Niharika NM© Niharika NM

EXCLUSIVE: Niharika NM On What It’s Really Like Being An Internet Celebrity

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

Niharika NM is not an overnight sensation. In fact, she hates being called one. “People don’t realise how much time, effort, and hard work I’ve put into my videos. Even after all this, people still call me an ‘overnight sensation’ in the pandemic! It was so funny to me because I was like ‘What do you mean by overnight?! I’ve been doing this for so many years!’ But I just rolled with the tag because what else could you do?” she says.

Her ‘what could you do’ attitude is, perhaps, how she remains level-headed even after amassing nearly three million followers online. “So many people have got millions of followers these days. What makes me different? When I do something that I’m extremely proud of and I believe that nobody can replicate this, then I would feel like I’ve made it. But as of now, I think I’ve just started. I don’t have anything I can really flex about! There’s so much more to do yet,” comes her reply, when I point out the remarkable feat.

Just like she said, Niharika NM is not an overnight sensation. In fact, the content creator began making YouTube videos back when the video streaming platform was just taking off in India. She admits that she started making these videos as a hobby while studying engineering in college and abandoned her nascent comedy channel in favour of getting an MBA degree in the US. It was a few years later, when Niharika was still in the States, that the whole world went under a state of lockdown because of COVID. “I realised that I’m in this new country where I can’t go to my family, can’t meet my friends, all my classes were online and I found myself confined to these four walls. How do I not go crazy? So my creative outlet was creating these videos again,” she revealed, “This time I didn’t have the excuse of not having time to make these videos because time was all I had. Also, the short-form content was much easier to do than the videos I made for YouTube. I started having fun with it.”

The creator mines her own life experiences and her sharp observations of those around her to create hilarious videos on Instagram. She admits that it stems from her reaction to being body shamed as a kid. “I was quite a healthy kid and I was subjected to a lot of body shaming and to sort of take control of that, I started cracking jokes about my own body. If I’m stealing your punchline, how will you make a joke about me? So it just started with me making fun of myself so nobody else does it and then I developed a personality because I had nothing else going for me (laughs) I thought I needed to do something to survive in the tough battlezone, otherwise known as high school. At the cost of my dignity, I became funny.”

She’s quick to let out a big enthusiastic cheer when I point out that she’s found a silver lining to an otherwise dark chapter of her life. “Now people who were not nice to me in the past reach out to me to tell me how proud they are of me, I just feel so baffled! Why? Why are you proud of me! I’m glad that this has happened for me even if I was traumatised then. Humour was a defence mechanism but now it has empowered me.”

Although she’s inarguably one of the biggest Indian content creators at the moment, Niharika, who goes by her first name along with the ‘NM’ which stands for “whatever you want it to be”, doesn’t believe that this is a long term option for her, even if she’s currently treating it as her full-time job. “I think it’s the South Indian in me that remains anxious at the thought of not having a secure career path,” she says, laughing.

The Internet celebrity reiterates how she doesn’t feel like she’s made it even now and often feels like someone will poke her to tell her she’s in the wrong place after all. “I cannot process half the things that happen in my life or the things that I’m doing on a daily basis. It’s not the life that I imagined and it’s not something that I had planned. I’m a Type A personality so I had everything mapped out for me since, probably, middle school and nothing has gone the way I had thought it would,” she says, “Impostor syndrome is definitely in play here. But when I meet other influencers who might not have done much in terms of work, they act as if they’ve done so much. Sometimes I try to think that way too. You know? Fake it till you make it, you know?”

Does that work for her, I had to ask.

“I don’t know! I’m just too self-aware, I think. I’m also very aware of the fact that tomorrow Instagram might cease to exist and I would need to start over or find a completely new career. So I’m just extremely hyper-aware of that at all moments.”

Despite the frequent bouts of self-doubt and inability to fathom her own reach, Niharika knows that she wields great responsibility as someone followed by millions online. The fact that she has the power to involuntarily influence thousands is not lost on her, “I’m always mindful of what I’m posting online because I don’t want to influence people, even unintentionally, in a bad way. This is why I stick to extremely silly content that reflects what most of us go through in our day-to-day lives and just exaggerates that. This is also why I stay away from subjects like religion or politics, or anything that is sensitive.”

While the content creator has built a not-so-tiny community of fans and followers online, her fame led her to bridge the gap between niche online content and mainstream media when she started getting collaboration requests from big celebrities like Mahesh Babu (who, she admits, is her childhood idol/dream man who is as good looking as he looks on-screen), Ranbir Kapoor, Kartik Aaryan, Yash, and Shahid Kapoor.

She even made an appearance as one of the four jury members on Koffee With Karan’s finale episode this season. Niharika, along with fellow Internet celebrities Kusha Kapila, Tanmay Bhatt, and Danish Sait, was called on to roast the show and its host, Karan Johar.

“The show’s format doesn’t typically align with my brand or what I do. Which is why I don’t think I was the most talkative person on the couch because I don’t think I could ask Karan Johar how many people he had sex with! This was the first time I was meeting him. The other guys had met him before and had a separate equation with him so it felt like they could take the liberty of asking him these intrusive questions, and I just felt that it would be so inappropriate of me to ask him what his body count is! But (Johar) is such a sport. He told us to ask him whatever we want and say whatever we want,” she reveals.

But does this unexpected exposure to a whole new audience who might not necessarily be familiar with her and her content open her up for widespread scrutiny and criticism?

“With all my collabs, I’ve never had to compromise on how I usually make my videos. I just add them into what I usually do and it works. But yes, it opens me up to a new audience who has probably never seen my work before and so far, it’s been great. With shows like Koffee with Karan, that’s a whole other thing. The show is watched by an audience who does not know who I am and haven’t seen any of my videos. Plus, as I mentioned, it’s not something that I’m used to so I think I came across as very uptight and prudish on the show!”

Regular rendezvous with celebrities aside, she has also discovered some unexpected changes that have occurred in her life post becoming famous on the Internet.

“I become hyper aware of my surroundings when I go out even if I probably don’t have to be. Sometimes I feel I have to look and act a certain way in public because people might know who I am.”

When I ask if she’s stopped stepping out of her house in day-old sweats and no make-up, lest she gets recognised, she laughs and says that was something she used to worry about initially but now she’s over it. “Thank God for face masks!”

Her remarkably grounded attitude towards fame and her seemingly glamorous life stems from her refreshingly pragmatic take on her career and the temporary nature of Internet fame. So it’s no surprise that her advice to people who are looking to follow her footsteps is a reality check that a lot of us need.

“Everyone talks about how you should follow your passion but at the end of the day, you need to make money. I’ve heard so many people say that they want to quit their jobs but content creation doesn’t pay them enough money and I always tell them to wait, don’t leave your job. Be smart about your finances. What use is passion if you can’t earn basic bread and butter? You need to go to sleep every night feeling secure about your future. I hear so many motivational quotes that go like ‘Don’t have a Plan B if you want your Plan A to succeed’, and these are all fun till they’re being said in a TED Talk. Of course, following your passion is important, but be a little financially smart.”

I couldn’t end our chat without finding out how this attitude of hers plays out when dealing with rabid haters and trolls online.

“If I see a hate comment on a bad day, I will sob like nothing worse has happened to me in my life. But at the end of the day, I can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Even I don’t like everyone, so I can’t expect everyone to like me. There are people out there who don’t like Beyonce and Rihanna. Who am I?”

And that, children, is one of the few reasons why Niharika NM is one of the coolest people to follow online.