Star of 'I Kiss You' Site Moves From Farce to Folklore

By DAVID F. GALLAGHER
New York Times

LONG after his simple home page made him an unlikely Web sensation, Mahir Cagri is still holding on to a fame that he knows he never really deserved.

Mr. Cagri, who lives in Izmir, Turkey, has for the past two and a half years made a living as a full-time, low-budget Internet celebrity, willing to fly anywhere in the world to hang out with anyone who will cover his expenses. His star has faded, and he says he is ready to go back to his old life as a journalist when the Internet gravy train stops. But for now, he is enjoying what is left of the ride.

"I wait for them to finish, the Internet offers, the invitations," Mr. Cagri said. "I wait and then I will go back to my `before' life. But they don't finish."

Mr. Cagri, 40, said that his story still resonates because he was the first person to achieve global fame through a personal home page, embodying the dreams of self-publishers everywhere. "Most of the Internet users in the world want to be like me," he said. "They make their own home pages, they say, `Mahir was successful, so we can do that too.' "

His story has already become part of Internet folklore. Until November 1999 Mr. Cagri was just another Turkish journalist. Then one morning his cellphone and home phone began ringing constantly. Callers from all over the world wanted to talk to him about his home page, a crude affair with the words "Welcome to my home page! I kiss you!" across the top.

The page featured snapshots of Mr. Cagri playing table tennis and lying on the beach in a red Speedo swimsuit. In entertainingly broken English, it listed some of his interests, including volleyball, travel and sex. At the bottom it invited everyone to visit him in Turkey, and gave his phone numbers.

The origin of Mr. Cagri's big break is still murky. He says that someone in Turkey copied his original page and republished it at another site, sending the new Web address to some friends for a laugh. (At first Mr. Cagri said the prankster had added the references to sex and the open invitation, but he now says they were his own.) Within days a million people had visited the page.

To some, Mr. Cagri was the Internet's village idiot, but others were touched by his warmth or just tickled by the absurdity of the whole phenomenon.

Mr. Cagri soon embraced his new life. Interview requests and love notes poured in, and parody sites popped up around the Web. Instead of threatening to sue, he encouraged this creativity by putting links to the parodies on his page. Then, in a remarkable essay (available at angelfire.com/ga2/records/mstory.htm ), he used his new platform to spread a message of peace and social justice and to invite everyone to his house once again.

The buzz around Mr. Cagri peaked at the end of 1999, when an Internet start-up sponsored a triumphant two-week tour of the United States. But his influence persisted. Advertising firms tried to replicate the Mahir effect by building fake goofy home pages that were subtle pitches for products like Lee Jeans. Last summer a European ad campaign for Adidas featured a South African man who popped up at soccer matches spouting the slogan "I kiss football!" and chronicled his adventures at his Web site.

Mr. Cagri cashed in with a string of projects, including a pop single ("I Kiss You") and a television ad for a British Internet company. He has written a book and is seeking a publisher and a movie deal. He says he is not rich but has made enough to live comfortably, and he still has the same five-room apartment that he had in his days of anonymity.

Internet fame has also allowed Mr. Cagri to meet a lot of women, some of whom make a detour to his otherwise avoidable city while touring Turkey. He says that one of his American fans is now his girlfriend. He is a local celebrity, too, roaming the nightlife district with friends.

But in places far from Izmir, the Web's tastemakers have found other diversions. A Florida man who likes to dress up in Peter Pan outfits was touted as "the next Mahir" when his site made the rounds last year. But the life span of these Internet fads appears to be shrinking.

"Just as the Internet allows pop culture to spread remarkably quickly, it also allows for it to die remarkably quickly," said Aaron Schatz, who tracks Web trends for the search engine Lycos. "Once the novelty wears off, you move on to the next wacky Internet celebrity."

Now the artifacts of the Mahir craze are disappearing from the Web as old sites are abandoned. And there are signs that Mr. Cagri is desperate to squeeze some cash out of his latest site, ikissyou.org. The humanitarian emphasis has faded, and a blinking banner asks, "Do you have Mahir-based e-business projects?"

When he talks about having millions of fans, it is hard to tell whether Mr. Cagri is being nave or is just a good self-promoter. But in person he seems wiser than his clownish Internet persona would suggest. His advice for other Internet fame-seekers is to not try very hard. "If you do something for being famous, maybe you will not be lucky," he said.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Cagri's adventures as an absurd blip in the history of the Web. But that would be a mistake, said David Weinberger, an Internet commentator and author of the book "Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web" (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Mr. Cagri's rise, he said, was a new kind of grass-roots star-making.

"The absurdity was the point," Mr. Weinberger said. "Hollywood has been cynically handing us stars, and we reveled in showing that now we are the ones who will decide who to notice. I think the general Web reaction was: `We made this relentlessly ordinary guy a star! Cool!'"