THEO PANAYIDES listens to the remarkable story of a Limassol-based social media star who channelled his need for control into creativity and blurs the lines between gender fluidity and trolling
A pale older woman at the next table – clearly trying to do some work on her laptop – turns around sharply. “You’re so loud!” she complains with a sigh. What she sees (and hears) is presumably a rowdy boy, a brash young man – we chat just a few days before his 25th birthday – with canny brown eyes and a huge smile, talking loudly about his various exploits (while, for some reason, being interviewed by a journalist) – but in fact Vladimiros Nicola, a.k.a. Vlad Ncl, has a story to tell, and it’s quite a remarkable story. “To be honest,” he says at one point, sitting in Caffe Nero at the Limassol Marina flanked by Kimonas, his friend/assistant/sidekick, “I’ve seen so much fucked-up stuff throughout my life, so much weird stuff… You name it, I’ve probably lived it, or seen it.”
That may be a slight exaggeration – but even his YouTube channel is weird, too weird for the many online strangers who engage with what they think is a cute, simpering girl with a high-pitched voice (the conversations happen on Omegle, a free chat website), only for the girl to suddenly transform into a big Russian dude with hefty muscles and a deep baritone. Vlad’s trademark shtick is to pose as a so-called ‘UwU girl’ named Natalie, attracting (mostly male) admirers whose shocked reactions when he reveals his true self garner millions of views. “How can you be so masculine but so feminine at the same time?” wonders a guy in one video (2.4 million views on YouTube). “Awww, thank you Daddy,” simpers Vlad shyly, dressed in pink with pink kitty ears, prompting another shocked reaction: “Don’t call me that!”.
His greatest-hits collection might include the anxious-looking British girl asking “Are you here for willies?” (“That’s one of the most hilarious ones,” he admits at Caffe Nero), the Indian boy who opines that Nat looks “dangerous” and asks “Can I lose your virginity?”, or indeed the African-American teenager whose astonishment inspires him to a grand social statement: “This generation is fucked, bro!”. “It’s one of those things, the, um…” “UwU girls?” “Yeah, in real life!” marvel two girls in his most popular video (3.1 million views). Then there’s the guy in a vid from six months ago (852,000 views) who tries to glean practical details after Natalie makes the transition into Vlad. “Did you get fake breast implants?” “Of course. How else I’m gonna make realistic money?” replies Vlad in a thick Russian accent. “Where’s your dick?” “It’s complicated.” “You cut it off, didn’t you?” gasps the guy, horrified. “I’m gonna put it back on later. I have it saved.”
All good clean fun, you might say – though a few things should perhaps be made clear. Firstly, of course, this is trolling: Vlad Ncl is a straight man (the ‘Ncl’ stands for ‘Nicola’, not a play on ‘incel’ as I initially thought) with a functioning penis, no implants and indeed a girlfriend of three years named Samantha (she’s 29, Austrian-Cypriot, and also a YouTuber). Secondly, older generations may dismiss the whole thing as dumb pranks for children, and Vlad doesn’t wholly disagree – “I felt like it’s gonna be so dumb that people are going to send it to each other, just for how dumb it is,” he says, recalling the time when he first started posing as a girl – but there’s big money in social media: he admits to making €6-10,000 a month just from OnlyFans (he’s actually on the similar FansLy), probably the same again from YouTube – and that’s not even counting Instagram and TikTok, where one of his three accounts recently got 160 million views (!) in just one month. Not bad for a guy who’s just turned 25.
Thirdly, and most importantly, what he does amounts to a massive social experiment – both in terms of gender, touching on fashionable ideas of gender-fluidity, and in terms of human behaviour, the whole idea of ‘trolling’ being online-speak for manipulating viewers’ emotions. That, in turn, brings us to control – which, for reasons having to do with his turbulent past and personal history, seems to be especially important for Vladimiros Nicola. At one point I ask about phobias, and he laughingly admits to one: “I thought I had a fear of heights – but apparently it’s not fear of heights, it’s fear of edges!”. Getting close to the edge of something, a rooftop say (even if it’s not particularly high up), utterly terrifies him. It’s a subtle distinction – because a fear of heights is a fear of falling, a fear of death, but a fear of edges is a fear of losing control: it’s a fear of the momentary lapse, the single step that might plunge you from terra firma into the abyss. A fear of edges is essentially a fear of one’s own weakness in potentially stepping over the edge – a fitting phobia for a person who basically created himself through obsessive dedication (“I’m a workaholic,” he says more than once; “I work 24/7”), having started with the odds stacked against him.
He grew up in Limassol, the son of a Cypriot father – already middle-aged when Vlad was born – and a mother from Stavropol, in southern Russia. He had four much older half-siblings, but the one he felt closest to (a brother) was murdered when Vlad was about eight years old – “and you can imagine what that’s like for an eight-year-old: instead of going home and thinking ‘What are we going to have for dinner?’, he’s thinking ‘Am I gonna get kidnapped today? Am I gonna get killed today?’”. It was an underworld killing; the brother owned cabarets, and was slain by rivals – and indeed he’d often taken little Vlad along on his nocturnal business, allowing him to “see things that a child of seven shouldn’t really be involved in”. Meanwhile, life at home was a nightmare; his father (who passed away in 2020) was “really abusive towards my mother and me” – and eventually Mum ran away with the boy in tow, holing up in a succession of tiny apartments and living in poverty throughout most of his childhood.
As a preteen, he was angry: “I’d be really aggressive. I recall at school, if anyone called me anything at all – like ‘stupid’ or something – I would instantly run at them to kick their ass”. Later, in his mid-teens, he put on weight and sank into depression; this was “when everyone starts to hang out with girls, everyone starts to hang out in groups. And you have problems that they cannot possibly comprehend. It separates you in a really weird way”.
Did he take refuge in drugs, or drink?
“No!” he replies, the brown eyes flashing. “Have you heard of the quote where they ask a guy ‘Why are you drinking?’ and he says ‘Because my dad was an alcoholic’, then they ask a second guy ‘Why do you hate drinking?’ – and he also says ‘Because my dad was an alcoholic’?… I’m the second guy. I despise drinking, smoking, everything that relates to it. I absolutely hate it, and I never, ever put myself in a position to do it.”
Instead, he channelled his aggression into mad creativity, making YouTube videos from the age of 12 (mostly gaming and whatever else he could think of; “It was nothing, I was getting like 100 views, it was really amateur stuff”) – and taking control of his life in other ways. “After the army I started heavily investing in my body, in terms of working out. I lost over 30 kilos.” He started a degree in Communication and Internet Studies, and got a job as a fitness instructor at a five-star hotel – but he knew “the classic path” wasn’t quite enough for him; Vlad’s online hero was an LA guy known as Airrack, who dropped out to become a YouTuber (Airrack now has over 14 million subscribers, making super-slick videos with titles like ‘I Tried Every Drive Thru in America’), so Vlad did likewise. In late 2021 “I quit university, I quit my job, while having just 200 subscribers – and I was like ‘You know what? I’m gonna be a YouTuber. I’m gonna make it happen, no matter what’.”
That was also the beginning of Natalie – though ‘she’ looks transparently like a boy in a wig in those first videos, and the high-pitched voice isn’t there either. That voice actually took months to perfect: “It’s called voice training, it’s what trans people do to achieve their voice. The logic behind it is that you’re trying to make your mouth and throat as small as possible”. Vlad gives a demonstration, contracting his throat muscles while pushing his Adam’s apple up and his tongue against the roof of his mouth – and a small girlish voice briefly emerges, the prelude to the usual bait-and-switch when “people ask me ‘What’s your name, shorty?’ or something like that, and I will respond [deep booming voice] ‘Vl-la-dimirrr!’”. (‘People get scared when I say my name’ goes a meme on his YouTube channel.) His dedication is impressive, then again he is – as he says – a workaholic; Kimonas recalls occasions in the early days when his friend would pull all-nighters, barely sleeping for a whole week. “I work on my videos for like 14-15 hours a day.” He can afford to employ editors these days – but still previews and arranges all the footage himself, so the editor knows “in what order I want it”. Control, again.
Control is a strategy to counter weakness. Drinking is a weakness; getting upset by the abuse he receives online would also be a weakness. Vlad comes across as bullish, confident. His trolling makes a lot of people angry (that’s the point), but so what? “I genuinely don’t care what anyone thinks about me.” LGBT types might also get upset, after all he’s appropriating womanhood without ever claiming to ‘identify’ as a woman – but, again, he refuses to be drawn. (“I don’t care what your sexuality is,” he says in a Q&A he did with Samantha two months ago. “I’m just a guy who believes that every human is a human.”) Vlad’s entire life is a fortress, built on the ruins of his previous life. It’s implacable, uncompromising (he has no hobbies) – and, perhaps, a bit lonely. A year ago he and Kimonas went to LA, hoping to meet and collaborate with Airrack; it was a disaster. Nobody would see him or talk to him, the YouTuber community being as cliquey and snobbish as any other community. “The moment I came back I realised ‘OK, no-one in this world cares about you. No-one. If you’re gonna do it, you have to figure out a way to do it yourself’.”
It’s a little bleak, when you look at the bigger picture: a solitary world without support or camaraderie, a cutthroat market where you have to be obsessive to survive – and millions of kids watching YouTube every day, each one alone at their computer, laughing at a sly Russian weirdo who seesaws between guy and girl. I recall what that teenager said in Vlad’s video: ‘This generation is fucked, bro’. Sure, it’s a funny line – but might it also have a ring of truth?
A wry look, a flash of the huge smile. “Obviously, if you compare what a person could do with their money 50 years ago and now, it’s totally different. The new generation is ‘fucked’ in terms of housing, in terms of inflation. In this sense, yes, we are fucked… That’s the first thing. The second thing is, I feel…” He hesitates, trying to phrase it correctly. “There is – I wouldn’t say a culture, but this saying of ‘You are enough’. You know? Well, I feel that saying to yourself ‘You are enough’ instead of ‘You can do better’ will never put you in a place where you want to do better.
“I used to be fat. I used to be broke. I used to be depressed – right? Imagine if I’d just said to myself ‘It’s fine. I am enough’. I would never have gotten out of that mess! But just because I said to myself ‘I can do better, and I should do better’, that’s why I got the body I wanted, that’s why I got financially to a much better place… And that’s a mentality that I feel the younger generation kind of lean towards – that ‘it’s fine’, they shouldn’t try harder.” Vlad shakes his head earnestly: “As humans, we really need to try harder in our lives. Because that’s how great things happen”.
Does a guy dressing up as a UwU girl count as a ‘great thing’? Sure, why not? – when it brings so much money and requires such creative energy, and when it keeps Vladimiros Nicola away from the edge; when it lets him construct his own life, his own success, his own persona. Money doesn’t seem to mean much to him, despite the years of poverty; he’s entirely ambition-driven. “I have a paper in my room,” he grins, “which is called the VCU – like ‘Vlad Cinematic Universe’, like the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]. And it’s basically the stages of my life, and what kind of content I’ll be making to match those stages.” Vlad Ncl as a franchise, a saga – a brand! Say it loud, though hopefully not too loud.