They’ve hung out with Leafs star Auston Matthews. They’ve battled rapper Post Malone in a game of beer pong.
And after nearly a decade of doing keg stands in university lectures, funnelling beers next to police and provoking hockey dads, they’ve become two of the most recognizable personalities for young people in North America: Jesse Sebastiani and Kyle Forgeard, a pair of heavy-drinking, hard-talking Ontarians, better known as “Nelk.”
Boasting nearly 5.5 million subscribers on YouTube alone, their provocative prank videos — which have led to arrests — have garnered more than 700 million video views. On Instagram, flanked by a crew of abrasive, hypermasculine personalities, Nelk broadcasts their brand of pranking and partying to more than 3.4 million followers (including Drake and Justin Bieber).
But the crew’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic, which include organizing packed “brotests” to push California to open its gyms, lavish partying and constant travel within the U.S., are being criticized by fans who want them to set a better example.
One 18-year-old fan from Halifax, Andrew Henteleff, says “a large part of ‘Nelk’ is not listening. I don’t know if they’re ever going to be people who follow the rules. And I don’t know if it influences me, but I think it’s kind of dumb.”
In March, when COVID-19 lockdown measures started to spring up across Canada and the U.S., Nelk posted a video of “aggressively vaping in people’s faces.” Their social media footprint also shows the crew travelling across the U.S. to places like Mississippi, Texas, Florida and California, bringing their antics along with them. Forgeard also told The Hollywood Fix that he returned to Canada this summer, although he said he observed self-isolation protocols upon entering the country.
Just last week, Forgeard, originally from Mississauga, encouraged fans to attend a “brotest,” calling on gyms to reopen in California. Nelk advised Instagram followers to “wear a mask” to the protest “so they can’t shut us down.” But videos from the event appear to show Steve Deleonardis, a newer member of the group, with his mask sometimes dangling around his neck while getting mobbed by hundreds of maskless fans.
Nelk didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment from the Star through email or Instagram.
“It’s very dangerous to promote such recklessness to millions and put others in danger,” Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times reporter covering technology, influencers and online culture, told the Star. Lorenz also said Nelk’s behaviour isn’t surprising, given what other online creators are doing.
“None of these influencers are abiding by public health precautions,” she said. “They’ve been partying every single night, no masks. They’re all acting like there’s no pandemic.”
Their disregard for pandemic safety isn’t out of ignorance, she said, but a deliberate business decision.
“For a while they weren’t partying. When the pandemic started they were all staying inside. And it really hurt their numbers,” Lorenz said. “First of all, these people are losing brand deals left and right … and so, they really need to keep their audiences engaged. They can only stay at home and make videos about making cookies for so long.”
Lorenz says influencers “feel like they need to see and be seen. So much of performing well is … being ‘seen.’ Being around the right people, collaborating with the right people.” And it appears to be working for Nelk, who’ve been filmed hanging out with TikTok stars and partying with big names in Los Angeles, even as COVID-19 remains a threat in California.
Nelk fan Henteleff told the Star that “just about every guy he knows” follows the crew and their spinoff clothing and merchandise brand, Full Send.
“At parties, you see the backpacks and flags everywhere. Their (beer) shotgun tools, their shirts: it’s insane.”
Though they’ve taken much of their business across the border, Nelk’s brand is unabashedly “Canadian,” and influential with young people back home. Their banter is peppered with “ehs,” they pull pranks at Ontarian universities like Western and Queen’s, they love the Raptors and they post pictures of themselves at Maple Leaf games.
“You can see the ‘Canadian’ in them: how they talk, they give a persona of the ‘hockey bros.’ I think it’s a source of pride for them, it’s not something they’ve ever hid,” Henteleff added.
But some of their loyal fans say their recent behaviour — no matter how well it boosts their brand — is irresponsible.
A post on Nelk’s unofficial subreddit, where fans flock to discuss videos and gossip, criticized the group over their lack of precautions. “The protest was awful,” reads the post. “No one was wearing masks properly or even observing social distancing.” One commenter agreed, saying, “the bigger issue is that Nelk is in a position where so many people look up to them and do what they tell them to do, so why not set a good example and be responsible?”
Instagram comments from their fans that have garnered hundreds of likes criticize Nelk for acting like COVID-19 has disappeared. “Ah yes I forgot covid does not exist anymore,” one writes. “They should at least some what (sic) social distance instead of having a big a protest and spreading it to older people…” another one says. Those are followed by more back-and-forth debates by fans, commenting that the virus isn’t real, or that “sports is back” to justify Nelk’s behaviour.
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Another post on Twitter, showing a video from Nelk’s Instagram story, shows the packed crowd at the “brotest” for gyms. “Social gatherings are still prohibited in California. Are we back to business as usual or are we still fighting COVID?” The “brotests” have also been criticized for being tone-deaf to genuine social justice movements across the world.
“Anyone else think that this is insensitive to the actual protests?” a Twitter user asked. Another added, “If the gym being closed is your biggest problem go home and count your blessings.”
With many of these young influencers who have such a powerful hold on fans, it’s just another level of privilege that they’re using to push their brand forward, Lorenz added.
“This is sort of the first time they’ve been the A-listers.”