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On a sunny afternoon, a rotund, tall man named Andre Brown had just stepped out of his Boca Raton apartment when a bronze-haired stranger approached him wearing a black suit, leather gloves, and an expression stitched with alarm. "Are you who I'm supposed to talk to?" the man asked in a heavy Russian accent, as he set down a briefcase and backed away. "You have 60 seconds!" the Russian yelled. "You have 60 seconds!"
It's a bomb! Brown thought, looking at the case at his feet.
"We gotta run!" the apparent Russian hit man shouted, taking cover beside a clay-colored building. Confused and terrified, Brown sprinted after him. But then, just as they were about to take off running again, the hit man pointed at a cameraman standing across the street and laughed. "You're on camera!"
Brown didn't find this funny. "You trying to get a laugh?" he screamed, knuckling a fist and striking the Russian. "I'm not a motherfucker you can laugh at! If you keep filming me, I am going to fuck you up!"
What Brown didn't know then was that such antics have made Vitaly Zdorovetskiy the most famous YouTube celebrity in South Florida — outpacing, perhaps, even the Prancercise lady. And what Zdorovetskiy didn't know was that this encounter, which later became an online sensation called "Russian Hitman Prank Gone Wrong!," would ensnare him with two felony charges, cause Boca Raton to impound his green Isuzu Rodeo, and imprison him in a Key West jail for weeks for violating probation from an earlier offense. "Most police forces don't find bomb hoaxes to be a funny joke," says Boca Raton's assistant city manager, Mike Woika.
Your typical teenaged YouTube viewer, however, isn't a cop. At 21 years old, Vitaly Zdorovetskiy wields a social media following that spans the globe. In just two years of filming, he's marshaled an army of 1.7 million YouTube subscribers on his channel VitalyzdTv, taken in 114,000 "likes" on his Facebook page, and amassed more than 189 million clicks off 96 prank videos. In those, he's taught viewers "how to pick up black girls" and "how to get girls to kiss you," chased African-Americans in a "Miami Zombie Attack Prank!," and queried muscled oafs, "Bro, do you even lift?" Today, in terms of YouTube subscribers, he's more famous than Jennifer Lopez, more recognized than Jay Leno, and Justin Timberlake's equal.
For younger generations that eschew television and instead gorge on YouTube clips, Zdorovetskiy's highly shareable brand of physical comedy is the equivalent of online crack. It's a style that combines juvenile antics (think Jackass) with Borat-level brazenness and a heavy dose of frat-bro likability. And while most pop YouTube sensations founder after one hit, Zdorovetskiy has managed sustainability. His videos, which pack one individual joke and last roughly three minutes, aren't flukes. They're engineered to go viral, and the formula works every time.
But that's just about the only thing involving Zdorovetskiy that follows a pattern. Born in Murmansk, a city of 300,000 in northwestern Russia, Zdorovetskiy grew up fatherless in a one-room apartment with his mother. "He was a street boy," his mother, Elena Vulitsky, recalls. "Our lives were hard. He always wore the best clothes I could afford, but sometimes I made more money and sometimes less."
"All of my life, I've been poor," Zdorovetskiy agrees in a monotone baritone on a recent Friday afternoon, wearing cargo shorts and a black T-shirt, his hair just-out-of-bed messy. "My mom was a hairstylist; there weren't any opportunities for us there. I never thought I'd have my own car or cell phone."
So in 2004, when he and his mom landed in Delray Beach looking for better lives, the transition from North Russia to South Florida was debilitating. At Carver Middle School, he could barely shoehorn a single English sentence and found himself alone in ESL classes teeming with Haitians and Latin Americans — but no Russians. Despite the different surroundings, that same mischievousness that made him a "street kid" in Russia soon emerged in America, sparking conflict after conflict with authorities.
He took to skateboarding, and in 2010, he and two buddies were picked up by Boca Raton police for swimming in the Intracoastal Waterway, which was clogged with boat traffic, according to a police report. That same year, he also starred in a BangBus porno in which he anxiously tried — and failed — to get an erection, enduring every male's darkest fears while on camera.
"I wasn't supposed to get hard," he at first explains to New Times, then quickly changes stories. "There were so many people in the back [of the bus], and I got nervous. You know, it's not that easy... It was a dirty business, and I don't regret it." (Zdorovetskiy later called to clarify that he eventually did, in fact, "get hard" and "finished in her face.")
Around that time, pioneering YouTube celebrities like Jenna Marbles — who today has 10 million subscribers and collected 1 billion clicks — began poking out of obscurity with raw self-shot videos that teenagers and college students found eminently relatable. A short film called I Fucking Hate My Roommate was Marbles' first. When Zdorovetskiy saw such videos, he saw opportunity.
"I realized that I could do videos better than any of the others," says Zdorovetskiy, who ignored his mother's pleas for him to attend college and instead waited tables at Villagio at Boca Raton's Mizner Park. His project was unrefined, consisting of a few pals filming Zdorovetskiy with handheld cameras as he pranked random pedestrians. On August 10, 2011, Zdorovetskiy released his first video. It shows him, dripping confidence and deadpan, asking homeless men to kiss him while he wears a Scooby-Doo winter hat. "Yo, listen," he tells one disheveled gentleman resting against a fence, "I just want to kiss you."
Such buffoonery extended beyond YouTube. Months after this first video, on October 29, Zdorovetskiy was charged with disorderly conduct in Key West after trying to get into Rick's Bar on Duval Street with a fake ID, which bouncers confiscated. According to the police report, Zdorovetskiy became "aggressive" and was arrested. "While in custody," the document says, "Zdorovetskiy continued to scream and make threats toward officers and bystanders, outraging the public sense of decency." He was placed on probation.
But Zdorovetskiy had discovered that outraging public decency could work miracles on the internet. Over several months, he dispatched dozens of videos, labeling many of them "disturbing the peace." And, slowly, there rose a following across the nation's college campuses and high school cafeterias. His incredible ascent draws on themes of sex, delinquent humor, and profanity that define this new age of celebrity. And though Zdorovetskiy claims to have never studied the dynamics that drive the internet, he has a keen grasp of them. Videos and pictures that elicit "arousal emotions," Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania found in 2011 — like surprise or amusement — deliver the most impact.
The biggest surprise came last June. Less than a week after the Miami Zombie attack on the MacArthur Causeway, Zdorovetskiy doused himself in fake blood and chased petrified African-Americans down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Miami. "People used to call me racist for always punking black people, but they always just gave me the best reactions," Zdorovetskiy says. "Black people tell you what they really think."
The video went Hiroshima. It got 23 million views and catapulted Zdorovetskiy into the stratosphere. He materialized on the popular show Tosh.0 on Comedy Central. "All the people on Facebook were talking about zombies," Zdorovetskiy told host Daniel Tosh. "So I had a feeling it would go viral."
Zdorovetskiy quit his job waiting tables and claims he was bringing in thousands every week off YouTube advertisements. Though the prankster declines to talk specifics, David Burch, a YouTube advertising expert with TubeMogul, estimates Zdorovetskiy made more than $60,000 in the past six months alone.
But such videos also exposed the immature cruelty of Zdorovetskiy's videos. The success of his clips hinges on the explosiveness of the reactions. The more someone buys the prank, the better the video. And to some degree, the people who offer the best responses become the greatest victims.
That's how Andre Brown felt after he thought Zdorovetskiy's briefcase carried a bomb last year. (Zdorovetskiy claims he never said there was a bomb.)
"I'm looking for someone who can help me sue this guy," Brown, 52, who works for the Boca Raton Housing Authority, says now. "I'm still being harassed because of this. Random people call me and pull pranks on me and my son or call me racial slurs. I was a private guy who didn't want to get involved with anything, and now I have to deal with this guy?
"They tell you it's a prank and you're on camera and everyone laughs. And if you don't laugh, you're an asshole for not laughing. We think it's a joke because it's on video, but it's not." Every time another person like Brown deposits another bombastic reaction, Zdorovetskiy's prominence grows.
Last week, though, Zdorovetskiy uploaded a video in which he treats a bedraggled but charismatic homeless man to new clothes, a haircut, and a steak dinner. By Monday, it had snared 3.8 million views, soared into Reddit's top ten posts, and for several hours was the dominant post on YouTube's homepage.
In a note uploaded with the video, Zdorovetskiy wrote that "since I am usually a d-bag in my vids... I also wanted to show people that I have a heart and I am a really nice guy." He explained that the homeless man, identified only as Martin, "wanted to get his teeth pulled more than anything in his life... Let's make this happen." Zdorovetskiy linked to an indiegogo fundraising page that sought to raise $2,500 for the man. Within three days, it raised almost $10,000.
But that may be one of the internet superstar's last videos in South Florida. He says he's moving out of his mom's Boca house to try acting in Los Angeles. "I'm going to do some television pilot auditions and just hustle," Zdorovetskiy explains on a recent afternoon while shooting a Russian hit-man video that involves his flashing a briefcase full of cash at strangers. For a moment, he mulls possibilities. No one has ever turned his brand of cyber celebrity into something on TV. Will it work?
"Either way, I'll keep pranking people," he says. "This is my full-time job, and I have to keep it up."
And besides, he says, too many people recognize him in South Florida. "I can't prank anyone younger than 30, guaranteed."