The accidental star of the 2015 Super Bowl didn’t intend to shimmy his way into viewers’ hearts during Katy Perry’s halftime show.
was genuinely puzzled when his phone began buzzing incessantly just minutes after he shed his seven-foot-tall blue shark costume.
"Please tell me you were one of the sharks," friends and family texted. When Gaw replied that he was, he became even more confused when they all wanted to know, "Which one?"
It wasn’t until Gaw returned to his hotel and watched a replay of the halftime show that the questions began to make more sense. He realized that he and the other shark weren’t in sync for a few seconds when TV cameras panned to them. The shark on Perry’s right danced crisply and energetically in time with the music. By contrast, Gaw seemed to lose the beat and follow a choreography of his own creation.
When Gaw logged onto social media, he discovered his character was the most talked-about shark since Jaws. The lovably awkward Left Shark inspired dozens of , numerous and all sorts of . Snoop Dogg Verne Troyer insisted
Gaw told Yahoo Sports that he still “didn’t realize how big a deal it all was” until the next morning when he turned on his phone after taking a 6 a.m. flight home to Los Angeles.
“I don’t know how the internet sleuths found me, but they did,” he said. “Every reporter, every news outlet, they all called me wanting to talk.”
Others in Gaw’s position might have parlayed Left Shark’s viral Super Bowl moment into reality TV opportunities or interviews on the morning show circuit. Gaw says simply, “That’s not my personality.” He isn’t a fame seeker. He just wanted to escape the spotlight, return to normalcy and focus on his work as a background dancer on Perry’s tour.
"I was actually a little scared because I wasn't used to getting attention like that," Gaw said. "I'm not famous. Katy's famous. So I didn't know how to react."
Did Left Shark wing it?
Contrary to what legions of wisecracking social media commenters said at the time, Gaw did not sleep through Super Bowl XLIX rehearsals, nor did he land his gig by “threatening to bite the person in charge of casting.” For Gaw, slipping on that shark costume and performing on America’s biggest stage was the culmination of more than a decade of striving to reach the top of his profession.
Gaw broke into professional dance as a teenager with the Houston Rockets and Houston Comets dance teams. When he moved to Los Angeles to pursue dance full-time in 2003, he had an agent, a few friends and little else besides the unflinching belief that he was good enough to make it.
“I knew nobody, maybe a handful of people at most,” Gaw said. “I was a fish out of water.”
Over the next few years, Gaw auditioned as often as he could in an effort to make connections, sharpen his skills and prove he belonged. Eventually, Disney and Nickelodeon jobs turned into an opportunity to work with Miley Cyrus. Then it was Lady Gaga and Toni Braxton. By 2010, Perry hired him to dance on her second concert tour.
Gaw was touring with Perry again in 2014 when word started to spread that she was under consideration to play the following year’s Super Bowl. Management would occasionally warn the cast, “There’s going to be some big people in the audience tonight.” It didn’t take Gaw long to realize that meant the NFL.
Soon after the NFL formally announced Perry as its Super Bowl halftime headliner, the popstar informed her backup dancers she would call on them twice while singing a medley of her chart-topping hits. During “Dark Horse, ” they would dress as human chess pieces and dance across a stage that resembled a pulsating 3D chessboard. Then they would change into beach-themed costumes for campy renditions of “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls.”
To this day, Gaw bristles at the notion that he forgot his choreography as Left Shark or that he veered off script. The cast rehearsed and fine-tuned a 12-minute show for nearly two months, eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Every step was pre-planned. Every detail was pre-arranged.
“No artist that performs at the Super Bowl takes liberties on their own that were not discussed previously,” Gaw said “The NFL is very strict.”
Gaw describes the sequence that transformed Left Shark into a viral sensation as a "freestyle moment" for him and fellow Perry backup dancer . Choreographers entrusted the two sharks to improvise while still staying in character.
Why did Gaw appear out of sync with Myrick and the music while performing? Gaw suggests the restrictiveness of the oversized shark costumes might have been a factor.
“It was pretty much the same steps and the same freestyle as I rehearsed,” Gaw said. “It just obviously translated differently because of the costumes. That’s what you saw in the final product.
“I don’t know how but it turned out to be a viral thing.”
Katy Perry shrugs it off
At the height of the Left Shark fervor, as "" and "" were spoofing the Super Bowl sharks, a Colorado man was getting and Etsy sellers were hawking Left Shark T-shirts and valentines, Gaw credits Perry with putting him at ease.
The pop star poked fun at Gaw but also made it clear she wasn’t upset. She even made Gaw and Myrick shark onesies, Gaw said, as “her joking way of saying thank you and saying that she appreciates us.”
In , Perry said that, because she changed outfits multiple times during her Super Bowl performance, her biggest fear was a Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunction. When Left Shark became the viral moment from her show, Perry said she was "just grateful it was only that."
"The Super Bowl is a content creator for the next day for the Internet — best meme wins,” Perry added. “If a funny shark dancing is the best one, then phew, thank my lucky stars."
Gaw danced alongside Perry for the rest of her Prismatic World Tour before deciding at the end of 2015 that he was ready for a career change. He took a year off, obtained his cosmetology license and began working as a hairstylist, first at a West Hollywood salon and more recently
“I’ve always been obsessed with my hair,” Gaw said. “I’ve always tried new things and different styles and all that. Being a hairstylist allows me to be artistic and creative and part of the entertainment industry without having to be on-camera.”
Eight years removed from the birth of Left Shark, Gaw is happy to have been at the center of an accidental viral moment. Stumbling across a stranger wearing a Left Shark T-shirt or Halloween costume brings a smile to his face.
Gaw seldom brings up Left Shark on his own, but hairstyling clients often pepper him with questions about his experience and friends constantly put him on blast. Each time, he’s happy to share the story of how a background dancer in a 7-foot shark costume became Super Bowl XLIX’s unwitting breakout star.
“It gets brought up all the time, and I love it,” Gaw said. “It’s such a special moment to be part of. People are intrigued by my story, and I’m happy to share it.”