About a month ago, Kalen Allen ran across a video recipe for cornbread. Unimpressed, Allen, well, reacted:
“Why y’all putting bacon in this?” he exclaimed, using a split screen — one side showing the recipe he’d found on the “Tasty” blog, the other a close-up of his face, along with his hilarious commentary:
“Cheese? What in the world is this mess?”
“Cornbread don’t mean you put corn in it!”
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“How in the world do you gentrify cornbread!”
The 21-year-old from Kansas City, Kan., posted his video on Facebook and Twitter, and a star was born. Since then, his “Kalen Reacts” videos have gone viral, with millions of views on Facebook, more than 75,000 retweets and tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
They’ve caught the attention of comedian Seth Rogen, model Chrissy Teigen, Jessie Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Will & Grace’s” Debra Messing, all of whom have posted about Allen’s videos on social media. Now the kid from Wyandotte, who just a month ago had 2,000 Twitter followers, now finds himself with more than 30,000 followers and a plug from Ellen DeGeneres on her Dec. 7 show.
“Kalen’s done so many videos, it’s surprising that it was a reaction to cornbread that would take off like this,” his mother, Aloise Allen, says with a laugh. It’s not surprising, she says, that Kalen’s found a way to make the world laugh along:
“Kalen has just always been a child that just loves life. He is never unhappy. He is always going to be upbeat and just have fun. And he’s always been a child that will try anything.”
Well, except for maybe a German potato salad cake.
The Sumner Academy grad is currently studying for finals at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he is a film and theater double major. The Star caught up with him to find out just how “Kalen Reacts” came about, the craziest thing that’s happened to him since his viral fame, what’s next, and what good food (and thus unworthy of “Kalen Reacts”) he has to have when he visits home for the holidays.
Q: What inspired you to begin making the “Kalen Reacts” videos?
A: The first video actually I was on my way to work. I was on Facebook before I left and saw a sponsored ad for cornbread and was like, “Oh, this is a hot mess. I should make a video for my friend.” That was my only goal. So I made the video and I posted it on Facebook. I didn’t post it on Twitter until I got back home after work. And once I did that, at night it only had 20 likes but by the time I woke up it had 500 likes and people were like, “Please make more! Make more!”
Q: Do you have any idea how your video became viral?
A: With Facebook, that one just spread rapidly from my friends. … On Twitter, the cornbread video started to really get big because Seth Rogen commented on it. I don’t know exactly how it got to him, but I’m guessing someone in his network retweeted it. After a while I stopped being able to catch up. It was happening so rapidly where I couldn’t even use the app.
When the sweet potato pie video was posted to Facebook, another random page that reposts funny videos reposted the video to their network, which took the sweet potato pie video viral as well. They didn’t even tag me in the video, someone else tagged me and that’s how I found it.
Q: Why do you think these videos have resonated so well?
A: I think the biggest thing is that it’s relatable. I feel like everyone has these same kind of reactions when they watch these videos. The thing is that they never record them. I just record them. But my videos are very natural, very organic. Reaction is not like I watched it and scripted it. I also don’t cut them. I do them in one take.
Q: Do you have a favorite “Kalen Reacts” video?
A: The potato salad cake video. Which is the one that really blew up. The one that on twitter took me to 30,000 followers. Because Debra Messing, Jessie Williams from “Grey’s Anatomy,” DeRay McKesson, Seth Rogen, Chrissy Teigen, they all liked and retweeted the video.
Q: And which one of those celebrity endorsements surprised you the most?
A: Chrissy Teigen, definitely. Because she actually didn’t retweet the video, but she liked it and then followed me. And to me that was big because Chrissy Teigen is like the funniest person on Twitter, everybody follows Chrissy Teigen.
Q: What’s been the craziest thing to happen to you since your videos have gone viral?
A: I saw a Broadway show, “Once on This Island,” in New York, and I was in the bathroom after the show and these two men are like “you’re amazing,” and I thought, “Oh, they must think I’m in the show or something.” But then they were like, “We really love your videos!” And I thought that was just like the most amazing thing in the world.
Q: How long have you been interested in acting?
A: I’ve been acting my entire life. I won a scholarship through the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City in 2007. I had always performed, but that scholarship allowed me from that moment on to do more professional things. So I did shows with Musical Theatre Kansas City, the Starlight Gala, things like that.
Q: Do you have plans after graduation?
A: Before all this happened, I had already sent out my applications for grad school — Julliard, Yale, NYU — but now it’s looking more like other endeavors may be a possibility.
Q: Yeah, there have been some pretty exciting developments for you since your videos have gone viral. What’s the update?
A: “The Ellen Show” contacted me last week and they asked me to make videos for them because they loved my videos. They asked me to make two of my own and then they sent me some of their ideas to do. And they told me that today (Dec. 7) they’re going to air them on the show and Ellen is going to talk about them on the show, so that’s pretty exciting. (DeGeneres shows his reaction to a lime Jell-O salad — “the ugliest concoction I done ever seen.”)
Q: What’s next for “Kalen Reacts”? Will you continue it?
A: I fully believe in not fixing something that’s not broken. I will continue going with “Kalen Reacts” and as soon as the “Ellen” videos drop, I’ll be back full force.
Q: You’re coming back to KC soon for the holidays. Will you do any “Kalen Reacts” videos while you’re here?
A: Oh, absolutely. The mac and cheese video and the episodes with my mother on my YouTube were actually done in Kansas City.
Q: It’ll be hard to find terrible food in KC since we’ve got so much good food. What’s your go-to good food in KC?
A: Of course barbecue. Now listen. I love me some Gates and I love me some Jack Stack Barbecue. I love the steakhouses like J. Gilbert’s and J. Alexander’s. But my favorite thing to get, two things that I have to get every time I come to Kansas City: I have to get gizzards from Go Chicken Go and Sweet Mesquite barbecue chips from Guys. I’ll actually smuggle the chips onto the plane with me.