From The Straits Times    |

A new viral dance. A whole lot of drama. A host of fresh faces with inside jokes that everyone could join in. 2020 was the year that Tiktok – as the Gen Zs would put it – “ate” the Internet. When the world found itself doom scrolling, Nicole Liel took to the social media app to transform mundane moments into comedic gold.

“Going on Tiktok was more like: Let me just talk c*ck during Circuit Breaker and see how it goes,” she says. One upload of a fun take on Nicole’s daily routine, and Tiktok’s For You algorithm thrust her into the limelight, amassing thousands of followers overnight. “I was like ‘Wow, 10K people care about what I say. Slay!’”

Fast-forward to 2024, and the 25-year-old boasts over 190,000 followers on Tiktok and 57,000 on Instagram, establishing herself as a witty storyteller who captivates with entertaining anecdotes. From a young age, the Singapore-born Tiktok star had always flirted with the idea of becoming an entertainer.

But in this industry, success often hinges on either appearance or charisma. “If I were hot, I would live solely on my looks. I’m not saying this to shade good- looking people, but I’ll just take advantage of my looks. But if you don’t fit into the category of what people think is pretty, what else do you have but your charisma?” she says. “[Plus] sh*t happens in life. It’s just easier to laugh it off.”

With her signature unapologetic storytelling style and exaggerated facial expressions, one of her popular videos recounts an experience in Malaysia, where she served as a translator for a group of tourists from China who wanted to book a karaoke package. She then re-enacted the awkward interaction she had with a staff member in broken Malay. The video concludes with her expressing appreciation for her Malay friends from whom she has picked up some basic Malay. “HELP I’M LAUGHING SO HARD AT THE ‘BOLEH’,” one user commented.

As a member of a generation that actively engages in social media, she has also broadened her content beyond what she humorously refers to as “rants on life”. She has posted videos quizzing the older generation on subjects like Gen Z slang, and the comparison between looks and personality. “I won’t film aunties [arguing] and do a video about it. Instead, I will go up to them and interview them. Then, from their responses, I will try to make it all funny. I really like this kind of interaction as it feels very wholesome,” she says.

She has also collaborated with Ya Kun Kaya Toast on a giveaway after giving a shout-out on the live telecast of the National Day Parade in 2022. The screen time earned her the nickname “BTO girl” as she proclaimed her love for the Housing and Development Board (“I’m very grateful to HDB for giving me a BTO queue number. Woo!”) right before the Ya Kun shout-out.

Embracing the spotlight

Cotton T-shirt, Longchamp. Leather oversized jacket, & Other Stories

While the comedian’s online persona exudes extroversion, a closer look reveals an introvert navigating the spotlight with humour. “In a group setting, I prefer to be the wallflower. But if I get put in the spotlight, then I’d have no choice but to suck it up and just go for it,” she admits.

Despite her introverted nature, Nicole was recognised for her ability to bring laughter to the classrooms. She recalls being one of the students who teased the teachers, earning her the reputation of a class clown – sort of. She adds a playful remark, saying, “Not me saying this and it gets quoted. My primary school friends are going to be like ‘Wow, that Nicole is extremely delusional. Like no one knew who she was’.”

Nevertheless, her distinctly localised sense of humour emerged during her secondary school days, influenced by the acquisition of Hokkien expressions and what some might describe as “ah lian” mannerisms. “When I went to secondary school, I didn’t even know what ‘sia’ (a Singlish expression used at the end of a sentence) was!” she exclaims.

She also reveals a nervous tic causing stuttering, which she counters by code- switching between local, American, British, and Australian accents. But switching accents in a conversation isn’t a new phenomenon on Tiktok; it’s a trend embraced by many to add a humorous touch to situations.

She has showcased her faux accents in some of her videos. In one, she is seen teasing Singaporeans returning from Australia after just two weeks. Describing her approach to mastering accents, she explains, “I do this thing where I go to a foreign country and try to pick up [what the locals say]. I’d then [put on] the accent to order things because it’s just much faster. If I were to use my Singaporean accent, then they’d be like ‘Wot? Wot?’ So okay lah, then go switch lor.”

Her knack for accents extends back to her Nanyang Technological University days where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communication. She recalls playfully imitating a lecturer’s thick Russian accent. Reflecting on those times, she jokes: “I think it’s really just [a bad habit]. I [imitated her] during class because I couldn’t focus on anything else.”

Finding humour in everyday life

According to the content creator, what you see is what you get. She asserts that her content reflects genuine experiences, eschewing the need for elaborate brainstorming sessions. “It’s me experiencing life in Singapore, and thinking that there must be a reason that I’m experiencing these stupid, minor inconveniences that don’t even make sense,” she says.

Riding the wave of the viral “of course” Tiktok trend, Nicole recently contributed with a video captioned “We’re girlie pops on our period”, light-heartedly shedding light on relatable experiences women share during that particular time of the month.

Even in content creation, the Tiktoker is careful not to cross any boundaries. In a world dominated by cancel culture, comedians can quickly find themselves facing backlash for inappropriate jokes, potentially entering a “villain era”. Consequently, many young comedians have adjusted their content to align with what is currently deemed socially acceptable.

To Nicole, her comedic philosophy centres on intent. She emphasises that she wants her page to be a space where people can enjoy her videos without feeling marginalised in any way, avoiding cheap shots at certain topics such as racial stereotypes.

“Everything you do can be taken out of context, so I feel like there are topics that I will never tread. When it comes to sensitive topics like mental health, I don’t want to make sweeping statements or assumptions about people. I try not to make jokes at the expense of people’s feelings,” she muses.

That being said, Nicole is also a firm believer that comedy should be taken with a pinch of salt. “If you everything also want to kena offended, then how are you going to live happy? Sometimes, you have to give and take.”

Nurturing a new generation of Tiktokers

Cotton shirt, Kenzo. Denim jeans, Cos. Assorted rings, & Other Stories

Just like any personality in the public eye, Nicole’s online journey hasn’t been without its challenges. While she’s sidestepped polarising videos, criticism abounds. “There are comments like ‘Her voice is so annoying’ or ‘I cannot stand her’. One said ‘Can you not scream in your videos?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, I can try’. But no, I can’t. Some people are born like that. Like, if you want, you can take it up with my mother. She’s the one who gave me these genes, right?”

On the flip side, she cherishes a supportive community of followers, some of whom she has met in real life. A thoughtful gesture came in the form of a crocheted dog toy, recognising her love for her dogs Bueno and Louis, as evident by the tattoos adorning her arm. Notably, the dog tattoo stands as Nicole’s first ink, among a collection that has since grown. After all, she is coupled up with Singapore tattoo artist Jeremin. But it is not all about wanting a “quick pic” nowadays. “They will strike up a conversation and ask me for advice sometimes. Like you want advice from Nicole jiejie (older sister)? But yeah, I am still so blown away.”

Nicole often finds herself offering advice to aspiring Tiktok creators too. “A mentor once told me: Don’t second- guess yourself. Do whatever comes to mind and execute it to the best of your ability – don’t let the views affect you. Try your next idea and keep on doing it. You might find something that sticks. Trends can only take you so far,” she shares.

Finding purpose offline

Though her monthly earnings occasionally surpass those of a recent graduate, Nicole recognises that her Tiktok endeavours do not offer a consistent income stream. This has lead her to wear many hats, including being the founder and brains behind the operations of lash studio Cuuul, and inclusive clothing brand Likely Liel.

She also recently made her local TV drama debut on 128 Circle (2019), playing a young hawker named Elysha, a role that she deeply resonates with. She draws parallels between her journey of opening a lash studio after the Circuit Breaker and the character’s struggle of renting a hawker stall for a bubble tea business with barely any savings. “Playing [Elysha] felt very easy, and to a certain extent, very cathartic as there are a lot of scenes where I’m screaming in anger,” she says. The character’s strong exterior occasionally breaks down, revealing a vulnerable side that seeks parental guidance, mirroring Nicole’s own feelings of having to take on the parental role for her sister due to their parents’ separation at a young age.

But it’s not all rage. With some creative control, Nicole seized the opportunity to inject humour into her performance. “When it came to my character, it was very much how I would respond to situations where I’m helpless. Instead of just being sad, I would make light of the situation with a couple of jokes,” she shares.

ON NICOLE Sequinned jacket, Longchamp ON FARAH Oversized jacket, Longchamp ON CHIOU HUEY Gabardine cotton- lined jacket, Longchamp

Now that she has done TV, will she take her comedy to the stand-up stage? “Have you seen the way they tear up female comedians? I’m an introvert! Imagine having conversations in front of people and being funny at the same time,” she says.

Despite her reservations about the industry’s treatment of female comedians, it is something that she might reconsider. She acknowledges the need to prepare for good material and delivery, and expresses a willingness to engage in funny conversations with live audiences. After all, she has virtually achieved this with thousands of Tiktok users. “Given the opportunity, I would love to. Even if I bomb, it’s still publicity. That video would go viral like ‘What the eff is Nicole saying?’ This is comedy now.”

PHOTOGRAPHY JOEL LOW
CREATIVE DIRECTION & STYLING LENA KAMARUDIN
ART DIRECTION RAY TICSAY
STYLING ASSISTANTS JEON JAE WON & SAW YONE YONE
COORDINATION CHERYL LAI-LIM
HAIR GREGO, USING KEUNE HAIR COSMETICS
MAKEUP LASALLE LEE & RINA SIM, USING DIOR BEAUTY
COVER IMAGE OUTFITS LONGCHAMP

Her World’s March 2024 cover features three new-gen comedians making Singapore laugh: Farah Lola, Nicole Liel, and Chiou Huey.