How Khaby Lame Took Over TikTok

In March 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Khabane Lame, a young factory worker in the northern Italian industrial town of Chivasso, lost his job.

He went back to his family’s modest apartment, and despite the urging of his Senegalese father to apply for other jobs, he began spending hours each day posting videos to TikTok under the name Khaby Lame.

Using the social media app’s duet and stitch features, Mr. Lame, 21, capitalized on the momentum of viral and often absurdly complicated life hack videos — slicing open a banana with a knife, using odd contraptions to put on socks — by responding to them with wordless, easy-to-understand reaction clips in which he would do the same task in a much more straightforward manner.

He peels the banana. He puts on a pair of socks. And almost always he punctuates his gags with the video equivalent of a “duh” punchline, extending his arms as if to say voilà and offering an expressive roll of the eyes or shake of the head.

His early posts were mostly in Italian, with Italian subtitles; sometimes Mr. Lame spoke in his native, northern-accented tongue. But it was the wordless, expressive reaction clips — poking fun at forks transformed into spoons with tape or defending the sanctity of Italian pizza from a video that proposes Sour Patch Kids toppings — that have catapulted Mr. Lame to international stardom. With 65.6 million followers on TikTok and counting, if he continues acquiring followers at his current rate, or near it, he will become the most followed creator on the platform. (Currently that is Charli D’Amelio, 17, who has 116 million followers.)

“It’s my face and my expressions which make people laugh,” Mr. Lame said in an interview on Wednesday, a national holiday celebrating the birth of the Italian Republic. His muted reactions, he said, are a “global language.”

Mr. Lame’s meteoric rise as a digital creator is especially noteworthy because his work lacks the polished production value associated with the most famous TikTok stars of today, many of whom have been embraced by Hollywood. He didn’t find success through joining a collab house with other 20-somethings, or by relying on artificial growth like buying followers or views. His rise has been entirely organic.

The secret to Mr. Lame’s success is his universal exasperated everyman quality. “His content almost debunks or mocks the overproduced trends that happen across social media, whether it’s life hacks or other things like that,” said Samir Chaudry, a founder of The Publish Press, a newsletter covering the creator economy. “He almost represents this authenticity over production. I think that’s very appealing at scale to people, this feeling of someone not trying too hard, it’s something that feels authentic.”

About 40 days ago, when Mr. Lame hit 10 million followers, “I realized things were going well,” he said. Now, with more than 65 million followers, this is his full-time job.

Mr. Lame’s admirers operate fan pages in English, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and more. Well-known YouTubers, including King Bach, have contacted him for collaborations, and he’s making some money through TikTok’s Creator Fund and by working with brands, including, he said, the Italian pasta maker Barilla.

“Being an international star,” he said, “I’m much more in demand.”

But while Mr. Lame is known internationally as the Italian TikToker, he is not technically recognized as Italian in Italy. His lack of citizenship, despite living in Italy since the age of 1, attending Italian school and rabidly rooting for the Juventus soccer team, is “definitely wrong,” he said. “Sincerely, I don’t need a piece of paper to define myself as Italian,” he said, adding that his lack of an Italian passport has never given him any problems.

“Until now at least,” he said.

One unexpected side effect of Mr. Lame’s TikTok ascent is that it has exposed the vulnerable underside of his lack of Italian citizenship. His Senegalese passport has made it tougher to obtain a visa to visit the United States, he said. He’s still dealing with Italian bureaucracy and paperwork to get his citizenship.

Italian citizenship is based on blood and can be earned only by the children of immigrants who reach age 18 after living in the country since birth. For those not born in Italy, it can take much longer. Liberal lawmakers, despite their strong influence in the government, have largely shied away from previous efforts to change the law and extend citizenship to immigrants and their children who have long lived in Italy.

“I’m not a mayor, I’m no one. I can’t change the laws,” Mr. Lame said, as he sat in his manager’s Milan office next to an Ironman figure. Reminded that most lawmakers don’t have more than 60 million followers, he flashed his broad smile and added, “Maybe I can change it with the popularity. With my influence.”

Celebrities and other influential people are certainly taking notice of his rise. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, commented a thumbs up emoji on one of Mr. Lame’s recent Instagram posts. On May 19, Mr. Lame appeared with Alessandro Del Piero, the legendary soccer player of his beloved Juventus team. Top influencers have reached out, inviting Mr. Lame to collaborate.

He has a large following in Brazil and the United States, the national soccer sweatshirts of which he often wears. He’s also huge in Senegal, where his family is from and where he is frequently talked about on television. Mr. Lame noted, “I’m more followed abroad than in Italy.”

Still, he said, fans stop him in the street and in restaurants to ask for selfies. “I have a lot of influence in Italy,” Mr. Lame said. It’s just not, he acknowledged, on the front pages of its magazines or newspapers or on the television news, mediums conquered by Chiara Ferragni, the influencer who is arguably the most powerful woman in Italy and who has been dipping her toe in politics and big business.

In late April, Mr. Lame surpassed Gianluca Vacchi as Italy’s most followed TikTok personality. Mr. Vacchi, 53, renowned for his dance routines and excessive lifestyle, is a fabulously wealthy scion of a plastics magnate. He is obsessively fit, abundantly tattooed and married to a model who is 26. Mr. Lame’s current manager, Riggio Alessandro, used to manage Mr. Vacchi.

While Mr. Vacchi represents a luxurious way of life often associated with Italian extravagance, Mr. Lame often posts from the bare-bones bedroom that he shares with his older brother. It is decorated with a Senegal flag and a Juventus soccer scarf. He used an outdated phone for many videos, and the lighting isn’t great.

But that’s what people like.

“I think that the problem that people are starting to see with big influencers is that they set certain standards of how to look, what’s cool and what’s not,” said Adam Meskouri, a 17-year-old student and content creator in Birmingham, Mich. “Then, Khaby comes and he’s just a normal dude. It’s been refreshing to see. It’s a lot easier to relate to him than most big influencers.”

Mr. Chaudry, of The Publish Press, noted that when it comes to the top three creators who still have more followers than Mr. Lame — Ms. D’Amelio, Addison Easterling and Bella Porch — the production value “has gone through the roof.”

“This opportunity to connect with someone who is unaffiliated, underproduced and feels very real is a juxtaposition of what we’re seeing in the social media space,” he said.

Besides his shake-my-head clips, Mr. Lame’s content mostly consist of homages to his girlfriend and tight-knit group of friends. Some of his posts, though, while they would not cause much of a stir in Italy, would be off brand in the more progressive corners of the United States or Europe.

In one, he contrasts a voluptuous woman seductively saying “If you had 24 hours with me, what would you do?” by listing all the parts of the house he’d make her clean. In another, he makes fun of a woman who complained about being called an old hag on TikTok. In still another, he appears to console a weeping woman with a plate for her to clean.

Part of Mr. Lame’s success is related to how prime his content is for getting sucked into the internet aggregation machine. YouTubers create compilation videos of his TikTok clips to attract millions of views.

Mr. Lame’s content is also perfect “meme page bait,” meaning that many meme pages download his TikTok videos and repost them to Instagram for easy engagement, or they use his face for reaction images. His videos are also frequently reposted to Twitter, where they spread further.

Many Black TikTok creators in the United States have been outspoken in the past year about their struggle to obtain proper credit for the online trends they produce, as well as the racism they experience. Prominent Black Italians, including Mario Balotelli, once the country’s most famous Black soccer star, have also talked about enduring years of racism.

But Mr. Lame said he has had a different experience. “My friends have always been protective of me,” he said. “I’ve never had such a problem. No one has ever dared insult me because we were a united group and had a lot of respect.”

Mr. Lame said he believes his comedic facial expressions and the simplicity of his content have helped him grow at the rate he has. He also posts frequently — nearly every single day to TikTok and all day every day to Instagram Stories.

“The secret is endurance above all,” he said.

Though Mr. Lame may soon become the most followed TikTok star in the world, he insisted he doesn’t treat TikTok like a competition. He said he doesn’t encounter content by Charli D’Amelio very much (though Ms. D’Amelio’s sister, Dixie D’Amelio, also a top creator, does follow him and he follows her back). “I’m happy to be the first in Italy and all, but I didn’t start TikTok for this,” he said.

He got into it, he said, to make people laugh, like his idols Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and the Pugliese actor Checco Zalone, known for his broad Italian comedies. Mr. Lame said he hopes to one day join their ranks.

He is steadily making money but has not made enough to realize his dream of buying his mother a house. “Maybe,” he said, “in the future.”

source: nytimes.com