(CNN)When Italy first went into a coronavirus lockdown last year, Khabane Lame had just lost his job at a factory near the northern city of Turin.
He spent his days holed up at his parents' home in Chivasso with his three siblings, looking for other jobs. One day, he downloaded TikTok and started tinkering with it in his bedroom, posting videos of himself under the name Khaby Lame. And gradually, a surprising career was born.
At first, like a lot of TikTokers, he created clips of himself dancing, watching video games or doing comedy stunts. Then, earlier this year, he began making fun of the life-hack videos that flood social media platforms -- reacting to them with a wordless shrug or a look of exasperation -- and he struck a chord.
Now Lame (prounouced Lah-MAY) is the most popular man on TikTok, with 114 million followers. The only other person ahead of him is dancer Charli D'Amelio, a California teen who posts playful videos, often with her older sister Dixie.
And Lame, 21, does it all without saying a word. On TikTok, his silence speaks volumes.
"I came up with the idea because I was seeing these videos circulating, and I liked the idea of bringing some simplicity to it," Lame told CNN in a recent video interview.
"The type of gesture came by chance, but the silence didn't. I thought of a way to reach as many people as possible. And the best way was not to speak."
His videos have a singular style
Lame is a slender Senegalese man with long limbs and an expressive face. In most of his clips, he lampoons videos of people doing overly complicated hacks by responding with a simplified, more logical way of doing the same task.
In one video, Lame peels a banana with his hands in response to a video of someone gingerly slicing open a banana with a cleaver. In another, he reacts to a video of a woman noisily peeling a cucumber with her teeth by using a vegetable peeler to accomplish the same task.
His reactions personify the term "shaking my head," or SMH in internet shorthand. After his common-sense approach to a task, Lame extends his arms with his palms facing upward, as if to say duh. Sometimes he throws in an eye roll or a shake of the head.
These silent but expressive reactions have made him one of the most recognizable digital creators on social media.
"Maybe because my facial expressions are funny and they make people laugh, this simplicity makes people laugh and I love it," Lame said.
One marketer says the popularity of Lame's videos show how nonverbal communication can transcend language barriers and make connections across cultures.
"You don't need to speak to be seen or understood," said Christina Ferraz, founder of Houston-based marketing agency Thirty6five. "His exasperation is relatable, and feelings are universal."
He sends a message that life need not be complicated
Lame's deadpan humor has attracted fans from all over the world, who regularly send him videos of people performing simple tasks in complicated ways.
"They know I'm the one who solves problems so they tag me or mention me and they're like, 'Khaby it's your turn, solve this problem because we need you,'" he said.
His stoic facial expressions have also turned him into a meme star -- with his face reposted in reaction videos on social media.
Unlike some other social media stars, Lame's videos are not overproduced. They appear organic and use simple actions and imagery to convey humor, which boosts his authenticity and reinforces his point about making life less complicated, Ferraz said.
She also believes his content resonates with people because he rose to fame during a time when the world was on lockdown from quarantine.