It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night and the world’s most followed TikToker, Khabane “Khaby” Lame, is lying on the couch watching cartoons. The 22-year-old with 149.5 million TikTok followers spends three hours a day learning English from a Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood-animated series inspired Daniel Tiger. His goal: to master English to score roles in major Hollywood films. And so, old-school helmet in, the 6-foot-8 star relaxes on velvety multicolored cushions in the Milan, Italy apartment he shares with his manager Alessandro Riggio to kick off the weekend.
A former manual laborer who went from government housing to commanding up to $750,000 per TikTok post – and is on track to earn $10 million this year, Riggio says – either a staple of Milan’s bottle-service strongholds or Michelin-starred pasta palaces. Not Khaby Lame. The Senegalese immigrant with 2.4 billion likes on TikTok is determined to become the best comedian in the world. Although his universal hilarity stems in part from the silence he maintains in his short slapstick videos, he thinks he needs to learn English. A recent video that Lame posted of himself playing a 19th century court jester auditions for 50 Cent video – where the only sound was a vague violin with “In Da Club” – garnered 95 million views. It attracted 136 million over self-immolating without a word following his use of cologne on Valentine’s Day. When it comes to his methods for studying English, it seems that Lame lives in his own kind of life hack. In addition to working with a tutor for an hour every morning, Lame gorges on cartoons and American films.
“My dream is that one day we win an Oscar,” Lame says in his fresh English to Fortune.
Lame’s career exemplifies the simultaneous birth and power of top TikTokers. Brands are bent on paying Lame low to high six figures – flooding Riggio’s inbox – while companies are hungry to shed Lame’s influence. Meanwhile, Lame hopes his next big move won’t be in a big brand ad campaign, but in a movie blockbuster. Other top creators are trying to turn virality into long-term business with strategies aimed at increasing their net worth. Take Charli and Dixie D’Amelio who made $70 million in about two years and just became company-backed humans as they launch their $100 million (valuation) D’Amelio Brands exercise ownership of any D’Amelio. Or Josh Richards who turned his teen idol TikTok status into a major Amazon Video deal, a VC fund, and a Barstool podcast, among other initiatives. In truth, because these all-star TikTokers have gone from nothing to household obsessions in about two years alongside the meteoric growth of the Chinese social app, there’s no precedent for long-term success.
“With TikTok fame – what sets it apart from other forms of fame – is that it can be very fleeting,” says Dr Melanie Kennedy, director of education at the University of Leicester, who is the author of several studies on visibility and TikTok. . “It’s about being as viral and visible as possible based on what users click on.”
Riggio says Lame is too famous for the pedestrian life. When Lame drives to his Los Angeles home, adoring fans invade his car and physically restrain him from moving. The fans are less aggressive in Italy. Still, Lame prefers to stay indoors, practicing phrases of Daniel Tiger and take on Riggio in F1 simulation games and create content, especially when it involves collaborating with his heroes like Snoop Dogg.
Riggio explains that Lame is not motivated by money. “He was poor and he doesn’t know how much he has in the bank. He doesn’t care about…”
Lame interrupts: “I like to make people laugh. I love my family. I like my company.
Like many professional TikTokers, Lame derives the majority of his income from referral deals. On average, brands pay Lame about $400,000 per TikTok, according to Riggio (an agency source pegs the number closer to $350,000). He also co-founded a creative agency called Iron Corporation with Riggio to oversee social presences and monetization plays for athletes, actors, and other creatives. Forgoing the usual celebrity gear like sports cars and yachts, Lame invests in real estate, restaurants and software companies.
“Most influencers get to a certain point in their career where they’ve endorsed and supported a number of brands and have fixed fees for those structures, but they start to want a little more incentive or benefit from those relationships,” says Raina Penchansky. who is the CEO and founder of influencer management company Digital Brand Architects, which manages 180 creators. “That’s when we start talking more meaningfully about ways for them to deepen their relationships with the companies or around the businesses they want to start.”
Lame emigrated from Dakar, Senegal to the Turin suburb of Chivasso, Italy with his three siblings and parents as a baby in 2001. He attended high school and worked as a laborer in a factory until he was fired at the start of the pandemic. Bored, he turned to TikTok, sharing dances, esports games and speaking Italian. It was strictly a coping mechanism until he started posting silent videos of overly complicated life hacks later in 2020. In videos of him wordlessly doing things like flip a pan lid for storage (responding to a life hack video), the unemployed Italian started garnering 1 million followers a day. In June 2022, it overtook Charli D’Amelio to become the most followed TikToker in the world.
Where D’Amelio’s appeal is largely limited to English speakers, Lame’s wordless comedy content is accessible to anyone within reach of TikTok. That’s why brands with global audiences, like Hugo Boss and Binance, wrote big checks to the guest star in Lame videos. Hugo Boss, a publicly traded fashion brand with a market capitalization of $3.7 billion, recently paid Lame $450,000 to appear in its Milan Fashion Week show with a singular TikTok video to accompany the leg of strength. A major Hollywood studio also recently paid Lame $750,000 for a TikTok, according to a contract viewed by Fortune.
Now, in his bright home adorned with gaming computers, at least a dozen different Iron Man action figures, and a basketball hoop, Lame grapples with the question that plagues so many other top content creators. plan: how can it survive the death knell of changing algorithms and consumer preferences? Lame is the first to admit that his time at the top of TikTok is temporary. Cool factor aside, he hopes to make it to the big screen to solidify his dominance beyond TikTok — and have enough money to line his closet with Air Jordans.
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