Taylor Swift at Auburn University
Ryan Leander (left) and Michael Wekall ’10 welcome Taylor Swift to Auburn in 2010.

2010 Auburn graduate Michael Wekall recently stepped away from his longtime video production gig at Marietta’s Johnson Ferry Baptist Church to try something different. “Different” didn’t quite go according to plan. So, to answer my question, no, he says, he’s not exactly working anywhere at the moment. But, in the spring of his senior year at Auburn, he hugged Taylor Swift.

Things will work out.

“That hug has gotten my foot in the door everywhere I’ve interviewed,” he says.

No reason it shouldn’t do the same thing again.

Wekall, who spent most of college in communications but technically graduated in history, was the brains behind “A Hug From Taylor Swift,” one of the YouTube generation’s first viral get-a-celebrity-to-notice-you social media success stories. It was the sort of thing that marketing and media companies usually pay attention to. Which, of course, was kind of the idea: to do something to make his senior year memorable, something that might make him stand out on the job hunt, something like convincing the new darling of the American music scene to come to Auburn to give him a hug.

“The entire idea just came to me all of a sudden,” he says. “I was instantly just like, ‘this is literally going to happen.’”

Call it psychic powers. Call it confidence. Call it having your finger on the cultural pulse. But on Jan. 26, 2010, armed with a Flip camera, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, a dot-com, homemade T-shirts, boyish charm and, ultimately, thousands of supporters who wish they’d thought of it first, Wekall and partner in crime Ryan Leander, a high school friend turned roommate, launched an Auburn-based internet campaign that instantly connected with blogs, TV stations, message boards, Swifties and, within a month or so, Swift herself.

“Those were the best few months of my life. It changed Ryan’s life. It changed my life.”

Taylor Swift preforming at Auburn University
Swift’s management team co-opted the project into a PR goldmine, having her address the hopeful huggers via video while on her first concert tour, promising them they would be one step closer to their innocent, ambitious embrace if they completed a series of charitable challenges like “Help an Old Lady Across The Street,” which dozens of her fans quickly embraced themselves.

“Other people were getting involved and posting their own videos of them completing the challenges,” Wekall says. “That was one of the coolest things.”

But not as cool as the coolest.

On Monday, April 26, 2010 when some of Swift’s video crew showed up to document the third challenge— packing the Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center’s 350-seat auditorium for a mass karaoke performance of “You Belong With Me” with just two hours’ notice—he crossed his fingers. After the song, he stretched out his arms.

Swift walked through the auditorium doors in her own custom T-shirt that read “A Hug For Ryan and Michael.” She walked on stage. She motioned for Wekall. She motioned for Leander.

“Those were some serious hugs,” Swift later said in a video.

The PDA eventually gave way to an impromptu concert. The surprise “Fearless Tour” stop made headlines around the world. Sometimes, Wekall says, it still seems like a dream.

“Those were the best few months of my life. It changed Ryan’s life. It changed my life.”

And his resume, obviously, was never the same.

“Oh, it’s on my LinkedIn page and everything,” he says. “Actually, I probably need to push it back up top.”

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