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Khaby Lame: The ‘Universal Language’ of an Unlikely Fashion Icon

The world’s most-followed TikToker shares his unusual journey from Senegalese refugee to global fashion icon and what it says about what works on social media.
Last June, Khaby Lame became the world's most-followed TikToker, surpassing Charli D'Amelio, on the strength of tongue-in-cheek clips that wordlessly mock complicated life-hacking videos. (Campbell Addy)
  • Mario Manca

MILAN — Khaby Lame, the world’s most-followed TikToker, is surprisingly shy.

Last June, Lame, 22, surpassed Charli D’Amelio, becoming the platform’s most popular creator on the strength of his trademark tongue-in-cheek clips that wordlessly mock overly complicated life-hacking videos. And true to character, he doesn’t like to talk about it too much.

That hasn’t stopped his rise. His TikToks are not only funny, but have a powerful universalism, earning him a fanbase (150.5 million TikTok followers, at last count) that has made the Senegalese-Italian an unlikely ambassador for fashion brands like Hugo Boss.

When Lame was cast to close a Russell Athletic x Boss fashion show in September 2021, he had never been tapped by a fashion brand before, but delivered “record breaking consumer engagement,” according to Hugo Boss global marketing and brand communications head Miah Sullivan. Lame was signed as a Boss ambassador immediately after the event.

TikTok star Khaby Lame

“His silent comedy speaks a language that everybody in the world can understand,” explains Sullivan, citing the “unprecedented brand heat” he has generated for the company as it tries to engage a new generation of consumers.

But there was nothing strategic about Lame’s rise. “When I started, I didn’t start with the idea of making it a job, it was pure passion. I think users noticed this, that I have always been genuine,” he says. “Then it definitely helped that I use a universal language, that of gestures, a language that everyone can understand.”

Khaby Lame was born in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. The following year, he came to Italy with his parents, settling in a public housing project in Chivasso, a small town near Turin. He had a happy childhood. His dyslexia presented challenges at school but he “managed to get by” and dreamt of becoming an actor, idolising Will Smith on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” He often made funny YouTube videos. “They were always comedy videos, where I made fun of myself or parodies of someone else,” he recalls. “I always liked making people laugh, entertaining them.”

TikTok star Khaby Lame

At the age of fourteen, his father sent him back to Senegal to study at a Quranic school near Dakar. “I’ve always been a believer and a practitioner,” says Lame. “That experience gave me a lot, made me believe.”

Back in Italy, he “did a lot of jobs to help my family: waiter, bricklayer, assistant cook, dishwasher.” Then Covid-19 changed the course of his life. In March 2020, he was working in a factory near Turin. Italy was hit hard and when the country was plunged into lockdown, Lame was laid off but he “took advantage of this to develop my passion,” shifting his focus to making funny videos.

“First I tried different formats before I found the one that suited me and my audience, but they were always comedic, self-deprecating videos and parodies,” he recalls. “I take inspiration mainly from real life, but I also surf the net, on TikTok and other social networks. I spend at least 3 hours every day looking for the right content to develop, and that most importantly, doesn’t offend anyone. I really care about making content that is fun for everyone, that doesn’t discredit anyone.”

TikTok star Khaby Lame

He chalks up his success to his simple, honest and organic approach. “Just have fun. Do what you like to do and talk about the things you love. The important thing is to stay yourself, users appreciate that,” he says. “You just need to be passionate and be consistent.”

“Whether it’s his silent power, memeable humour, authentic style or relatability, Khaby is an instantly recognisable star who transcends communities, cultures and content,” says Kudzi Chikumbu, TikTok’s global head of creator marketing. “His everyday accessibility is a superpower.”

Lame still dreams of Will Smith. “I dream of moving to America, becoming a comedian, and maybe acting with Will Smith, who is my idol,” he says. “It would be the ultimate dream to win an Oscar. I am studying both acting and English everyday. I want to be good and deserve everything that is to come.”

Khaby Lame has been a member of the BoF 500 since 2022. Explore the BoF 500 community here.

TikTok star Khaby Lame
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