Several decades ago, at the beginning of March 2020, when Bernie Sanders was still in the race for president, a streamer who goes by the handle Neekolul posted a short video of herself lip syncing and dancing along to a song by YouTuber Senzawa made up entirely of variations on the phrase “OK, boomer” to TikTok and Twitter. In it, she wore a Bernie Sanders shirt. She did not think the video would do particularly well, but she needed to put something up on TikTok that day, and it wasn’t her worst idea. The video now has more than 27 million views on Twitter alone.
Until the beginning of March, Neekolul was just another Twitch streamer. The 22-year-old, whose first name is Nicole and who declined to share her last name, told Kotaku she began streaming in 2017 while studying to be a STEM major, only for her Twitch progress to outpace her work on her degree. Ultimately, after a switch in her studies to business marketing, she decided to put her education on hold and ride the wave of momentum that playing Fortnite had given her channel. Over time, she branched out in more ways than one, playing a variety of games at the cost of viewership but also pouring time and energy into other platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where she posted videos and pictures of herself posing, dancing, and lip syncing to songs. Then came March 2, 2020, the day that catapulted her into the internet’s meme-addled collective consciousness.
“I was just really frustrated and looking for ideas,” she told Kotaku over the phone of the process that led to her now-infamous Bernie Sanders T-shirt video, in which she promoted her preferred presidential candidate—one who, at the time, was still in the race and proposing a series of common-sense policies that could have made the country tangibly better and which are also considered fairly moderate in other countries, but oh well.
“I saw these girls use the ‘OK, Boomer’ song in response to people who made rude comments about their colored hair,” she continued. “And I was like ‘Oh, with all the political stuff going on—and I just ordered Bernie shirts—why don’t I do that?’”
The video did well on TikTok, amassing over 100,000 likes, but it did even better on Twitter, picking up millions of views in a matter of days. This caused Neekolul’s Twitter follower count to skyrocket, first into the 200,000 range, and now all the way up to over 450,000. And while successful TikToks generally do little for streamers’ viewership numbers on Twitch, Neekolul’s crossover Twitter success gave her channel a big boost. Within a few days of posting the video, she gained 40,000 Twitch followers, followed by another 40,000 in the weeks following. Where just days before she posted the video, she was streaming to audiences of around 70-100 concurrent viewers, she suddenly had raucous audiences of 1,500-2,500 on her hands.
Neekolul still isn’t entirely sure precisely what pushed her 15-second lip-sync-along into the rarified air of virality, but she’s identified some of the ingredients.
“I think there was a perfect storm of things,” she said. “It was right before the Bernie-Biden debate, and people were voting at the time… But I think without really realizing it, I hit this sweet spot. I want to say the gaming community, but really just the internet likes [a mix of] cute but also cringe.”
The video is mesmerizing in a way that makes you feel a small amount of secondhand embarrassment. In it, Neekolul performs a hyper-feminine and cutesy series of dance movements, with the results bordering on cloying. It’s a subtle balancing act between irony and sincerity that TikTok’s most popular video makers have mastered. The video took that formula and applied it in a way that rallied many members of Sanders’ perpetually-online base, who were looking for a beacon of hope after other Democratic primary candidates formed a centrist Voltron and dealt Sanders’ campaign what ultimately ended up being a fatal blow. In Neekolul’s case, it probably didn’t hurt that her variation on the form managed to piss off a lot of boomers, if the replies to her video are any indication. Hate sharing can be a powerful thing. And in this case, it happened among older people who may well have been encountering this off-kilter, hyper-exaggerated cute-meets-cringe aesthetic for the first time. And so, in the calculatedly sultry wink of an eye, Neekolul became a meme: the defiant, bizarrely entrancing “OK, Boomer” girl.
Neekolul also thinks that she represents a break from the norm of what people commonly associate with Sanders supporters, erroneously or not. She’s not white. She’s not a dude. A “Bernie bro” she ain’t. Neekolul said that “immigration and minority support for Bernie” was “a talking point that was brought up in a lot of the comments [on the video] without me even mentioning it… Those points were brought up without me even sending them out, you know?”
Those things did, however, factor into Neekolul’s decision to rally behind Sanders. Her family came over to California from Mexico, and she represents the first generation in her family to be born in the United States. At points in her childhood, she was poor, and her parents were always working, juggling regular jobs and starting their own business. Video games entered her life as a distraction from sporadic loneliness. This upbringing also informed her political views.
“Having parents that have their own business, medical health care isn’t easy to come by,” she said. “You have to reach out to private insurance, and that gets very, very expensive. It’s very scary to see there are times that I could have been sick, and it was going to end up being a huge bill.”
Now she’s navigating the same broken system that troubled her parents firsthand, albeit in a very different career field. “Being a Twitch streamer, you’re definitely not covered by anything,” she said.
All that in mind, she’s happy that people associated her with Sanders, even if, realistically, she didn’t love his chances of securing the Democratic nomination at the point when we talked on the phone. “It’s very upsetting because there are so many things we could do, that we could be as a society working together, rather than people just hoarding money,” Neekolul said before Sanders dropped out. “[People are like] ‘Our taxes are going to be higher.’ And I’m like ‘If it means people having healthcare, or people having free college, I’m more than happy to pay more taxes.’”
Now Sanders has dropped out of the race entirely. Today, Neekolul told Kotaku in an email that she’s “very disappointed” but doesn’t think his campaign was for naught: “He’s without a doubt motivated new generations of voters, and I think the covid-19 situation has definitely helped drive home the importance of his Medicare for All platform. It’s a sad time for a lot of us supporters, but I think there’s still hope for many of us who are younger to make a change with future elections.”
In the time since Neekolul transformed into a meme, she’s also come to be associated with far more than just her trademark Bernie shirt. She’s the young woman whose face people, especially in gaming communities, can’t get out of their timelines, can’t stop hearing their favorite streamers mention. They either adore her or despise her, and either way, they’re curious to learn more about her. Because she’s a Twitch streamer by trade, Neekolul is more accessible than many viral stars who appear only in blips and snippets. This has given her a lasting appeal that others clinging to their 15 microseconds of fame haven’t been able to match. People can ask her questions in her chat. They can see her behave relatively casually, playing video games, or expanding on her political views. She enjoys this element of her sudden stardom. Recently, somebody even recognized her in League of Legends, where she was nothing but another hero on the battlefield.
But because her presence alone has become a meme, some people also see her streams as fodder for further memes—bountiful farms for out-of-context clips. For Neekolul, that’s taken some getting used to.
“People are always watching what I’m saying, whether to clip it and meme it, or to make me sound bad,” she said. “That’s very new to me.”
Neekolul doesn’t pretend to be an expert at any of this, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal, too. Even as she’s blown up, in her streams she continues to behave in a way that feels accessible and inviting, verging on bubbly. That is not to say, however, that she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
“I feel like a lot of people come to my channel because they found me attractive, and I think that’s the main reason that drives them there,” she said. “I think the drive is the cuteness that I deliver, whatever physical attraction, and then people stayed because I was talkative and easy to hang out with.”
This has given rise to a very particular refrain from fans, one repeated so frequently that if you press your ear close to Twitter, you can hear it echo: “OnlyFans when?” (OnlyFans is a subscription site that is popular among sex workers and adult entertainers.) During one stream, Neekolul even joked back that she might actually make a page on OnlyFans, and like clockwork, this resulted in a widely-circulated out-of-context clip sans the part where Neekolul said, “Just kidding.”
As a result of all this, Neekolul has also become associated with the slang terms “simp” and “simping.” These terms’ original roots lie in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), much like so many other terms appropriated and misused by white people. In the 2000s, “simp” got picked up and redefined by misogynists, the noble stewards of language who have helped spread and in some cases redefine other fun terms like “cuck,” “beta,” and “white knight.” Simp in its new form refers to men who submit themselves to women to gain their attention, usually in pursuit of sex. However, in even more recent times, “simp” has been exposed to the rapid meme-ification beam that is TikTok, mutating its meaning further and injecting it into the wider (read: whiter) vernacular. Now it’s not uncommon to see people use the word both derisively and pridefully. In the latter case, it’s a more openly thirsty version of stanning—the terminally online version of professing undying loyalty to a person or product.
Neekolul is a magnet for the types of people who like to call themselves “simps.” Every single thing she posts attracts a great, big squirming ball of people saying they either simp for her or despise the aforementioned simps. Some of these people are just meme-ing, jumping on the bandwagon because it’s a fun excuse to come up with absurd declarations of over-the-top horniness and get a laugh out of it. The great irony of it all, according to a self-described Neekolul simp who goes by the handle Drax, is that when you’re simping for somebody, you’re not really simping for them at all.
“Simping is actually kinda fun,” he told Kotaku in a Twitter DM, noting that he simps for Neekolul because she’s pretty and “seems like a nice person.” “It’s not really about trying to impress the girls you simp for. It’s just really fun to do. A joke between me and my followers is how big of a simp I am, so that’s why it’s in my bio.”
This allows them to experiment, to say things that might otherwise be awkward or embarrassing, while surrounded by a comfortable shield of irony. But it’s not entirely ironic, according to leftist Twitch streamer Liv, who also simps for Neekolul.
“Neeko is, of course, very cute and endearing, but her ‘OK, Boomer’ video as a phenomenon also created some sort of meme around adoring her (not to say that this adoration was ironic) that generated both humor and a potential acceptance in simping,” she told Kotaku in a Discord message. “I just happened to be early on the simp train, and she also liked me.”
Others take simping very seriously, as one artist, Val, discovered when she tweeted out a piece of Neekolul fan art accompanied by a satirical simp manifesto declaring herself Neekolul’s “property.”
“I didn’t expect people would still miss the joke since I exaggerated a lot,” Val told Kotaku in a Twitter DM. “But they thought I was crazy and proceeded to lecture me about how I should become a man and stop worshipping women, without realizing I’m actually a 17 year-old girl. The situation is just absurd.”
Neekolul has acknowledged the idea of simps on multiple occasions. Toward the middle of March, she talked about simping on her stream, saying that she didn’t understand “what’s wrong with worshipping a girl” and ultimately concluding that “simping is king shit.” It did not take long for this clip to make the rounds on Twitch, Twitter, and Reddit, where it racked up millions of views.
Neekolul says, though, that much like many of her fans, she’s constantly dancing on the impossibly blurry line between irony and sincerity. This was one such case.
“When I’m on stream, I wouldn’t say I’m in-character, but I’m like a very heightened version of my own personality, and my personality is very sarcastic and just always meme-ing,” she said. “When I’m saying these things like ‘Simping is king shit,’ it’s like, I’m an entertainer. I have to entertain people.”
Neekolul finds the simping trend amusing: “I think for the most part it’s people just meme-ing and trying to create funny tweets,” she said. “I feel like the vast majority of people who reply to my tweets are just trying to make people laugh more than anything.”
As a result of her apparent simp army and tendency to riff on memes associated with popular personalities like Belle “Gamer Girl Bathwater” Delphine—as well as, let’s face it, the far simpler fact that she’s a visible woman in gaming circles—people frequently compare her to more established names like Delphine and fellow Twitch streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys. Neekolul still finds this surreal.
“I saw the other night when Belle Delphine was trending, there were a ton of tweets comparing the two of us,” she said. “Even though some people tried to make it either something negative about me or negative about Belle, I just thought it was cool to even be compared to her at all.”
But the cutesiness of Neekolul’s recent videos and her relative proximity to so-called “egirls” like Delphine has given rise to accusations that the fans who find her attractive are people who want women to behave in ways that are child-like, naive, or foolish. Some of Neekolul’s critics believe that Neekolul’s popularity is yet another iteration of the centuries-old societal tradition of infantilizing women. Others who profess to be fans call for a return to a time when Neekolul acted more traditionally adult-like in her videos. But the egirl aesthetic Neekolul draws on in her more recent videos is, like so many other aspects of her persona, more complicated than it appears on its face.
“It’s extremely irresponsible to blame women, especially younger women, for the ways men and society have infantilized them,” Kish Lal, a writer who’s covered egirls, told Kotaku in an email. “Most egirls are quite young, to begin with. Participating in memes, dances, and building communities on apps like TikTok involves things like choreographed dances, makeup trends, and lip syncing to popular songs… The fact is, these are young women who are on their own journeys of discovering their interests—the only difference is, now more than ever—that most of this is played out on video for the world to see. Deriding young girls for self-discovery, especially in a way that mimics most normal behavior, is really missing the point of the issue of infantilization.”
Former Kotaku senior reporter and current Wired staff writer Cecilia D’Anastasio, who published a piece last year about young women transforming “egirl” from an insult into an identity, concurred with Lal’s analysis.
“Listen, it’s a bleak world for gen Z,” she told Kotaku in a Facebook message. “They’re inheriting a climate-ravaged world marred by income inequality. And there isn’t a lot they can do about it right now. But you know what they can have control over? Their presentation online… On TikTok and Twitch, some gen Z femmes are throwing cosplaying, cutesy, pink-blush, sexy, high-voiced singing-slash-dancing-slash-lip-syncing at the wall and enjoying each other’s reactions. And I would advise against judging or underestimating them because of it. It’s not childish; it’s just a bit of gender theater for fun. A lot of the time, it’s just memeing.”
While Neekolul has capitalized on her big moment about as effectively as anybody facing so many prying eyes could hope to, she still feels like a small fish in a big pond. During a recent stream, fans compared her to Pokimane, and she replied that she’s the “anti-Poki.” She explained what she was trying to convey with that to Kotaku.
“People keep coming into my streams or tweeting at me that I remind them of Poki, or that Poki’s better than me, or that I’m better than Poki,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t word it properly, but saying I’m the opposite of Poki was more in reference to her being a big deal, with brand sponsors and tons of fans. I’m just a small streamer who no one really knew about a month ago.”
Increasingly, though, people do know her—and not just as a meme, either.
“I am ‘OK, Boomer’ girl, but I don’t think that’s what people see me as,” she said. “When I’ve been posting my new stuff, like my new TikToks and selfies, people know me as Neekolul. I see myself being referred to as Neekolul more than ‘OK, Boomer’ girl as of late, which I think is very cool.”