Hey, you up for some YouTube drama?
James Charles is a 19 year old YouTuber, model, and make-up mogul. He launched his channel in December 2015 and rapidly became one of the biggest and most divisive stars of the online beauty sphere. At the age of 17, he became the first male spokesperson for CoverGirl. He’s walked the runway at L.A. Fashion Week. When he visited a shopping centre in Birmingham to open a Morphe Cosmetics store, over 7,000 fans turned up and essentially drove the area to a standstill. Last week, he was a guest at the Met Gala, where he proclaimed that progress had been made for influencer representation thanks to his presence on the pink carpet. At the height of his popularity, he had 16.6 million YouTube subscribers.
Well, now, as of the writing of this post, he has over 14.5 million subscribers. That’s nothing to sneeze at, obviously, but dropping over 2 million in one weekend is kind of unprecedented for YouTube. Internet celebrity can be fickle but usually not to this degree. So, what happened? You can thank Tati Westbrook for those numbers.
OK, you can thank a couple of other issues as well. On top of being dragged for his Met Gala comments, Charles faced controversy when model Gage Gomez accused him of sexual harassment and manipulative behaviour. Charles denied these claims. He also faced criticism for his current Sisters tour, with ticket prices reaching $500 and him arriving two hours late for events. As this was unfolding, drama with former friend Westbrook came to a boiling point, and that led to this.
Tati Westbrook is another prominent face in the YouTube beauty scene. She and Charles have been friends for several years and Westbrook was pivotal in helping him to secure his online fame and business clout. The pair had a falling out over claims that Charles went behind Westbrook’s back to promote a rival vitamin brand at a time when she was promoting her own line, Halo Beauty. Westbrook felt that Charles was being disloyal with this business decision. Charles defended himself by claiming it was an error and that he took the brand’s support because they helped him with security when he was feeling unsafe at Coachella. This being Beauty YouTube, the drama did not stop there, and after another YouTuber who is friends with Charles, Gabriel Zamora, accused Westbrook of ‘fraudulent behavior’, Westbrook responded with a 43-minute video of her own.
Are you lost? Don’t worry, it gets weirder from here.
The video, entitled ‘BYE SISTER…’ is long, detailed, petty, compelling, and a perfect microcosm of the strange ecosystem that is beauty YouTube. In it, Westbrook claims that James made up lies about her and made false claims about the vitamin business deal. She also says that Charles relied on Westbrook and her husband for business advice and major deals worth millions. This stuff is pretty low stakes to most of us and probably won’t seem like all that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, that’s not the part of the video most viewers have been focusing on. The biggest issue comes with Westbrook accusing Charles of inappropriate behaviour towards other men. Westbrook said that Charles, who is openly gay, had a habit of making straight men uncomfortable with inappropriate sexual comments and actions, which she described as him trying to ‘trick a straight man into thinking that he’s gay’. She described an incident where he allegedly aggressively hit on a waiter at her birthday party and decreed that his heterosexuality didn’t matter because he was a celebrity. This seemed to line up with the comments made by Gage Gomez about being put in uncomfortable sexual and emotional situations by Charles.
Charles issued a much shorter and highly emotional apology, but it seems to have done little to quash the growing backlash against him. His subscriber count continues to drop, and he’s lost some big-name social media followers like Jeffree Star and Kylie Jenner. There have been occasional spikes in his follows but they’ve been crushed by the unfollows and have some fans speculating that his team may be buying fake followers to try and lessen the damage. Ultimately, however, this may be the thing that ruins his career.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, or what you’ve already gone to type in the comments without having finished reading the entire piece: Kayleigh, isn’t this entire issue petty as all f*ck? Isn’t this pointless and silly and overblown and over-dramatic, even for the internet? Yes, yes it is. Beauty YouTube is a notoriously weird and hostile world and trying to decipher it makes rocket science seem like a walk in the park. James Charles making a ‘joke’ about Africa being riddled with ebola didn’t kill his career but shading another YouTuber over a vitamin deal did? It’s kind of ridiculous but the entire scandal does highlight how this entire ecosystem of fame and supposed accountability can operate totally separately from traditional realms of celebrity. It’s easy to write off this sort of stuff as old fashioned internet drama but there are tens of millions of subscribers following this and the outcome could shape the beauty industry’s relationship with influencer culture for the near and far future.
This is also a conversation of consent, manipulation, and sexuality. James Charles is 19, still so young but also technically an adult, and a millionaire businessman with brand deals that would put most Hollywood stars’ sponsorship deals to shame. There’s a lot of money riding on drama like this, but there’s also a very real human cost. A major star like Charles using his clout to pressure other men into situations they are not comfortable with is not on, nor is Charles bragging about how his celebrity overrides someone else’s sexuality and desire. YouTube has depressingly been rife with scandals over sexual harassment, unwanted come-ons, assault, and much more. This is an area of celebrity that is a pure Wild West of unchecked power and gaslighting, and one where the target audiences for these stars is incredibly young. As Westbrook notes in her video, Charles’s fanbase are on average young teenagers. And in the case of Charles, this alleged behaviour seems to be a pattern, with former classmates accusing him of catfishing young men for nudes by pretending to be a woman. All of these accusations, alongside a combination of questionable business practices, irritating public behaviour, and perceived slights to his young fanbase, have sent Charles’s subscriber numbers into freefall.
It remains to be seen how big an impact this entire incident will have on James Charles’s career. Plenty of internet celebrities have been ‘ended’ by scandal, only to return to the status quo once the noise calmed down (hi, Logan Paul). Charles is also still only 19 years old, and frankly, there’s something about this entire case that has left me deeply uneasy with how teenagers and literal children are commodified and disposed of once their value has dried up, particularly on a horrifyingly global scale as YouTube is capable of. This is not to dismiss the allegations made against him or downplay the seriousness of what he has been accused of. Stop screwing with people who don’t want to have sex with you, James Charles!
Ultimately, this whole story has been both fascinating and repulsive to me. It’s the well-contoured train-wreck I couldn’t look away from and the story that most embodied why influencer culture enthralls me, despite my best interests. For a lot of people, I’m sure this will just reinforce their terror at all things online. I don’t blame them. It’s tiring, but I’m still watching.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.