You probably know Sarah Bahbah by her name, or her work – but you probably wouldn’t be able to pick her out in a crowd. You may have seen her recent cover shot of DJ Khaled for GQ; or you may know her other visual art work – like her subtitle series, which uses cinematic stills with her inner dialogue as captions, featuring big names like Noah Centineo and Dylan Sprouse. But a few years ago, the 29-year-old was relatively unknown. Then, all of a sudden, she posted a collection of photographic stills based on sex and takeout, and woke up to find herself near famous.
Now she has more than a million followers on Instagram, but Bahbah first recognized her new level of fame when she started to pass the barbecue test – that is, when you are invited to a gathering where you don’t know anyone, and a stranger asks if you’re familiar with your own work. “It’s happened numerous times,” she says. “I would just be sitting there listening to someone talk about my work, in this room full of strangers. That’s such a cool feeling to have – knowing that no matter where you are in the world, because of the internet, people discover you on their own terms and connect to your work.”
With the rise of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, Bahbah’s ascent is becoming more and more common – creating a new breed of in-betweeners: celebrities who are known by their face, work or name, but not all three; people who live a life of semi-stardom, lush opportunities and visibility. Often they become famous almost overnight – with their craft propelling them from one viral moment to a future on screen.
So, what is it like to go from being an unknown person one day, to semi-famous the next?
Grace Kuhlenschmidt’s life changed barely a month into the pandemic, when she posted a comedy skit, play-acting a kid who feels left out after finding her family filmed a porno without her. Within hours, thousands of people were sharing the video and following her on Twitter. “People thought it was funny, but it also went super viral because people assumed it was serious. They didn’t know I was a comedian,” she says. The 25-year-old actor and comedian’s skit found its way on to other platforms such as Reddit and TikTok, clocking up millions of views and making her a viral sensation overnight.
Kalen Allen had a similar experience in 2017 during the fall semester of his senior year of college. He was already popular online, known for the videos he posted on his YouTube channel showing his reactions to the internet’s most surprising (read, disgusting) recipes. Eventually, his work was retweeted by celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Seth Rogen. Ellen Degeneres featured one of his videos on her show and invited him to make a guest appearance in a later episode, which resulted in a full-time gig. Allen even guest hosted the show in March.
Now living in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old has starred in a movie with Seth Rogan, released a Christmas album and attended numerous red carpets. “I really found a way to build an empire,” he says, adding: “I didn’t want to become complacent or just stick to one thing because I knew that at some point the food videos would get old.” Today Allen has his finger in a few pies in the entertainment industry – acting, singing, hosting and producing – and is becoming well known for his midwestern charm.
Unlike social media influencers, in-betweeners tend to have a craft or skill that they are showcasing, when suddenly, because of the internet, they end up on the fast-track towards fame. Before landing the gig on Ellen, Allen was already studying theater and film, but his virality allowed him to surpass the traditional route of toiling in unpaid internships and entry-level jobs in the TV industry, attending networking events with hopes of one day moving up the entertainment ladder.
Kuhlenschmidt was studying improv, but she landed a recurring role on a TV show once her comedic clips were shared hundreds of thousands of times online. Allen and Kuhlenschmidt aren’t famous for paid promotions and collaborating with brands – they’re becoming established names in their respective industries.
Although Allen and Kuhlenschmidt don’t yet fall under the A-list celebrity category, their growing fanbase and proximity to other A-list celebrities has granted them hyper-visibility in public settings. It was during a trip to Disneyland in 2018 that Allen first realized he was famous, when fans started asking him for photographs. Some interactions still catch him off guard. “There’s been many times when people have put their hands on me and pulled me, or just been a little bit too personal with me,” he says. People see his personability on camera and believe they can act more familiar with him than they are.
“People misinterpret how they can approach me,” he says. “But I understand that it comes from a good place. I think people just get excited.”
Being spotted is pretty common for in-betweeners, especially when out and about in the city where they live. Kuhlenschmidt, who lives in Brooklyn, once liked to exercise outdoors, but no longer sees that as an option as her fan base grows, and as she builds relationships with celebrities. “I can’t do it anymore because of the possibility that someone could take a photo of me,” she says. She finds herself second-guessing as she heads out the door. “I don’t leave the house looking super schlubby, because what if I run into a celebrity that I know? I’m definitely hyper-focused on how I’m perceived now,” she says.
Kuhlenschmidt’s self-consciousness speaks to the grey area many in-betweeners occupy: reaching celebrity, befriending celebrities and yet still having the lifestyle of an average person.
Kuhlenschmidt takes public transport, shops at Trader Joe’s and hangs out with her friends at the park, but she rubs elbows with people who don’t. She admits to sliding in Phoebe Bridgers’ and Amandla Stenberg’s direct messages on Instagram just two years ago and is now followed by both stars on Instagram. “I drunkenly messaged them both a long time ago, and when they followed me, they saw those messages and it was super embarrassing. But what was I going to say?” she says with a laugh. Being followed on social media by celebrities made Kuhlenschmidt realize she was becoming a public figure herself. “A lot of the time, celebrities only follow like 800 people. So I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really sick,’” she says.
Allen is frequently retweeted by celebrities but it has been the support he receives from others in his industry that made him realize he was famous. “I feel as though people really believe in me and my dreams are absolutely able to be accomplished. I don’t feel any limits,” he says.
The increased recognition can sometimes feel daunting. “I once made the mistake of allowing success to dictate my purpose in life and quickly realized the more success that I accomplished, the more isolated I felt,” says Bahbah. “None of it fulfills you the way community and deep human connection does.”
Bahbah, unlike Allen and Kuhlenschmidt, doesn’t often post photos and videos of herself, but that hasn’t stopped fans from getting their hands on images she intended to keep private. “There’s been some weird situations where people have access to information that they would only have if they were with me at the time or through my iCloud. Like access to selfies that were posted only on private accounts, or private Snapchats, that would then appear on a fan account. I have no idea how that’s happened, but I try not to overthink it,” she says.
Although her opportunities and visibility continue to grow each time she releases a new series, like her most recent Fool Me Twice collection starring Centineo, Bahbah says her values remain the same. “If you put yourself on a pedestal or you label yourself as a celebrity – even if you are one – you just add self-importance and people aren’t going to connect,” she says. “I always want to stay open and vulnerable.”
Perhaps this is part of their appeal. Their fame seems achievable – even if it likely isn’t. They start with the same tools as the average people who look up to them: a free account on a social media platform where they advertise their work until it is noticed by the right people.
As Allen says: “I was in college minding my own business and one day changed my life entirely.”