Culture

The bizarre appeal of viral mugshots

Why do people like to look at photos of strangers at their worst?
Culture

The bizarre appeal of viral mugshots

Why do people like to look at photos of strangers at their worst?

The viral mugshot is a strange sort of cultural iconography, living on as evidence of people at their worst. Many celebrity mugshots have become iconic, fans searching for meaning in the rattled gaze or lack thereof in a gallery of Lindsay Lohan photos. The portraiture is received very differently when the subject is not famous, yet thousands of viewers are still drawn to them. People will dig to find what they want to see — conspicuously beautiful criminals, conspicuously ugly criminals, criminals with weird names and crimes and whatever else.

What makes a mugshot good? Why are we so fascinated by them? The Outline reached out to some authorities on the subject.


Matt James started his blog, popculturediedin2009.com, in late 2013 — his sophomore year of high school. His mission has been to archive the early tabloid and celebrity culture. His expertise has granted him wild success, and acknowledgement from stars such as Spencer Pratt. This summer, he organized a “Tabloid Walking Tour” in collaboration with The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum. It takes visitors along a NYC trail of the most iconic places and culture moments of the early 2000s. Last summer, he also curated an exhibit at the museum, titled “Nicole Richie’s 2007 Memorial Day BBQ.”

For decades, the image of celebrity we were fed was always glamorous. Parties and premieres, perfect makeup. With the rise of paparazzi that changed, and we started to see images of celebrities dressed down, looking far from their glossy selves. But then celebrities caught onto that. Pretty soon you had “staged” candids, and celebrities consciously aware of the fact cameras were following them — so they readied themselves. And then with the rise of social media we, once again, were confronted by anti-glamour. Now, instead of an intruder, celebrities themselves broke the illusions of who they were, and what their lives were like. They brought us into the most mundane parts of their world. But as social media became integral to our lives, an inescapable part of day-to-day — and for celebrities, the primary source of content for media outlets — the focus returned to the inauthentic and camera-ready, now with the purpose of online consumption.

Throughout all of this change, though, one thing has remained constant: the mugshot. The mugshot is the one, enduringly authentic look at a celebrity. It’s like catching an animal in their natural habitat. It’s still one of the few times we can see their genuine selves, not on a red carpet or shielded by a social media filter. When it comes to a celebrity, their public persona usually dictates how we feel about a mugshot. Crime comes second. Should the crime influence how we feel? Absolutely, but it’s rare that it does.

The “look” tells you everything you need to know. Without knowing the crime, you can understand the type of person they are, simply based on facial cues. A slight-dazed look in the eyes, paired with a smirk, is the typical Hollywood bad girl approach — just look at Mischa Barton’s 2007 DUI mugshot, Nicole Richie’s 2006 and 2007 mugshots from her DUI arrests, and subsequent jail stint, Michelle Rodriguez’s mugshot from her 2007 DUI-related jail stint, or any of Lindsay Lohan’s mugshots — well, sans the July 2007 DUI bust, her inaugural mugshot. She looked like a lost dog that’d wandered into the Santa Monica Police Department in that one.

Then you have the “deer in headlights.” Heather Locklear’s 2008 DUI mugshot is my favorite example of that. The smeared eye makeup really brings it to another level. There’s also the “serious” look, when a celebrity knows they’re screwed. Kiefer Sutherland’s mugshot from his 2007 jail stint and Hugh Grant’s 1995 mugshot are good examples of that. You also have the “smashed” look, where it’s obvious the celebrity is buzzed beyond belief. Mel Gibson’s 2006 DUI mugshot and Tiger Woods’ 2017 DUI mugshot are examples. And then you have the “wild-eyed” look, see: Michael Jackson’s 2003 mugshot and all of Phil Spector’s mugshots. Just one look and you know they’re nuts. [Most underrated?] Heidi Fleiss. I can’t even explain what’s going on there.

Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods.

Heidi Fleiss.

Heidi Fleiss.

Tiger Woods.

Heidi Fleiss.

Stormy Daniels recently stole the crown for best-looking mugshot. Hers was practically a modeling shot. God bless her. As for the worst-looking, Nick Nolte won that years ago. It’s heartbreaking. My mom absolutely adored him. She’s never loved someone else as deeply as she loved Nick Nolte. She even made me watch Rich Man, Poor Man with her. Once she saw that picture, I think a part of her died.


Mugshots.com publishes stories every day of the most wanted criminals in the country. The site is home to hundreds of thousands of mugshots, and has been accused of cyber extortion, amongst other crimes, in the past. The owner of Mugshots.com asked to be identified only as T.K., though his name is a matter of public record. This is his first interview since he gained ownership of the site in early 2014. His site has had 7,142,754 page views since August 1st, and posts around 7,2000 news stories a year.

Hear the voice of T.K. himself on The Outline World Dispatch.

Mugshots are taken to protect the community, so that the people knew who were arrested in their community. They were also taken to ensure the humane treatment of the arrestees, to show that they were in good shape, and that they weren’t beaten by the police. And I think it’s important speech. It may not be popular speech, but I think it’s important speech.

It’s not a hobby, it’s a full time job. It’s definitely not a hobby. We receive death threats all the time. Some more credible than others, but it’s not an easy business to be in, because your life is threatened. We used take phone calls. We don’t anymore. But people are so angry that they literally put death threats in writing, which I think is kind of crazy. But it happens all the time. There’s consistently been threats not only against my life, but my family members’ lives, my children’s lives. So there’s a lot easier ways to make money, that’s for sure.

We used to have a lot more [views]. In October of 2013, Google wrote a a new algorithm, and that algorithm was designed to do one thing. It was designed not to place as much weight on mugshots. And rightfully so. Before 2013, you would Google somebody’s name, and it would be all of their arrests. So instead of getting to know that person through Googling them, all you saw was these arrest records. There must’ve been a hundred sites at that time. So it just wasn’t fair to the people.

But what I don’t agree with Google doing today — and they continue to do it — they punish mugshot websites by continually delisting their information. They continue to strangulate mugshot websites because of their content. So it’s Google. It’s their right to do it. It’s their traffic. Do I think it’s fair? No. Do I think they’re doing anything wrong? No. It’s their right to do whatever they’re going to do with their traffic. I don’t think it’s fair, but a lot of things in this world aren’t fair.

I think that it’s more about people searching for themselves in a panic, or looking at their friend’s mugshots. Employers are not supposed to use it. In fact, on the site, there’s a [Fair Credit Reporting Act] disclaimer, that we’re not a consumer reporting agency and that cannot be used for employment, insurance, tenants, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance, but I think that it’s overlooked, and I think people do use the site for information. There was a guy arrested in Minnesota that he just got 30 months in prison, after throwing a firework at his baby’s head and putting hot sauce and cayenne pepper in his baby’s mouth, nose, and eyes. The guy’s a monster. And he deserves for not just Minnesota to know about him. He deserves to be on a national stage. And that’s what Mugshots.com provides. I know it’s going to [remain to] be popular. Almost every newspaper now, from The Chicago Tribune to The New York Times has a mugshot section. [Editor’s note: The New York Times does not have a mugshot section.] I don’t think the popularity is ever going away. People are naturally curious.


Nineteen year old Marshala Perkins, a former Texas A&M student, was arrested in February 2018 for possession of marijuana. Soon after, her mugshot was posted without her consent on @mugshotbaes on Twitter. The account, which has over 86,000 followers, did not respond to request for comment. Perkins has since gone viral due to her perfect makeup look. It has been a serendipitous experience for her.

I feel like there was something shady going on, because [the officer] came up to me when I wasn’t even driving or nothing. I was just sitting there in the car. It was cold, and I was waiting for it to warm up. It seemed kinda shady to me, because he came up to my window like he was looking for something. I had to spend the night [in jail]. I’m on probation for six months, so I get out of it December 18th. No smoking, no drinking, stuff like that because they do drug test you annually. I have 30 hours of community service to complete.

I was actually bored in my room, so I decided to do a makeup tutorial on Facebook. So that’s how I got the makeup on my face. I still don’t know who did it, but now my main Instagram page gained thousands of followers. My makeup page was around 300 followers before this. I was offered a makeup line, but that’s still in the works because with the people that contacted me, I don’t want to. So I’d rather just do it by myself. I teach myself everything. That’s gonna come a little later. But right now, the main thing I want to get up and running is my [makeup] studio to have clients in.

Marshala Perkins' viral mugshot.

Marshala Perkins' viral mugshot.

Nobody has really recognized me out. I work a full time job. I still work, so I don’t really go out. My boss noticed though, because I was on the Yahoo front page. That was kind of funny, but there really hasn’t been much negative attention, besides people trying to voice their opinions about my makeup. It doesn’t really bother me, because everybody’s gonna have an opinion. But so far, most things have been positive, which I love.

My family is happy. They’re proud. Once you turn something negative into something positive, you can’t really be mad about it anymore. My mom was mad about going to jail, because it was on her birthday. So you know, I wasn’t happy to live that down. I was not going to be able to live that down, until everything started turning around for me. My eyeshadow was popping, but I’m really mad that I didn’t have no lipgloss on though. I used the BH Cosmetics “Take Me Back To Brazil” palette.

Hopefully once I get my makeup studio and clientele up, I won’t need a job. For the most part, I don’t think this will hinder anything. I finished out the semester, and just decided that I wasn’t going back next fall.

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