UCLA’s Kai Novak Is Dominating Your FYP & The Soccer Field
The college senior opens up about her TikTok “alter ego,” therapy, and what’s next.
For a college student, Kaila “Kai” Novak doesn’t have much free time. Between filming viral food reviews for her 1.5 million TikTok followers, playing soccer, and finishing her neuroscience degree, the UCLA senior is a pro at “performing under pressure” — and it’s just another day in the life. “As a high-level athlete, you have to be good under pressure,” Novak tells Elite Daily.
The Canadian native — who was 15 when UCLA spotted her at the U-17 World Cup qualifier (a global championship for players under 17) — says the opportunity was a game-changer for her. “Before that, I didn't think that going to the U.S. and playing college soccer was in the cards for me,” says the 21-year-old, who grew up in a “tiny farm town.”
Once at UCLA, Novak had new challenges balancing academics and soccer, as well as the attention on her and then-girlfriend Olivia Ponton’s relationship. “There was definitely a different set of eyes and type of light shined on my life, which was interesting to navigate,” the TikTok creator says, calling the lack of privacy a “great learning curve.” With just months to go until graduation, Novak has since moved to London to play pro soccer and swapped out her TikTok-viral dining hall food reviews with other foodie and travel content.
Below, the college senior opens up about her TikTok persona, how she’s handling her relationships differently now, and what’s next.
Elite Daily: When did you know you wanted to go to college, and how did you choose UCLA?
Kai Novak: Around 15, I started taking soccer seriously, and represented the Canadian national team at the U-17 level, all the way up through the U-20 level (for players under 20 years old). UCLA came to watch one of our qualifying games and reached out to me. I was in talks with a few other colleges. My top two ended up being Princeton and UCLA — two completely different schools on opposite coasts.
I felt Princeton would've been ideal if I wanted to focus on academics, but I wasn't ready to give up the soccer element. I visited UCLA, and fell in love with it right away, and the rest is history. I chose UCLA, not just for soccer, but their neuroscience program is one of the best in the country. How can you say no to that?
ED: You already had an impressive soccer career by the time you got to college. How did you deal with the expectations?
KN: Playing for my national team at the 2018 World Cup prepared me so much for college life, but the injuries I faced at UCLA shook me. That was where I had to shift my mindset, and where I struggled the most.
But in terms of performing under pressure, I just love playing soccer. Whether I do good or whether I do bad, I’ve learned to quickly dissociate and make sure that my performance isn’t my identity. No matter how I play, I’m always still myself and have my people off the field, which makes it easier.
ED: You mentioned you’re studying for a neuroscience degree. What made you decide to pursue this?
KN: Neuroscience fascinates me, and I fell in love after my first class. It challenged me, and I don't like being comfortable. Not to nerd out, but the brain is so unexplored still. There are so many things that you can discover, and I'm hoping to be one of those people who finds a cure for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's through research. I'd love to have my own research clinic eventually.
People think I'm very outgoing, very friendly — but I would much rather have a quiet movie night at home with my close people than go out to any college party.
ED: You're currently in London pursuing your dream of playing soccer there. How did that happen?
KN: I didn’t graduate early, but I opted out of playing soccer my last year at UCLA. Now I'm out in London pursuing my professional career. It was a huge leap of faith, a big and bold move on my part to jump into the professional soccer world, but I felt like I was ready. My team behind me does, and now it's just talking with agencies, training with teams, and, I’m biased, some of the best coaches here in the U.K. to get me ready for 2024 and playing pro.
ED: How does that work with classes when you're abroad?
KN: UCLA was one of the best schools at adapting to COVID with an online structure. Usually, I'm able to take exams online — I'm trying to convince one professor to let me take one test online, but if not, I'll fly back to UCLA to take one exam and then I'll come back. Hopefully, I'll be able to add some social media things onto that trip so it'll be worthwhile.
ED: What kind of social media things?
KN: If I can’t wiggle out of my trip back for the exam, I’ll be filming something for Nespresso in California. So just talking with a lot of brands and being like, “Hey, I'm going to be here for three days. What can we make happen?” Usually, everybody's pretty receptive to it, and it makes good content with the chaos of traveling.
ED: Do you have FOMO missing out on campus events at UCLA?
KN: I've never been somebody that experiences FOMO. I have my close circle of people, but I'm quite introverted, honestly. People might not know that from looking at my social media — people think I'm very outgoing, very friendly — but I would much rather have a quiet movie night at home with my close people than go out to any college party.
All of college, I didn't attend a single party. But the week before I left UCLA, I went out with my best friend and it lasted about 30 minutes, and then we were back home watching a movie. My tight circle is enough social interaction for me.
ED: Do you have any tips for balancing a busy schedule?
KN: Before games, I make sure to get my sleep, but sometimes there’ve been all-nighters. People are like, “Prioritize sleep as an athlete,” but when you're a student-athlete, and especially in neuroscience, studying takes four to eight hours each night sometimes, especially prepping for exams. My best piece of advice is to keep a schedule and plan hour by hour. I've been studying in the locker room more than I have in my apartment.
But it’s still fun. I'm passionate about my major, and it's about finding what you love because it won't feel like a chore studying if you love it.
ED: You have a huge TikTok following. How did you get started?
For the first part of my soccer season, I was isolated in my dorm during quarantine. We used to get meals delivered to our doors, and it was always a mystery what we were going to get. I was like, “This is absolutely hilarious. Let me start filming some food reviews at UCLA.”
It wasn’t just UCLA students who were like, “I wish I were there” — because only athletes were allowed on campus at that time — but it was people around the world. Like, this is what Americans get to eat for lunch and college life is incredible. People would come up to me and say, “You're the UCLA food girl.” I need to get that trademarked or something. That got me the following in the first place, but then also TikToks about my life as a college athlete and student, and my life outside those things.
ED: There's been a lot of attention around your relationships. Has this impacted your dating life at all in college?
KN: I had a relationship for most of college. I'm not in that relationship now, and in relationships that I have gotten into, I’ve learned to keep them a lot more private so people usually don't know what's going on in my dating life anymore — which I love. But it’s hard, because my first one was very public, and now it's a balance between keeping things private, and not keeping things a secret out of respect for the partners I'm with. I never want somebody to feel hidden. Social media makes it a bit trickier, so I try to keep it out as much as possible.
When people see me on social media and then meet me in person, my favorite compliment is, ‘You're so much more down to earth than I thought you'd be.’
ED: Did your TikTok popularity impact your friendships at all?
I’m lucky because I came into college with an incredible group of people. But when I started posting my reviews on TikTok, I ended up blocking my team so they wouldn't know that I had a following. I didn't want anyone to know, because I was like, “This is crazy. This is not me.” Again, I'm so introverted, so I didn't want the attention from the actual people around me. Yes, seeing comments, likes, and engagement is cool, but I'm not that person with my close people.
The people who were closest to me didn't even know until months later, and by that time, I already had a good core group. It didn't matter how many followers I had — they were my people because of our interactions and nothing to do with social media.
ED: You’ve mentioned being introverted. Does TikTok let you show a different side of yourself?
KN: It's a good — I wouldn't even call it an escape. It might even be a little alter ego that I'm putting on. I mean, even doing interviews like this, I think I've got a heightened personality. When people see me on social media and then meet me in person, my favorite compliment is, “You're so much more down to earth than I thought you'd be.” I love hearing that. I don't know why. People think I'm this massive personality, and while I can be, my safe space is definitely with my close people, being quiet at dinner or a movie, and not so much in your face like you'd see on social media, especially with my reviews and whatnot.
ED: How do you navigate self-care with the stress of being an athlete, school, and TikTok?
KN: At first, I didn't know how to navigate it. There aren’t many people that will admit, “I have no clue what to do right now.” I had a bit of a rough patch — and I opened up about this on social media a bit ago — where I sought out therapy. I think a lot of people are brushing away that stigma that if you go to therapy, that means something's wrong with you.
My best form of self-care has been going to therapy. Therapy's been beautiful to chat things out with someone unbiased, understand what's going on in my brain, and get out of my head.
ED: What’s next for you?
I'm trying to hit quite a few milestones in a short amount of time. I’ll be graduating, but I'm also going to be a professional soccer player before I graduate. I’m figuring out how to tie in my degree with my professional career, and then obviously posting videos about my crazy life.
Social media has supported me financially. Paychecks for playing soccer are still not the greatest, so we're working on that and we'll advocate for that down the line, but social media has been a great business route. Am I always that focused on it? Funny enough, no — there are things that are more important in my life, but it's a great outlet to be creative and let everybody know what's going on. Life isn't perfect and I think I show the funny things, the ups and downs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.