Top image courtesy of Preetipls.
Earlier this year, on February 14th, Singapore’s Top Whatever Preetipls dropped a video parodying the very public (at least on social media) and dramatic breakup of a certain influencer couple. In that video, Benjamin Kheng awkwardly, melodramatically tries to flip the table and starts cursing incoherently when she implies that his sister is her favourite musician.
In her most recent episode, there’s a moment where Michelle and Charlotte of Youtiao666 fame are eating oranges. Preetipls bursts into the frame, almost shouting, “EH why are you girls eating oranges? Chinese New Year was in February!” There’s a pause, and then she sweeps the oranges off the table.
But when she does that, she looks like someone who, under immense pressure to be funny, decides to do something dramatic. This is classic over-acting that peppers most of her videos, yet she only seems to get more and more popular.
While there aren’t many people who feel indifferent to what Preetipls does, this “unnaturalness” has been the most common criticism of those who do.
“It’s too clearly staged,” one friend said. “When she pushes her friends into the water, you can tell they were prepared for it. When she’s being mean, you can tell she’s pretending to be mean.”
When I hear this, it’s easy to see what this friend is referring to. Remember when that banana went into a jar of Nutella in that same episode? I was expecting her to do something with it, but it never came.
Yet I also see this inelegance as an inside joke between Preetipls and us. In a world where everyone tries so hard to look like they’re not trying at all, slapping on hours of posing and photo-editing to get the light just right, with every clumsily executed joke you can almost hear Preetipls saying, “Of course this is fake la! You think what, people actually say these things?”
Then you realise that yes, people do say these things. People like entitled, tone-deaf influencers and Toggle scriptwriters say these things. And when you get this, this knowing, metaphorical wink between you and her, the joke comes alive.
If this over-analysis sounds way too meta and makes you want to go “Oh, pretty please,” it’s not your fault. 22 year-old Preeti Nair, the brains behind Preetipls tells me, “We’re just unpolished filmmakers and shitty actors trying to send across a message.”
She adds: “We write our stuff knowing that we want it to go viral on Facebook where the audience has to be catered to. So quick cuts, witty lines, a piece where sub-par production can still pass—at least till we get better equipment!”
For those who might have forgotten, Preetipls started out more or less the same way Youtiao666 did—dubsmashing her way to virality one crazy clip at a time.
It was, however, her spoofing of Saffron Sharpe’s ‘fashion police’ feature for Toggle that launched her career (Preetipls is her full time job). Since then, picking on social media influencers has pretty much become her thing.
“I love being the one who says what’s on people’s minds, so then I create a nice space for discussion,” she says.
What’s worth noting is that this “relationship” between Preetipls and influencers has turned into a battleground of sorts for Singapore’s sociocultural conscience. While these girls have said some racially insensitive things, we forget that they only did it because there are still a ton of Singaporeans who also think this way.
So while Preetipls speaks for one demographic of more liberal Singaporeans, the influencer industry really represents those who won’t recognise racism even if it spits in their faces.
Preeti says that her wish is for Singaporeans to slowly evolve into a society where we value being informed, even if it’s through trivial viral videos. When I ask her to imagine a day when influencers stop doing stupid things, she tells me, “Wow, you are really hopeful.”
But she goes on to say, “The anti-influencer thing is just branding so when that’s done, I’m still Preetipls, Singapore’s Top Whatever. If people stop being so goddamn gross I don’t mind losing this viral asset that I benefit off responding to.”
That said, she also cautions against the belief that her aim is to be any kind of social justice advocate or social justice warrior. Instead, she wants to start a conversation about important issues that have been sidelined for too long in Singapore. Race is just one of these things, she says, and as much as she wants to change the scene in Singapore, she doesn’t believe in having opinions shoved down people’s throats.
In Singapore’s digital editorial landscape, where content is often polarised into being either advocacy-driven or clickbait/lifestyle related, this type of ‘woke’ yet deliberately inoffensive morality is rare.
After all, some will argue that an aggressive, in-your-face approach is the only way to go if you want to change anything. Not everyone is privileged enough to think that making jokes is a viable alternative to real activism, and when marginalised individuals haven’t had anyone try to relate to them for so long, why should they now try to relate to those who don’t believe in their equality?
This is where Preeti points out, “If we want people to start thinking, it’s best that they want it on their own. The curiosity has to come from them. If not then RIP Singapore and I have tried my best.”
When Preetipls’s videos first popped up on my Facebook feed many months ago, I didn’t find any of it funny. To me, the gimmick was obvious.
Here was an uncouth Indian girl, clearly meant to contrast conventional Chinese influencer types, saying what we already knew to be true. She was a walking political statement, relying on a mix of wit, slapstick, low brow humour, and unexpected moments to make relatively serious messages resonate.
Then as I started to warm to her personality, and found myself liking her more than I did her videos, I realised two things.
The first, was that people like me are clearly not her target audience. A person who already believes in gay rights, for example, does not need to be sold the economic benefits of marriage equality.
The second, was that people like me are also part of the problem. Distracted by the impulse to rationalise and intellectualise Preetipls, I had chosen to focus on the medium rather than the message (don’t start on any “but the medium is the message” crap). I might think that we should hold influencers to higher standards, but not everyone does.
Right now, Preetipls exists for those who think these things, but might be afraid to say them. The relatability that translates into viral reach is also essential to what she does, as the objective is still for this stuff to reach those who actually need to see it.
She does say that it’s nice to have people who expect them to do better. At the same time, “I definitely want to do more! Complicated set-ups, digging deeper and MORE. We just need a higher budget, haha.”
“We function as writers who have to be their own talents because we are poor and can’t hire others yet,” she adds, “But I want to take this approach carefully because I feel like we can say whatever we want in this society, but we just have to do it appropriately and/or tastefully.”
While Preetipls has achieved cult influenza status, her audience remains a mix of relatively open-minded, educated, and English speaking Singaporeans. As such, her association with Youtiao666 seems crucial. Perhaps people will come for the girls and stay for the enlightenment?
That said, Preeti tells me that Preetipls is Preetipls. She’s been best friends with Michelle from Youtiao666 since Primary One, and they write together because they all have the same ideals.
“The Youtiao girls made it big first so now it’s time to help a sister out. We work as equals and we value each others input. And also, jokes come out faster when all 3 of us are sitting at Starbucks just randomly spewing out nonsense when trying to write an episode—although we spend half the time just LOLING,” she says.
And one can only hope that as time goes by, we’ll see more of Preetipls the character rather than Preetipls the anti-influencer. In her own words, her humour comes from ironic, egotistical self-deprecation and calling out her own insecurities. And to me at least, this seems way more compelling than being reminded that daft, social media personalities exist.
In the meantime, you can find her on Tinder, where she’s willing to be whoever you want her to be.