“It’s about visibility for me, especially as a black gay man,” Kalen tells us direct from LA.
“I think it’s important to be in the press and do those opportunities because it’s the only way I can be an example and representation for many other young boys who need somebody to look up to. Somebody that they can say, ‘He did it, I can do it as well’. It means more to me than just Hollywood.”
As an openly gay black man, Kalen’s sexuality and journey to success is what drives him to be visible for others – for those young queer people that, like him, didn’t see themselves represented on screen or online. And long before his now regular appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he was posting videos online that were having an incredible reaction. However when Hollywood superstar Seth Rogan reposted one, it began Kalen’s reign as the go-to funny guy.
“Seth Rogan believed in me the most – from the beginning, before I was on Ellen or everybody knew my name,” Kalen tells us. “When I see him now in public, he’s so warm and gracious and I think that is another example of somebody that makes me believe that I can accomplish anything.”
Now with over 250 million views on his content created for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he’s gone on to meet some of the biggest stars in the world, including former First Lady, Michelle Obama. However one of Kalen’s biggest moments came with the release of a video celebrating his icon – and the icon approved! “To have that stamp of approval has forever changed me as a creator and artist,” Kalen laughs in total disbelief at Beyoncé reposting his video. “I’m just proud that everyone felt that I did the queen justice. I am content.”
Here we speak to Kalen about his global success, fighting for a new generation of queer people to be seen, and why Beyoncé will forever remain his biggest inspiration.
Your life looks nuts! How has life changed since you became an internet phenomenon?
Life is absolutely wonderful and it is very busy. There’s The Ellen DeGeneres Show things and there’s personal projects and doing press and publicity. I think I’m living my wildest dreams.
How do you and interviews like this with the press, is it a side to fame you enjoy?
The reason I am into doing press is because it’s about visibility for me, especially as a black gay man. I think it’s important to be in the press and do those opportunities because it’s the only way I can be an example and representation for many other young boys who need somebody to look up to. Somebody that they can say, ‘He did it, I can do it as well’. It means more to me than just Hollywood.
Are you therefore more conscious about what you say and to who? Your words can play a direct impact on others.
Oh absolutely, I think I’m mindful of it all the time. I want to be the best representation and role model I can be because I know, growing up, I didn’t have that for myself or have somebody to look at who I could identify with. I couldn’t say, ‘That’s what I want to be’, and if it was, it was usually women. It’s important.
How do you think that representation would have directly impacted your life as a kid?
Oh my God! I think it would have made a world of difference. I think when you’re part of a marginalised community, especially being black and gay at the same time, you really have to figure out how to navigate the world by yourself as you’re dealing with a lot of intersectionality that this world isn’t built upon. You have to figure out how to survive on your own, without somebody to hold your hand or tell you that this is how you can move through out.
Have you had interactions with young queer people of colour that have directly been impacted because of the representation you’re giving them?
Yes and any time I get to meet someone that I could see myself in, it’s the most humbling experience. I think it’s the most fulfilling moment because it helps me understand that I’m doing something right. You get those people who you can see yourself in, you can always tell it means more to them. And to them, it means more like, ‘We appreciate you because you’re teaching that I can achieve anything I want to be, and be who I want to be. I don’t have to be closed into this box or go have to go off what people tell me I can or cannot do.’ I think people are very quick to push their limitations upon they have. People want to see you do good, but they don’t want you to do better than them.
Do you have others questioning why you speak out about your background or queerness?
All the time. I feel like I’ve had that my entire life. People want you to stay in a box. If I were just like everybody else, that would be boring. That would die out. I am not here to live for anybody else, I am here to live for myself and put my own happiness as my priority. I’m not that type of personal that is dependant on how many followers they have or how many fans I have. If you can’t accept me in all forms then I don’t want you here in the first place.
Are people surprised when they hear you speak up and out beyond your videos?
Oh yes, most definitely. Everybody expects me to just fall in live and play by the rules, to go with what society wants me to do. The truth is that when people ask me how to get into this business, I always tell them, ‘Find what makes you different from the rest, and let that stick out!’
Your time on The Ellen DeGeneres Show has launched you to international success and fame. How has the journey been so far?
It has been a whirlwind. Everything happened so very quickly. I have exceeded anything far beyond anything I would have expected. The Ellen DeGeneres Show has allowed me to accomplish every single dream and at this point, I’m just trying to have fun. I want to experience it all and soak it all in. I am very grateful for that opportunity and I don’t think there’s any other place I’d want to have been. People ask me all the time if I regret the decision or regret moving to LA. No. I wouldn’t do anything different.
What was the best advice that Ellen gave you when you rst started on the show?
A lot of the time, she will say to me how grateful she is that they found me. When you have somebody of her accomplishment and how much of an icon she is believe in you that much, and put that much trust in you to make great content and be who you are, anything is possible. I think everybody in the world wants somebody to believe in them and to have somebody like the Ellen DeGeneres be that person, I knew anything was possible and I could do anything I wanted to do.
Do you ever have those moments of shock where you almost can’t believe that this is your life now?
When I first started, I used to question if I really deserved this. I know that, meeting Michelle Obama or when Oprah posted me and was talking about my Instagram, I was sat there not being able to believe I’d come that far – especially because I was still in school. To have it all happen… I live in a daydream.
You mentioned in there but what was it like getting to meet former First Lady, Michelle Obama?
Ooh. The crazy thing is that there have been opportunities to have at least been in her presence before and every time something would happen and I wouldn’t be available or travelling. When it happened this time, it was so personal and I was shaking. I cried the whole ride home because Michelle Obama is such an icon herself. I’ve had the chance to meet these people who are unattainable. To have a connection and speak to her was incredible. I wouldn’t believe that these people thought I deserved the right to meet them.
How do you remain humble and grounded through all this success?
You have to look at what makes people happy and what their goals are. Me knowing that I come from all these different identities that are never really given anything, and having to work twice as hard to get half of what most people have. That is what keeps me grounded because I know at any point, it could be taken away from me or that there are people out there fighting to take it away from me. I don’t have time to get caught up in the things that don’t matter. All I can do is stay focused and grounded on the things that are important and last a lifetime.
You have over one million Instagram followers personally and 250 million views on your content from the show. How do you deal with the level of expectation from fans for new content?
That’s a great question because at first, I definitely felt that pressure. I was trying to crank out the reaction videos consistently and what was happening was that they were becoming old to me. They were becoming repetitive and I was saying the same sort of thing over and over again. I started to not be happy with it and felt like the content was becoming boring at that point. It was predictable. I did distance myself from it as if I kept making content like this for where the demand is, it’s going to die out. I’d rather create new and exciting content that makes both me and also the viewer happy, verses trying to keep up with what everybody wants.
From all the content or people you’ve met along your way, which one means the most?
I would have to say Seth Rogan. My first video was retweeted by Seth and that essentially made it go viral. Then, a couple of months later, I got cast in his movie. I think I would say him because, of all of them, Seth believed in me the most – from the beginning, before I was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show or everybody knew my name. When I see him now in public, he’s so warm and gracious and I think that is another example of somebody that makes me believe that I can accomplish anything.
We all have a wish list of people we want to meet or work with. Who is on yours?
Well ultimately… it’s Beyoncé! The queen. I think, even though that’s a cliche answer, growing up as a black gay boy, when I would listen to Beyoncé or watch her live, the confidence in her and fierceness and determination in her work inspired me so much. It was what I wanted in my life. I want to feel that type of confidence and I think it was by her example that I chose to believe in myself and go after what I want. If it was not for me to be able to watch or see her, I don’t think I would have found that strength. It really made me feel invincible.
Speaking of… Beyoncé shared a video you created in homage to her on her official Facebook page along with the simple caption, ‘Thank You’. Once you’d finished screaming, how did you feel when you saw she approved of your work?
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I admire Beyoncé. So, to have that stamp of approval has forever changed me as a creator and artist. Also, it is a stamp of approval that she very rarely gives publicly to anyone. I mean, I have been validated by some of the most influential and powerful people in the world. That alone should forever give me the confidence to accomplish anything my heart desires.
Has she been in contact or have you heard from her directly about you creating the video?
I haven’t heard from her directly. I know she’s seen it and I’ve seen comments and been in contact with present and former people from her team, who also loved the video. That is enough for me.
How have her fans reacted?
The fan reaction has been phenomenal, which is also impressive because the Beyhive is a tough fan base to impress. I would know, I’m a member! I’m just proud that everyone felt that I did the queen justice. I am content.
What’s the one thing about yourself that we perhaps don’t know?
I am actually very quiet and reserved when me and my personal space. People always expect me to be loud and outgoing on camera, and then be like that 24/7. I’m actually the complete opposite. I don’t like going out, I don’t like going to parties and I don’t drink. I would rather sit at home and watch movies in my own personal space.
So what’s next? Tell me about the dream for your future…
I think in the future, I would love to have my own show. When I think about what that would be, it’s a variety show. I say variety as I think that’s how I make my content. I’m able to satisfy multiple pallets. It’s like if you’re here for reactions, great. If you’re here for a little music or something, I’ll give you a little music. I say variety because it’s a little bit of everything!
Words William J Connolly
Grooming Andrea Pezzillo
Fashion Jordan Boothe