Most of the time when we say that someone is an “overnight success,” we’re speaking metaphorically. That’s not the case with Kalen Allen. The 23-year-old Temple University theater student was scrolling through Facebook one day back in 2017 when he discovered a video cooking tutorial for something called “7 Up Salad.”
It was a concoction that mixed soda, marshmallows, lime Jell-O, cream cheese and other incongruous ingredients. Allen thought that the dish looked interesting enough that he’d record his reaction to the tutorial. And the rest is viral video history.
“It all happened by chance,” Allen remembers. “I was scrolling through Facebook and saw the video, and was like, ‘This would be funny if I recorded myself talking about it.’ I pulled out my phone, pressed record and put it on social media.”
The video put Allen’s hilarious reactions side-by-side with the tutorial, allowing the viewer to see Allen’s journey from interested to disgusted to horrified. He actually cries out, “Jesus take the wheel!” at one point. By the next morning, the video had gone viral, to the extent that he couldn’t actually look to see if anyone had watched his video.
“I couldn’t use my phone because the app was crashing from so much overload of people trying to interact with me,” Allen says.
Allen’s reaction clip eventually racked up more than five million views. One of those viewers was Ellen DeGeneres, who played the clip on her daytime talk show and begged on the air for Kalen to get in touch with her.
When Allen eventually went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in early 2018, she surprised him by offering him a job. Since then, he has hosted his own series, OMKalen, on DeGeneres’ Ellentube website, appearing with his trademark wide-brimmed red hat as an interviewer on the red carpet at events like the Billboard Music Awards (where he memorably rapped the first verse of “Shoop” alongside Salt-N-Pepa) and MTV’s Video Music Awards.
He also continues to make reaction videos to all sorts of out-there cooking tutorials, and has played the “Never Have I Ever” game with the K-pop group MONSTA X, and dressed up as Beyoncé for Ellen’s Halloween episode. To date, Allen’s videos for Ellen have been viewed nearly 260 million times worldwide.
None of those things were part of Allen’s long-term plan back when he graduated Temple with degrees in theater and film. He moved out to L.A. (where DeGeneres’ show is taped) before he’d even finalized his employment contract with The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“The same week that I moved to L.A., I was also supposed to have had an audition at the Juilliard school for acting,” he says. “My original plan was that I was going to move to New York be a struggling artist and try to make my way onto Broadway and live that dream. So I was trying to get ready for that and then this all just happened, so I just decided to move to Los Angeles. I packed up my stuff moved out here.”
Allen says that he didn’t feel any fear or uncertainty about his decision.
“That’s how I knew it was the right move,” he offers. “I’m the type of person that moves around the world based on the way I feel. I don’t do anything that doesn’t make my spirit shine. I had no doubts, no worries and no fears, and that was enough to let me know that I had made the right decision. So I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Allen says his life right now is full of new opportunities. He’ll soon make his feature film debut in an as-yet-untitled Seth Rogan project, and he created a new one-man stage show that talks about the last two years of his life. He’ll perform that show at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College this Friday.
“This is my first show with an audience that’s there specifically to see me,” he says. “So what I did was I started to look at everything I’ve done in my career so far and figured out what people like the best about me, or what they find entertaining. And what worked with my original food videos was that they were shared experiences. And so the show is definitely going to be interactive. We’ll be playing some games, and I can definitely say that it’s going to be a fun night.”
In between the games, Allen will tell stories about his quick rise to fame and the many surreal moments he had along the way.
“We’re definitely going to go through the journey of my life,” he describes, “and how this whole thing started out with something very simple and then it became something very complex. So it’s about bringing people into those experiences and also letting people have a behind-the-scenes look at that journey.”
What: Kalen Allen
Where: Harbison Theatre, 7300 College St., Irmo
When: Friday, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m.
More: 803-407-5011, harbisontheatre.org