Kalen Allen knows his superpower. In November 2017, a video of his reaction to a 7-Up salad went viral, attracting over 5.6 million views. Kalen's witty commentary and innate ability to make people laugh caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. By January 2018, the Kansas City native was hired to create videos for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. BuzzFeed recently spoke with Kalen to reflect on his career, his decision to stop making food reaction videos, and how he's paving the way for future Black queer creators by being authentically himself. Check it out ahead.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BuzzFeed: What was it like being a Black queer kid growing up in Kansas City, KS?
Kalen Allen: It is no secret that I am a very confident person. I have always been that way. And I never even gave people the space to [bully] me. I always stood for who I was, and I never gave anybody any other option. I was like, "This is who I am. And you're going to either take it or leave it. And if you leave it, it's not gonna break me, I'm not gonna cry about it." I was also very lethal with my words; I could stand up for myself and hold my own.
When I look back [on growing up in Kansas], I see more of how I would often assimilate [with how I dressed] and stuff like that. I guess it could be a form of homophobia. Even when I go back now, it's just a different kind of world. Kansas is a very conservative state. There were things that I was doing at that time that I didn't necessarily know were a conscious effort to assimilate better within the society there. I don't think my world was opened up to all that I could be until I went away to school in Philadelphia. That was my first introduction to what ballroom culture was. Having exposure broadened my horizons.
"At the end of the day, everything that I am doing is for representation and visibility."
You went from being virtually unknown to having millions of people watch your videos in a short time span. What have you learned about yourself since becoming a public figure?
I learned that the reason why I'm able to stay so grounded and not lose my mind while being in this industry is because I am very proud of the work that I did before that opportunity [with Ellen] happened. I already conditioned my mind to believe that the life that I live today would be mine, eventually. I treat this [industry] like a job. It is a career for me. It has nothing to do with fame, money, or any of that. At the end of the day, everything that I am doing is for representation and visibility.
When people ask me, "Who did you look up to?" I always say, "The lack thereof." That's why I choose to never masc it up. Even when I am getting dressed up to go on a talk show or to go out in public, I always show up as the way that I want to be and not the way that Hollywood or society says I need to be, which is cookie cutter.
What’s the one takeaway you’ll carry with you from working on Ellen?
I grieve it sometimes. Those were some of the best years of my life. I miss the community of it, and the people that I got to work with. Especially when it came to the crew. We did amazing things together. We shot an episode of my digital series in Australia. I will never forget those moments or seeing so many people come to that show daily, and sometimes leave with their lives changed.
[Some] people get so caught up in the likes and the views and what goes viral and what doesn't. But every time that I have someone come up to me and say, "I was sick, or my family was falling apart, or I was going through chemo. And when I ever needed to smile, I watched one of your videos." That's what matters. As long as my presence is making someone feel seen, loved, and heard, that's enough.
I remember watching a clip of you meeting Oprah backstage at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She said, “You are so authentically yourself. You’re gonna go such a long way.” What did that mean to hear those words?
Oh, you're about to make me emotional, and I usually don't get emotional. This industry can be really tough. It can be difficult at times because everybody always has their opinion. Sometimes it can get a little heavy and you can start to question if showing up authentically as yourself is the best way to go, just to make it easier. What I've realized is that my existence alone is revolutionary, and by showing up fully as myself, I am making spaces easier for other people to come behind me to also show up in that same way.
I am so grateful that I have been able to meet incredible people; icons that have been trailblazers in their own way, such as Oprah. I see that as a sign from God that he is placing me next to these people to show me what my life can be, or what it will be. I believe that as long as I stay steadfast in my own journey, eventually, my wildest dreams will come true.
"The laughter and joy that come from comedy is medicine. I believe that it heals us."
When did you first realize that you could make people laugh?
People always ask me, "Where did you find your comedy?" And I always say, "Trauma!" [Laughs] I think a big reason why I didn't get bullied growing up is because I could entertain people. Because I could entertain people, people left me alone. They knew they would get a chuckle or a laugh out of me.
I take great responsibility because I believe that the laughter and joy that come from comedy is medicine. I believe that it heals us. It helps us get through some of our darkest times. I don't like using my comedy to joke about people for their shortcomings, or their flaws, or whatever society may deem "not good" about them. I don't like to use people as punching bags. I like to use inanimate objects or relatable circumstances. I remember people used to get so upset about my food videos, and I'd say, "A watermelon can't talk. A watermelon has no feelings. This is food."
As a content creator, is it ever challenging to remain authentically yourself?
My initial [food reaction] videos are usually everyone's favorites. Why? Because if you look at the original videos, I was reacting to people making cornbread, potato salad, and sweet potato pie. Those dishes are specific dishes that are rooted in African American culture. The reason why [those videos] had comedy in them is because I had a personal connection to them. But then, because it became such a phenomenon, so many people wanted it all the time.
[It's part of the reason why] I don't even do them anymore. People would send me a video of a hot dog Martini. Nobody's drinking that. You want me to be like, "Oh, that's nasty." Yes, we know. That's nasty because nobody would drink that. It's inauthentic. That is me forcing a reaction to something that you already knew was some bullcrap.
"Being liked is not worth the sacrifice of not liking yourself."
You received racist backlash for speaking about the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. You said that you lost over 100,000 followers during that time. How did that experience impact you as a creator and as a person?
That experience shifted a lot. Because I was working in daytime television, I was on a platform where I had millions of people that I had to try and entertain. [My form of entertainment] wasn't as niche. I still have a pretty large and diverse audience that I have to try to keep engaged. But I think the lesson in that was that I was not going to sacrifice who I was just for a like or a follow, or just to have a fan. Being liked is not worth the sacrifice of not liking yourself. That's not a price that I'm willing to pay.
That was when it all changed for me. I decided I am going to live in who I am, boldly. And if you decide that you don't want to be here anymore, then you never belonged here in the first place. I only want the people who want to be courageous, and people who don't want to fit into the status quo. Those are the type of people that I want here, following me and being inspired by me. Those are the people that matter to me, not the people that want you to just fall in line and shut up.
How do you prioritize joy for yourself?
[At one point], even after what I've done in my career and where I am today, I found myself feeling like it was never enough. I was so used to having to overcome something that I felt like the only way for me to find reward was to live in pain. One thing that I have been doing recently is allowing myself to not fight anymore. I am relinquishing that fight and looking at the fruits of my labor. I am accepting the fact that it has already come back to me tenfold. I have already made it over the rainbow.
You’re known for serving looks. How has fashion played a role in your self-expression?
[Dressing up] makes me feel powerful. It's almost like a superpower. It's an art form and a way to express oneself. I love drama. I love a coat. When I'm walking down the street, I want the wind to blow that coat like a cape. I love to get dressed up. Somebody came up to me recently, and they were like, "Do you ever put on sweats?" I like to be relaxed at home, but best believe whenever I step out that door, Kalen's dressed at all times, even at the airport.
What do you say to critics who claim that effeminate Black men are part of an unfounded conspiracy to push a "gay agenda"?
That has to do with [their] own insecurities. There once was this clip of one or two very feminine queer boys on Twitter and somebody called them "sissies." I replied, "Actually, that is one of the bravest things that somebody can do. You think sissies and you think of weakness. I don't see that when I see these two people, I see them as being very strong."
It takes a lot of courage to walk out of your house knowing that somebody could look at you and determine that they want to take your life or they want to harm you just because of how you're dressed. I'm gonna be who I am because I would rather be challenged or be beaten up knowing that I am living as my true self, the way that I see myself when I look in the mirror. I believe that I am worthy of that much.
"I'm going to teach you about who we are, whether you like it or not."
I wholeheartedly agree! With that said, who is your Black queer fashion icon?
Jeremy Pope. Whenever he posts a picture, I text him saying, "You ate this up. This is everything!" I think Jeremy is a very masculine presenting queer man, but there's something so feminine about the way that he dresses that it kind of blurs the line between the two. I think it's so unique and something that only he has tapped into. He is able to take the clothes and almost just strip away the gender of it and make it what it is: just clothes.
Who is your Black queer icon?
The people that I think about are the Miss J [Alexander]'s of the world, or the André Leon Talley's. I think about the people who were trailblazing and existing authentically but didn't have organizations at that time honor them. I have been wanting to throw some type of icon ball, or gala, or dinner [for them]. I feel like they never really got the flowers that they deserved for doing amazing work in media. To live out and proud in the world...those are the people that I think of [as Black queer icons]. The ones who lived authentically.
Who was your first queer crush?
I went to Usher's Confessions tour when I was in kindergarten. I was in the nosebleeds, but I remember, even as a kid, I was like, "Wow, this is changing my life." [Laughs]
What has been your proudest moment being Black and queer?
Being able to wake up every morning and relish in the fruits of my labor. After experiencing so much and not knowing if I was ever going to get out of it, I was able to look back and say, "Kalen, you have accomplished the impossible, the unimaginable." That is enough.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
I don't think about Black History Month as one month, it is something that I celebrate 365 days a year. Black History Month is a time to teach what so many people refuse to teach. Especially in a time where we are getting so much legislature that is preventing people from learning critical race theory and Black history. This is a time when it will be in your face. I'm going to teach you about who we are, whether you like it or not.
What do you want your contributions to Black history to be?
I hope that everything that I am doing makes it easier for people who look like me, the [queer] people who walk in heels like me. There are a lot of people in this world who do extraordinary things, but sometimes it could just be for themselves, or they don't see the responsibility in preparing for future generations. At the end of this, I hope that it doesn't seem like I just built a house for myself. I hope that it seems like I built a land for people like me to be able to live on.
Thanks for chatting with us, Kalen! Be sure to keep up with Kalen Allen here.
You can read more Black, Out & Proud interviews here.