Devin Halbal—Yes, That “Kudasai” Girl—On Becoming A Global Phenomenon

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this TikTok star.
Published: June 27, 2024
Devin Halbal—Yes, That “Kudasai” Girl—On Becoming A Global Phenomenon
Jacket; skirt; bag; ring, KATE SPADE NEW YORK. Necklace, SWAROVSKI. T-shirt, Halbal's own.

Just a girl with a selfie stick and a catchy phrase—or so we thought. Devin Halbal, who went viral on TikTok for adding “kudasai” to the end of her sentences in her travel vlogs earlier this year, is anything but a caricature. Upon meeting her at our shoot on a balmy Saturday afternoon, one thing became immediately clear: She’s a lot smarter than her sugary-sweet online persona suggests. “People tend to politicise my identity, but I'm grateful that many look past my appearance and listen to my words,” she states.

I’ll admit it: While I’ve watched her videos on TikTok and repeated her catchy phrases to friends and co-workers, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 26-year-old. But as we got to chatting while she sat in the chair of veteran hairstylist and make-up artist Grego dressed in her newly-launched merch, I was delighted to find out that she is an intelligent and articulate individual who knows how to have a good laugh—even if it’s at her own expense.

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Growing Up

Devin Halbal—Yes, That “Kudasai” Girl—On Becoming A Global Phenomenon
T-shirt, Halbal's own.

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We chatted about her childhood and what it was like growing up in the Bronx (we may have sidetracked and talked about the infamous “orange drink” Jennifer Lopez mentioned in a now-viral video interview), her relationship with her family, coming to terms with her identity as a trans woman, and the whirlwind experiences that posting daily vlogs on TikTok has brought her. She shared many personal anecdotes that painted her in a different light—one that highlighted her bravery, resilience, passion for the arts, and her community, as well as the root of her positivity.

“Growing up in the Bronx, I always felt different from my classmates. I was always very feminine, and people kept trying to define me,” she recalls. “I was always interested in and inspired by the worlds of fashion and beauty. But I didn’t come from a lot of money, so luxury wasn’t really part of my life growing up—I didn’t think that someone like me could have access to these things, let alone speak on it. I never thought of survival as being anything other than self-preservation,” she adds.

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Coming Into Her Own

Devin Halbal—Yes, That “Kudasai” Girl—On Becoming A Global Phenomenon
Shirt, KENZO. Dress, COACH.

At the age of 18, Halbal slowly came into her own while attending Hunter College, studying media and taking classes on journalism and human rights. This was also around the time when Halbal, who grew up wanting to have long hair and play with ponies but didn’t because society says boys like Bob The Builder, started using fashion as a way of telling the world who she’s always been. “I would ask the retail associates at American Apparel if I could try the womenswear items,” she recollects. A year later, she became a college intern at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, facilitating support groups.

Fast forward a few years later, Halbal found herself in another tricky situation: The pandemic had struck, the cost of living in New York was going through the roof, and she didn’t have a cosigner for a lease. She didn’t know it then, but this was the start of her social media stardom. In the hopes of reducing her living expenses, Halbal decided to move to Croatia. “Honestly, it could’ve also been Malaysia. I was spiralling and needed to tap out and be in another country.” There, she began posting videos of herself exploring the country while spreading positivity, taken using her now-famous selfie stick.

Ahead, Halbal talks about the “kudasai” phenomenon, her recent trip to Singapore, and why fashion is a powerful tool.

@hal.baddie Singapore KUDASAIIIII 🇸🇬🫶🏾🇸🇬 thank you so much @Sentosa ♬ original sound - Devin Halbal

How would you explain the “kudasai” phenomenon? What was going through your mind when you first said it and posted it, and why do you think it resonated?

I think the reason it resonated with everyone is that, firstly, I'm not Japanese. People were excited to hear me sing it with such passion, embracing the culture. While in Japan, I was learning basic Japanese words, and one word just stuck in my head because you hear it everywhere—in train stations and on speakers. It's basically a way to say please or give me, or even please forgive me. I kept hearing it over and over and decided to say it in a dramatic way. That stuck with people, and everyone became obsessed. Ever since then, I couldn’t stop saying it, and people were saying it in Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I’m excited to see where else it goes.

We saw your videos on TikTok, and then suddenly, you were being swarmed by people on the street. What was that like?

It was funny. Every time I left my hotel in Japan, people recognised me and wanted to meet me. It really picked up towards the end of my time in Japan and the beginning of my week in Korea. When I got to Busan, I couldn’t leave the hotel without being swarmed. At first, it was a bit scary, but I loved it because it was fun. I met so many people, although it felt a bit like "Black Mirror" at times with so many recognising me because of the internet.


♬ original sound - Devin Halbal

It's your first time in Singapore. How are you finding your experience so far?

I absolutely love it. The food is incredible—a blend of various cultures. The architecture is stunning too. Today, while in an GrabCar, I passed the central police station, which is so colourful and beautiful. All the buildings here are amazing.

Last night, I went to get bubble tea, and it turned into a meet and greet. I visited Merlion Park and did a lot of walking around and shopping in the malls. My favourite thing to do is eat—especially at the food courts. I'm obsessed with laksa and chicken rice. South Asian food courts, in general, are elite. So, eating has been my favourite thing to do here in Singapore.

Tell us about the world-famous selfie stick.

During the pandemic, many of us were isolated. I tried to avoid getting sick and spent time taking selfies, using a selfie stick I had since high school. Although I rarely mentioned it, a few vintage selfies are on my Instagram. I revived the selfie stick during lockdown as it allowed me to film myself without needing others, ensuring I stayed safe and socially distanced. People found it amusing, so I continued.

Looking back at your earlier videos, did you ever imagine you’d be where you are now?

My page is mostly for joking around. I've always had big dreams, but I never expected TikTok to become my job. I just wanted to make people happy.

The turning point came when I was in Turkey, and a lot of brands started reaching out, asking me to promote their products. I thought, "Wait, maybe I can make a living from this." So I decided to try and make money from social media, like others do. Now, I'm more strategic about what I promote and only choose products I really believe in. I'm not saying I didn't do that before, but now I'm more careful about it.

You inspire your millions of followers across TikTok and Instagram to stay positive and love themselves. What inspires you to do the same?

Honestly, if I'm not happy, it feels like the world is full of darkness, negativity, violence, and hatred. I've experienced this firsthand, being treated differently by society just for being myself. So, I constantly remind myself that there's also so much love and happiness in the universe. Whether it's through a mantra or singing a corny poem in the street, these things really get me through my days and make me happy.

Having the courage to express myself is crucial. Art helps me get in touch with myself, feel inspired, and find happiness. My page isn't just about promoting products; it's about art. It's me expressing myself through singing, rhyming, and playing with words. This creativity makes me feel happy, liberated, and free. As long as I can be creative, I'll be happy. Without creativity, I think I would be miserable.

What is your relationship with fashion? 

Growing up, I remember going with my mum to hair salons and seeing the covers of magazines with beautiful women. It allowed me to dream. At four years old, I was inspired by these images, knowing they made people feel something.

When I was 16, I would watch fashion shows online. I’ll never forget Fendi’s show at the Trevi Fountain—it was so beautiful and captivating, and I rewatch it often. Another favourite is the Chanel Cruise 2016 show in Seoul, which was colourful and inspiring. After watching it, I was happy for the rest of the week, smiling and thinking about the Chanel looks.

Fashion makes people feel beautiful and empowered. It celebrates life, allowing you to be whoever you want to be and express yourself however you wish. 

What are some challenges you're facing, and how have you dealt with them?

Well, I often get labelled as controversial just because of who I am, even when my content isn't political. People tend to politicise my identity, but I'm grateful that many look past my appearance and listen to my words. My content ranges from beauty and makeup to food and nature, reflecting my diverse interests. Despite this, one challenge is navigating the misconception that my happiness is a radical statement. Happiness is a continuous journey towards decolonising beauty standards and celebrating individuality.

Outside of your travels and trying new things, what else interests you? What are your hobbies?

I love writing—whether it's poems, personal essays, or jotting down experiences in my journal, which I carry everywhere. I've been interested in painting too, although it's challenging to maintain a consistent hobby while constantly travelling. Back in school, I was in chorus, which inspired some of my poetry and singing videos. Beyond TikTok, I'm drawn to cinematography and world-building, and I'd love to explore filmmaking and creative direction in the future.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to pursue a similar path? How do you navigate the ups and downs of recognition and public attention?

There's no one-size-fits-all advice for handling fame—you have to experience it. Losing anonymity and privacy can be overwhelming. Personally, I keep my friendships and relationships private, because I believe some things are sacred. If I'm in love and want to marry someday, I'll share that when the time is right. Confidence-building is crucial for survival in a society that often creates insecurities. Embracing my flaws and encouraging others to do the same is central to my message.

What do you hope to achieve in your career and personal life?

Personally and professionally, success means staying true to myself, not conforming to society's expectations or compromising my values for approval or financial gain. I aim to spread love and positivity, combatting darkness with happiness wherever I go. Happiness, to me, is sacred and powerful—it perseveres over negativity, no matter how corny that may sound.

Is there anything else you'd like to share or want people to know?

I want everyone to feel loved, worthy, and capable of achieving their dreams. Don't let anyone make you feel like you don't belong or can't succeed. In a world that often tries to diminish us, loving yourself is a radical act. Happiness and love are always greater than negativity.

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographed by ERWINSHAH HASSAN
Creative direction by GAGANDEEP SINGH
Hair & Make-up artist: Grego using Keune Haircosmetics and MAC Cosmetics

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