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.”

“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.

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.



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