How a 19-year-old internet personality and makeup artist provoked the ire of beauty YouTube — and lost millions of followers in the process.
When James Charles, 19, became the first male face of CoverGirl, following in the steps of household names like Tyra Banks, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, he was just a high school senior. In his hometown, Bethlehem, New York, he would charge friends between $5 and $10 to do their makeup for special occasions and had amassed a few hundred thousand Instagram followers by posting his eye-catching DIY beauty looks.
In the few years since, he has become an internet sensation in the beauty world, with 16 million YouTube subscribers (and nearly the same number on Instagram), his own merchandise line and make up partnerships, and a devoted following. He recently attended this year's camp-themed Met Gala, the biggest party in fashion.
In a matter of days, everything changed. Charles is now at the centre of an ongoing debate about betrayal among a passionate group of beauty vloggers, bona fide celebrities and the meme-makers of TikTok. He has lost about 3 million followers on YouTube; Miley Cyrus, Shawn Mendes and Kylie Jenner have all unfollowed him on Instagram.
On Friday, Tati Westbrook, 37, a YouTube beauty vlogger and a former mentor to Charles, posted a video in which she told Charles, as well as several million of her closest subscribers, that she no longer wants anything to do with him. Westbrook, who owns a vitamin company, described in detail how an Instagram ad that Charles posted on behalf of a rival supplement's company was a betrayal of their friendship. The summary of the video also links to her product site, Halo Beauty.
She said that she was also upset by Charles' attempt to "trick a straight man into thinking he's gay, yet again," an incident she said happened at her most recent birthday celebration.
"He's 19 and I'm afraid of him," Westbrook said at the end of the video, which has been viewed more than 40 million times. Charles posted a barefaced apology video that same day, but the two have not publicly reconciled.
The beauty-influencer world is one in which interpersonal conflicts often play out in videos posted across YouTube channels, with players flinging accusations at each other or apologising in 15-minute monologues to their fans. The rumour mill they spin into existence is bolstered by coverage from "drama channels," YouTube accounts that keep track of the gossip and "expose" the wrongdoings of various local celebrities.
Receipts are a commodity in this world — not literal receipts that are printed after a purchase, but metaphorical receipts in the form of digital records that are supposed to prove innocence or guilt. (These often manifest as screenshots of private conversations, photos or videos.) When public fights break out, receipts are "stacked" and, eventually, someone is canceled.
What does a cancellation look like? Charles is learning.
In the days since Westbrook posted her video, he has also seen a rapid drop in his YouTube subscriber count, from about 16.5 million to 13.5 million, according to Social Blade, which compiles social media data.
His social media channels have been flooded with negative comments, and former fans have posted short videos on TikTok, in which they find myriad ways to vandalise Charles' Morphe palette. One dropped the palette into a bathtub full of water. Another painted a snake over the compact's logo. Still another painted, in what appears to be Wite-Out, the words "Bye Sister" — a reference to the title of Westbrook's video.
Other members of the "influencer community" have stepped into the fray to defend Charles or to add to Westbrook's accusations. Jeffree Star, who has been cancelled in the past for saying racists things that he later called "disgusting, vile and nasty," said in a tweet that Charles "is a danger to society. Everything Tati said is 100 per cent true." (He later deleted the tweet.)
Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, a YouTube celebrity with more subscribers than Charles, Star and Westbrook combined, chimed in to question Westbrook's actions on his channel. "Tati is 37 years old," Kjellberg said. "James Charles is still a teenager." He added: "For a mother figure to just completely drag this kid — no one has a problem with this?"
The website that sells Charles' branded merchandise, Sisters Apparel, appeared defunct Tuesday; fans speculated that Star had a hand in the shutdown. (Star is an owner of Killer Merch, a company that designs, manufactures and ships merchandise for brands, including, until recently, Sisters Apparel.)
This is not the first time a storm of controversy has raged around Charles. In 2017, Charles tweeted "I can't believe we're going to Africa today omg what if we get Ebola?" He followed the tweet with a Notes app apology in which he referred to Africa as a country.
The incident turned out to be a blip in Charles' rise. For a couple of months, his YouTube subscriptions slowed down, but by May of that year, it was back up to hundreds of thousands per month and kept growing afterward. Even over the past few days, though Charles' subscriber count has plummeted, his video views are up and in the millions. His 8-minute apology video, for example, has more than 40 million views.
Written by: Valeriya Safronova
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES