In March 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Khabane Lame, a young factory worker in the northern Italian industrial city of Chivasso, lost his job.
He returned to his family’s modest apartment and, despite his Senegalese father’s insistence to apply for other jobs, began spending hours every day posting videos on TikTok under the name Khaby Lame.
Using the duet and stitch functions of the social media app, Mr. Lame, 21, took advantage of the momentum of viral and often absurdly complicated videos of life hacks: slicing a banana with a knife, using strange contraptions to putting on your socks, responding with wordless, easy-to-understand reaction clips in which you would do the same task in a much easier way.
Peel the banana. He puts on a pair of socks. And he almost always punctuates his gags with the video equivalent of a “duh” punchline, spreading his arms as if to say voilà and offering an expressive eye roll or nod of the head.
His first publications were mainly in Italian, with Italian subtitles; at times, Mr. Lame spoke in his native tongue with a northern accent. But it was the expressive and wordless reaction clips: poking fun at taped forks or defending the sanctity of Italian pizza from a video featuring Sour Patch Kids toppings that have catapulted Mr. Lame to international stardom. With 65.6 million followers in Tik Tok And counting, if you keep gaining followers at or near your current rate, you will become the most followed creator on the platform. (She is currently 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio, who has 116 million followers.)
“It is 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. Their silent reactions, he said, are a “global language.”
Lame’s meteoric rise as a digital creator is especially notable because his work lacks the polished production value associated with today’s most famous TikTok stars, many of whom have been embraced by Hollywood. He didn’t find success joining a collaboration house with other twentysomethings, or relying on artificial growth like buying followers or views. His rise has been completely organic.
The secret to Mr. Lame’s success is his exasperated universal quality. “Its content almost discredits or mocks the overproduced trends that occur on social media, be it life hacks or the like,” said Samir Chaudry, founder of Editorial press, a newsletter covering the creators’ economy. “It almost represents this authenticity about the production. I think it’s very attractive on a large scale to people, this feeling that someone doesn’t try too hard, it’s something that feels authentic. “
About 40 days ago, when Mr. Lame reached 10 million followers, “I realized that things were going well,” he said. Now with over 65 million followers, this is her full-time job.
Global reach, from Italy
Mr. Lame’s fans operate fan pages in English, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, and more. Well-known YouTubers, including King Bach, have reached out to him for collaboration, and he’s making some money through TikTok’s Creator Fund and working with brands, including, he said, the Barilla Italian Pasta.
“Being an international star,” he said, “I have a lot more demand.”
But although Mr. Lame is known internationally as the Italian TikToker, he is technically not recognized as Italian in Italy. His lack of citizenship, despite living in Italy since the age of 1, attending an Italian school and rabidly supporting the Juventus soccer team, is “definitely wrong,” he said. “I honestly don’t need a role 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.
An unexpected side effect of Lame’s TikTok rise is that it has exposed the vulnerable bottom of his lack of Italian citizenship. His Senegalese passport has made it difficult to obtain a visa to visit the United States, he said. He is still grappling with the Italian bureaucracy and paperwork to obtain his citizenship.
Italian citizenship is based on blood and can only be obtained by the children of immigrants who turn 18 after having lived in the country since birth. For those who were not born in Italy, it can take much longer. Liberal lawmakers, despite their strong influence in government, have largely moved 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 a mayor, I am nobody. I can’t change the laws, ”Lame said, as he sat in his manager’s office in Milan next to an Ironman figure. Reminding him that most lawmakers have no more than 60 million followers, he flashed his wide smile and added: “Maybe I can change it with popularity. With my influence. “
Celebrities and other influencers are certainly catching on to their rise. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, commented on a thumbs-up emoji in one of Lame’s recent Instagram posts. On May 19, Mr. Lame appeared with Alessandro Del Piero, the legendary soccer player for his beloved Juventus. The most important influencers have reached out to invite Mr. Lame to collaborate.
He has a huge following in Brazil and the United States, the national soccer hoodies he wears often. 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 street and in restaurants to ask for selfies. “I have a lot of influence in Italy,” Lame said. They are not, he acknowledged, on the covers of his magazines or newspapers or on television newscasts, the media conquered by Chiara Ferragni, the influencer who is possibly the most powerful woman in Italy and who has been stepping into politics and in politics. the big media. deal.
At the end of April, Mr. Lame surpassed Gianluca Vacchi as the most followed TikTok personality in Italy. The 53-year-old Mr. Vacchi, known for his dance routines and excessive lifestyle, is a fabulously wealthy scion of a plastic mogul. He’s obsessively fit, heavily tattooed, and married to a 26-year-old model. Lame’s current manager, Riggio Alessandro, used to manage Vacchi.
While Mr. Vacchi represents a luxurious way of life often associated with Italian flamboyance, Mr. Lame often posts from the basic room he shares with his older brother. It is decorated with a Senegalese flag and a Juventus football scarf. Used an outdated phone for a lot of videos and the lighting is not great.
But that’s what people like.
“I think the problem that people are starting to see with the big influencers is that they set certain standards on how to look, what is cool and what is not,” said Adam Meskouri, a 17-year-old student and content creator in Birmingham. I. “Then Khaby comes along and he’s a normal guy. It was refreshing to watch. He’s so much easier to relate to than most of the 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 value of the production “is has fired. . “
“This opportunity to connect with someone who is unaffiliated, has little production and feels very real is a juxtaposition of what we are seeing in the social media space,” he said.
Meme bait money
In addition to his head-shaking clips, Mr. Lame’s content mainly consists of tributes to his girlfriend and a tight-knit group of friends. However, some of his posts, while not causing much of a stir in Italy, would be off the mark in the most progressive corners of the United States or Europe.
In one, he contrasts a voluptuous woman saying seductively “If you had 24 hours with me, what would you do?” listing all the parts of the house, he would clean it. On other, mocks a woman who complained about being called an old witch on TikTok. In another, he appears to comfort a crying woman with a dish for her to clean.
Part of Mr. Lame’s success is related to how excellent his content is to be absorbed by the Internet aggregation machine. YouTube users create compilation videos of their TikTok clips to attract millions of visits.
The content of Mr. Lame is also perfect “meme page bait, ”Which means that many meme pages download their TikTok videos and repost them on Instagram for easy interaction, or use their face for reaction images. His videos are also frequently republished on Twitter, where they get even more widespread.
Many Black TikTok creators in the United States have been frank in the past year about their struggle to get adequate 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 spoken out about years of enduring racism.
But Mr. Lame said he has had a different experience. “My friends have always protected me,” he said. “I have never had such a problem. Nobody has dared to insult me because we were a united group and we had a lot of respect. “
Mr. Lame said he believes his comical facial expressions and the simplicity of his content have helped him grow at the rate he has. He also posts frequently, almost every day on TikTok and all day every day on Instagram Stories.
“The secret is resistance above all else,” he said.
Although Mr. Lame will soon become the most followed TikTok star in the world, he insisted that he does not treat TikTok as a competition. He said he doesn’t find much content from Charli D’Amelio (although Ms. D’Amelio’s sister, Dixie D’Amelio, also one of the best creators, does follow him and he follows her). “I’m happy to be the first in Italy and everything, 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 actor Pugliese. Checco zalone, known for his expansive Italian comedies. Mr. Lame said he hopes to one day join their ranks.
You are constantly making money, but you haven’t earned enough to realize your dream of buying your mother a house. “Maybe,” he said, “in the future.”