They’ve mastered YouTube, and now they’re starting out with presenting. TenEighty talks to Niki and Sammy about peanut butter, Ed Miliband, and the art of the effortless…
“If I met Sia, I would probably need to change my underwear,” explains Sammy Albon, “because I would shit myself.”
It’s a weird morning. We’re in a storage unit filled with neon art, talking to Sammy and his twin brother Niki about YouTube. In a few hours’ time, the boys will be hanging out with pop stars at the BRIT Awards nominations, but right now, they’re discussing whether the level of fame they’ve achieved themselves – their shared YouTube channel, NikiNSammy, has almost 200,000 subscribers and over 19 million views – has influenced interactions they’ve had with their own idols.
“Meeting Bastille, that was fine,” Sammy continues. “A bit awkward, but it was fine. But there’s been several instances where we’ve met—”
“I’d rather this not go in,” Niki interrupts, able to sense where the anecdote is going before it’s even started, “because it’s cringey.”
“No, put it in,” Sammy insists. “We met—”
Realising he won’t stop his brother with diplomacy, Niki starts telling a completely different story until Sammy shuts up.
“Basically, Sammy has a habit of making interactions with YouTubers that we watch or used to watch awkward,” Niki explains, of the unfinished anecdote. “It’s a knack that he has. That can go in!”
We chat to the brothers for an hour in total, and it’s like this all the way through. One moment, they’ll be so synchronised it’s almost scary, dividing a thought between them mid-sentence like they’re speaking with one voice (“I’ve also learned, in what we do, that—” / “—it pays to be nice to people”); the next, they’ll be affectionately criticising each other’s answers (“God, you go on, don’t you?” complains Sammy, when Niki has the audacity to speak for a minute uninterrupted).
“I know some people would have trouble working with their siblings,” Niki acknowledges, when we ask about their relationship. “But like, we shared a womb, so sharing a job is not that much different.” (“Wow,” sighs Sammy. “That’s going to make the cut.”)
Basically, Niki and Sammy are exactly the same in real life as they are in their videos. And it’s lots of fun.
“Our videos are literally just us,” Niki emphasises. “I haven’t met many YouTubers that do put up an act, but the ones that I have seen, it looks to be quite a draining thing. I wouldn’t want to be anything but myself, because I don’t think I could do that. One thing that I think we struggle with is, because there’s two of us, it’s always harder for our opinions to come across. When we’re trying to be authentic, one of us will interrupt and it will just go off on another path.”
“It’s hard to establish our individual characters,” Sammy agrees. “We started doing some videos on our own, trying to establish ‘This is Niki, and this is Sammy’. But now, I’m actually far more comfortable saying, ‘We just do entertaining videos. That’s it. Don’t expect anything else, and you’ll be fine.’ And our audience gets that, too.”
“I think one thing we definitely struggle with – and this is individually, and as a pair – is that we sometimes want to do a serious chat about something,” Niki admits. “We did it about the EU referendum, and we were going to make one about Donald Trump, but we didn’t in the end. But because of how we are normally in videos, and how they’re edited, it’s hard to then go into serious things we have opinions on. You see that much more on our Twitter and other social media, because you can be much clearer on those than on YouTube.”
“We did one with Ed Miliband,” Sammy reflects, of their 2015 collab with the then-leader of the Labour party, “and it was hard to be like, ‘Here it is!!!’ There was no warning that was going to happen. Twitter is my go-to for talking about more serious stuff, and I think those pockets are where you find our personalities.”
The key to the Miliband video, Niki says, was that it was about “the conversation around politics, and driving people to register to vote” rather than party policy. “We didn’t make it about Labour,” he says. “He tried to. But we edited that out.”
While some creators have sidelined traditional vlogging in favour of other forms like documentaries or short films, Niki and Sammy have stuck with it, and got it down to a fine art. Ideas that might be generic in less capable hands are engaging in theirs, because of the clarity of their channel’s voice – both in terms of the twins as personalities, and the grammar of the editing – and the apparent effortlessness with which their videos are made.
“What we do, the art of it, is trying to make it look like it doesn’t take a lot of work,” says Sammy. “But I sit and edit for about six hours for each video, and we do that several times a week. I’m not going to sit there and make it look like it’s hard work. I’m also not going to tell my audience that I’m working every single day. They’re not subscribed to me for that.”
But sometimes, the lightness of their content means it’s perceived as less worthy. “There was this period where everyone – I say ‘everyone’, it was a few vocal people – was saying, ‘This is good content, this is bad content’,” recalls Niki. “And we never really engaged with it, but that was wrong to say, because who is the person that’s holding this standard? You cannot say this type of content is good and this type of content is bad. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Niki, for example, prefers vloggers to short films, “because I’m really curious, and I like to see what people do with their lives in different parts of the world. But that’s me,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that’s everyone. And that’s fine.”
“YouTube is a cross-section of society, and there are people at all ends of the spectrum doing lots of different things, and that is brilliant,” Sammy adds. “And that’s what makes YouTube special: you can do what you want. Don’t spread negativity. Spread love, like peanut butter.”
He pauses, and reconsiders the word ‘spread’: “Actually, if you’re like me, I eat it out of the tub with a spoon.”
It all began (the twins’ YouTube career – not the eating-peanut-butter-from-the-tub thing) just after uni. They’d been schooled separately before, but both ended up at the University of Roehampton (Sammy: “I had no idea that it was the one you were going to.” / Niki: “I’d already confirmed! You had a pretty good idea!”), where Niki – who had wanted to be a geologist, then fell in love with history, and figured he’d probably end up as a journalist – did a Major/Minor course in History and Journalism, while Sammy studied Classical Civilisation.
“My route after that was fairly limited,” Sammy admits. “I could go on and do a Master’s, or I could go into a conversion course and become a teacher. But we took a year out, and that’s when we started doing YouTube.”
It was Niki, realising that the prospect of starting a journalistic career at a local newspaper “didn’t inspire me in any way whatsoever”, who joined the site first, starting a solo channel called theNIKIPOD.
“I watched a lot of YouTube while I was doing my dissertation,” he explains. “Anyone who has done their dissertation knows that it’s the most draining experience of their life, and if you can find any kind of light relief, in any form, you take it. For me, that was watching YouTubers. So then, in finishing uni, I was like, ‘Why not make a video? I’ve got nothing to lose.’ A lot of our viewers worry about that when they want to start making videos – my mindset was: ‘If someone is going to laugh at you or be malicious about it, they’re not your friend.’”
“The art of it is trying to make it look like it doesn’t take a lot of work…”
Some of the skills he’d acquired doing Journalism turned out to be transferrable. “The radio module and the photography module that I did helped,” he says. “I had a camera because of that, and I could use it for YouTube, and we edited soundbites and made vox pops, and the whole editing process there translated really well into Final Cut Pro.”
What happened to theNIKIPOD? “The videos are all hidden now, because they were so embarrassing,” laughs Niki. “But everyone has to start somewhere. And I’ve seen a lot of the big YouTubers’ first videos, and to be honest, I think I was in a good place.” (Sammy, cheekily: “You say that. I mean, probably not.”)
We ask Niki what those hidden videos were like. “Very similar to—”
“Just awful,” interrupts Sammy.
“No,” protests Niki, “it was like—”
“Awful,” says Sammy again.
“It was kind of the same as what we do now,” Niki explains, finally.
“I wouldn’t say ‘inspiring’,” says Sammy, undeterred. “And I also wouldn’t say ‘funny’. I wouldn’t say ‘good’. I mean, it happened.”
But secretly, Sammy wanted in. “On the face of it I was like, ‘What a loser’,” he admits, “but inside I was like, ‘I want to do that – I could be Grace Helbig’.”
Grace had caught Sammy’s attention before he even knew what vlogging was. “I honestly didn’t know there were any British YouTubers,” he laughs. “I just knew there was Grace. She did some live stuff – she was doing tours – and I was like, ‘Oh my god, she’s amazing, and she’s really funny’. Then I found Tyler Oakley, because they did a video together, and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s several YouTubers here who are doing the same thing’. I didn’t call them YouTubers, but that’s what they were.”
So when Niki invited Sammy to make a one-off collab for theNIKIPOD, he jumped at the chance.
“Can you imagine a Tesco Value Jacksgap?” asks Sammy. “That’s what happened.”
“With less jawline,” Niki clarifies.
“Less jawline,” Sammy concurs, “and less fun.”
But something about it worked.
“The videos that I’d been doing, I’d showed my parents,” Niki remembers, “and they’d be like, ‘Oh, this is good’. But when I showed them the video of us together, my dad cry-laughed. He was like, ‘This is so funny. Like, this is genuinely hilarious.’ I was like, ‘Okay Sammy, do you want to be in another video?’ That was obviously entertaining people, so you should do more of it, because why wouldn’t you want to entertain people?”
And so, in 2013, NikiNSammy (“it’s like fish ‘n’ chips,” explains Sammy, “just not as exciting”) was born. But not everyone was impressed by the channel’s slick launch.
“It was quite hard for us,” Sammy admits. “We’ve had several large YouTubers say this to us. We came out with a fully-branded channel – amazing pictures and branding – and we knew what we wanted to do. I thought that was great. I loved doing it. But the old school were really quite difficult for us to get involved with, because they were wary – rightly so. We found it quite hard to penetrate that sphere and say, ‘We’re just nice guys’. That’s why we started with lots of younger people that were quite outside the community. It’s lovely and we’re accepted now – there’s lots of lovely people, and we’re friends with lots of them – but back then, it was really hard.”
Early on, the boys were approached by prospective management, who were downbeat about the chances of their channel becoming more than just a hobby. “We met someone who said, ‘The only way you can monetise what you do is by turning into a lifestyle channel’,” Sammy recalls. “Like, ‘Here’s a razor! Here’s skin cream!’ I was just like, ‘That’s not where I want to be’.”
“The production company came round our house, and set up camp in Sammy’s room with all their computers and stuff,” Niki remembers. “My mum was like, ‘What’s going on?!’, and I was like, ‘I have no idea’. Six months later, it went up, and we just shot to 100,000 subscribers. Around Christmas time, it was like, ‘Okay, so this is now our job’, cos it started demanding so much of our time.”
“We both had part-time jobs when we started,” Sammy adds, “and in our first video, we went, ‘We’re going to make three videos a week’ – little did I know how much work that was! By the end of 2015, we were like, ‘We can’t keep this up. This is just too much.’ Doing all the editing, having a part-time job, all the filming… there wasn’t a free day, and it was very stressful.”
“YouTube is a cross-section of society, and there are people doing lots of different things, and that is brilliant…”
“With daily vlogging, for example, once you’ve got a process, it’s easy to repeat,” points out Niki, “but because each video we did was so different – like, we could go from doing a cooking video to an interview with Ed Miliband – it was quite hard to keep on that. So it was getting to the point where we had to either go with it, or say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s too much work, we need to find another job’.”
How easy was it to make that choice? “It was quite scary, to be honest,” says Niki. “But at the same time, we were so optimistic about it.”
“The thing with YouTube is that it’s so unreliable,” adds Sammy. “You can have a video that doesn’t ever go to subscription feeds – nobody sees it – and gets abysmal views. Or suddenly YouTube can change the algorithm, like they have done, and all channels suffer. So it is scary, because it’s all reliant on this platform which doesn’t necessarily have to respect us at all. They’ve got no responsibility for us, and they make that clear. So for us, it’s about not keeping all our eggs in one basket, which is why we’re trying to do external stuff, off-platform. We’re really interested in being presenters, so fingers crossed that continues.”
“For us, it feels like hosting is a natural fit,” Niki explains. “It’s obviously different, and it’s hard work, and it can be really stressful, but it’s also really rewarding.”
“To be completely clear, YouTube is our priority,” says Sammy. “But we have had a lot of experience presenting. The first thing we did was 12 hours for Stand Up To Cancer which was, firstly, a real honour to be involved with. Secondly: 12 hours! Baptism by fire! And then the week after, we hosted Wembley Arena twice in one day [for Girlguiding’s BIG GIG 2015], for 10,000 kids each time, and that was brilliant. To show that we are capable in other ways is really important to us.”
“And also, it’s like: if YouTube disappears overnight, what can we then do?” Niki points out. “With something like Stand Up To Cancer, it’s for a good cause – and it’s something people can respect outside of YouTube, if that makes sense. When we did that Sky 1 programme [OAP Internet Virgins, in which young people like Niki and Sammy introduced olds to the internet], my mum was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re doing well’, but getting 100,000 subscribers was irrelevant to her.”
“Being enthusiastic about something is always engaging and entertaining to watch…”
The twins’ other credits include Radio 1’s Internet Takeover and social reporting for The Voice UK – “we’re trying to do more music-related stuff,” Niki explains, “because I really enjoy music, and I just want to talk about it” – but Stand Up To Cancer is the gig they’re proudest of. “It’s really important to us, because our nan died of cancer,” says Sammy. “We want it to be the next Children in Need or Comic Relief.”
“Being passionate about the subject that you’re engaging with is key,” says Niki. “I think being enthusiastic about something is always engaging and entertaining to watch. And we are about entertainment.”
2017 sees the NikiNSammy channel turn four.
“This year, we’re much more comfortable in ourselves,” says Sammy. “We’re going to continue being us, and being happy about being us – and just growing up a little bit with our audience, because we’re 25.” (Niki: “We’re 24! Stop saying 25!”)
It’s taken a while for them to reach that point of comfort, Niki explains, “partly because there’s two of us. For a single person, it’s very easy to settle on what they’re doing, whereas we’re like, ‘Let’s just have some fun’, and then your voice becomes slightly muffled because there’s two of you. That’s always something to struggle with. And what has happened is, I’ve faced up to that.
“We were watching all these YouTubers that were being relatable, and talking about stuff that they’re going through,” he continues, “and I was like, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ And then we tried – I think we never actually uploaded the video – but we tried to have these talky videos. But that’s not really what we’re about. We’re not about talking at people – we’re about talking to each other, for people’s entertainment. And I get that now.”
“I think there are some channels you go to because they’re talking about these problems that you also experience,” Sammy sums up, “whereas you come to our channel for a bit of light relief, and probably escapism from whatever may be happening. It’s just fun, and that’s all it’s going to be.
“And I like that,” he says, proudly. “I’m cool with that.”
Photos by Olly Newport.
Want more from Niki and Sammy?
Check out these exclusive photosets:
- Niki and Sammy Albon TenEighty Cover
- Niki and Sammy Albon TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Niki and Sammy Albon TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
- Patreon: Niki and Sammy Albon Behind-the-Scenes
Alternatively, read some of our previous TenEighty interviews:
- Grace F. Victory: Recognising Happiness
- Melanie Murphy: Glass Half Full
- Lex Croucher: Social Justice Worrier
- Hazel Hayes: Kill Your Darlings