YouTube drama is, as the kids say, a lot. Beauty YouTube, however, is a whole other level of toxicity that can be as fascinating as it is repulsive. There are millions of subscribers and just as many dollars on the line for these big name influencers and the cliquish nature of their communities only inspires further hostility and near impenetrable layers of beef that is impossible to explain without inciting endless eyerolls. But we’re professionals here and we’re going to do the best we can to enlighten you all on this inescapable but well-contoured train-wreck.
So, last week, we brought you the story of James Charles, the beloved and highly divisive YouTube beauty star, and his feud with former friend and fellow influencer Tati Westbrook. The long-time friends had a big falling out that led to the kind of drama that can only happen on YouTube in 2019. The initial bust-up seemed to happen when Westbrook felt slighted that Charles had begun promoting the vitamin line Sugar Bear Hair, which is the primary competitor of her own brand, Halo Beauty. Westbrook aired her grievances in a 40+ minute long video wherein she accused Charles of deceit over this particular promotional deal, but the thing that really stirred up the internet was her claim that Charles was a serial harasser, making multiple men, at best, deeply uncomfortable with aggressive come-ons. Westbrook claimed that Charles had a major problem with disrespecting other men’s boundaries and seeing straight men who had already voiced their discomfort as a ‘challenge’ of sorts. Other men came forward to discuss their experiences with the 19-year-old YouTuber, and even fellow beauty mogul Jeffree Star, who is no stranger to sh*tty behaviour, called him a ‘danger to society’ in a now-deleted tweet. Star later said he regretted sending out that tweet but ‘I stand by everything I said’. The entire hoopla led to Charles losing close to three million YouTube subscribers over the course of as many days. Some wondered if this was the end of his career.
Well, now he’s responded, and he claims he has receipts.
In a 41-minute long video titled ‘No More Lies’, Charles offered a pretty comprehensive response to every accusation that’s been leveled at him over the past week or so. First, he gave an explanation as to why he posted an endorsement of a rival vitamin brand, then offered screenshots as evidence that he had tried to reach out to Westbrook following the initial plug, which she claims did not happen. He also showed multiple clips of himself promoting Westbrook’s brand, something else she says he was hesitant to do. Of course, that wasn’t really the drama people were interested in. The big issue was Westbrook’s claims that he was manipulating and harassing straight men into uncomfortable positions.
James said, ‘I am a 19-year-old virgin. I have never and will never use my fame, money, or my power to manipulate or get any sexual actions from a guy. That is disgusting. That is not me. The fact that Tati brought this up blows my mind.’ Regarding an incident wherein Westbrook claimed Charles aggressively hit on a waiter at her birthday party against his will, Charles provided screenshots of a chat with said waiter, who described himself as bisexual and interested in Charles. When it came time to address Star, Charles played a clip of him talking about how much he is into straight guys, but also mentioned that Star offers a good explanation as to why men are often attracted to guys like himself. He also offered further screencaps of chats he had with Star after that shady tweet, with Star claiming the tweet was never about Charles in the first place. In one message, Star accuses Charles of trying to force the brother of Star’s boyfriend to send him naked photographs. Charles claimed their interactions amounted to ten Snapchat messages and that things ended before they got remotely flirtatious.
Charles also showed a text he received from Star claiming that Grayson Dolan of the Dolan Twins would be going on camera to ‘tell the world how you tried to molest him and touch him in his sleep.’ Charles refuted this by saying that the Dolan Twins had already reached out to him as a gesture of friendship following Westbrook’s video and that their flirting in collaborative videos was pre-planned as part of the act.
He ended the video by talking about the impact this week has had on his mental health and how disappointed he was that none of this could be handled privately. Charles also said, ‘I still have love for these people. I hope that one day we can sit together in a meeting for closure’, and that he’ll be taking time out from social media and posting videos to relax as he gets ready to turn twenty.
Clearly Star, who is probably still best known to many of you as the MySpace celebrity who followed a bunch of black women around and screamed racial abuse at them, knew he’d been caught out for lying, because he then issued his own video last night. He didn’t provide the receipts he said he had and instead apologized for inserting himself into drama where he was not asked to contribute. The gall. He then, as Westbrook did, insisted he didn’t want any more drama. Uh huh, sure.
Westbrook sent out this tweet shortly thereafter, then deleted the video that started it all, 40-something million views later.
Okay, does any of that make sense to you? No? Well, sorry, but it is what it is.
Beauty YouTube is infamously nasty, cliquish, and frankly terrifying to insiders and outsiders alike. The beefs and rivalries that have formed in this community are near legendary in influencer circles, with figures like Star wielding their power like a battering ram against those who are in their way. There’s a lot of money to be made in this particular ecosystem, and people like Charles, Westbrook, and Star have made big bank in a seriously short amount of time. That’s not dependent on stirring up unnecessary hostilities, of course, but any marketing department will be happy to tell you of the power of stans and encouraging people to view products and the people who shill them as a crucial part of their personality. A big part of this community, and indeed influencer culture at large, is drumming up this level of feverish devotion, especially for someone like Charles, whose fanbase skews very young.
So I don’t buy for a goddamn second the mealy-mouthed claims that none of the people involved in this story want any drama. Of course they do! It’s done wonders for their subscriber numbers and public visibility. Genuine news organizations have covered this feud! CNN are writing about it! Drama gives them power and at a time when way too many big-name YouTubers are only too happy to play into this narrative that they are oppressed underdogs who mainstream society doesn’t understand; crap like this only helps them.
But back to James Charles. Remember, this kid is a 19-year-old millionaire with a zealously devoted fandom and hater base to match. He was ‘dragged’ by two people in their 30s, a process helped along by the countless ‘drama channels’ - the equivalent of TMZ for internet celebrities - covering the story with as much enthusiasm as they lacked journalistic integrity. Charles is not powerless, but even when we only knew one side of the story and were quick to believe the idea that he was a serial harasser, it was tough to swallow the uncomfortable reality of dragging someone who isn’t even old enough to drink. A lot of the rhetoric around what Charles was accused of doing was rooted in some pretty regressive homophobic ideas and that was only fostered by people like Westbrook and Star (who himself is gay).
The thing about this feud is that there really aren’t any winners. All this does is continue to make YouTube a nastier place to work and play, and it further toxifies a community that dearly needs an antidote right now. The egos involved will be stroked and eventually business as usual will probably resume once the central players find new things to say, do, or mock. My biggest curiosity lies in how this will impact the business deals of these beauty influencers. Will big name brands want to get involved with this mess and potentially get mired in some sticky controversies? Or is the allure of those super high subscriber counts and captive audiences enough to let them overlook such frivolities? At the heart of this feud is a deeply cynical view of personal branding and celebrity that borders on ghoulish. Not that people will stop watching, of course. It makes for great viewing.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.