Two years ago Ellen DeGeneres called his food commentary videos ‘the best new thing on the Internet’. Shortly thereafter, Kansas City-born Kalen Allen upped sticks from Philadelphia where he was enrolled at Temple University and relocated to LA to work on the hit chat show with the icon herself. Conversing with Kalen, now 23, is like watching a meteor shower as it scores the night sky. You can soak in the brilliance, the magnetic display, while simultaneously engulfed in a sea of calm. You feel safe. Not quite sure where such energy comes from, but you know it’s a powerful source.
Even in this viral internet age, few people ‘make’ it on personality alone (and stay) in mainstream media. Yet Kalen staked his claim on the hearts of an international audience with his infectious humour and charm after making a series of ‘Kalen Reacts’ recipe commentary videos. He also completed a double major in Theatre and Film, transferring to Temple University’s Study Away programme so he could finish his course even amongst the madness of LA-LA land. His recent 7-minute dance tribute video created for Beyoncé’s 38th birthday received a personal reply, and he has just launched his own company, Red Tiller Hat Productions.
Photographed by Amber McKee in a beautiful portrait series, every shade of Kalen’s rainbow aura shines bright. Some colours we have seen more than others. The stay-at-home Kalen, YouTube has yet to meet. He is unveiled here with surprising vulnerability. Stylist Rima Vaidila frames the viral sensation in familiar headwear and perfectly matched flair. Original silhouettes paired with bold accents: the perfect balance between humility and risk. Kalen’s smash-hit recipe.
Kalen features in An American Pickle alongside Seth Rogan, set to release in 2020.
If we were to ask any of your 1.1 million Instagram followers to describe you, the answer would almost definitely be along the lines of ‘bubbly’, ‘outspoken’, ‘comedian’. Tell me, who is Kalen in your eyes?
Kalen is a mixture of those things. But he is also very in himself; he is very independent. He is a lot quieter than most people would imagine. He is not a partier. He doesn’t want to go out. He doesn’t want to drink. He doesn’t smoke. He is very happy on his own and at home, and I think that comes from me being an only child.
Have you always stayed away from drinking? What is the reason behind that choice?
I tend not to take anything that is a depressant. And for me, alcohol doesn’t taste so good - I don’t want to drink anything that doesn’t taste good. But the main reason is pretty simple: I don’t like alcohol because I don’t want to not have control over my body.
It’s interesting because in many ways you come across as the life and soul of a party, so people may assume you enjoy that kind of lifestyle.
No, I am the complete opposite of that. I like to have fun in controlled environments. I can go to a party if it’s at my friend’s flat. If it’s a small space. If I know exactly who is going to be there, what time it will end, what the situation is.
I actually wanted to touch on your comfort zone. What is it and can you easily step outside of it? I get the impression it is connected to social situations.
For me, the only time that I feel truly comfortable in social settings is if I am in the comfort of my own home. I have a hard time adjusting to unfamiliar environments. I don’t feel comfortable.
Your career sky-rocketed pretty quickly after you went viral for your Kalen Reacts videos. How has that impacted your relationship with controlled versus uncontrollable environments?
It’s made it harder. I have to go to all these events and I don’t know whose going to be there or what’s going to happen. Hollywood is all about how you make somebody feel small, you know? So I find it frustrating when I go to an event and sometimes feel like everybody is trying to figure out who is going to be there and who they need to be seen with. I don’t want to do that, I just want to enjoy myself.
In what ways have your early life experiences defined who you are today?
Anything that I am I owe to my experiences growing up. I think being born black, being gay - I have a different way of moving around the world and it has given me a different drive. If people won’t give me a seat at their table, I will find my own. I am very committed to my career and getting there; it doesn’t matter how many people tell me ‘no’, I will not rest until it’s a ‘yes’.
You rapidly built a platform for being unapologetically yourself, which we’ve touched on. Has this always come naturally to you?
Oh, absolutely. I tell people this all the time, but I can’t make my reaction videos to make other people happy if I am not happy with myself. I have to accept that the energy of anything that I create or put out will be online forever once it’s uploaded, so I have to be consistent with myself so I don’t jeopardize my own guilt. Because at the end of the day when all is said and done, if I put something out there that is not authentic, I’m going to have to live with that. If I am not happy with myself then I should not do this job.
You said on your Instagram that one of your peeves is people talking to you like you’re stupid. How do you navigate prejudice and is that something you have encountered a lot in the industry?
Yes. I think what happens is people realise that I’m 23 and that I haven’t been in the industry too long. However, when I came to Hollywood nobody asked for my resumé. Nobody asked me. I continued with my studies when I moved but people just assumed that all I can do is give opinions about food. It was frustrating because I knew that I am far more capable than many of them realised… People were making calls that invalidated my opinion, because they assume because of my age and the way that I talk that that’s all that I can do; they underestimate me. I think it happens with anyone that is successful, especially if you are African-American because they know that usually, African-Americans come from a more urban community so they assume you don’t have an education. So I was facing more barriers than being accepted. I had a full performing scholarship to go to college; I have two degrees. I am very capable.
What was the plan when you were at college? Before Ellen and Kalen Reacts?
Before that, even the weekend that I was moving to LA, I was actually supposed to have a grad audition at Juilliard. I wanted to go to grad school to continue my dream - which was to act and to learn how to be a better performer. So I was going to go to grad school, move to New York, do the whole ‘going to auditions’ thing and live as an actor 24 hours a day.
On that note, you have just announced that you’ve launched your own production company, congratulations! Can you tell me more about what the plan is?
I created Red Tiller Hat Productions because I got tired of people telling me what I couldn’t do, just people telling ‘no’ all the time, or me having to wait for others to give me opportunities. So I was like, I’m going to have to create them myself. I get a lot of opportunities through Ellen but after that show ends, I need to be able to create my own ‘breaks’ and define my own career. I want to be in control of my life. I definitely want to accomplish something with ‘new’ media, because I really do think that YouTube is taking over the industry as people create their own content. So I basically want to help people do that: I want Red Tiller Hat Productions to do content for creators, and things like that. Focusing on new media and how this has changed the industry.
Do you see yourself taking a bigger role behind the camera instead of in front of it, then?
Absolutely. When I did the Beyoncé tribute video, I produced that myself. I feel like I am only using part of myself when I am in front of the camera. I love to create content: I love putting pieces together. When I was a kid I loved lego and magnets. There was even a point in time when I wanted to be an architect because I loved building; I like seeing all the pieces come together.
How do you protect yourself from burnout whilst staying true to your channel? Especially when your followers expect you to put so much of yourself on screen.
I feel like I experienced burnout when I first started. I was fuelled by the demand of it all, and how people wanted more so I felt like I was telling myself I had more to give, more to give, more to give. And the more you give, the more the comments section grows.
Now I just make the video, I put it out there then leave it alone. What happens after I upload a video does not concern me. I also had to learn that you can’t make everyone happy. Everybody is going to have opinions, as long as you believe in your content and yourself, that’s where you direct your energy.
I know that when I first started, people would say what they didn’t like about the video and about me, and leave nasty comments. And I could never understand how they could say that stuff. I was like, I’m not doing anything to hurt anybody, you know? Why do you hate me so much when all I do is talk about food?! I don’t understand. When there are other people who are doing so much evil in the world, why are they choosing to focus on me? Sometimes that’s racism. Sometimes it’s homophobia. There are so many layers to it and I had a lot to come to terms with. I just had to realise that some things are far beyond my understanding, and the minute that I work hard trying to make sense of any of it, it’s going to get frustrating.
I can imagine it must be very overwhelming to suddenly get such exposure and not know where to turn with it. Has Ellen and any of the figures that you’ve met along the way mentored you in this respect?
I would say indirectly. I’ve spent time with Ellen and watched her; I’ve learnt so much, like what kind of people she lets into her space and surrounds herself with.
What does Kalen’s happy place look like?
I love spending time on my own. I love going to the theatre alone, that’s my all-time favourite. Going back to Philadelphia where I went to school and seeing friends from college; taking the subway; doing things that I used to do that I can rarely do in Los Angeles. Going for a drive! People hate driving in LA but I find it so calming and relaxing - like I’m in my own bubble.
When was the last time you cried?
Hmm…. Wait… I can't remember! I’m a very positive person. So when anything happens, I try to avoid it. I’m like, ‘OK, how do I fix it?’
We’ve spoken about your happy place. What does darkness look like for you?
Darkness for me is when I don’t have anything to do. That’s when the voice creeps in, I get inside my head and start to believe that I am not good enough or worthy.
That’s interesting that the voice whispers you are not good enough. Because you come across as a very empowered and empowering person.
Yes. I am all of those things and I think that’s what makes me so professional. And that’s also why I am ultimately humble. Because everything that I do, I know that I could lose it like that. So I want to work as hard as I can to prove myself and show that I am good enough.
You star in the upcoming film An American Pickle with Seth Rogan. I am so intrigued about this whole experience. Tell me about the project.
It is a big-budget movie about a man who falls into a jar of pickle brine and he is preserved and comes back to open his own pickle company. I play one of the employees that work at the pickle company.
It was amazing. It was my first movie and it was such a huge privilege to do a movie with Seth Rogan who is absolutely hilarious. I loved being on set, I loved being there every day. It was absolutely wonderful.
There seems to be a link between you and food?!
Haha maybe that was the pull for the casting director! I always thought that if I was going to do a movie, it had to be a food one. I do think things in life happen for a reason.
What do you believe in?
I believe in freedom. I believe in emancipation. I believe in defying the odds; in accomplishing everything that people said you couldn’t do. I believe in believing in yourself when no one else will. I believe in fairness. I believe in failure. I don’t believe in leading a perfect life, which is what I struggle with in LA. I don’t think it’s helpful, it’s not reality. People have to grow, people have to die: it’s how we become better versions of ourselves.
What does it mean to be a young, Black, male member of the LGBTQ+ community in America right now?
It means fighting for visibility and representation by any means necessary. It means sacrificing my own comfort so that other people can find comfort in my uncomfortable visibility. I want to make sure voices are heard and will absolutely use my production company as a focus for this.
Do you think society’s understanding of queer culture is changing?
Absolutely, I think that queer culture is becoming part of the mainstream. Thanks to the courageous people that are standing up proud and not letting anybody move them out, like Billy Porter who was my idol as a kid.
If you could give a message to your younger self at your lowest point growing up, what would you say?
I would say that all that pressure to do well was worth it. And I really would say be patient, because I think it is patience that has got me to where I am now. I knew I could do more; that I could learn more, and I fought every moment for it and I didn’t let people tell me to stay down. I’m 23 and I’m already on my way to where I want to be.
What is the ultimate dream?
The ultimate dream is that I leave a legacy. That I leave this world knowing that I inspired somebody. Somebody’s happiness; somebody’s life. As long as I do that then my work will have meaning.