News broke last week, following months of speculation, that Khaby Lame had overtaken Charli D’Amelio as the most-followed TikTok account in the world, with 144 million followers. So what does it mean?
It’s possible that it signifies we are fully immersed in a ‘vibe shift’ that was predicted earlier this year – loosely defined as when a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.
Where enthusiastic dancing videos put TikTok and Charli D’Amelio on the map, now the surge of Lame and his brand of ironic detachment is the entertainment and relatability that the culture is craving.
This suspected shift tallies with the way the trend locus is moving post-pandemic: namely the decline of Instagram’s dominance, the pivot from Marie Kondo-esque Millennial minimalism in favour of maximalist chaos, endless retakes on corporate culture and a rejection of workaholism, in favour of the pursuit of passion projects.
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Take this clip from the account of athleisurewear brand Fox & Robin, where a Millennial boss comments on his Gen Z recruits which went viral in March, or the current crop on the platform of ‘soft life’ manifestos.
The lockdowns intensified this with a generation coming of age under extreme Covid-19 restrictions, combined with unprecedented social unrest, political pyrotechnics, war in Europe, looming recession and the decline in American dominance – freedom from traditional structures has never felt so important or necessary. Which brings us to Khaby Lame.
Take one Senegal-born, Italy-raised boy with passions for football and anime, who had a YouTube channel that only his parents watched, and dreamed of becoming an actor. In March 2020, Khabane Lame lost his job in a factory in the northern Italian industrial town of Chivasso. So, the 22-year-old moved home, and despite his father urging him to apply for other jobs, instead he spent hours posting videos on this new app called TikTok.
Lame’s content is devastatingly simple – he makes reaction videos to wild life hacks that spread on the internet, with his signature ironic smile and hand gesture, which is now so famous that superstar footballers like Kylian Mbappé use it on the football pitch, as if to say ‘see that’s how it’s done’. It’s a shift from the Fortnite and TikTok dance celebrations that were a hit in 2019.
When Lame had built up a following of 100,000 on the platform he began to pursue an agent – he told a reporter for Forbes that he was watching Juventus footballers play video games on Twitch when he started bombarding the chat with messages for agent Alessandro Riggio, founder of talent agency The Iron Corporation.
Even though TikTok was relatively still new, and Lame only had 100,000 followers on Instagram – then the dominant social media indicator – Riggio took him on. Together, Lame and Riggio have secured global deals with Boss (Lame is the face of S/S 2022 with his own collection), Pepsi Nitro, as well as securing opportunities such as meeting his idol Lionel Messi and introducing Harry Styles at the recent Capital Summertime Ball – incidentally all this, without Lame ever saying a word.
Now Lame is taking acting classes, English lessons and his dream is to win an Oscar like his idol Will Smith. It has been reported that Lame charges $50,000 for a promotional video, with a net worth of $13 million dollars.
He has been chasing D’Amelio’s pole position for months – and there have been tensions on the platform because of issues that have dogged TikTok about the invisibility of Black creators. Comments like ‘khaby is coming’ have been prevalent on her videos for weeks.
D’Amelio herself is unfazed by being dethroned – she told an audience at VidCon last weekend: “It feels great to know that someone else is getting that spot, someone that is sweet and a good person and loves what they do. I think that’s the best feeling, and I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else.”
Lame’s sheer relatability and astonishment at the way the internet (and life) can overcomplicate everything is what takes his engagement through the roof.
A quick scan at the pair’s last eight videos show that Lame’s videos reached between 3.2 million and 126 million views. For D’Amelio, it’s 1.6 million to 24.9 million. Lame told Forbes, “I think the reason that I am silent speaks louder – it is accessible to more people than if I would make my videos in English. I speak a universal language that everyone understands.”
Lame is now at the top of the TikTok tree, with his mainline to Gen Z disaffection and humour, and steely determination to follow his dreams. Indeed that is the other thing that Lame is trying to communicate, during the Boss promotional period, he told Hypebeast “ I like to entertain people with my irony, but it’s just a tool to do what I’m really interested in – encouraging those who follow me to fight to achieve their goals.” And does his triumph signal a new trend order? It certainly looks that way.
By Emilie McMeekan, features director of CORQ. Picture credit: Boss via Instagram