With jet black hair, heavy winged eyeliner, septum piercing, and a collection of bug tattoos, Kalei Renay has heard the comparisons to her music idol Billie Eilish. But while the Grammy winner whispers, Kalei roars with her dominating performance in shooter games, no-holds-barred streams, and spicy tweets.
The 22-year-old Twitch streamer dropped into the scene playing Call Of Duty: Warzone and soon established herself as a force in the battle royale game quickscoping enemies in the head with rapid precision and fragging out with 40 kills in a single match. She’s as bold in real life as she is in game. She toes the line of propriety through hilarious (and sometimes dirty) memes, brushing off the temporary bans she’s received on Twitch and other platforms. “I never get banned for anything serious,” Kalei laughs in a recent video call with Refinery29, as she recalls the time her mods forgot to turn off a chat command that showed a modified picture of an over-endowed Among Us crewmate. And though she’s the type of player who doesn’t take herself too seriously, she isn’t afraid to get real about the double standards prevalent in the industry, more than willing to call out the times when she, as a woman gamer, is held to different standards than her male peers.
Because of this, Kalei is used to being a target. As FaZe Clan’s only woman creator, she’s heard it all: She’s too loud. She should be more professional. She should be nicer, or sweeter, or cuter, or smile more. She shuts it all down though because, as she’s said on stream, she’s not going to “fake happy” for your $5 because she really doesn’t care what you think. Through the noise and the clamoring of haters — and yes, there are plenty — she hasn’t stopped from continuing to be unapologetically herself because refusing to conform is what’s gotten her the success she has today.
“I want to show people that I'm not just a pretty face,” she says. “I'm not just a shit poster. I am who I am, and I'm fucking badass at video games.”
I am who I am, and I’m fucking badass at video games.
Kalei grew up in Washington state until the start of high school when she moved to Colorado, where she still lives with her parents. But to be clear, they currently live in her house under her rules while she operates her business as a one-woman content machine. “I can scream at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I don’t have to worry about waking someone up,” she laughs.
To understand why anyone would be yelling at the top of their lungs during degen hours, you’d have to know the games that Kalei specializes in: first-person shooters. The high-stakes adrenaline rush that comes with outsmarting and out-aiming your opponent began during her teen years. In middle school, she saved her babysitting money to buy a PlayStation 3, but she forgot to account for the cost of a game so she was stuck playing 30-minute free trials of Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3. When her birthday came a month later, her mom bought the full versions of both games plus Black Ops 2 and Skyrim. “That's when it started, like, the actual addiction,” she says. “I was like, ‘Ohhh so many games. Let me play them all.’”
The Call Of Duty franchise has been the cornerstone of Kalei’s gaming career. There was Advanced Warfare 2 in 2014, which is when she started streaming on Twitch at age 14. Then came Black Ops 3. That’s when she had her first big host by FaZe’s Agony. In a matter of seconds, her stream went from 10 viewers to 2,000. “Stuff like that impacts you so much, especially as a streamer, because it's so luck-based nowadays,” she says. “Having that one host can change your life. It’s insane.”
After joining gaming org Obey Alliance in 2016, which Agony owned at the time, Kalei found herself more and more in the public eye and soon made the shift from a console player to a hardcore PC gamer. “I’m the enemy now,” she says, clearly picking a side to the everlasting PC vs. console debate. And for years, Kalei was on the grind — stream, sleep, wake, repeat — but it was worth it because gaming is her passion, she says. Fifteen-hour streams flew by as if nothing.
Kalei dreamed of joining a top tier esports organization, but as her fan base grew so did the haters who told her she would never be good enough or appropriate enough to be signed. Like many women gamers, there was the constant cacophony of doubters calling out whatever reason they could find to undercut her achievements: Kalei must be cheating. Kalei is a brand risk. Kalei’s attitude will be her downfall. “A lot of people’s opinions about me got into my head,” she says.
In spite of it all though, Kalei took the wheel and manifested what her critics said could never happen. Last March, FaZe, whose star roster includes rapper Lil Yachty, Migos' Offset, and LeBron James Jr., asked for recommendations of a woman creator to sign, and Kalei made it clear that she wanted that spot. Backed by her stream and Discord community, she launched a personal Twitter campaign to put her name at the top of consideration. The response was overwhelming, so much so that it couldn’t be ignored. Three months later, Kalei announced she signed with the organization, a move that garnered coverage from mainstream outlets like The Hollywood Reporter and TMZ. It was proof to Kalei that the years of streaming and countless hours had paid off. “All the stress, all the anxiety, all of the feelings that I was feeling with my career just washed away,” she says. “This is all I wanted. I always said I want to be a part of something. I want to be a part of a family. I want to feel like what I’m doing is making an impact.”
Any woman knows the challenges don’t stop once you’ve gotten a seat at the table. When you’re the sole woman in the room, there is more pressure to perform beyond your male counterparts, and even when you do, there’s always people in the peanut gallery ready to tear down your accomplishments. It’s a position that Kalei takes seriously, but with a personal caveat. “I do have a sense of responsibility,” she says, “but at the end of the day, I'm not gonna change for anyone. I'm not gonna change because I'm a female and I have to act a certain way. The whole purpose of me being here is to encourage people to be who they want to be.”
Among the many, many things Kalei isn’t afraid to be authentic about is her drive to change attitudes and remove stigmas around mental health. She recently lost her uncle to suicide, and for those who have followed her career, she’s also been open about her own personal struggles, from growing up with depression to dealing with a borderline personality disorder and severe anxiety. She’s battled with anorexia and recalls going into monthly check-ins for her weight during her worst periods. She’s written her own suicide note and has relapsed into cutting. “I have seen hell, and I come right back,” she says.
Gaming and streaming can be that healthy outlet for so many people struggling with mental health, as it has been for Kalei. “I feel like I've healed as a person from what happened a few years ago. Mental health doesn't come and go, and I can always relapse into shit that I've done, but we're all human. It's okay to display emotions and I just feel like that's what people need to know no one's perfect. There's never gonna be that Instagram perfect life.”
The whole purpose of me being here is to encourage people to be who they want to be.
These days, Warzone is largely on the backburner as Kalei dedicates her time toward climbing the leaderboards in Apex Legends. On February 28, she hit Master, a rank reserved for the top half percent of the entire player base. Next step is reaching Predator and being among the top 750 players. For Kalei, there is no finish line, no boss level, when it comes to her career. “Gaming is always changing … and that's what's sick about our industry,” she says. So whether the next task on her checklist is hitting Radiant in Valorant or leading the sickest guild in some unknown future MMO, she is always striving for more.
Look beyond the stats though, and you’ll see that Kalei is already winning. She’s stayed true to the smartass, no-holds-barred approach to her craft and has never given in to people’s ideas of who she should be. And she’s not going to stop now. “Clearly I still have to work my ass off,” she says. “Just because you made it to the top doesn't mean you can slack. But knowing now that I can fully focus on what I love and not have those people talking in my ear, it's so nice. It makes everything just feel so much better.”
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.