Heights. Some people love them; some people hate them; and some people spend their days posing on the most extreme of them in order to please the internet. Well, one person does.
You’ve probably seen her death-defying photos all over Instagram; you might already know her as that crazy Russian girl who climbs insanely tall buildings for fun (she’s working on something more catchy), but what you probably didn’t know is that daredevil roof lover Angela Nikolau, 23, is a bit scared of heights.
“Looking at my pictures, you may think that I’m afraid of nothing but that’s not true – I get really scared sometimes,” she confesses to FS. “Last time it happened on the highest construction site in the world in China, I couldn’t get on the crane immediately and it took me some time to get used to the height before continuing.”
Nikolau is of course referring to the Instagram post, where sponsors Travel Ticker took her and her partner Ivan Birkus to a 640m construction site in the Chinese city of Tianjin and filmed them climbing onto, and posing on top of, a terrifyingly tall crane. The climb itself took five hours in the early morning, where Nikolau and Birkus scaled 117 floors in the dark before even reaching the last and most dangerous leg of the journey: an industrial crane which, although safely mounted on the building, moved around because of the extreme wind. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to overcome all the floors and I was happy I could do that, but then the wind was a scary factor also,” Nikolau recalls. “I lost two kilos during that one climb.” And that wasn’t the only time. Though the selfie she posted of her and Birkus goofing around on top of Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma bridge may have seemed picture perfect, that climb was hard. “I felt a lot of fear in Hong Kong, but I didn’t have to do any mental exercises. When I’m frightened, I just have to stay up there and get used to the height, which can take a while.”
Looking at the photos, you’d never guess the tagline on her Instagram account “No limit, no control” might actually refer to her fear.
Nikolau is one of the most popular Instagrammers of roofing (short for rooftopping, a practice that has exploded in popularity among thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies) in the world at the moment. And with more skyscrapers than any other city on earth (followed closely by China), Hong Kong has become a magnet for daredevils seeking to test their skills and nerve. So what made this relatively normal girl from Moscow travel around the world to risk life and limb for likes?
Before my Instagram account became popular, I was leading a normal life. I studied at the academy, met up with friends, looked after my dog and did a little roofing to find inspiration – just normal things,” Nikolau explains. “I climbed on to roofs to enjoy the view, and I decided to share these moments with my friends, so I started an Instagram account and my friends became my first followers.”
After a modest start which saw her climbing moderately tall buildings and having Birkus take pictures of her standing overlooking Moscow, Nikolau’s poses quickly began to get more and more audacious. “My first picture got 12 likes, and from there it grew and as more people liked it, the higher I would go, and the more daring I would go.” And with more than 350,000 followers, she’s now got brands lining up to collaborate with her for advertising. An air of mystery helped Nikolau gain recognition. As her popularity grew, the internet became intrigued by the girl known only through spectacular pictures and a few inspirational quotes posted alongside them. She admits she was surprised by the attention, but feels that it was something she was raised to do, after her childhood hobbies had given her all the skills she needed and the inspiration to try new things.
“When I was a child, I was always very busy with different lessons,” she says. “I studied dancing, acrobatics, gymnastics; I had so many hobbies and had a lot of energy to spend on it, but I never climbed. Later on in life, my exercise has helped me roofing. I still train in acrobatics, a lot of yoga and I do power exercises everyday. I even run every day and always take the stairs even in skyscrapers where there are 45 floors in the buildings. I like doing these things and it helps me when I’m roofing.”
She sarted roofing in her home city and the native Muscovite admits that her hobby is technically illegal, because she doesn’t have permission to climb the buildings. It doesn’t deter her, even though authorities have caught her in the act. “It’s true, we don’t have permission to trespass,” she says. “Sometimes the police catch me on the roof and ask what I’m doing there, but they are always softer with a girl. They always let me go without any penalties.”
So what’s in it for her when the risks involved could be a criminal record or even death, we wonder. Does she do it for fame, fortune or adventure? Apparently, it’s all about the latter. It seems it isn’t for the thousands of likes she gets on her photos or the possibility of getting paid (though that is nice). It’s the element of danger and the excitement of planning the next sting that spurs her on. “Walking on rooftops and taking pictures is OK, but mainly it’s the penetration process – getting around security, staking out a building and getting anxious are the things that are exciting for me,” she explains. “We choose the building based on its architecture or interesting history like the IFC building in Hong Kong, where Batman was filmed. Then we check maps, follow security, research and pick a morning or night when we can sneak in.” And this is the essence of the pictures that leave her followers wanting more. A combination of living vicariously through this young girl who appears to have no fear, and discovering through her photos a new way of looking at a city.
It’s Nikolau and Birkus’s meticulous planning that has seen her popularity explode since she started Instagramming in 2013, not to mention both their self-taught photography skills and ability to capture soul-searching serenity against stunning vertigo-inducing backdrops. But although Googling her name might throw up the description “selfie-taker”, she concedes that she prefers “when someone else takes the photo of me.
“Selfies are just one type of photo, but when someone else is holding the camera,” she says, “I can create more artistic images.” This is why rather than going by herself or just with her partner, Nikolau actually climbs with a team of three other people. “It’s more interesting to climb with a team where we are all motivated roofers,” she explains. “Sometimes climbing takes four to five hours, and it’s sad to be alone for such a long time – company is always welcome.” Their preparation can take up to a week, where Nikolau and her team will choose clothes and wait for good weather. Sometimes, she says, she’ll do a practice climb without all the photo equipment, just so she can suss things out before going back either later on in the day or the day after to take photos.
“I have to take a lot of photos which takes time because of external factors that can be bothersome like the wind, rain, birds and planes. These days, the sky is crowded and busy all the time.”
She’s already conquered most of Moscow, a spate of Hong Kong buildings, the world’s tallest construction site in China, Spain’s Sagrada Familia and the Eiffel Tower in France. What’s next? “Follow my Instagram,” she answers cheekily. “I will place new photos there from my trips around the world.” She could be coming to a rooftop near you. Just mind how you go, Angela.
Follow Angela Nikolau at instagram.com/angela_nikolau
Photos: Ivan Kuznetsov; Angela_Nikolau/instagram