Remember 'Alex from Target'? All About the Former Internet Star's Quiet Life Now (Exclusive)

“I grew up very quickly. I learned a lot about people," the onetime Internet sensation tells PEOPLE of the ups and downs he experienced

<p>Michael Rozman/Warner Bros; </p>

Michael Rozman/Warner Bros;

'Alex from Target,' a.k.a. Alex Lee, in 2014 and 2024

Can one photograph change a person's life? If you ask Alex Lee, the answer is yes.

In November of 2014, 16-year-old Lee was living a “typical” high school life; going to school and working part-time at his local Target in Frisco, Texas. It was only two months into working the checkout line that Lee was photographed by a teenage girl from a nearby high school, who was impressed by his looks.

“I had no idea it was being taken,” the now 26-year-old tells PEOPLE about the photograph, which was posted on Twitter that day and led to an influx of messages and followers on social media. “My phone, an old Samsung Galaxy, blew up with text messages and notifications because my number had been leaked,” he says. “My phone stopped working.”

Lee, who went from 15 Twitter followers to 650,000 in a week — along with a whopping 2 million Instagram followers — was quickly contacted by Ellen DeGeneres’ team, hoping to get the new Internet sensation on her show. “I was not very active on social media, so I had no idea who Ellen was,” Lee admits, laughing. “But a couple days later I was traveling to California to go on the show.”

<p>Alex Lee</p> Alex from Target, 2014

Alex Lee

Alex from Target, 2014

Related: These Target Employees Helped a Teen Prep for a Job Interview

While Lee says his experience on the show was “amazing," it propelled him to a level of fame he wasn’t prepared for.

“I was a very to myself person, I wasn’t popular,” Lee tells PEOPLE. “After the Ellen show, people started treating me differently, bothering me all day, and the news companies would wait outside my high school. The exposure was intense and I ended up having to leave my school and start homeschooling.”

As someone who wasn’t well-versed in the entertainment industry, Lee says he worked with a management team and did a few brand deals but ended up deleting his Twitter altogether. Lee started to feel anxious about posting on social media, but also had pressure from those around him to keep his momentum going.

<p>Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.</p> Alex from Target in 2014

Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.

Alex from Target in 2014

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“People around me were saying that I am missing a big opportunity if I were to quit, and others were sending me death threats, jealous that it happened to me and not them," he shares. "I gave too much power to the management team and those around me, and I just went on autopilot mode and went with it.”

Lee next ventured to California: “I drove out there the day I turned 18,” he says. Along with a social media tour around the country, Lee began making YouTube videos. "I hated it so much. So I ended up abandoning that project as well," he says.

Two-and-a-half years after moving to Los Angeles, deciding he “gave social media an actual shot,” Lee stopped listening to others. “It only confirmed that I heavily dislike it even more,” he says. Lee turned his attention to working out, and when he made a new Instagram with the hopes of “educating people about powerlifting,” he earned 10,000 followers, most of whom were there for their favorite internet sensation. It was then that Lee decided to be done with social media for good.

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These days, Lee is living a life more focused on his well-being. He keeps his friendships limited to those he was friends with before he blew up. This includes a lifelong friend-turned-girlfriend whom he is building a house with.

<p>Courtesy Alex Lee</p> Alex Lee, a.k.a. Alex from Target, in 2024

Courtesy Alex Lee

Alex Lee, a.k.a. Alex from Target, in 2024

“Right now I have a job at UPS, I load the trucks in the morning, and I have to say it's so much better than doing social media,” Lee tells PEOPLE from his home in Sherman, Texas. “The stress is so much lower. It pays a lot less, but I'm a lot happier doing it.”

"I never wanted to be 'Alex from Target,' absolutely not,” he adds. Still, he has no regrets about the moment. “I grew up very quickly. I learned a lot about people, and people don't always have your best intentions in mind, so I learned a lot about being able to trust others. I got to travel the world, meet a lot of really, really nice people and make some cool connections. It was all a great learning experience.”

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