Where are they now? Interview with “Switcher Girl” Ellen Feiss
“I’m Ellen Feiss and I’m a student”. Back in the Spring of 2002, those words launched one of Apple’s more memorable, if not effective, ad campaigns. Known as the “Switcher” ads, the spots featured real people telling real stories of being fed up with the hassles of PC ownership, and their subsequent relief upon switching to the Mac. By far the most popular of the ads from this series starred Ellen Feiss, a 14-year-old girl who ended up in the commercial totally by chance. While other “switchers” quickly fell into obscurity, Ellen grew into an overnight internet cult hero of sorts, her fame spurred largely by the rumor she was high during the filming of her spot. Sites selling merchandise with her image sprung up on CafePress shops across the web, and fan sites declared their undying love for her.
Ellen recently started college, but not before taking a year off to star in an independent foreign film entitled Bed and Breakfast. We caught up with Ellen to see what she thinks of those Switcher Ads five years later, how she feels about acting, internet fame, and what she thinks about her image being on a Frisbee.
Macenstein: Hi Ellen. Thanks for taking the time to meet with us. The last time most of us saw you, you were what, 14? What have you been up to?
Ellen: Well. I finished high school, got accepted to college and then got a call from the Bed and Breakfast director. I decided to go to France in August and put college off. Two free tickets to Europe later I would say it was worth it for me, I’m not sure how they feel about it.
Macenstein: Why’s that? Do you think the movie didn’t turn out well?
Ellen: I think it’s ridiculous. It doesn’t really make sense. But it was really fun to make and the other actors are, in reality, very talented. The crew was also incredibly impressive and on to better things. I think it was just a fun silly project and perhaps somewhat of a joke for everyone.
Macenstein: Where can someone see it? There’s very little info on IMDB.com other than a 2006 release date.
Ellen: Contact Screenrunner, the production office if you want to buy a copy.
Macenstein: Take us back to that Switcher ad shoot. I understand you were not actually supposed to even be in the ads, you were actually just a friend of the Director’s (Errol Morris) son and just happened to stop by the set?
Ellen: That’s true. I was friends with his son Hamilton in high school and a few friends and I went with him to watch him make his ad. The two other girls I was with that day also made ads. We were asked to when we got there. What I was wearing in the ad was what I had worn to school that day.
Macenstein: So, were you really a Mac user at the time?
Ellen: Yes. I still have the same powerbook G4 at school with me.
Macenstein: Really? Apple never offered you any free gear?
Ellen: I got a free iPod.
Macenstein: So, that “beep, beep, beep” story was 100% true? How soon after your dad’s PC “ate” your paper did you force him to get you a Mac?
Ellen: The story is true, the 15-page paper was about the history of Chinatowns in America and I wrote it for my 8th grade history class. My parents bought my sister and I the G4 to share the next year.
Macenstein: So how did that shoot work? Was it all just stream-of-consciousness, or did they give you a script or direction of some kind? Multiple takes, etc.?
Ellen: The camera Errol used you could see his face in. So while he interviewed me, I was looking at him, and into the camera the whole time. The commercial was engineered for non-actors. It was literally an interview about my computer. He asked me questions to get me to tell him stories.
Macenstein: You achieved a sort of “instant internet celebrity” based on your Switcher ads that didn’t seem to fall upon any of the other “Switchers”. What do you think it was about your ads that made you a stand out?
Ellen: I don’t know? Because people thought I was stoned, because there aren’t that many young girls in computer commercials.
Macenstein: So back in 2002, you were just a regular kid, no agent, no manager etc. How soon after your ad aired did Hollywood call?
Ellen: Quickly. I got all the calls within a month or two. The “movie” I was ultimately in called 3 years after I shot the commercial. Everything else was all at the same time and fizzled out within the first year after the ad had finished airing. The online stuff has, obviously since we’re doing this, surprisingly held out.
Macenstein: What was the best thing to come out of appearing in the Apple ads?
Ellen: Making the movie, Bed and Breakfast, was really fun. The film itself is really not a reflection of all the great people that worked on it. I enjoyed the shooting immensely. It’s something I would do again even though I don’t consider myself an actress. Plus I then lived in France for free for most of the next year. A lot of astounding things have come out of that 30 second spot.
Macenstein: And the worst (aside from this interview)?
Ellen: Being “famous” in high school isn’t fun. I got bitter pretty quickly. For some reason people lose their sense of what’s appropriate social conduct when you have any kind of celebrity persona. People would come up to me and say really rude things that they either thought or they had read someone else had said. People for some reason have an urge to tell you what they think about you and your fame. You feel relatively powerless.
Macenstein: You seem to have a large male following, even to this day. Does it creep you out that they are, in effect, into a 14-year-old Ellen Feiss?
Ellen: It was creepy from the beginning. It was always one of the worst aspects about the whole thing. I was famous but not that famous. It’s not like I had to get a body guard, but my parents stopped letting me go out alone for a while. It was an annoying balance and the constant commentary I was constantly reminded of pissed me off. Plus a lot of my fame seemed to me to be based on the fact that I seemed to be a vulnerable (stoned) young girl. That is never who I was or am. I don’t want that kind of gendered fame and I was never proud of the fact that a bunch of dudes on the internet thought I was hot, or ugly or stoned or stupid or any of the other things people talked about. That being said, a lot of my fans have turned out to be nice, intelligent Mac using people. Mostly men but a few women too.
Macenstein: So aside from the positive experience of making the movie, do you wish you had not made the ads?
Ellen: No. I think ultimately the benefits have outweighed the negatives. Plus it has been so long I don’t know what my life would have been like had none of it ever happened.
Macenstein: You were actually offered guest spots on both Letterman and Leno following the success of those ads, yet you turned them both down. Why?
Ellen: Because it seemed like I would be the guy with the talking cat on the show. I would be the side guest the host would make fun of and then move on to the real celebrity guest. Mostly I didn’t do it because I was told my fame would escalate. My then agent told me there would probubly be people outside my house if i did the talk shows. I didn’t see any real acting jobs or cool things/opportunities coming out of that, especially because going on the talk shows would be categorizing myself as a stoner computer chick. It didn’t seem worth it to me.
Macenstein: Now, you actually made 2 ads, but the 2nd one (“I love my
G4“) was never officially released. Were both shot the same day, or did they ask you to come back and shoot a second based on the success of the first?
Ellen: Both were taken from the 20 minute interview / stream-of-consciousness I did initially.
Macenstein: Do you still get recognized today?
Ellen: I got recognized last year in NYC. But not frequently.
Macenstein: Has any one ever asked you to sign their laptop or iPod or anything?
Ellen: I signed a printed still of the ad once.
Macenstein: You recently started college. Did word of your “celebrity” follow you there?
Ellen: Actually no. I don’t mention it unless someone specifically asks me about it. No one figured it out until a month into school someone Googled me for another reason.
Macenstein: So, in that short film, Bed And Breakfast, you star as one-half of an American couple searching for a friend across France. How did you land that job? Were you actively seeking acting roles?
Ellen: I was in my last year of high school and the director called me after having Googled me, found the name of my school somehow, called the school and got my home phone number. This disgusted me at first. It took him 2 and 1/2 months to convince me to do the unpaid role. My flight, ticket and housing were paid for though. He had seen the commercial and wanted me for this particular part-mostly because there is a scene where I trip on mushrooms in it. Plus it’s a short movie, he thought the internet star power would help. I never officially began looking for roles. Right after the commercial aired, I had an agent, but I would have had to move to LA to really attempt any kind of career. Acting was never something I was actively interested in. But i do like it.
Macenstein: Did you have a problem taking the role at first because of the drug theme?
Ellen: I didn’t read the script-so I didn’t know about the scene beforehand, but furthermore I don’t care about being depicted taking drugs.It took them 2 months to convince me because I didn’t want to put off college for two weeks of shooting. Plus, they got my number in an illegitimate way so that took a while to convince me they weren’t illegitmate as well.
Macenstein:That’s a pretty brave thing to do, going to Europe at 18 to do a film with a stranger who found you on the internet. Without any real acting experience, and no script, what convinced you you could handle the part?
Ellen: I got nervous once I was there and on set, but when I decided to do it, my performance in it wasn’t really a concern for me. I thought about it as: they chose me, so if they don’t like how it turns out, that’s not my problem. They know I have no acting experience, it’s their risk. I think ultimately I did ok.
Macenstein: I read that after the Apple ads aired, Apple sort of advised you to not try to capitalize on your celebrity, and sort of fade away. Why do you think that was?
Ellen: A multinational company obviously doesn’t want to be associated with weed. Their instructions made me want to capitalize on it though.
Macenstein: So as far as you know, your friends who did the ads with you did not get those same instructions from Apple? You were singled out because of the “stoner” moniker?
Ellen: Hamilton’s ad was the only ad besides mine that was picked up. The other two girls I was with, their ads never aired. Apple was advising me not to take acting roles, not to go on the talk shows, so they were talking specifically to me.
Macenstein: Soon after your Switch Ad aired, there were T-Shirts, coffee mugs, etc. with your image for sale all over the internet on sites put up by your fans, as well as folks out to make a quick buck. Those sites seem to be largely gone now. Did you (or your agent) have to go after them, or did Apple do that for you?
Ellen: Apple did that for itself. My image in that commercial belongs to them. The money from Ellen Frisbees and alarm clocks would have to partially go to Apple.
Macenstein: Do you have a MySpace site? There is one called “http://myspace.com/ellenfeiss”
Ellen: i don’t have a MySpace.
Macenstein: There are 131,000 returns on a Google search for you. What’s it like to still have fan sites and folks pretending to be you on MySpace? Do you ever miss your anonymity?
Ellen: It’s not present in my day-to-day life, so I don’t think about it unless someone asks. Plus I rarely meet fans.
Macenstein: A large part of your mythology seems to stem from the internet’s obsession with the idea that you were “high” during the filming of your Switch ad. We’ve read past interviews where you attribute your slightly dazed look and red eyes to a late night shooting and your allergy medicine. That all seems perfectly plausible. However, you are now in college… Ever tried marijuana?
Ellen: I was not high during the ad. But I have smoked weed. Is that really surprising? You just had to ask.
Macenstein: So what are you majoring in at college?
Ellen: Photography/video or women’s studies.
Macenstein: Are you contemplating a show-biz career of any sort?
Ellen: Not really.
Macenstein: You met Steve Jobs after the debut of your spot at the 2002 MacWorld. What was your impression?
Ellen: I don’t really remember, it was very brief.
Macenstein: What do you think of the newly announced Apple iPhone?
Ellen: Sounds expensive.
Macenstein: Ok, we’ve taken up far too much of your time already. Let’s wrap this up with a quick lighting round to get to know Ellen Feiss:
What’s on your iPod right now?
Ellen: Nelly Furtado, Sleater Kinney, The Organ, Patti Smith, Sassie.
What’s your favorite movie?
Ellen:Bed and Breakfast. psych! anything with Diane Keaton.
What’s your favorite book?
Ellen:The Happening by Annie Ernaux
What’s your favorite TV show?
Ellen:Next, The L Word.
Currently single or taken?
Ellen: No comment
Do you currently own a Mac now?
Ellen:Same computer I had when I made the ad. G4
Macenstein: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions and update our readers on what you’ve been up to. It really is an honor to speak to a Mac-icon.
Ellen: Oh stop. No big deal.