Arts & Features Staff Writer
All it took was a spontaneous idea and an orange toothbrush to achieve internet stardom. For Zax Milkereit, the UNC Asheville student perhaps more fondly known as the #uncavltoothbrushguy, it was a quick moment’s decision that ultimately brought him into the light.
“I did not walk into it expecting to do what I did,” Milkereit said, referencing the spring day in which he posed for the now viral photo.
In the photo, taken by the UNCA communication and marketing department for promotional use, Milkereit appears an interested student in the front row of a classroom. To the average viewer all seems normal until you notice that instead of a pen in his hand he is holding a toothbrush.
For Milkereit, the incentive to participate in the shoot was never about wanting to add some hidden humor, but rather about free pizza.
“Throughout the year there had been emails going out requesting models or students that could pose for candid pictures for UNC Asheville media and I think I’d put my name on a list there somewhere, so eventually I got an email saying there would be a photo shoot and that there would be free pizza,” Milkereit said. “We started out in the Rhoades Robinson atrium, they just had us at different tables doing work and were taking pictures of us. I was just trying to pull up funny web pages in case they were taking pictures of that, I was just having fun with it.”
When the group moved to a classroom on campus to get some more photos, Milkereit saw his opportunity to add a little humor to the shoot upon opening his backpack.
“As I was looking for my pencil, I saw my toothbrush,” Milkereit said. “I had my toothbrush in there and I thought something along the lines of ‘this would be so funny. I wonder if I could get away with this if I just pretend like it?’ So I pulled my toothbrush out and started using it like a pen and trying really hard not to crack up. I had a really big smile on my face, which they wanted!”
As for the reason Milkereit keeps a spare toothbrush in his backpack: he said he hopes to practice good hygiene under all circumstances.
“I kept finding myself spending the night at friends’ places and forgetting to brush my teeth,” Milkereit said. “I found that I needed to use it.”
The photo was later used on the newly updated UNCA website as the cover photo for the Spanish program. It was not until a few weeks into the fall semester that a friend of Milkereit told him he had made it on the website and Milkereit discovered the photo.
“My initial reaction was ‘oh my goodness, this is so funny, I need to show as many people as I can,’” Milkereit said. “I decided to post it to Facebook assuming maybe 50 of my friends would like it and then I’d go on with my life.”
What happened next took Milkereit completely by surprise. By that night, the post had received over 100 likes and a few shares, quickly followed by a repost on Reddit where it soon received over 12,000 up votes. Milkereit’s original post from Sept. 17 now has over 6,000 reactions and over 3,500 shares on Facebook. Since Milkereit’s original post the UNCA website has seen a significant increase in traffic.
“The Spanish program’s page is actually the most viewed page after our homepage, it has almost 12,000 unique views,” said Sarah Broberg, special assistant to the chancellor for communication and marketing. “To give some context, from Sept. 3 through Sept. 11, the Spanish program’s page received just 34 views.”
With the photo now being shared across multiple social media platforms, the UNCA communication and marketing department soon realized the detail that had slipped through the cracks.
“I actually, ironically, was at the dentist when I found out,” said Adam Taylor, the photographer and videographer in the communication and marketing department at UNCA who took the now widely known photo. “I had some laughing gas starting to wear off and I saw an email from a coworker about it, and at first I wasn’t sure it was real, was it just the laughing gas? I was just kind of surprised and it seemed unreal to me.”
While the toothbrush may have snuck by the communication and marketing department unnoticed, the department views Milkereit’s added personality in the photo as representative of the spirit of UNCA.
“From a communication perspective these types of moments are very difficult to manufacture, so when they happen organically you run with it,” Broberg said. “Our role in communication and marketing is to raise awareness of all the great things that UNC Asheville is doing, so in my mind we’re all brand ambassadors. So for Zax to take the opportunity to inject his personality, I think it’s a great thing. We could all just use a little bit more humor in our day to day.”
For Milkereit, he hopes this experience will inspire UNCA to utilize more humor in images in order to gain interest.
“What I want is for the school to see this and realize, ‘oh my goodness, wholesome comedy is such a good way for us to get our image out,’” Milkereit said. “One thing I really like about this is that it’s very wholesome. I’m just holding a toothbrush instead of a pen, there’s no way for this to be offensive, no way for this to hurt anyone’s feelings and it’s just so accessible to so many people.”
As for the future, Milkereit is unsure where this experience will take him, but enjoys watching the story grow.
“I sent the picture to Ellen Degeneres, but no word back yet. So who knows, maybe it’ll have a second wave,” Milkereit said. “I try not to get too caught up in it because it’s really distracting when I’m trying to do all this homework, but it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and people have been telling me things like, ‘oh, my friend from South Dakota texted me asking if I know this guy,’ so it seems like it’s pretty far spread.”
Regardless of whether the story makes it to Ellen, the photo has definitely become a popular subject among the UNCA community.
“A friend told me, ‘you’ll forever be known as the girl who sat next to toothbrush guy!’” said Morgan Fuller, a UNCA student seated next to Milkereit in the iconic photo.
Ultimately, Milkereit said that getting to be the #uncavltoothbrushguy has given him more confidence, and has empowered him to be himself in all circumstances.
“This semester has been a journey of being more confident and being myself,” Milkereit said. “This has just been a lot of validation because in that moment I was just genuinely just being myself. I wasn’t doing it for attention. I wasn’t doing it to try and do something greater, I was just doing it because I thought it’d be funny to me and I was having fun. So now that this happened, I’m more confident in just doing what I want to do and being my genuine self.”