SKIN IN THE GAME
James Charles and Tati Westbrook Drama Is Just the Latest Vicious Beauty YouTuber Feud
James Charles, the first male face of CoverGirl, is hemorrhaging subscribers after ‘betraying’ mentor Tati Westbrook. The saga reveals—again—how ruthless beauty vlogging can be.
If you needed proof that the ever-growing popularity of vitamin gummy supplements herald the death of humanity, look no further than this weekend’s scandal involving beauty YouTuber and influencer James Charles.
For those blissfully unaware, Charles describes himself as “a 19 year old kid with a few blending brushes.” In 2016, at just 17, Charles became the first male face of CoverGirl. Since then, the makeup artist has amassed sponsorships with Morphe Cosmetics, along with 16 million YouTube subscribers who tune into his many tutorials.
Last Monday, Charles attended the Met Gala with YouTube, writing on Instagram, “Being invited to such an important event like the ball is such an honor and a step forward in the right direction for influencer representation in the media and I am so excited to be a catalyst.” The absurd concept of a need for greater “influencer representation” was thankfully lampooned on Twitter.
Charles has had a few missteps—during a class trip to Africa in 2017, he joked about getting Ebola. Last month, Twitter raised an eyebrow after Charles called himself “not full gay” because he has been attracted to trans men. (He was accused of insinuating that trans men were not actually male).
Though these incidents made him a divisive figure in the beauty vlogging world, none of them truly threatened his career like last weekend’s snafu. As CNN reported, last month Charles promoted Sugar Bear Hair supplements on Instagram.
His mentor, businesswoman and fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook, owns Halo Beauty, another vitamin brand that Charles has never advertised.
Feeling betrayed, Westbrook filmed a 43-minute long video airing her side of the story, accusing Charles of duplicitous behavior and sexual harassment of a straight male waiter.
One day later, Charles responded with a tearful apology that was eight and a half minutes of the vlogger stammering through various iterations of “All I have to say is I’m sorry.” (Both Charles and Westbrook did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
His performance didn’t do much good—in just three days, Charles lost 3 million YouTube followers. Jeffree Star, a volatile internet personality and makeup mogul himself, tweeted that Charles was a “danger to society.”
The pop singer Zara Larsson joined in, writing on Twitter that Charles had sent DM advances to her boyfriend, even though the markup artist knew of his orientation.
Again, this deluge of drama and Charles' hemorrhaging of followers started over gummy vitamins.
The entire saga is not necessarily unique—the beauty YouTube community has proved itself to be an eruptive, dramatic scene not unlike the most clichéd of teen movie ecosystems.
Last year, the vlogger Laura Lee lost partnerships with Ulta, Diff Eyewear, and Boxy Charm, after sleuths unearthed Lee’s racist tweets from 2012. (Sample: “tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster.. #yourwelcome.)
In March, Kat Von D, who runs a popular vegan beauty line that is sold in Sephora, clarified comments she made last summer surrounding the birth of her first son.
Though Von D had previously claimed that she and her husband had “the intention of raising a vegan child, without vaccinations,” she clarified (sort of) that she is “not an anti-vaxxer.”
“What I am is a first time mother,” Von D said in a YouTube video. “I read everything, from ingredients in food to cleaning supplies and medicine, after doing a bunch of research and reading the ingredients, naturally I experienced some hesitancy [over vaccines].”
She never admitted to vaccinating her child, and went on to say she would keep the medical history of her son a secret.
While she was at it, Von D addressed claims that she was a neo-Nazi. In 2008, TMZ published photos of her autograph below the phrase, “Burn in hell, Jewbag,” with a burning Star of David—Von D insisted the image was forged.
And Jeffree Star, who stoked the Charles drama, seems to exist to either create or advance industry scandals. Despite the fact that he went on camera saying he wanted to pour battery acid on a black woman so it would lighten her complexion, he has racked in around $75 million through his beauty line and various partnerships.
In 2017, Star apologized for his past quotes, saying, “I do not know who that person was. . .the person that said those horrible vile things, that person was depression, that person was just angry at the world, that person felt like they were not accepted, that person was seeking attention.”
Despite his mea culpa, Star has picked Twitter fights with Kim Kardashian, Too Faced Cosmetics founder Jerrod Blandino, Kat von D, and Laura Lee.
The almost Shakespearean nature of these never-ending, slightly incestuous feuds among vloggers is well documented in Reddit threads like “BeautyGuruChatter,” which boasts nearly 98,000 followers.
“Beauty, that specific part of the influencer world, is extremely competitive for everything from who makes the most money to who gets the brand deals,” said Joe Gagliese co-founder of influencer marketing and talent agency Viral Nation. “It’s is a very, very flush space, and there are so many people in that category. It’s a mixture of a popularity contest with a little bit of jealousy.”
Beca Alexander, president of Socialyte, another influencer talent agency, said that because YouTubers share every aspect of their life with fans, it is easy for conflict to “become personal very quickly.”
“The larger the persona and personality, the more engagement they will receive from their audience, and that lends itself to easily created drama,” Alexander added.
Austen Tosone, a fashion and beauty content creator who previously worked on staff at Nylon and Interview magazines, also believes that it is hard for these digital entrepreneurs to separate their personal and professional lives.
“As an influencer, you are your business,” Tosone wrote in an email. “In this fight, Tati interpreted James supporting a direct competitor of her brand not just as a loss of potential customers, but as a personal affront from someone she considered a friend.”
For David Ruff, a 17 year-old New York high school student and lifestyle influencer, these battles battles are personal squabbles that become public due to the medium’s confessional nature.
“This doesn’t have to do with beauty influencers, this has to do with the fact that people are constantly getting betrayed,” Ruff said over the phone, during his lunch period.
Ruff, who has partnered with brands like Soul Cycle and Sephora, believes the influencer world can get toxic. “People use each other to get ahead,” he said. “They’re really nice to your face, offer to meet up for coffee sometimes, and then it never happens.”
“I do think a lot of people use beauty YouTube [BeauTube?] as background music when they’re getting ready,” said Rachel Nussbaum, a freelance beauty journalist. “They just want some background level entertainment where they can space out and come back and not have missed anything. I think that dynamic does tend to favor people who are drama queens.”
Madison Russell, a writer and editor based in New York, remains unfazed by the controversy. “There is a certain element of posting your life on the internet, a job requirement for bloggers or vloggers, that often attracts a particular personality type,” she said. “In applications for reality TV shows, there are prodding questions like, ‘What do you do in times of friend controversy?’ Most likely, the person who replies with, ‘Freak out and throw things,’ will be hired.”
Those who consider makeup to be an art form might chalk this moodiness up to artistic temperament; anyone who doubts the validity of “influencing” as a career path probably chalks it up to bad behavior.
However these antics are interpreted, after an initial uproar, consequences rarely stick.
“We don’t think these scandals are career-ending,” Alexander said. “But I don’t believe we have seen this type of follower decline before as we have with James Charles. We can only compare it to Harvey Weinstein, where one person finally spoke out, giving voice to many others and causing a domino effect.”
Alexander added, “Charles is very young and became very rich very fast. That typically comes with an unfortunate downfall.”
It may feel like no one wins in these kinds of episodes, but that is not entire true. As Viral Nation founder Gagliese said, “For a brand like Sugar Bear Hair, it’s good for them to be caught up in this, because now everyone is writing about their gummy products.”