Welcome to Internet Diaries, a monthly interview series that asks the internet's favorite people where and how they spend their time online. What are the niche accounts they follow? The platforms they can’t get enough of? The apps they can’t live without? The corners of the internet they call home? This month, TikTok’s Aunty Kalepe answers all these questions and tells us how she fosters community online.
Kalepe sits in front of her phone, her image filtered through the grainy charm of an old smartphone lens. Her nails click-clack and her jewelry jingles. She is busy arranging the food in front of her, but as she gets ready to eat she pauses to announce: “Eating in Hawai’i part… whatever.” She bows her head in prayer for a few seconds, then digs in! From tinned fish with nori and rice, to pizza (made by her son, and served on a paper napkin), to homemade Hawaiian ice cake. Sometimes there are children in the background or something off-camera pulls her attention away from her audience, but the message is never lost. Kalepe’s just a mom and an entrepreneur stopping for a quick meal before she keeps pushing; these TikToks are a moment of stillness, in the midst of all that business.
The Samoan TikToker has a tight-knit following of about 90,000. She started building a following as a contributor to an online community called Foodie 4 Tha Bootie. But, once she learned TikTok might be an opportunity to earn an income from her fanbase, she took a risk and went out on her own.
It hasn’t been without its ups and downs — Kalepe has survived more than one inexplicable account suspension. Even so, I’ve been following her for over a year and never realized she’d been banned, because as soon as her account was shut down, she’d make a new one and the For You Page would work it’s algorithmic magic to return her to my feed. There’s not a lot of softness to her presence, but there is a whole lot of tenderness, which is probably why she is an Aunty to her followers, the #kalepekrew.
And then there’s the food. I keep up with Kalepe’s TikToks because they make me hungry like any good mukbang should. But also because they show an everyday sort of care, the kind that feels sustainable; it nurtures you as you go, like a snack for the soul.
Below, Aunty Kalepe shared her warmth with Refinery29 as we talked about her TikTok community, her relationship to the internet, and her commitment to the hustle.
Michelle Santiago Cortés: It’s not uncommon for people to feel like they’re sharing a meal with a mukbanger, but your videos go further and make me feel like I’m joining you on a road trip. Or like I’m four years old, and you’re my babysitter for the day. Do you have a sense of how your videos stand out [from others]?
Kalepe: To me, honestly, I'm going to definitely answer as pure as I can: I don't give a fuck about anybody's video! [laughs]
MSC: [laughs] That’s exactly the kind of answer I like!
Kalepe: And if I'm being completely blunt, I mean it when I say I'm doing this for me, as a therapeutic thing. But I know that there's people out there that suffer from bulimia, eating disorders, and unhappy days. So if you take something from my video, then that's cool. Once I hit record, it's there — there's no practice or takes. For me, [success is] kind of emotional. Growing up, since I was the youngest, it was always: "you would never be anything" and “nobody understood you.” It was "close your mouth, listen to your older siblings." My teaching was not the right teaching. And to see this take off, and that everybody understands the way I teach — it just is a blessing in itself.
MSC: Apart from posting, where do you spend most of your time online?
Kalepe: I would say TikTok and Instagram, and a balance of Facebook and also YouTube and Pandora. YouTube, because I'm trying to grow that, you know what I'm saying? Some people don't have TikTok, some people don't have Instagram. But what I try to do is make sure that the people that follow me and support me see that I did spend time watching their content. And I think that's what makes me different from all the other TikTokers. Yeah, they're up there and they're getting the money and everything like that, but can you look at a name and say, “Hey, how's your son doing? Did you pass your tests?” And that's what I can do with my followers. And I want to interact with them because the title Aunty to me is a very, very strong title. So I don't want you to call me Aunty, but I don't give you the benefits of an Aunty, you know?
MSC: How would you describe your followers?
Kalepe: I would say it's a range from bebe, which is baby, like two-, three-, five-year-olds that borrow their mom's phone or just got a toy phone who want to talk. I even have my baby girl, which is my son's girlfriend's daughter. She's four and she has an iPad. And she said, "Aunty look, I saw your TikTok!" She knows the line, and she's like "living in Hawaii part whatever." So from four all the way up to Tutus and Papas, Grampas and Grandmas, that's my range right there. I would say my thing, my focus on my platform, is basically for the youth. But if anybody feeds off it, that's great. The reason why I base my whole platform on the youth is because they are our future and my kids are part of that future and I use my platform as a voice to love them, to care for them because their mom’s working, you know, or the dad’s not in the household or whatever. As long as they know that at least one person loves and supports them, then that's great — then I'm good.
MSC: That sounds like a huge undertaking. Do you ever have to unplug or log off to recharge? Does it ever get to be too much?
Kalepe: I will say, I had one breaking point before my first account got banned, and I had about 909K followers. In the beginning, it was really hard, because I didn't know how to take the negativity. I didn't know how to deal with the whiplash of "I'm going to kill your son" or "I hope you die" or you know, "you ain't shit" or whatever. So when I [hit my breaking point,] I gave it to the Lord — and I really, really gave it to the Lord — and it was my middle son that went ahead and said, "Ma, look at me, we got you." He said, "Do you, Mom. F everybody else, Mom. We love you, we support you." And when I called my oldest son and I said, "Son, are you ok with mom doing this whole platform and everything like that?" He said, go for it. Asked my youngest son, "Are you ok with this? Mom's going to be out." And he said yeah. So once I got the ok from my three boys, you can tell me, go fuck myself, you can go ahead and tell me to bang my head. I wouldn't give two shits, you know what I'm saying? Because you're not my unit. You're not my backbone. You're not the one that's going to be here when I cry or whatever.
MSC: Ok, pivoting a bit: I feel like I would regret it if I didn’t ask you to share some of your parenting wisdom with our readers, if you can spare any. Your online presence is so maternal and generous but you clearly have your own life. Got any tips for our readers?
Kalepe: There's a lot of people that say there’s a cutoff, a certain age, to be whatever you want. You make your life, your life don't make you, ok? So I'm going to say this: Today at about 9:30 this morning, I paid to get my permit for my CDL. So when you asked me my occupation, I said “entrepreneur,” because I put my motherhood first. I put my motherhood first because these boys never asked to be here. These boys never asked to come into a hardship, struggle[-filled] life. But the best thing that they can take out of this is the fact that their mother loved them so much and their mother went ahead and was there at every game, every doctor's appointment when they were sick, you know what I'm saying?
So I guess I did it backward from everybody else because that's how people were raised — you know, growing up, hey, go to school, get a career, then you get married, and then you have your kids. La, la, la, la, la. Living in a Samoan household and being restricted and under a rock, my first time in the States was just to live it up and everything, but it just so happens that I had kids. My grandma always said, “If you lay down and you have your kids, then you take care of your kids. You don't rely on anybody else to take it, because nobody's going to love them like you.” And I held that. And so now that my kids are 18, 15, 13, they can manage to do by themselves. So now it's time for mommy to go do something, so I can bring more income and say, “Mommy does have a career.” Is it late? Hell no. I ain't dead yet.