You’ve seen her. That face that could launch a thousand memes. It’s that placid look with half-lid eyes casting a faraway glance while her mouth is stretched tight. The Neutral Face emoji, that look someone usually gives in a sitcom when they’re resigned to their fate. Preeti Nair aka Preetipls calls it the Tiny Smile. She and her friends came up with that look for photos and she hasn’t stopped since.
But what brought Nair to the fore of public consciousness is a parody video that she did in response to Saffron Sharpe’s Fashion Police segment on Toggle’s Double Trouble series. (Never mind that prior to that Nair was already posting up dubsmash clips to her Facebook.) “After watching the video,” Nair says, “I texted Michelle (Lee, one-half of Youtiao666) when I got home and asked: ‘Have you seen this video? We need to do something.’ Those were my exact words.”
“We need to do something.” These are words that often precede a revolution, but Nair didn’t think her video would gather this much steam when it aired. All she wanted to do was something just for shit and giggles. So, they shot in Orchard Road, making fun of non-human objects like mannequins and pigeons because “[we] didn’t want to make fun of strangers, that’s just super rude.”
Not many would know that Nair shot the Fashion Polis video after a job interview at Mediacorp, parent company of Toggle. “That was right before I was a Mediacorp staff,” Nair emphasises, “so during the making of the video, I wasn’t concerned about the backlash.
“And the video was going up within the day. If Mediacorp saw it and didn’t want me for their company, I would be totally okay with it.” She sips from her Milo peng. “And I’d worked there before. I already knew people, so it’s not like I needed to make a good ﬁrst impression. They know what I am.”
Before the interview at Fei Fei Wanton Mee, we heard other people’s accounts of Nair, that her online persona isn’t all that different from real life. She laughs it off, saying that Preetipls is an exaggerated version of her, though she also mentions that Mediacorp wasn’t really surprised by the videos she put out. She was, however, told to dial it back. “I think I referenced the Saffron Sharpe incident in another video and someone spoke to my boss about it. My boss advised me not to do videos of that nature but… if I see bullshit, I’m just gonna call it out lah,” she claims.
Nair posts response videos to other issues like race and social media inﬂuencers, and it is with the latter that she ﬁnds the most irony. “I know I have the whole anti-inﬂuencer thing,” she says. “But in some ways, I have to be inﬂuential in order to make some strong points. If I didn’t have a pull, nobody would listen to what I have to say, but [ultimately] I don’t want people to listen, I want them to start talking. Open your mind.”
Saffron Sharpe would re-emerge in Nair’s Chinese New Year video. “I actually asked her manager if she could be in one scene and they were super okay with it,” she says. It’s actually shorter than it sounds. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it move, Nair talks about reunion dinners, about how it’s the time to cast aside differences and come together, before the clip glitch-cuts to Sharpe and Nair wordlessly hamming it up for the camera, eating from empty bowls. “She was very nice to me. She was cool about it,” she says.
Does this mean that Nair might meet up with the rest of the inﬂuencers that she’s parodied?
“I’ve never wanted to meet anyone. It’s not gonna change now,” she replies. “Even when I’ve called them out in a video, I don’t want to meet them.”
But Nair’s comedy has attracted its share of fans. One of them is Hirzi Zulkiﬂie from MunahHirziOfficial, who once told Nair that she and Youtiao666 were the future rulers of Singapore comedy. Another is Benjamin Kheng from the band The Sam Willows. “We actually met at a friend’s party and he added me on Facebook,” Nair says. “I Facebook messaged him— literally a Facebook message—asking him if he could come do a role that we had written. We can script something funny. And his reply was all caps, like ‘YES’. That meant a lot. I didn’t expect a reply so quick.
“I actually had a list of people to ask if he had refused.”
While Nair can’t immediately come up with a name of a person that she would like to work with, her eyes light up when she mentions Vinny Sharp. “I love his stuff. I met him during the making of the Chinese New Year video,” she recalls. “I bumped into this extremely good-looking Indian man. ‘Hi, aren’t you the one on Facebook?’ I had no idea who he was but [in my mind, I was, like] you’re physically perfect. That’s when he added me on Facebook.”
Nair realised that he makes videos and watched his stuff. She was mad impressed. “Yeah. I would love to work with him.”
(Much later, in an unguarded moment, or maybe in her own charming way, Nair jokes that she wants to marry him.)
Future wedding bells aside, Nair is still on Tinder but her notiﬁcations are turned off (“I’m very scared that my mum might read something”). She only checks it when she’s bored. Her Internet fame has dampened her Tinder usage somewhat. “I miss being a nobody on Tinder,” Nair explains. “I don’t know how to feel about it. When someone talks to me on Tinder, I don’t know if they are a fan or if they’ve watched my videos.”
She’s ﬁne with fan interactions in real life but it feels weird on Tinder. As an over-thinker, Nair ﬁnds herself questioning a Tinder match’s agenda, and with good reason. “There have been people on Tinder who said, ‘Can I be in your videos?’ ‘Can I get a shoutout in your videos?’ And I’m, like, do you even watch my videos? If you want a shout-out, make a bad video and I’ll diss it lah.”
Self-deprecation has always been Nair’s go-to defence mechanism. She’s acutely aware that you’re thinking about how she’s dressed, how she looks, so she’ll pull the trigger on herself. “I also want them to know it’s okay, that this is not something I’m affected by,” she adds. This also gives her power, control.
While Nair seems comfortable out and about, lampooning current affairs, she is uncomfortable with public speaking. “When I was 18, my friend, who knew what I’m like, asked me to host her birthday party. It was me and another guy and, on the day of the party, I told her I couldn’t do it. It only hit me when the guests started arriving,” she recalls.
It seems counterintuitive that the character you see on video would suffer a crippling fear of talking to a room full of strangers. Nair admits that if she wasn’t walking around with that Preetipls microphone, she wouldn’t be in her element. “It’s just you are standing there and people are staring at you, waiting for you to speak.”
You know when you ﬁlm in public, there’ll be a crowd of gawkers, right?
“Yeah, but they have no idea what I’m doing. To them, I could just be a random host out on Orchard Road taping some travel show.”
Maybe it’s her way of controlling the narrative. She conceptualises, ﬁlms and edits her videos. She has the ﬁnal say. She doesn’t have to respond to your feedback.
She knows that what’s stopping her is herself. “But I’m the kind of person… if I try something once, then I’m okay. I never thought that I would be in front of a camera, but there you have it. I just have to do it once.”
While there is still no word on whether Nair will get another chance to host her friend’s birthday party, she will be co-hosting The Colour Run, a dance club-style 5km run, in September. She’ll be helping out in a few segments that she’s comfortable with. “I don’t know who the other two hosts are, but apparently, they are super OG, they’ve done this all their lives. They say they’ll help me out with anything so that’s good.”
Nair is currently with CWO, an agency that dabbles in advertising and marketing. If your ﬁrst guess was that CWO means “Corrective Work Order”, you win. (For foreigners and the law-abiding, a CWO is meted out to litterbugs, who then have to don a bright green vest with the words “Corrective Work Order” on it. Shaming is the route to rehabilitation. #themoreyouknow)
From Charlotte Tan, the other half of Youtiao666 and co-founder of CWO on her agency: “We ﬁnd the content out there disagreeable. So, we’re here to clean up this shit and we’ll do it the right way.”
Nair is planning to write a web series with Youtiao666 but she’s had to push it back due to work commitments. “When it’s [work from a] client, there are deadlines to take into account. It has hit me that we need to get this [web series] out. We’ve chosen a date when we’re free and we’re going to do it,” she asserts.
As Nair tells me, the moniker “Preetipls” came from her mother borne out of frustration and pleading, as in “Preeti please, stop. Do your work.” Now her family have come around to her side. Her parents are supportive, even though they don’t fully understand what she does.
“It took a while to convince my brother,” Nair says. “He’s just graduated from uni—he’s a liberal arts student—and has decided to pursue his rap career. He’s always wanted to write music and if I don’t take this moment to plug him, he’ll probably hate me so it’s @subhasmusic.”
In some ways, Subhas’ foray into music was triggered by seeing Nair quit her Assistant Social Media Community Manager position at Mediacorp to focus on Preetipls full-time. “I’m kinda living proof of doing what you want if it makes you happy,” she says.
Even if Nair’s ﬁrst video hadn’t garnered the attention that it did, she would still be gladly putting out videos anyway. It was always about having fun. “‘Do whatever makes you happy and you never know, it might just work out.’ That’s the only thing that I want to be a role model for,” she stresses.
Photographs by Gabe Chen
Styling by Lim Siu Fang
Make-up and hair by Sha Samsi using Make Up For Ever and L'Oreal Professional
Stylist assisted by Shawn Wu.
This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, August 2017.