Lifeguards’ video parody went off the deep end, officials say

It went viral, all right. But in all the wrong ways.

Now 13 city lifeguards and their supervisor in El Monte are fighting to get their jobs back — after being fired for making a video spoof of a widely popular Korean pop star’s song.

The “Lifeguard Style” video — a takeoff on the YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style” by rapper Psy — rocketed across the Internet, watched by more than 1 million YouTube viewers. Yet the audience that counted most — city officials — took a dim view of it.

“We thought it was hysterical and we wanted to try something fun,” said Michael Roa, a University of La Verne student who worked at the El Monte Aquatic Center for seven years. He edited and posted the group’s performance Aug. 26.

“We were trying out some dance moves,” he said. “We didn’t think we did anything offensive.”

Roa and his co-workers, college-age students, are getting offers of legal help in their quest to win back their jobs. But they say they will hold off until Sept. 18, when they intend to make a direct appeal to the City Council.


The video is one in a small army of “Gangnam” spoofs that are bombarding the Web, with everyone from Britney Spears to the Oregon Ducks shaking up in their own version. There’s even a Mitt Romney parody.

“Gangnam Style” leaped to No. 1 on the iTunes music video chart, the first time a Korean artist has ranked that high. It has received more than 149 million YouTube views.

“It’s comical, it’s catchy. News anchors dance to it. People hum to it. It came up on my screen on Yahoo! News this morning. It’s just so insane,” said Shiloh Jin, 24, who along with her parents runs a wholesale shoe business in downtown Los Angeles.

With the popularity of the lifeguard spoof, some of the fired employees say city officials are missing a golden opportunity to use their video to market the city — rather than bask in negative publicity.

A Facebook page the fired workers launched, “Bring Back the 14 El Monte Lifeguards,” had won the support of more than 11,000 fans as of late Tuesday.

“There was no due process in terms of what happened to us,” Roa, 22, said. The lifeguards and their manager — all part-time employees — earned $9.54 to $14.20 an hour, according to Robert Alaniz, a city spokesman.

Last week, supervisors in El Monte’s Parks and Recreation Division called in Roa and the others — including the manager who did not appear in the video — asking them to review pages from a staff manual before being terminated, according to Roa and lifeguard Yvonne Tam, a UC Santa Barbara student.

In a statement, city officials said the lifeguards made an “unauthorized video” while using city resources without permission, namely their distinctive red swim trunks and the city pool.

“I understand we broke policies,” said Tam, 20, an economics and accounting major, “but we did not vandalize or damage property. Maybe they would consider suspension or a write-up so we don’t have it on our resume for the future.”

In an email, Mayor Andre Quintero said he has seen the video “and it is a very good parody of a very popular music video.”

Lessons can be learned from the experience, he added.

“If these employees wanted to produce a video for their own enjoyment and memories, they could have asked for permission and shared the video with their family and friends using a medium that is less public,” he said.

“Fortunately for them,” he added, “the video has received positive attention, but it could have just as easily received negative attention.”