Ithaca, N.Y. — Dustin Walsh has two lives.
In one, Walsh waits tables at Kilpatrick’s Publick House near the Commons and walks Ithaca’s streets with relative anonymity.
In the other, Walsh is a nationally famous YouTube sensation in the South American country of Argentina. His very presence there can draw throngs of adoring fans.
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Walsh’s second life began in June 2012 with a video he filmed in Ithaca, “Cosas Que Dicen Los Argentinos Hecho Por Un Yanqui” — or, in English, “Things Argentines say, made by a Yankee.”
He uploaded the video on a Friday. It got a few thousand views over the weekend. And then, like a tidal wave, a dizzying bombardment of attention came crashing down over the Georgia native.
In one day, the video got 150,000 views. Argentine TV stations took notice. Rolling Stone: Argentina published a story. “Every major newspaper in Argentina did an article about it,” says Walsh, who lives in Ithaca’s lower Collegetown.
Walsh says he has now appeared on national television shows in Argentina “about 15 times.” Earlier this year, he was on CNN Español in front of a global audience. On one memorable occasion, an Argentine talk show hosted by a national soccer legend had Walsh on the air — for an entire hour.
On the streets of Buenos Aires, Walsh has been mobbed by fans trying to take pictures with him. Sometimes, he says in an interview Thursday, their hands start shaking in nervous excitement.
“They’re treating us like we’re the Justin Bieber of South America,” he says of himself and YouTube sidekick (and Kilpatrick’s cook) Mike Nihill. “I’m sitting back taking this all in, like, ‘Wow, are you kidding me? Is this really reality?’”
(Full disclosure: Ithaca Voice Director of Video Advertising Michael Blaney has appeared in Walsh’s videos and traveled with him to Argentina. He had no role in the writing of this story.)
Walsh, 30, is now planning on leaving Ithaca again. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign with Nihill to raise money for a travel show he’s been dreaming of creating for a long time.
The first season will be, naturally, in Argentina. Walsh and Nihill have already linked up with a video production firm in the country, whose members knew him from YouTube.
“We want to dedicate ourselves to this full time,” Walsh says.
Walsh published the YouTube video launching the campaign today. (You can donate to the Kickstarter here.)
“We’re just a couple of guys living in Ithaca, New York … and we’ve somehow made a name for ourselves in South America,” Walsh says in the video. “We want to show the world how beautiful the country of Argentina really is.”
Walsh’s love affair with Argentina can be traced to at least December 2006, when he spent 10 days in the country.
“It was at that point that I said: ‘I’m moving here. This place is incredible,’” Walsh said.
The love for Argentina, he said, comes from its culture, its food (steak and empanadas top the list), its wine, its people — its laid-back attitude and pace.
“They have a European style — even the architecture; it’s like this European city got lost and found its way to South America,” he said of Buenos Aires.
Walsh ended up moving to the country full-time and starting a pub crawl modeled after similar operations for Americans in Europe. He would move back to the states after selling his share of the business to his partner — but his enchantment with Argentina, and the Argentines’ distinctive speech, remained firmly entrenched.
“If you learn Spanish in the states, you learn a more Mexican/Central American accent,” Walsh says. “The Argentine accent was so different, so unique and had so much character.”
“I was immediately drawn to it.”
Walsh’s engrossment with the Argentine manner of speaking would prove his jetpack to YouTube stardom.
Walsh’s videos — which, even if you don’t speak Spanish, you should really see for yourself — revolve around poking fun at Argentines and their manners. The fact that the satires were done by an American, Walsh says, makes them all the more irresistible to Argentines.
“They’re not used to Americans paying attention to them; usually it’s the other way around,” he says. “So it was a very marketable thing. The headline would be like: ‘Look at this American who has imitated us to a T.’”
The Rolling Stone: Argentina article makes this point explicitly. “Dustin Walsh compendio nuestra forma de hablar,” it states. Translation: “Walsh understands our form of speaking.”
After the popularity of the first video, Walsh recruited Kilpatrick’s cook Mike Nihill to appear in his videos.
“Imagine a big red-haired teddy bear,” Walsh says of Nihill. “I film a video teaching him Argentine phrases and words … and he butchers it. He does a terrible job, and it’s just so funny.”
After their fame spread, Walsh went with Blaney (known in this context as “Mike the Asian”) and Nihill to Argentina in October 2013. Walsh and Blaney got there first, and dozens of Argentine girls gathered to greet Nihill at the airport.
“Donde esta, Nihill?,” they sing in one video. (Where is Nihil?) When Nihill arrives, they swarm him with a group hug, and then follow the Ithaca area residents to their van.
Kilpatrick’s staff: ‘I didn’t think he was serious’
About six months ago, Leah Saari started her job at Kilpatrick’s in Ithaca. She was trained by Dustin Walsh.
At one point “(Walsh) said, ‘I’m a bit of a YouTube sensation,’ and I said, ‘Ha-ha, no, you’re not,’” Saari said. “I didn’t think he was serious.”
Saari said Walsh is modest about his second life — “he doesn’t advertise it,” she says — but admitted he has some “really good stories about his travels.”
Walsh moved to Ithaca to be with his best friend, who was completing his PhD at the time. With some leftover savings from the pub crawl business, Walsh decided to give the YouTube path a shot while working part-time at the downtown bar.
“So I thought to myself …. ‘There are all these regular joes out there with million dollar budgets doing this in their very small corners,” Walsh recalls. “My angle could be: ‘I’m this American who loves Argentine culture.’”
Zane Cotto, who also works at Kilpatrick’s, says he remembered being skeptical when Walsh first discussed that he was putting up the Argentine skits on YouTube.
“The reaction was: ‘No way. There’s no way they’re going to do this in Argentina and it’s going to work,’” Cotto said.
“They said they were getting popular, and I said, ‘Yeah, whatever … I didn’t believe them; I gave them both crap about it.”
Walsh now routinely racks up around 500,000 views on his YouTube clips. He has 50,000 Twitter followers. His Facebook following (142,918 “likes”) makes Mayor Svante Myrick’s look like your grandmother’s. A profile in the Buenos Aires Herald called Walsh “instantly recognizable.”
But for all that fame, there Walsh was anyway this Thursday night, shuffling between the Kilpatrick’s kitchen and his customers.
Wearing a black beanie and black company shirt, Walsh carried a tray of appetizers to a group of four teens seated at a back booth. No, the teens said to an inquiring reporter, they did not know they were being served by an Argentine Internet superstar.
Then Walsh took out his notepad. The teens ordered dinner, and Walsh jotted down some notes.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, it’s Walsh’s next move that is eagerly awaited.
“After going majorly viral, becoming an international Youtube star, and recognized local celebrity,” one Argentine blog wrote in an April 2014 post, “We wait with baited anticipation to see what Dustin will do next.”