LLike many of us, Khaby Lame turned to TikTok in the early days of the pandemic. The Senegalese-Italian had just lost his job working in a factory in Chivasso, a suburb of Turin 12 miles north-east of the city centre, thanks to Covid and was at a loss for what to do.
Just as countless others did, he began posting videos – at first, videos in subtitled Italian, but later silent, up-close reactions to absurd events. Unlike most of us, Lame’s dalliance with the short-form video-sharing app turned serious. After an astronomical two years, the 22-year-old is now the king of TikTok.
In late June, Lame unseated Charli D’Amelio as the most followed creator on the app. “I feel like it’s time for someone else to have that spot, and I’m proud of him,” D’Amelio told attenders at Vidcon last month, an event held in Los Angeles celebrating the world of digital creators on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube.
Today Lame has 146 million followers on the app, where his profile reads: “If u wanna laugh ur in the right place.” The fame has brought him fortune: he recently agreed a sponsorship deal with the cryptocurrency firm Binance to hawk its services. He has previously helped Hugo Boss, standing alongside Kendall Jenner and Hailey Bieber in ads.
“It’s incredible to have watched Khaby’s journey to TikTok stardom,” says Rich Waterworth, the general manager for Europe at TikTok. “In just two years he’s gone from creating comedy skits in his bedroom to becoming the first creator in Europe and the second in the world to surpass the milestone of 100 million followers.”
But how did someone working in a factory just over two years ago end up as the world’s most famous funnyman, a spiritual successor to the exasperated reactions of Buster Keaton?
If the Tinseltown star was the 20th century’s “great stone face” for his downtrodden demeanour, Lame is TikTok’s 21st-century equivalent, letting elaborate viral videos on everything from double-jointed contortionists to getting keys out of your locked car play out, and then cruelly undercutting them with a roll of the eyes.
He’s so popular because of his everyman attitude, and the shtick he’s managed to perfect as his and his alone. “Khaby’s videos are short, silent and funny,” says D Bondy Valdovinos Kaye, a postdoctorate researcher at the University of Leeds and a co-author of an academic book on TikTok. “They cross language and cultural barriers. His earlier popular content made heavy use of the stitch feature, clipping a short segment of another video at the start of his video.”
Lame’s talents in poking fun at the odd wrinkles in everyday life are obvious – but he was also in the right place at the right time. When he first began picking up followers in late 2020 and early 2021, TikTok was best known as an app popular with teenagers dancing along to their favorite songs. “Khaby’s creative deadpan humor exemplified another side of TikTok that could offer an entry point for the uninitiated to explore what else the platform had to offer,” says Valdovinos Kaye.
“The fact he doesn’t say a word gives you a deeper bond with him,” says Timothy Armoo, the founder and former CEO of Fanbytes, a generation Z marketing agency. Armoo compares it to locking eyes with a stranger in the middle of an unusual situation. “You don’t say anything, but you know exactly what the other person is thinking. That’s how you build a deep bond with someone.”
Lame is also attractive to companies looking to piggyback on his success and to stand out, says Armoo. “He doesn’t fit the stereotypical idea of what an influencer is, so people root for him even more.” It’s that opposition to what D’Amelio is and represents – white, middle-class, already-rich America – that makes Lame so intriguing to audiences.
It also handily echoes what TikTok strives to be: a diverse, boundary-breaking platform that can propel anyone to superstardom without the gatekeepers of old media. While Instagram’s most followed celeb is Cristiano Ronaldo, images of whose abs are ogled by fans, and Twitter’s top three are the otherworldly trio of Barack Obama, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, TikTok’s totem is altogether more prosaic.
About one-tenth of his audience is in the United States, 9% in Brazil and 5% in Mexico, according to internal TikTok data. Unusually for an influencer, he attracts male and female viewers almost equally.
“His success demonstrates how creativity expressed in a simple and authentic way can be a catalyst for engaging and connecting millions of people around the world,” says Waterworth. “Khaby’s story also embodies why TikTok is fast becoming the place to discover the brightest names and faces in entertainment.”