A silent social media star. A Caribbean TikToker gone global. A breakaway gaming streamer. 2021 saw fresh personalities come to the fore and once again prove the weight of non-Western creators on major global platforms and in the industry at large.
Rest of World surveyed influencers across regions to spotlight six people who had a marquee year in the crowded creator economy. Some of these influencers saw their follower counts skyrocket seemingly overnight. Others signed record-breaking partnerships or deftly sidestepped a scandal. Each, in their own way, signaled shifts in their respective creator spaces.
We’ll be following along as they continue their rise into the new year.
Khaby Lame: a pantomime for the TikTok era
Country: Italy (via Senegal)
In his most viral videos, Lame stitches “life hack” videos that end up frustratingly overcomplicating simple daily tasks. One clip shows someone using a cleaver to cut the skin off a banana. The video then cuts to Lame, who proceeds to peel a banana. The joke is Lame showing how it should be done, in half the time and with half the effort. Rarely speaking on camera, every video ends instead with a full body shrug and an exasperated look to the camera. The gesture might as well be an exclamation point.
Born in Senegal and raised in the northern Italian town of Chivasso, Lame was fired from his day job as a factory worker when the first wave of the pandemic swept across Italy in early 2020. In March 2020, he uploaded his first TikTok video. Today, with 123.5 million followers, he is the second most-followed account on the platform.
Lame has shown that non-American creators are increasingly able to build truly global fandoms. He’s done this by developing content that crosses language barriers and cultures, without relying on trending sound clips or dances. Reflecting on his own rise to stardom in a recent sitdown with CNN, Lame said, “I thought of a way to reach as many people as possible, and the best way was not to speak.”
Gaules: a renegade Twitch streamer
Alexandre “Gaules” Borba is the standout Twitch success story of 2021. Although the Brazilian creator has been building a following for years, in October he became the first Portuguese-speaking streamer on the platform to top the monthly most-watched leaderboard, clocking in over 18 million hours of watch time.
Gaules is known for his laidback, unfiltered commentary during continuous streams that run day in and out. He is also the partnered commentator for official Twitch casts of the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. A former competitive Counter-Strike player himself, Gaules’ ascent has continued this year despite a 2020 scandal where he accused two Counter-Strike players of cheating during an esports cast, including one teenage player who was forced to temporarily suspend his social media accounts after a deluge of harassment. Gaules later apologized.
Most recently, Gaules’ die-hard fandom has caught the eye of professional sports leagues trying to enter the Brazilian market. This summer, he signed a partnership with the NBA to co-broadcast over 100 official games in the 2021/2022 season for Brazilian viewers. The league has never broadcasted official matches on the Amazon-owned platform, not even in English. Gaules also announced the launch of a podcast in 2022 that he will co-host with Brazilian football superstar Ronaldo. Their first guest will be world-famous footballer Neymar.
Gaules is the most popular name among a cohort of Portuguese-speaking streamers that found new success on Twitch this year, and who are increasingly outpacing established American and European creators.
Nigel Ng: a viral comedian turned YouTuber
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Ng has spent the past decade on the U.K. stand-up comedy circuit. Despite his own established career, the 30-year-old Malaysian comedian has many people confusing him for his comedic persona — a middle-aged, orange polo shirt-wearing Cantonese man named Uncle Roger.
Back in the summer of 2020, Uncle Roger’s YouTube reaction video to a BBC cooking segment on how to cook egg fried rice went viral across continents. In the video, the BBC host uses a colander to wash cooked rice and scrapes the bottom of the pan with a metal spoon. Uncle Roger watches on in not-so-silent horror. To date, that video has racked up over 26 million views.
But Ng has managed to take his flash of global virality and grow a creator business, pairing his signature reaction videos with guest appearances on the BBC, a magazine profile in Esquire, and notable YouTube collabs, including with Malaysian celebrity Chef Wan. The Chinese Malaysian creator has also made a push to enter the Chinese market by uploading translated content to Weibo and the video-sharing platform Bilibili.
His newfound fame has come with some controversy. On the press circuit, Ng has defended the Uncle Roger character from criticism that he plays into Asian stereotypes. And in January, Ng came under fire from vocal Chinese fans for collaborating with Chinese-American food content creator Mike Chen, of Strictly Dumplings fame, who has spoken out publicly about internment camps in Xinjiang. Ng deleted the collab video from his social media accounts soon after and issued an apology on Weibo, which opened him to criticism for playing into self-censorship.
Ng shows no signs of slowing down. With 3 million YouTube subscribers, he is about to launch his world comedy tour “Haiyaa” with stops across North America, Europe, and Asia.
Alisha Hazal: a standout dance creator
In 2021, India’s YouTube creator scene was dominated by gamers, music streaming, and sketch comedy channels. But while male creators filled out most of the top 10 most viewed channels, one of the most viewed Indian female creators on the platform this year, Alisha Hazal, broke through via a surprisingly different formula — rooftop dance videos.
Against the backdrop of passing train cars and the rooftops of Lucknow stretching behind her, Hazal’s energetic dance moves have caught the eye of millions this year.
Hazal’s influencer journey started on TikTok, where she built a substantial following before a nationwide ban of the platform in June 2020. Like many displaced Indian TikTokers, she was forced to quickly rebuild her following from scratch. While many have taken to Instagram Reels, Hazal found an alternative home on YouTube and has seen a spike in viewership this year.
Hazal’s videos often combine dance moves in the Haryanvi style (from the northern Indian state of Haryana) with trending pop songs. Her most viewed video to date, a dance cover of the Haryanvi song “52 Gaj Ka Daman,” which was uploaded in December 2020, now has over 400 million views.
Mr. Dong: a dark horse Douyin livestreamer
There’s stiff competition these days in China’s livestreaming e-commerce industry. New creators looking to break into the monthly livestreaming sales leaderboard are up against Xinba (“the Sales King”), Viya (“the Livestream Queen”), and beauty guru Li Jiaqi (“the Lipstick King”). Mr. Dong’s Jewelry may not be livestreaming royalty yet, but he’s one creator that has quickly developed a reputation in the industry.
Mr. Dong’s Jewelry has been able to move staggering quantities of jewelry on his streams. During the annual 618 shopping festival this summer — one of the largest e-commerce events in China, second only to Singles Day — Mr. Dong’s Jewelry charted as the highest-selling creator on Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok owned by ByteDance. With over 200 million yuan ($31.4 million) in sales, he outpaced creators who had twice his follower count on Douyin at the time, including Luo Yonghao, a generalist who sells everything from smartphones to household goods.
Late this year, in the wake of Mr. Dong’s Jewelry’s success, accusations that his goods were poor quality and “fake” started circulating online. Similar scandals have led to name creators being temporarily banned from competing platforms like Kuaishou. The new year will see whether Mr. Dong’s charismatic persona will allow him to weather the backlash and cement himself alongside some of the country’s top tier of livestreaming influencers.
Gil Croes: a Caribbean TikToker gone global
A comedy creator first and foremost, Gilmher Croes was born and raised in Oranjestad, Aruba, the capital of the Caribbean nation located just miles off the Venezulean coast. Croes started out on Musical.ly as a teenager in the early 2010s, before launching the YouTube channel CroesBros with his brother Jayden in 2016. They had a handful of viral videos, including a 2017 slime challenge video and a bilingual comedy short in which Croes tries to launch his own Hollywood studio on Aruba. But his global breakthrough really came this year, when he moved to TikTok.
Croes’ TikTok follower count currently stands just shy of 35 million, hundreds of times the population of Aruba. That makes Croes the 36th most-followed account in the world, and one of the only creators in Latin America outside of Mexico to rank within the top 50. Croes has been converting this following into long-term sponsorships with brands like Bang energy drinks and Cash App.
Fans have compared Croes to Jim Carrey for his over-the-top facial expressions, wacky hyperactive antics (often with a can of Bang Energy in the frame), and the occasional thirst trap thrown in for good measure. As a standout success among Caribbean creators, he has the potential to activate new corners of the creator economy in the region and boost others looking for sponsorship deals and talent representation. Many keep watching, though, simply to see Croes’ latest pratfall.