Don't let the funny videos fool you. Kalen Allen is deep. The 23-year-old media personality knows where he's going, and he's got a plan to get there. Since releasing the viral "Kalen Reacts" videos, where he gives colorful commentary on culinary preparations, Allen has skyrocketed to near-superstardom in only a few years. When Ellen DeGeneres had him on her show in 2018, the lesbian talk show host fell for the affable and witty Allen, and ended up inviting him to collaborate and produce content for her digital platforms.
Today, Allen holds a regular guest spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and has a weekly digital news series, OMKalen, where he provides commentary on trending pop culture stories. He's covered the red carpets at New York Fashion Week, the Met Gala, and even a royal wedding. To date, Allen's videos have gained nearly 260 million views across all of the Ellen platforms. His own social media accounts reach over 3.8 million followers.
Not bad for a kid from Kansas City, Kan., who admits that his sense of humor was a shield he crafted after years of being bullied as a kid.
"People would respect you if you were funny, if you could make them laugh," he says of his upbringing. "Kansas City is a very conservative city, it's not very progressive, and I think I never really felt like I fit in... I had to find the power in standing out and seeing how I could benefit from that instead of trying to be like everybody else, which is why I think, even now, I'm not a person that you can peer-pressure into anything."
Becoming a YouTuber and moving to Los Angeles weren't originally part of Allen's five-year plan. He was in Philadelphia, double-majoring in theater and film at Temple University, when his videos went viral "by accident." But, he saw the potential to build a brand.
"I immediately switched into business brain. It grew so fast and I was getting all these calls," he remembers. "That was when Ellen called and I was like, Oh, yeah, this is the place to go. Honestly, when Ellen called, the first original job offer was that I would just make videos from Philadelphia. I made the decision to move to Los Angeles because I knew that if I was here, I would be more accessible to them and that would only bring up more opportunities, as it has, so I'm very proud of that."
His instincts have served him well when it comes to taking risks -- both creatively and personally.
"When you're a queer person of color, everyone only tells you your limitations, and I got tired of that. I wanted to be my own boss," he says. "I got tired of people telling me what I could and could not do, especially because I understood that at the end of the day, when I'm done in this world, it's only me that's going in the ground -- not you."
Still, Allen acknowledges he's not immune to criticism or internet trolling. "That stuff will start to sink into you and it will take over your spirit," he shares. "I really had to learn how to, one, believe in myself, trust in my journey, and trust in my process. But also, I had to take the time to examine where I need to grow, and I also had to figure out what I wanted [next]...because I was like, 'I've already done it all. I don't know what else I can do.'... So I spent this summer doing a lot of self-exploration."
Allen's next step turned out to be a return to his earlier path. He was cast in his acting debut with a lead role in Seth Rogen's upcoming An American Pickle, about an immigrant worker at a pickle factory who is accidentally preserved for 100 years and awakens in modern-day Brooklyn. For Allen, the role was a long time coming.
"I've acted my entire life," he says. "When I started doing the videos, a piece of me started to get scared that I was never going to be able to act again, so when I got the [role]...it was like, Oh! I get it. This is just a part of the journey."
Allen didn't let the pressure of working on set with heavy hitters like Rogen, Kevin O'Rourke, and Sarah Snook get to him. "People only treat you the way that you allow them to treat you," he says. "I made sure that when I showed up... I had my lines memorized, I didn't have my script in my hand, I didn't need to call for lines, and I was ready.... When you show that you're a professional, that is what you earn your respect in."
That lesson in professionalism could very well be credited to DeGeneres, who he describes as a mentor.
"I call her 'Mama E' a lot," he says. "I do a lot of observing, especially behind the scenes and seeing how she operates and how she gets prepared and how she gets ready for the show.... I really learn a lot from her just interviewing people. I think that's when you see Ellen in her most natural habitat.... She makes sure that they feel like they are on the same level as her and that she's not this mega superstar, and I think that is very powerful."
The young star vows to pay that mentorship forward because "it's important, especially for queer people of color," he explains. "When I was growing up, there was no one I could look up to, that I could aspire to be. I definitely want to be that beacon of hope and light to other individuals, especially those that come from urban communities who don't have a lot of resources and don't have the support and don't have the direct mentorship that many other people do."
As for his future, Allen dreams of starring on Broadway, and shares, "I eventually want my own talk show." But he won't exactly be following in Ellen's footsteps. "I want [it] to be a morning show.... It doesn't have to be real deep; it can be just fun and entertaining."