Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG)

Katy Gaines made her world debut on a billboard ad for a health food store in Portugal. Shortly afterwards, she popped up hawking cell phone data on the side of a bus in Oslo. Even in Orange County, where Gaines grew up, a friend recognized her on the pamphlet for a teeth whitening treatment. She’s been everywhere. Maybe you’ve even see her face.

Gaines never planned to be an international stock photo model. She just wanted some professional photographs to send her mother, whom she was missing after living in Cape Town for six months. One day, Gaines was walking down the street in her neighborhood, when a couple approached her and asked if she’d be interested in some paid modeling work for their apparently fledging stock photo business. “They told me that they wouldn’t be able to pay me for the first shoot,” Gaines said, though she did stand to make royalties and earn a second shoot if “the image does well.”

The Norwegian cell phone data ad

Both Gaines and her then-boyfriend were naturally suspicious. But the photographers claimed that, per Gaines’s recollection of events, “all of our photos have been used for Japanese pop-up ads and random internet ads that you’ll never see. It’s not going to be a big lucrative thing.” She agreed to do the shoot, which took place outside of the boyfriend’s house.

That was 2012. In the six years since, Gaines’s face has appeared in advertisements around the globe. Her photos are owned by Daxiao Productions, a South Africa-based company boasting thousands of image available for use on their Shutterstock page. She hasn’t seen a cent of royalties. The photographers who took her picture have not spoken to Gaines since sending her a copy of the contract she signed in 2012, which, contrary to the sales pitch they lured her in with, prevented her from collecting any money. It’s a small-time scam, all told, and because of Gaines’s unwitting role as the star of Daxiao’s “Carefree Girl” set, in photos like “carefree woman dancing in the sunset on the beach (vacation vitality healthy living concept)” and “beach girl sits on the sand and opens her arms in a display of freedom and joy (panoramic large image with copyspace),” friends have spotted her in all sorts of ads all around the world.

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“When it first happened,” Gaines said, friends would recognize her in a photo two to three times a month. “It was all over the place; it was really widespread.” She was the face of a Mexican bottled water brand, a Portuguese mall’s makeup section, various photo editing apps in the App Store. “A lot of [the ads] are health related, like for teeth whitening or skin care, which, yeah, I’m so honored,” she said with a laugh. Gaines’s face has even traveled back to Orange County, where she’s from, as a friend saw “a pamphlet for knockoff Invisalign in my orthodontist’s office.”

“A friend of mine texted me when she was in Ibiza,” Gaines said, “and she was like, ‘Imagine my surprise when I rolled over at 7:00 in the morning after partying all night, and whose face do I see on the water bottle but you?’” She was, unwittingly, the face of a chain of grocery-store-brand water bottles on the party island.

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“Probably the worst one was when a friend from Cape Town sent me a picture and said, ‘This is gonna sound really weird, but my girlfriend is having some health issues and I was helping her do some research, and I’m not gonna send you the website because there’s some really graphic vaginal pictures on it, but someone is using your picture as an ‘After’ photo for a clitoral cyst cream.’”

At first, Gaines was a bit angry at being duped by the photographers, though that didn’t last long. It’s not clear how much they’ve made from licensing Gaines’s image, but getting scammed never feels good. “At first I just felt stupid, because I knew I should’ve been more careful. But I was only probably mad for a quick second. To me it’s just a funny story,” she said. “My mom was really pissed, though.”

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The sightings have mercifully died down, and friends only send Gaines photos of her own face on, say, Norwegian skincare products about “every two months.” She’s most recently been spotted by friends traveling in Oslo and Amsterdam, her face adorning advertisements for dentistry products. Gaines hasn’t heard of her image being used to hawk products anywhere south of Mexico, but her photo has almost certainly been used in more ad campaigns than she has documentation of. If whoever took Katy Gaines’s photo had the goal of spreading their stock photography around the world, they clearly found the right person to rip off.

So, how common are little scams like this? “In our experience, cases like this are very rare,” a Shutterstock rep told me. “All images with recognizable models are accompanied by a model release, which the model must sign and date. We don’t accept images without this required paperwork. We provide sample forms for our contributors and make the language on the release form as clear as possible so that anyone who signs it has the information they need to make their decision.” The PR representative also said that the company investigates claims of exploitation made by models as they come up, though Gaines seems to have made her peace with her strange simulacrum of worldwide fame.