had an interesting story to tell. I had no doubt that certain media would be very interested in them.

But then, I asked them what they were trying to sell, and they couldn’t tell me. They had no product or service, and weren’t even sure if or what they were going to want to sell in the future.

This makes it challenging from a publicity point of view, because it doesn’t give me a clear direction where or how to position that individual. And, on top of that, I saw it as a waste of time and money (paying for my publicity services) on their part if they weren’t going to earn money from our publicity efforts.

For The Love or Money?

I mostly work with businesses or individuals in business. I always create a publicity plan with the goal of making money. As a wise person once said –

If you are not making money from your business, then it’s not a business, it’s a hobby.

There are certainly many people out there raising a profile for reasons other than to make money. They may be trying to draw attention to a cause or charity they are passionate about, educating others, or sharing knowledge or an opinion. Others want to be controversial, and others still (like Kiki Kannibal) just want to feel popular and important in their own way.

It is certainly not my place to judge the reason why somebody wants publicity, but I do like them to explore the reasons why they want it. There are always considerations, because there is a lot that can go wrong (like in Kiki’s case).  

I would advise anyone setting out on a journey of publicity to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are you building your profile to earn money and if so, what are you selling?
  • Does your publicity plan contradict or endanger other positions you hold (for example, if you are in a position of authority, you may not want to be sending out extreme controversial messages, as it might not sit well with your reputation).
  • How will your approach affect your personal life – are you putting yourself or your loved ones in any physical danger?
  • It can be difficult to change your reputation once you have built it. If you are building your reputation as a strip tease sensation online, but then decide to become a lawyer or judge, for example, you might get stuck with a reputation that won’t necessarily bode well for you in your future career.

I have just completed my very first free product, called Stratosphere Me – the Launch Pad.

This package helps you to determine your publicity focus and ensure that all your efforts are interconnected. It allows you to discover the “why” before you move onto the “how.”

I encourage you to head to my page and enter your name and email into the form on the to download the free guide and to join my monthly newsletter.


About Kerry McDuling

Kerry McDuling is a publicist and Director of her own public relations and publicity consultancy McDuling PR and exposure speciality business, Stratosphere Me – building brands and developing profitable business opportunities for companies, authors, speakers, and entrepreneurs.

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  • I think we are going to hear more stories like Kiki’s. Becoming an “Internet celebrity” has it’s perils indeed. With mobile phones and the ease to upload and access content I think a lot of people’s lives will be destroyed – bullying, practical jokes and personal branding gone wrong.

    • HI Nick, you are absolutely right. And this is particularly challenging and in some cases dangerous for children, pre-teens young people who are completely unprepared for this response.

  • I would say i’m was stuck at the early stage of blogging. Spends years in writing and trying to earn money via adsen. My personal branding was not in my priority list.

    Now days, i have manage to link personal interest and money making plan integrated and working on successful business model.

    But the fear of creating bad publicity of personal branding is always there.

    • Thanks for the feedback and there is always the risk, but be bold! Sometimes bad publicity just cannot be avoided.

  • Raj

    Its true that publicity can bring in a lot of unwanted attention. It would be better if we could geo-target our publicity/ branding efforts, as its quite possible in this Internet driven era. So, one is well known to people with a certain profile and is a complete stranger to everyone else.

  • Hey Kerry
    I would imagine this problem is far more prevalent than we would all like to admit. With two teenagers and a senior in college, I have watched them participate in Facebook and World of Warcraft, both interactive social forums with potential risk for exposure and abuse, and they take great care to “manage” our identity and exposure.
    The flip side is that great good can come from being able to engage people all over the world in this burgeoning digital age and I am starting to do just that. I have no desire (nor do my kids) for celebrity at all. I think the key is having a foundation of values offline before you engage in online activities and then some thick skin and the ability to take risks (with your content, not your personal well-being).
    Online information marketing is an absolutely amazing opportunity and unfortunately, where there is opportunity, there is always abuse.

    • Thanks for participating in the discussion Mark. I agree that any place where there is opportunity, there is risk. But being prepared and educating yourself is a very important first step and that is what you and your children have taken great care in doing. As the risks get more prelevant, I believe that greater protection means and methods will become available. Sometimes technology moves too fast for education to catch up!
      It is also important to remember that, in this example, Kiki was already an “at-risk” individual because of her personality and circumstances.
      Thanks again for your contribution.

  • It seems relatively easy to get a good internet presence for your business – although it takes a fair bit of effort. The thing I failed to realise in my early days was there is no way of deleting things from the past that don’t align with the image you want in the present


    • Hi Tony, thanks for being so honest with us. I had a look at your website, it is very professional looking and I can feel your personality coming through. If I were to decide to work with you as my executive coach, I would feel better knowing that you are not “perfect” and don’t pretend to be. I would like to relate to you as a real individual who has made mistakes and had good times and bad times, like the rest of us.
      Yes, sometimes you cannot hide your past online, but often it is not necessarily a negative thing. Don’t regret the past, but look forward to the future with optimism and understand that your past makes you who you are today. I know you are a trustworthy and entirely professional individual by what your website tells me, and for me as a business owner, that is enough.

  • Its true that publicity can bring in a lot of unwanted attention. It would be better if we could geo-target our publicity/ branding efforts, as its quite possible in this Internet driven era. So, one is well known to people with a certain profile and is a complete stranger to everyone else.

  • It sounds like Kiki wanted to join the cult of those who are ‘famous for being famous’ – the Kardasians, Paris Hilton, etc. I would hope that most of us who share the goal of making money in the online world are trying to build our brand by establishing credibility and authority in our field of expertise.

    • Kerry McDuling

      HI Sandy. Thanks for your feedback. I don’t think Kiki put much thought into what she was trying to achieve when she first started out, at the age of 14. I would say she was just trying to express herself at a time when she felt lonely. And this was the result… There are certainly lessons the rest of us can learn from Kiki and the others you mentioned, Paris Hilton, etc, and that is how you build a brand based around your personality and perception alone!

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