Every week, hundreds of viewers tune into Michael Noker on YouTube, ready to laugh at his breezy tales of dating disasters and self-deprecating life advice. On Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, photo feeds punctuated by Michael’s sardonically raised eyebrows have attracted nine thousand or so followers.
As his online presence grows, the twenty-six-year-old is starting to become recognizable… an irony that makes him chuckle, since face blindness means, for this YouTuber, recognition’s a one-way street.
He admits it’s a little odd for someone with face blindness –or prosopagnosia–to use their own image to seek fame and fortune on the internet, but Michael says it’s a way of pushing himself out of his comfort zone.
“I went through a period of my life–basically the first twenty-five years of my life–when I was afraid of everything. I was really anxious and I was terrified of lots of things.”
Last year, he decided to change his life. “YouTube is something that involves a lot of creativity, and it was also one of the scariest things I could think of, because what’s more terrifying than putting your face on the internet?”
“What’s more terrifying than putting your face on the internet?”
Watching Michael’s upbeat, confessional-style videos, where he seems to be almost always on the verge of laughter, there’s no hint at the anxiety and depression that have dogged him throughout his life, beginning with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at fifteen. But like face blindness, that’s the nature of depression, he points out. It’s not a heart-on-sleeve condition.
“I struggled with a lot of things for a long time, I felt ugly, unwanted, unlovable, I felt like a loser and like I didn’t have anything to offer to the world.”
Creating videos on YouTube is a way of presenting the person he wants to be to the world. Self-acceptance is a theme that runs through his work, and Michael, who describes himself on one of his videos as “moderately, yet approachably-attractive male”, says his own journey is still a work in progress.
After spending a few years unhappily medicated–“I don’t know anybody who says, ‘hey, I’m on Prozac and I feel great!”–Michael swapped medication for meditation after talking to a roommate about Buddhism.
Depression is not a heart-on-sleeve condition.
He’s quick to point out this route isn’t for everyone. “It was a very foolish decision that worked out very well for me.”
“In meditation you take the idea and observe it, then you just let it go. You don’t assign a label to it or identify it as good or bad then you let it go. It’s the same thing with emotions, if you feel sad you don’t have to feel bad with it.”
Sadness doesn’t have to be a negative feeling that drags you down, he points out. “That was a strange thought but it works for me.”
This meditative technique is a central tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, and, Michael says, a powerful way to take control of a mind that’s completely out of control.
“As soon as I stopped letting my thoughts run wild, and stopped calling myself ugly or worthless, everything went back to normal and I had this new emotion, happiness. I am a happy person, who knew?”
I am a happy person, who knew?
“To help myself, I look at the really good parts of me you don’t find in everybody. For me that is compassion, empathy. I’m a very good listener, good at supporting people. I’m a great cheerleader, if you’ve got me on the sidelines you’re going to feel special you’re going to feel empowered.”
Dealing with the aftermath of his divorce has played a large part in this journey. Michael met his ex-husband in an online chatroom at the age of sixteen. At nineteen, he got married.
“I’d never dated before, I met him on a chat room online. Being a gay teenager, that’s your option as far as seeing people. It’s been a decade, we’ve made some progress, there are more safe spaces now, but at the time; if you were gay and a teenager and you wanted to meet other gay people you got online.”
While he says neither bipolar disorder nor face blindness had an impact on his relationship–except for a few awkward dinner parties where he failed to recognize his husband’s friends despite several introductions–he admits the decision to stop taking his meds was central to the breakdown of his marriage at the age of twenty-three.
“[My ex husband] was very much against that, he did not want me to do that, for good reasons. It’s a very dangerous, risky choice, it’s taking your life into your own hands, when your hands have proven incapable so far.”
Michael moves from earnestness and flippancy in describing the lessons learned from his break up – which he’s also detailed on YouTube. “It wasn’t a great relationship but I learned things there are things you can gain. It’s not a happy relationship that was ending, even if you don’t recognize it as being bad, so that is one perspective.”
“You also get to watch a whole bunch of romantic comedies, you get to cry, you get to eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate syrup. Break-ups are great.”
Six months ago, Michael quit his regular job and moved from Albuquerque to El Paso to concentrate on “building an empire” full time. “I’ve been bold and fearless and stupid… very, very stupid, but mostly bold and fearless. I’ve gotten really lucky.”
“I’ve been bold and fearless and stupid… very, very stupid, but mostly bold and fearless. I’ve gotten really lucky.”
As his nascent media empire grows, he’s learning a fair bit about what it means to be a public figure. That includes dealing with less-than-complimentary comments, which he chooses to interpret as constructive criticism.
“When people leave you really horrible comments it can push you in the right direction. Obviously they don’t say ‘hey, this is a really ineffective way to communicate, I would appreciate it if you’d work a little bit to clarify the message’. No. They say ‘go die in a fire, go kill yourself’. I try and find the message behind that and use it to improve.”
Some of the exploits detailed in his videos–like dealing with a creepy neighbor who tried to catfish him (pretending to be someone else online) with fake pictures, or receiving unsolicited cock shots from strangers–sound less than ideal, but Michael turns these into funny vignettes to amuse his audience.
“Most of my comedy comes from dating, because dating is hysterical.”
Towering over most of the population at six-foot-four inches, platinum blonde Michael stands out in a crowd. But he shrugs off the suggestion that being unable to identify others in return can be disconcerting. After all, he’s lived with face blindness his whole life, and developed a number of coping strategies.
“When I have a conversation with someone face to face, I note how they talk, how they stand; I have to pick out something unique about them, like tattoos, or height. So if someone’s tall and blond with tattoos I’ll know who that is, but if you show me a picture, I’ll be like, uhhh, I don’t know.”
Michael can trace his memory of face blindness to a perm that sent him screaming to his room.
He was four or five, and his mom had just come home from the salon. “She had a bad perm, straight out of 1986,” he says. But it wasn’t the fashion faux-pas that terrified the young boy–the change in hairstyle meant he no longer knew his mother.
“I just started screaming and ran away from her and wouldn’t come out of my room.”
He laughs as he remembers the incident, but admits face blindness meant childhood was sometimes confusing.
It came as a shock when Michael discovered not everyone uses hairstyles to tell people apart.
Like the time he was eleven, when he became separated from his family at a fairground.
“I was looking for my parents and I saw a guy with a bald head, so I thought it was my stepdad and I tried to talk to him. He was staring at me like, what is this crazy small child talking about? So I was like ‘you’re not my dad’. Then I saw a lady with blonde hair and I’d think, oh, that’s my mom … no, not my mom.”
It came as a shock when the adolescent Michael discovered not everyone uses hairstyles to tell people apart. “There was this moment where I was like, oh, okay, so apparently people recognize each other by faces.”
So what does he see when he looks in the mirror?
“I do recognize myself. But it’s been tricky. I’m naturally brunette, but about a year ago I started to bleach my hair. All of my older pictures have brown hair, so when I look at them I don’t recognize myself. I’m aware it was me, I remember when the photo was taken, but it doesn’t look like me anymore.”
Adolescence is difficult enough without being able to recognize your friends. Add to that coming out as gay and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in small-town New Mexico, and you could have a teenage nightmare.
Yes, he admits, he had a rough couple of years. But coming out was one of the easier parts.
It happened in a high school geometry class. “[My classmate] said ‘dude, I have a question. Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘yeah,’ and she was like “cool.” And then everybody knew, and no one cared.”
Based on geography, El Paso should be conservative, but is actually laid back and friendly, Michael says. He hasn’t had any problems in his day-to-day life, but he’s aware progress still needs to be made.
“I have a deep appreciation of how much we still have to fight. There are certain people I meet, and as soon I talk to them I know they hate me, and I think, yeah, you don’t like me because I’m gay.”
But the hate is one-sided, he says: there’s too much of it in the world already.
“There is something good in everybody, and I do love everybody and want them to do well. That’s the choice I’ve made, and how I’m choosing to live.”