In March 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Khabane Lame, a young factory worker in the industrial town of Chivasso in northern Italy, lost his job.
He returned to his family’s modest apartment and, despite his Senegalese father’s urging to apply for other jobs, he started spending hours every day posting videos on TikTok under the name Khaby Lame.
Using the duo and stitch features of the social media app, Mr. Lame, 21, took advantage of the momentum of viral and often absurdly complicated life hacking videos – slicing a banana with a knife, using weird gear to put on socks – responding to them with wordless, easy-to-understand reaction clips in which he would do the same task in a much simpler way.
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 lo and offering an expressive eye roll or nod.
His first posts were mostly in Italian, with Italian subtitles; sometimes Mr. Lame spoke in his native language with a Nordic accent. But it was the wordless and expressive reaction clips – mock forks turned into spoons with duct tape or champion the sanctity of Italian pizza from a video featuring Sour Patch Kids toppings – which catapulted Mr. Lame to international stardom. With 65.6 million subscribers on TikTok and counting, if he continues to acquire subscribers at his current rate, or almost, he will become the most followed creator of the platform. (Currently, 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio has 116 million followers.)
“It’s my face and my expressions that make people laugh,” Lame said in an interview on Wednesday, a national holiday celebrating the birth of the Italian Republic. His quiet reactions, he said, are “global language”.
Mr. Lame’s meteoric rise as a digital creator is particularly notable as his work lacks the refined production value associated with today’s most famous TikTok stars, many of whom have been adopted by Hollywood. He hasn’t seen success joining a collaborative house with other young people in his twenties, or relying on artificial growth like buying followers or views. Its rise has been entirely organic.
The secret to Mr. Lame’s success is his universal quality exasperated by everyone. “Its content demystifies or almost pokes fun at the overproduced trends that are happening on social media, whether it’s life hacks or things like that,” said Samir Chaudry, founder of The Publish Press, a newsletter covering the economy of creators. “It almost represents this authenticity in relation to the production. I think it’s very attractive on a large scale to people, that feeling of someone not trying too hard, it’s something that feels genuine.
About 40 days ago, when Mr. Lame reached 10 million followers, “I realized things were going well,” he said. Today, with over 65 million subscribers, it’s his full-time job.
Global reach, from Italy
Mr. Lame admirers operate fan pages in English, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and more. Well-known YouTubers, including King Bach, have reached out to him for collaborations, and he’s making money through TikTok’s Creator Fund and working with brands, including, he said, the pasta maker. Italian Barilla.
“Being an international star,” he said, “I’m in demand a lot more. “
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 an Italian school and rooting with rage for the Juventus football team, is “absolutely wrong”, he said. he declares. “Honestly, I don’t need a piece of paper to define myself as Italian,” he said, adding that his lack of an Italian passport had never been a problem for him.
“So far at least,” he said.
An unexpected side effect of Mr. Lame’s rise on TikTok is that it has exposed the vulnerable undersides of his lack of Italian citizenship. His Senegalese passport made it more difficult to get a visa to travel to the United States, he said. He still faces the Italian bureaucracy and paperwork to get his citizenship.
Italian citizenship is blood-based and can only be acquired by children of immigrants who reach the age of 18 after living in the country from birth. For those who were not born in Italy, it may take a lot longer. Liberal lawmakers, despite their strong influence in government, have largely turned away from previous efforts to change the law and extend citizenship to immigrants and their children who have long lived in Italy.
“I am not mayor, I am nobody. I can’t change the laws, ”said Lame, as he sat in his manager’s office in Milan next to an Ironman character. Recalled that most lawmakers don’t have more than 60 million followers, he displayed his broad smile and added, “Maybe I can change it with popularity. With my influence.
Celebrities and other influential people have certainly noticed his rise. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented on 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. The top influencers reached out, inviting Mr. Lame to collaborate.
He has many followers in Brazil and the United States, whose national football sweatshirts he often wears. He is also huge in Senegal, where his family is from and where he is frequently talked about on television. Mr. Lame noted: “I am followed more abroad than in Italy.
Still, he said, fans stop him on the streets and in restaurants to ask for selfies. “I have a lot of influence in Italy,” said Lame. It is simply not, he admitted, on the front page of his magazines or newspapers or on the television news, media conquered by Chiara Ferragni, the influencer who is arguably the most powerful woman in Italy. and who has dipped his feet in politics and big business.
At the end of April, Mr. Lame overtook Gianluca Vacchi as the most followed TikTok personality in Italy. Mr. Vacchi, 53, renowned for his dance routines and excessive lifestyle, is a fabulously wealthy descendant of a plastic mogul. He is in great shape, heavily tattooed and married to a 26-year-old model. Mr Lame’s current manager, Riggio Alessandro, managed Mr Vacchi.
While Mr. Vacchi represents a luxurious lifestyle often associated with Italian extravagance, Mr. Lame often posts from the bare bedroom he shares with his older brother. It is decorated with a Senegal flag and a Juventus football scarf. He used an outdated phone for a lot of videos and the lighting isn’t great.
But that’s what people like.
“I think the problem people are starting to see with big influencers is that they set certain standards for how they look, what’s cool and what isn’t,” said Adam Meskouri, a 17 year old student and content creator in Birmingham, Mich. “So Khaby comes in and he’s just a normal guy.” It’s refreshing to see. It’s much easier to relate to him than most of the big influencers.
Mr. Chaudry, of The Publish Press, noted that when it comes to the top three creators who have even more followers than Mr. Lame – Ms. D’Amelio, Addison Easterling and Bella Porch – the value of the production ” exploded . “
“This opportunity to connect with someone who is not an affiliate, by-product, and who feels very real is a juxtaposition of what we see in the social media space,” he said.
Meme Bait Money
Besides his head-shaking clips, Mr. Lame’s content mostly consists of tributes to his girlfriend and a tight-knit group of friends. Some of his posts, however, while they wouldn’t make much noise in Italy, would be irrelevant in 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 rooms in the house, he would make it clean. In another, he mocks a woman who complained about being called an old witch on TikTok. In yet another, he appears to be consoling a crying woman with a plate to clean.
Part of Mr. Lame’s success has to do with the importance of his content getting sucked into the internet aggregation machine. YouTubers are creating compilation videos of her TikTok clips to get millions of views.
Mr. Lame’s content is also a perfect ‘meme page bait’, which means many meme pages upload his TikTok videos and repost them on Instagram for easy engagement, or use his face for reaction images. . His videos are also frequently reposted on Twitter, where they spread further.
Many of the creators of Black TikTok in the United States have spoken openly over the past year of their struggle to get 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, also spoke of years of persistent racism.
But Mr. Lame said he had a different experience. “My friends have always been protective of me,” he said. “I have never had such a problem. No one ever dared to insult me because we were a united group and we had a lot of respect.
Mr Lame said he believed his comedic facial expressions and the simplicity of its content helped him grow at the rate he was having. He also posts frequently – almost every day on TikTok and all day on Instagram Stories.
“The secret is above all endurance,” he says.
While Mr. Lame may soon become the world’s most followed TikTok star, he insisted he doesn’t treat TikTok as a competition. He said he doesn’t come across much of Charli D’Amelio’s content (although Ms. D’Amelio’s sister Dixie D’Amelio, also a top designer, follows him and he follows her). “I’m happy to be the first in Italy and everything, but I didn’t start TikTok for that,” he said.
He got down to it, he says, to make people laugh, like his idols Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and Apulian actor Checco Zalone, known for his broad Italian comedies. Mr. Lame said he hopes to one day join their ranks.
He regularly earns money but did not earn enough to fulfill his dream of buying a house for his mother. “Maybe,” he said, “in the future.”