Even after landing a gig on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” after more than 430 million views of his videos, after lighting the Mayor’s Christmas Tree at Crown Center, after catching Oprah’s eye on Instagram, after filming a movie with Seth Rogen, Kalen Allen would still prefer you not call him “famous.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” he says dismissively at the mention of the word, shifting uncomfortably in a pair of zebra-striped Zara pants and ebony Calvin Klein boots. “I’m just around famous people. I’m just associated with famous people.”
However he wants to spin it, one point is undeniable. Since last November, Allen, a Kansas City, Kan., native and Sumner Academy graduate, has risen from obscurity to omnipresence.
Mayor Sly James said as much at the Crown Center Christmas tree lighting Nov. 23.
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“When I started, my first Christmas tree was with Janelle Monae,” he said when introducing Allen at the ceremony. “Tonight we get to finish with another superstar.”
This time last year Allen was finishing his studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, preparing for an audition with Julliard and juggling five jobs to make ends meet. Now, Allen says he’s “just wrapped” his first movie — a comedy with Rogen, one of the earliest fans of the food reaction videos that launched Allen’s career.
“A big whirlwind,” says Allen, 22. “It all happened so quickly. … The first time I took my first breath since all this has happened was last week when I met Michelle Obama” backstage on “Ellen.” “Then it rushed to me like, wow, this is really my life now.”
The toughest part about settling into the grooves of his new life, Allen says, has been getting comfortable with one of the perks of working on “Ellen”: a little entourage. His team books his flights, sets his schedule, makes reservations — tasks he’s used to doing on his own. He also has a team of agents at ICM Partners, who get him auditions.
“I have always been an independent person, who makes things work for myself, so it’s weird to have other people working for me,” he says.
It could be said that working for himself, or, more importantly, being himself — a hilarious, queer, affable young black man who fans say reminds them as much of their favorite cousin as their favorite aunty — is the superpower that has helped Allen arrive where he is.
A superpower, he says, some have tried to tamp down, with no success.
“Everything I’ve done and accomplished is because I’ve stayed true to who I am. I’m not going to break something that isn’t broken,” he says. “I will not mold myself to fit into whatever box people want me to fit in. … I have to be happy with myself, because if I am not happy with myself then I cannot create the art that has made so many other people happy.”
One of the most remarkable components of Allen’s rise has been DeGeneres’ deep investment in his career. She continually mentions Allen to her 76 million Twitter followers, has had him guest-host her show — currently the No. 2 rated talk show in America behind Dr. Phil — and given Allen the keys to his own digital series, “OMKalen.”
“She may not even know it, but I do very much look at her as who I want to be,” Allen says. “She has taught me how to be a better person within this industry and how to treat people. If I can go in every day and Ellen is treating me like I’m one of her own, then there’s no reason why I should be nasty, rude or ugly to anyone.”
Allen found stardom through his viral food reaction videos, the first of which he posted last Nov. 15. He used a split screen — one side showing someone’s video of an unusual recipe (potato salad cake, pickle shake, etc.) he’d found online, the other a close-up of his face, along with his rollicking commentary.
Allen owes his fame to those videos, but he’s ready to move on. “I never want to beat something to the ground,” he says.
In fact, when asked about any advice he might have for those trying to find their viral break, he cautioned: “Do not make content that is contingent upon someone else’s content.” He says he’s always hearing requests from fans for more food videos, “but if there aren’t any crazy new videos floating around out there, I can’t make a reaction.”
Allen says he envisions content where he interacts with, say, other viral stars. “Just something with a little more substance and a little bit deeper meaning to it. Something that can impact and change people’s lives and inspire them on a different kind of basis. …
“I’m following Ellen’s model. When she started the show, she wanted it to be about relationships.”
His upcoming film with Rogen is his first foray into the next phase of his career.
Rogen will play Herschel Greenbaum, a man who falls into a vat of pickles in 1918 and is perfectly preserved for 100 years. Greenbaum then emerges in present-day Brooklyn and begins searching for his family, only to find that he has one great-great-grandson, a “mild-mannered” computer coder (also played by Rogen) whom he doesn’t understand.
Allen will play one half of a trendy Brooklyn gay couple (alongside Eliot Glazer of “Broad City”) who helps Herschel create a booming business with his “artisanal pickles.”
The movie will also feature veteran actor Kevin O’Rourke (“The Aviator,” “Boardwalk Empire,”), Sarah Snook (“Steve Jobs”) and Molly Evensen (“Loosely Exactly Nicole”).
Allen also says he recently “wrapped a digital series” that he hopes will get shared soon. It’s all part of a plan, he says, to begin phasing away from being known as the guy who does the food reaction videos.
But don’t worry, he says. The boy from KCK who loves his Gates BBQ, shopping at Oak Park and The Legends malls and sweet potato pie (“Pumpkin pie is sweet potato pie with low self esteem,” Allen says) isn’t going anywhere.
“Kalen is going to be Kalen,” he says. “And if you don’t like that you can go somewhere else.”