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GEN Z MR BEAN

A Senegal-born factory worker is Europe’s first TikTok megastar

TikTok star Khaby Lame attends the blue carpet at the Giffoni Film Festival 2021 on July 23, 2021 in Giffoni Valle Piana, Italy.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images
100 million reasons to smile.
  • Alexander Onukwue
By Alexander Onukwue

West Africa correspondent

Published

The latest TikTok star to reach 100 million followers is not a musician, actor, or athlete. It’s a 21-year-old former factory worker living in Italy on a Senegalese passport.

Khaby Lame has crafted a comedic brand that has resonated around the world by putting so-called life hacks or complicated maneuvers through the lens of intuitive everyday options. In response to an ad for a car rearview mirror to spot pedestrians, his video sees him looking before opening the car door (34.1 million views). A duet with someone slowly and delicately slicing the peel off a banana with a chef’s knife shows Lame peering at the fruit quizzically, before simply peeling it with his hands (37.8 million views).

His videos are not overproduced, and he barely speaks in them, choosing instead to let simple actions convince and convey humor to the audience. That audience includes people in Italy, where he’s lived since he was one, and in Senegal where TV stations discuss him regularly.

Only Charli D’Amelio, an American teenager whose dances and other content have attracted 122 million followers, has more TikTok followers than Lame, solidifying Gen-Z’s grip on the short-form variety of internet video. Neither star can yet claim more popularity or global influence than a Will Smith (one of Lame’s inspirations), Billie Eilish, or Jason Derulo. But the mega milestone is earning Lame titles such as “Gen-Z Mr Bean,” and teasing a template for other creators aiming for a global cross-over.

From factory work to fame

Lame went from 40 million to 65 million TikTok followers between April and June this year, but he was an unknown factory worker 17 months ago.

The beginning of coronavirus lockdowns in Italy cost him that job, freeing up time for his next act: recording videos in his bedroom and posting for fun. He gained 50,000 followers between his first video, which showed him moisturizing to the “Whoa Dance” on March 15, and May 14. His more than 900 videos since have generated 1.5 billion likes and a net worth of at least $1 million, by one estimate.

Lame’s fame was not inevitable. His particular brand of dead-pan humor doesn’t appeal to everyone, and other creators might find it harder to pull off his trick of “duh” acts without words.

But his timing was great—and not just comedically speaking. He jumped on TikTok as it displaced Facebook-owned products to become the most downloaded app in the world.

Lame has also excelled at using TikTok’s duet and video stitch options Introduced last September, the stitch feature allows TikTok creators to include and tag other people’s videos, as a sort of reply. When a popular account uses it frequently and gets lots of views, it may have the effect of creating anticipation among users and creators.

As Insider suggested, TikTok’s “For You” feature, which recommends videos to users, might be very inclined to pick stitch videos. The feature’s virality value has seen it adopted by brands like the National Basketball Association (NBA), Amazon Prime Video, and Puma. “Since the original creator gets credited, it has the potential to amplify your reach,” SEO blogger Neil Patel explains.

TikTok wants more African creators

Can Lame be a template for an African creator? The Chinese-based app wants to intentionally grow its base in the continent by working directly with creators. In July, it announced a cash grant for 20 South African creators. Each of them will receive a share of 860, 000 rands (about $57,000) in addition to mentorship on content creation and curation.

TikTok has been signing up creators in Nigeria too, especially those who had started on Instagram and YouTube, promising higher visibility, and more followers.

Success on the app can be hard to sustain and invites even greater scrutiny, but can lead to massive opportunities. Fellow African creator Elsa Majimbo, who also gained popularity for her humorous reactions to Kenya’s lockdown, has collaborated with Valentino, appeared in campaigns for Fenty,  won an E! People’s Choice Award, and was recently signed by the US Creative Artists Agency.

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