Keith Lee on how being a pro fighter fueled his success in becoming one of TikTok’s top food influencers
OPINION: Lee, who has nearly 13 million followers on TikTok, breaks down how his fighting career and dealing with social anxiety put him on a path to help small businesses.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Keith Lee is a TikTok superstar with almost 13 million followers, but most people don’t know who he really is. I did not truly understand the man until I spoke with him this week.
Lee does food reviews from small restaurants and food trucks around the Las Vegas area, but if you’re a Keith Lee fan, you know the food reviewing isn’t really the biggest part of his appeal. I watch most of his videos, and I know I will never visit any of the restaurants he reviews, but I love Lee’s mission to help small food businesses. I appreciate his humility and connection to his family. I like the sense of gratitude he brings to each step of his journey. I also love watching the joy he gets from eating things he likes. In a sea of people online saying “Look at me!” Lee is selfless. In a social media universe of people trying to become famous to benefit themselves, Lee did not try to become famous. He’s intentional about using his platform to help others. But there’s more to his story.
Lee often references his Christianity as a way of expressing his humility. He sits in his daughter’s little “Paw Patrol” chair, and it reminds us that he’s a family guy. He talks about wanting to help small businesses and it shows us that he gets it; he understands how to use social media to help others. But there’s a way that each part of his journey led to this moment in which he’s become a national treasure.
Lee is currently a professional MMA fighter. His nickname is “Killa.” He’s a bantamweight or a featherweight, which means he fights around 135-145 pounds. His record as a pro is 8 wins and 5 losses with 3 TKOs. He won his last fight, back in September. He’s a little too busy right now to train the way he should, but he plans to get back into the ring at some point. But it’s the fighting life that brought out his love of food.
“I’ve been a professional fighter for eight years,” he said on our Zoom call. “I’ve cut a lot of weight.” That means he’s had to work at losing weight so he could be at the required weight for the fight. “I would cut around 30 to 35 pounds, which is a lot of weight for a smaller guy. I would do that through a strict diet.” The amount of attention he’s had to pay to his diet led to food becoming a central element in his life. “I would be watching food reviews, I would be watching food channels, I would be studying and not realizing I’m studying to do a career that I’m doing now. I honestly think everything in my life happens the way it’s supposed to.”
Lee loves fighting: “I’ve always had the heart, and I’ve always had the passion for that and combat forces allowed me to highlight that.” He also has social anxiety, which made it hard for him to feel comfortable around other people. Sports helped. “I’ve been wrestling since I was in high school, and it’s always helped me build the confidence that I take into every aspect of life.” But he has always preferred going to small restaurants because there were generally fewer people around. “In my day-to-day life, I go to the small restaurants. I go to the mom-and-pop shops, I go to the places that aren’t super capacity, uh, with my social anxiety. I go to places that usually will only be me and a couple of people. But the food is amazing. The customer service is amazing.”
He noticed that when it came time to talk about his fighting career, he would struggle because of his social anxiety. “I would do like professional fight interviews and I would be terrible. I would be nervous, I’d be like real jittery. And I just wanted to get comfortable in front of the camera, so I started using TikTok during the pandemic just as a means to like talk to the camera. I would imagine it was like a media interview with like people in front of me.”
He was searching for content he could talk about on TikTok when he landed on reviewing food from small restaurants, bringing together his passion for food and his love of small food businesses and his desire to be a vessel to help others.
“I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. This is my calling … I wouldn’t consider myself a content creator. I’m just somebody who eats food and prays a lot. Because I literally set the camera up, and I just go get food that I would eat on a normal basis. I just go get my lunch.” But over and over, Lee was just doing him, and it all worked out. Fighting led to food, social anxiety led to TikTok and eating lunch led to millions of followers. He didn’t try to become a star; it just happened. “When you are yourself and when you’re walking in your purpose and you’re walking in what you’re supposed to do, everything opens and everything opens when it’s supposed to and not when you wanted to.”
Lee has consistently said that his mission is to help small businesses, and he will not take money or even free food from the little restaurants and food trucks that he’s reviewing. But he’s aware of how the game can be played, and he likes aligning with big businesses that have budgets set aside to pay outsiders like him, which helps him in his mission to help small businesses. For example, he’s now partnering with Pepsi to give his fans a chance to spotlight Black-owned food businesses and restaurants so they can win a residency at the MGM in Las Vegas. You can nominate and learn more at DigInShowLove.com. It’s another example of Lee working the system to help small businesses.
“I wake up every morning extremely thankful. And that’s the first thing I say when I wake up, is that I’m grateful and thankful,” Lee said. “And I’m thankful for everything that happens in my life.”
Correction, 6/12/23, 8:01 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to reflect that Keith Lee is an MMA fighter, not a boxer.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s.” He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download the theGrio mobile apps today!