It's about humor, persistence, and finding ways to transform big problems into even bigger advantages.
The main character: Khabane Lame, a 22-year-old Senegalese immigrant in Italy, who was making $1,000-a-month as a waiter and factory worker before he was laid off at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. During quarantine, he started creating videos on TikTok from his parents' apartment, under the shortened name, Khaby Lame.
Earlier this summer, Lame became the number-one TikTok influencer in the world, with almost 150 million followers, and millions more on other social networks. He's on track to make a reported $10 million a year.
There are so many fascinating elements to Lame's story, including how stars are born, how influencers make money, how third-decade social media works, and how to connect with giant audiences.
There's also the simple joy of watching someone who says his lifelong dream was to make people laugh and to provide for his family actually get the chance to do it.
But I think the most inspiring and intriguing thing to take away here is how Lame overcame a challenge most people would have found so daunting they'd never get started, and even transformed it into a superpower.
- The problem: Lame doesn't really speak much English, which you might imagine would make it hard to connect with a big audience. (He speaks a bit, apparently, and he's learning -- more on that below -- but he's much more comfortable in his native Italian.)
- The superpower: As a result, Lame stopped speaking at all in his videos, and the fact that he's almost completely silent, relying on expressions, gestures, and props for humor, has enabled him to grow a worldwide fan base quickly, because it doesn't matter what language his viewers speak.
"It is accessible to more people than if I would make my videos in English. I speak a universal language that everyone understands," he told Forbes (in Italian) earlier this year.
"He's basically saying that's his power," a woman who translated for Lame during another interview explained. "The fact that he can communicate like that without even speaking -- because he's not speaking Italian either -- that's his power."
Let's examine two other quick details: a description of Lame's videos, in case you haven't seen him, and an explanation of how he makes money.
First, the videos. Lame's bread and butter is silently, simply, making fun of TikTok trends and other viral hits, debunking magic tricks or ridiculously simple life hacks. Other videos are just pure silent comedy, with an exasperated everyman persona.
Describing the videos doesn't really do them justice; they're short and simple, and you might just want to watch a few. I've included a highlight reel at the bottom of this column, but other examples include:
- Debunking a magic trick (13.6 million views)
- Poking fun at a dance video featuring firefighters (52 million views)
- Mocking self-defense videos (97 million views)
- Taking the result of a Valentine's Day cologne video to absurdity (135 million views)
Second, the money. According to a recent report in Fortune, which calculated the $10 million revenue number, this included $750,000 for a single sponsored TikTok post with a "major Hollywood studio."
The video isn't identified in the article, but perhaps it's this one: a 59-second post last month in which Lame (silently) co-starred with Idris Elba in a promo for Elba's movie, Beast.
Lame is a charismatic actor and fun to root for. But, I also hope other people considering their dreams will think of his example, especially if they're tempted to scale back their ambitions because they might not seem realistic.
The key: Sometimes the solution isn't to adapt your dreams to fit the world, but instead to adapt the way you interact with the world to achieve your dreams.
Lame's current plans include making more videos, but also working on his English, so that if social media algorithms change, he'll have other career options.
He language-learning strategies include formal tutoring, according to Fortune, but also binge-watching American children's television shows like Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood for several hours a day.
"Every day I wake up doing what I love," he said during an Italian interview in March, adding: "People are so influenced by the judgment of others. They stop chasing dreams, just because somebody told them that they cannot make it or shouldn't do it. I am living proof that everyone can improve their life no matter where they come from."
I watched nearly all of Lame's videos while writing this story, and now I'm going to go finish the rest. Here's a quick compendium of some of his highlights, if you'd like a little inspiration, too.