Kris Collins is surrounded by rubber ducks.
It started last summer when fans began sending her ducks. The bath toys arrived by the hundreds, then the thousands. At first it made for good content, but eventually the gag ran its course and now Collins is stuck living with what she figures is around 5,000 rubber ducks.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” she says. “Honestly, I have some on my counter right now. They’re everywhere.”
This is the surreal life of the Abbotsford native and TikTok star @kallmekris, who has become the most famous Canadian you’ve never heard of.
In April 2020, Collins was stuck at home unable to operate her hairstyling business in the early days of B.C.’s COVID-19 lockdown. Her brother suggested she download the video app and within days she was hooked.
Collins’ first video, which poked fun of herself for living unemployed at her parents’ home, was posted April 9. She kept it up and was soon updating her feed with a new video every day.
Nearly a year later, Collins has over 23 million followers, posted almost 1,000 videos and is building a new career as a social media comedian.
And if this sounds bizarre, that someone would find stardom while locked down in their parent’s basement suite, then it’s also not lost on the 24-year-old.
“If you told me this a year ago I would have slapped you across the face,” she says. “But it’s grown. I’ve created these characters and accumulated this community. It just feels like family now.”
It helps that Collins’ timing turned out to be impeccable. Her brand of sketch comedy, which relies on simple but well-written re-occurring characters, has thrived within the one-minute limits of TikTok videos that viewers have become addicted to during the pandemic.
American comedian Sarah Cooper went viral with her lip-synching of former President Donald Trump, which led to a Netflix special. Brittany Broski found fame as a meme after posting a video of herself drinking kombucha for the first time. Even Hollywood stars such as Will Smith have embraced the app.
Online personalities finding mainstream success is not a new phenomenon. Canadian Lilly Singh launched a YouTube channel in 2010, which has led to a bestselling book and a late-night talk show on NBC.
Darren Blakeborough, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Fraser Valley, says the accessibility of online platforms and stories like nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, who was YouTube’s top earner in 2020 with $29.5 million, are seductive to people who want fame and the wealth that follows.
That’s easier said than done, but Blakeborough thinks Collins has found success because her comedy is genuine at a time when viewers need a laugh.
“We’re all looking for an escape from whatever this is that we’re doing right now,” he says. “The thing I love about comedy is it’s not just an escape. It can be an escape, but it can also joke and critique and interrogate those things that are giving you anxiety.”
Collins’ comedy relies on characters she thinks her viewers will relate to.
There’s Janet, the tired mom of precocious Riley, and Katrina, who Collins says is inspired by a tough Russian woman whose hair she used to cut. Noisy neighbour Deborah, a more recent addition, is based off an incident when Collins says her real neighbour caught her filming from the roof.
Each character also has a signature prop. Chad, for example, wears a pair of wraparound sunglasses, while the kids each have their own toques to use with a pair of tiny hands. Collins says most of the props she uses have been sent by fans.
“I had an optometrist send me like 50 pairs of recycled glasses one time and somebody just knitted me like 20 toques,” she says. “I think that’s so fun that I can use the stuff that my followers think I could use.”
Her fans haven’t just sent props.
In September, Collins was doing a livestream when a fan asked if TikTok was her full-time job. It wasn’t – she was still working as a part-time stylist – but that night donations started flooding in, which led to a thank you video the next day from a visibly stunned Collins.
By December she had enough income to quit cutting hair. TikTok is now her career — and it’s a lot of work.
A typical day for Collins starts with meetings (she recently started her own merchandise company), followed by time set aside to brainstorm ideas. Then she spends hours writing scripts for the videos, which she films and posts every day.
And that’s just for TikTok. She’s also started a YouTube channel and has begun streaming on Twitch as well.
“I always looked at people who did this kind of stuff and was like, ‘That’s the easiest job ever.’ This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she says. “It’s the coolest job I’ve ever had, but it’s all you. You’ve got to put the effort in if you want to succeed. It’s a crazy day that sometimes doesn’t end until midnight, but I’m so happy doing it.”
Whereas YouTube and Twitch allow creators to monetize their channels, TikTok doesn’t offer that option in Canada.
Creators can, however, make money with sponsorship deals. Collins has worked with shoe and makeup brands and is open to more partnerships, but she’s also leery of advertising that will turn away her audience. It has to feel authentic, or she’s not interested.
“I understand a lot of creators need to make money and I completely respect that, and viewers should respect that as well. But there is a point where it’s just like, OK, are you on here to make money or are you on here because you enjoy it and you actually like doing this?That’s where I try to draw the line.”
Her audience has also respected when Collins has drawn more personal lines as well.
Collins is frank about her mental health, both in conversation and in her videos. Comedy, she says, is a coping mechanism. Sometimes that makes her depression and anxiety the punchline of a video. Other times, she has filmed herself simply feeling it.
That’s led to an unexpected connection with her fans.
“I have now 23 million people looking at me, waiting for things, hoping that it’s going to be good enough,” she says. “I put that pressure on myself. I’ve made posts where it’s just like, ‘Hey guys, I’m not doing that great,’ and everybody’s like, ‘Take a break.’”
But until the pandemic ends, and Collins can actually meet her fans, she has a difficult time making sense of her burgeoning fame.
There are no autograph signings, no red carpets, no obvious trappings of her success. Is Collins famous? It probably depends on who you ask, and what apps are on their phone.
“I feel like I’m just a weirdo in my basement making videos and people are enjoying them,” she says. “I think Angelina Jolie is famous. I think I am internet famous.”
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