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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.