Before YouTube, Sam Pepper was a contestant on the 11th season of “Big Brother” UK. While staying in the “Big Brother” house, Pepper performed the following acts under 24/7 surveillance: Banging pots together in the dead of night, placing chili in toothpaste tubes, and dressing as a ninja (I guess he packed a ninja costume) while stalking his roommates. Pepper was eventually “evicted” from the house on Day 73 with 14.6% of the public vote. However, his proclivity for public pranks carried over to a platform that is more or less airing the world’s largest reality show as we speak: YouTube.
You’ve probably watched one or two of Pepper’s pranks on YouTube. If you’re like me, you’ve watched them through your fingers, praying to whoever your god is that Pepper won’t get hospitalized by the tattooed caveman he just tried to hug. Yes, that is a Pepper prank. In the video titled “Hugging Hard Guys,” Pepper walks around Venice Beach, California attempting to hug random, terrifying men. “When I go into situations, it’s always the first take that is the scariest,” Pepper says. “You don’t really know how people are going to react.” In the case of the tough guy cuddling, they do not react well. In the video, Pepper is pushed to the ground, cursed at, and generally abused by each and every brute he attempts to hug.
I ask him if he’s ever scared of getting seriously hurt. After all, Pepper — if I had to describe his frame — is wispy at best. He sports a large chest tattoo across his concave chest and a high-top fade that frames his razor cheekbones. Here he is, walking arms out with shuffling steps towards dudes who have nothing better to do than look tough and walk around the awful nightmare town that is Venice. “I try and weigh out situations and think that no one is going to hurt me really badly for just trying to hug them,” he says. “I mean if I spat in their face or something, then they’d be really pissed and beat the shit out of me.”
So that’s Pepper’s metric for personal safety: Don’t spit in anyone’s face. But beyond that, beyond blatant disregard for human decency, Pepper is pretty much open for anything. In one video — a prank that is brilliant in its simplicity — Pepper attempts to hold the hands of girls walking with their significant others. “I got pinned up against a wall for that one,” Pepper tells me. “I was a bit scared.” For his safety, Pepper tells me that he has three or four friends hiding around him during pranks. “If things got really bad,” he explains, “they would jump in.” But things rarely get to that point, according to the 24-year-old. Usually, after learning its a prank, those being hugged or held laugh it off and inform Pepper that he was minutes away from a beating. “They normally say, ‘I was about to the beat the shit out of you’,” Pepper recalls, laughing as he says it.
But maybe Pepper — to borrow the vernacular of his native Kent, England — is a bit mad. According to him, he practically fell into YouTube after “Big Brother” aired. “I had a lot of Twitter followers and decided to try YouTube,” he says. After posting his first YouTube video, Pepper saw that the interactive elements and the quick response from his audience were ideal for his obvious leanings towards voyeurism. “It probably took me a year to get to 20,000 subscribers, and that’s when I thought that I could start doing this as my full-time job,” he says.
While 20,000 subscribers in 12 months would be monumental for most up-and-coming creators, for Pepper, it was only the beginning. His subscriber count skyrocketed from 2012–2013. As he explains: What’s strange is it took me two years to get 100,000 subscribers — in August last year I was at 100,000 subscribers — and now I’m at 1.5 million, so I don’t really know what happened. I was just at the right place at the right time and I started making good quality content that people really want to watch.”
This is driven home by the fact that filtering out Pepper’s top videos shows that his multi-million viewed uploads were all shot within the last year or so. It seems that the young prankster has ironed out his perfect recipe for creating and disseminating chaos. “It has to be funny, but the person you are doing it to — it can’t cause them any harm,” he explains. “I try to think up pranks that are innocent, but ones that give people a reaction where they kind of flip out, but nothing bad really happens.”
As much as we could debate the innocence of some of Pepper’s pranks, he even has his limits. Pepper cites a recent Janoskians prank in which the Australian prank quintet pretend to masturbate, covered by towels into crowds of people. Vancouver’s Straight.com called the prank “sexually violent” and “pathetic, childish, and down-right harmful.” Pepper recalls watching the video: “They pretended to masturbate over a pram (slang for a teenage mother), and I was like ‘Wow, that is really quite far’.” Even someone like Pepper, someone who by all rights lives to push the boundaries of human social decorum, knows when to draw the line. “I think you really have to be careful. You have to get a reaction, but it can’t hurt the people you are getting a reaction from,” he explains.
And at a glance, Pepper’s recipe for shocking, yet harmless pranks is paying off. With the recent boom in subscribers and views, Pepper is gearing up to convert his once “experimental” channel, into a full-fledged prank hub. “My channel has always been really experimental and I’ve never stuck to the same thing. It’s only been in the last three or four months that I’ve done purely pranks,” he says. “On my main channel I’m trying to brand myself with pranks because I think when it comes to people subscribing to a channel, it’s much better to know what you’re subscribing to. If you’re someone who loves pranks and you go to a channel where it’s someone doing serious interviews, you won’t like it.”
With an eye on bigger, more boundary-pushing pranks, Pepper is turning toward his fellow YouTube mayhem agents for inspiration. He tells me that he looks up to prankers like Roman Atwood and VitalyzdTV. “They are always pushing things to the next level in terms of their ideas,” explains Pepper, who it seems is ready to scale up the intensity of his pranks. “They don’t have any limits to what they do,” he tells me, pausing. He chews on the next sentence as if it will send him down a slippery road the moment he utters it out loud: “I think that’s what I want to do next.”
And if pranks don’t end up working out for Pepper, the creator may have a promising career in hip hop dancing. He’s currently appearing alongside YouTuber Lancifer on season 3 of “Dance Showdown” on the DanceOn network. Don’t laugh, at least he’s not getting punched in the face… yet.