There’s a persistent urban legend—it’s been around since at least 2004—about a Chinese woman who’d had plastic surgery, unbeknownst to her husband. Her secret was allegedly revealed after she gave birth to “ugly” children who didn’t look anything like her, and the couple divorced over the incident. The story has been debunked numerous times, but not before it wrecked the life of one actual Taiwanese model.
A week ago, the woman in that bizarre family photo you’ve probably seen—two conventionally gorgeous parents posing with three unattractive kids—told the BBC how modeling for a plastic surgery ad turned her into a meme and destroyed her career.
Heidi Yeh took a gig for a Taipei plastic surgery clinic in 2012, and posed for the now-infamous photo. The children were photoshopped to make their eyes look small and their noses flat, and the original caption read “The only thing you’ll ever have to worry about is how to explain it to the kids.”
Yeh says the image was only for that clinic, and was only supposed to be published in newspapers and magazines. Bu she alleges the ad agency, J Walter Thompson, allowed another clinic to use the ad online, and that the original clinic also posted it on Facebook.
Once it was online, the photo recombined with the old “man sues wife over ugly children” legend, which became even more viral now that it was backed by photographic “evidence.”
In 2012, the BBC reports, a Chinese tabloid attached the photo to its version of the story, which is where it first came to Ms. Yeh’s attention.
“When I first heard about this from a friend, I thought it was just a one-off rumor,” she told the BBC, “Then I realised the whole world was spreading it and in different languages. People actually thought it was real. Even my then-boyfriend’s friends would ask about it.”
The story made its way to major English tabloids including The Daily Mail, the Mirror, and the New York Post in 2013, and it picked up some juicy new (fake) details, including a name for the husband (“Feng Jian”) and a court-ordered payment of $120,000 for “marriage under false pretenses.”
The Post later appended a clarification kinda-sorta acknowledging the hoax:
Clarification: Reports of Feng’s lawsuit against his wife were originally reported in European and US newspapers in 2004, but with no details of any adjudication or payout. While many have cast doubt on the wild tale, details of an alleged civil settlement were reported on Chinese Web sites last year and English-language media this week.
The Mail and Mirror let their versions stand. None of the three included the “family portrait” ad, but a number of aggregators added it to the bogus reports. MSN had the story but deleted it, former viral trendsetter The Daily What ran the photo but later added a “correction” reading “UPDATE: We know this story is fabricated but hey, still funny!” and the Huffington Post ran the story but later hedged its bets.
The upshot, Yeh told the BBC, is that she’s been dogged by accusations that she’s had plastic surgery, and she’s no longer able to land major advertisements. She says a boyfriend broke up with her out of embarrassment and that her current fiancé’s family has even questioned her about the rumors.
She’s considering a lawsuit against JWT, but the agency told the BBC it can’t be held responsible: “As we all know, no one controls the internet... We can’t anticipate what degree of an impact it will have, how people will view it, and what they will do with it.”
Both JWT and the plastic surgery clinic claim they had the proper rights to use the image the way they did, and they’ve asked her to apologize to them in a press conference, lest they countersue her for hurting their reputations.