Story // JoAnn Zhang
Photos // Savanna Ruedy
How much has changed for Niki Demar since 2019, when Niki and her twin Gabi were the faces of 2010s YouTube, at the forefront of Life Hacks, Challenges, and Boyfriend Swaps? Their video “Going Through Drive Thru’s Dressed as Celebrities Challenge” saw 48 million views, and in it, Niki, blue-haired and dressed as Billie Eilish, is as bright and expressive as she is today, yet a few words betray the remove of that Niki from the Niki of now. In the video, she is in a flood of nerves as she drives around the oxbow of the drive-thru. She’s preparing to put on a possibly embarrassing performance for the employee (and viewer); it’s as though she’s in a barrel, floating down the last yards of lazy river before the unstoppable waterfall. Behind her, in the backseat, Gabi reclines in Z shape, partially screened by her fishnet shins. “I’m not good at this shit,” Niki says. “Gabi has much better send-it ability than me.”
The Starbucks window appears at the edge of the video and slides to a stop in the open quadrant of the car window. The window slides open, revealing in a smooth vertical sequence a chummy employee. He soon catches on to the joke; he points at the camera with a good-natured grin. For a split second, as she turns to beam at the camera, they lean left at precisely the same angle; their beams mirror their white teeth, and the cornflower blue button-up of his matches a swatch of the very shade near her elbow. Then he passes her her food, and she drives past, into a new batch of green trees and perfect piebald sky, and she is fluid with relief at how nice he was, how well it went.
Nowadays, far away from caricature Billie Eilish and self-deprecation, Niki is trying to be selfish. Having shared her entire YouTube career with her twin, she has made her project in music completely and utterly hers. Music was always the end goal for Niki, to whom YouTube was a stepping stone, though an enormously meaningful one. She has always been intensely emotional, and growing up, if there was no one to talk to, she would vent into her Notes app, in the form of rhyming lyrics— triggering envy from poets everywhere. That same emotional fuel sustains her music today, though the rhymes leave her Notes app and enter the hands of producers and PR agencies.
Having a large following on YouTube has been a slight double-edged sword for her entry into music. “When you become known for something, people automatically don’t want to see anything else, from what they’re familiar with. People love familiarity,” she told me. Yet some of her fans followed her from YouTube to music, and are her biggest supporters. Seeing their faces at a show makes her feel infinitely more connected to her audience than an unboxing vlog.
Since she released her first song in 2018, she has been prolific, with two albums and several singles under her belt; her most popular song, “Alone in my Car”, has been streamed 6 million times. Her vocals are clear, with a Halsey-ish trail of emotion at the ends of her words, and her songs range widely in style, though they are invariably catchy, and contain a whisper from the ghost of the 2010s.
Her latest album, RUINED MY LIFE, is a treasure trove of feelings from a particularly cathartic, emotionally extreme year. It was the year she broke up with her partner of five years, Nate West. She had never imagined she would be the one to leave. They had prepared for some time to settle down, maybe even get married. They built a house together, where she still lives. But she had felt for a long time as though she was on autopilot, heading down the ‘safe’ route of partnership without realizing she was unhappy. “My actions were saying I wanted to settle with him, but my heart and mind knew it wasn’t right, it wasn’t healthy,” Niki said. “We wanted totally different things, and it made us incompatible. He and I were freezing ourselves in a time machine of 2017, just trying to keep it going, when you could tell that the fire was burnt out, and the relationship wasn’t an escape or a happiness for us. It was tiring and draining.”
The facade of happiness was a powerful illusion, however. In therapy, she could check off the “successes” on her list: boyfriend, career, views, house, check, check, check, check. But as a music artist, she had to be honest about her feelings to write about them. Some of the songs on her EP are caught in the midst of indecision about the relationship, like “Dead End.” “I realized it’s gonna hurt to stay and it’s gonna hurt to leave. But at least if I leave, it’s not gonna be a dead end anymore,” said Niki. Making music was a catalyst in her relationship, forcing her to confront her unhappiness.
As a whole, above the turmoil, the album is her coming of age story, the fiery demise of her old life, and the phoenix rebirth of a new one, where she, her music, and her identity were front and center. “Everyone kept telling me I was ruining my life,” she siad. “A lot of people were constantly making me question myself, making me feel crazy, calling me selfish, when all the decisions up to this point have been about me and a twin. Nothing has ever been about me.”
Part of her new life is her queerness, having at last come out to her Catholic parents and audience as pansexual. She no longer wants to put her relationships in the spotlight, but she still needs deep connections with people, regardless of gender. “After being in a relationship with a female, I’m realizing women have this superpower of depth. I love that and I didn’t know I needed that,” she said. “It’s not about the physical for me. It’s truly about the connection, and gender doesn’t really mean anything to me.”
Though she has fully committed to music, her true love, she still makes the occasional YouTube video, sometimes with Gabi, sometimes on her solo channel. She does it for fun now, just to make herself happy. “I realized I never had an era where I was just being selfish, where I was like, I love you Gabi, but I’m choosing Niki, and I love you to my past partner, but I’m choosing Niki,” she told me. “Even to my parents, I love you mom and dad, but I’m choosing Niki. I feel like this year has been so hard, because choosing yourself and not compromising, for the first time in your life, people will get upset with you.”
She has always been, in the past, a people pleaser and a rule-follower. And now at 28, she is unraveling everything, no longer up for compromise with either her twin or her ex, no longer in the production cycle of money and followers. “It was so easy to be comfortable, and tell myself you’re fine. But then I looked back, and realized I’ve never fully done anything. It’s always been a compromise,” she reflected. “Why am I going to play it safe? I’d rather be sorry and have lived a crazy, cool life, instead of living with that voice for the rest of my life. It would haunt me forever.”
She released the “B!TCH” music video a few weeks ago, as part of her EP. In one scene, she’s in a hot tub, doused in purple light. She’s alone, in sharp profile against the unfocused city lights, those colorful polka dots wiggling in the background. In the second clip, she’s with friends, still purple, still in the hot tub. Everyone seems to be dancing, but her face is all that’s in focus. Everything and everyone else is a blur.
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