Why the beauty community on YouTube is one of the most turbulent and drama-filled places on the internet
- Over the last two weeks, the beauty community on YouTube has been in meltdown because of feud between three of the platform's biggest creators.
- It's unlikely James Charles, Tati Webrook and Jeffree Star will appear in a video together ever again.
- Beauty YouTube is aggressively competitive and full of big personalities and passionate followers, so it's no surprise they're all constantly at war.
- The mob mentality of followers can be so fierce because they truly believe in the perceived relationship they have with their favourite stars.
- "Do I think James is gonna be the last? 100% not," said brand consultant Brandon Relph. "It's only a matter of time of who's going to be hit next."
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Just two weeks ago, you may have never heard of James Charles and Tati Westbrook. But since a series of exposé YouTube videos and melodramatic Instagram stories propelled them to become household names recently, there's a good chance you now know all about the contentious issue surrounding a vitamin company called Sugar Bear Hair, and how it tore a famous friendship apart.
You also might have a better idea of how turbulent and drama-filled YouTube's beauty sisterhood really is.
Here's what happened
The beauty community went into meltdown on May 10 when Charles advertised Sugar Bear Hair on his Instagram story, which is a rival company to his friend Westbrook's brand Halo Beauty. Westbrook made her grievances about it public, releasing a long video detailing how Charles was backstabbing and manipulative, as well as throwing around several accusations about his alleged inappropriate behaviour around straight men. Jeffree Star, a fellow beauty guru, swiftly got involved and called Charles a "danger to society" and a "predator" in a string of now-deleted tweets.
Charles has told his side of the story in two subsequent videos - one containing a short apology to his friend Westbrook, and one 40-minute take-down of all the rumors spread about him, where he called the allegations "so fake" and "truly disgusting," and made several text conversations public.
Last weekend, the trio agreed to settle their disputes in private. But it's likely the damage is irreparable, and Charles, Star, and Westbrook will never appear in a video all together ever again.
Timing is everything
Brand consultant Brandon Relph dubbed the recent drama "the perfect storm".
"That's why it was so big, because everything hit at just the right time," he told INSIDER. "It hit with the right people, with the right creators, with the right pieces of information - everything hit at a perfect point."
Charles was already receiving negative attention in the press for his tour tickets, which some believed were overpriced at $500 for VIP access, and his somewhat tone-deaf Instagram post where he said his attendance to the Met Gala was "a step forward in the right direction for influencer representation in the media".
Skeptics could say the beauty community timed its takedown of their former friend incredibly well.
"The YouTube world is very competitive, a lot of work, and very profitable if you can gather fans," media psychologist Pamela Rutledge told INSIDER. "Because the hurdle is low for entrants in the market, there is a continual need to keep your fans' attention."
Attention instinctively comes from anything that's unusual or highly emotional, she said, making inter-YouTuber conflict a particularly effective sweetspot.
"YouTube is, in effect, a reality show," she said. "The relationships among influencers add credibility by creating a sense of a world in which they operate and allows them to take advantage of the energy among characters rather than have to generate all the energy themselves."
By creating drama between the characters on the YouTube "show," creators are more or less guaranteed attention and interest from their fans because they expand and twist the narrative. And with that intrigue comes more clicks, views, revenue, and brand deals.
"The Tati and James Charles feud provides an opportunity for fans to take sides based on the intensity of their attachment to each character," Rutledge said. "People love to pull others off pedestals even when they loved them a few minutes ago."
When one star exposes another, it can fall into what's known as "cancel culture," where fans in their hundreds, thousands, or even millions unsubscribe from a YouTuber and criticize their actions on social media. Charles, for instance, lost 3 million subscribers when his notoriety was at its peak, while Westbrook doubled her following from 5 million to 10 million. Charles has now gained the majority back, while Westbrook's traction has slowed.
While the drama can occur anywhere, beauty YouTube seems to be a particularly turbulent area of the internet. Before everything came out about Charles, several other gurus had a fall from grace in 2018, in a period now known as "Dramageddon."
It all started on August 12, when beauty YouTuber Gabriel Zamora tweeted a photo that broke and created many alliances at once.
Fans assumed this was a diss towards Jeffree Star, who had come under fire for using racial slurs thanks to a video uploaded by Thomas Halbert. Zamora further confirmed the photo was a dig when he tweeted back and forth with one of Star's fans, saying "Imagine stanning a racist? I could never." All the tweets have since been deleted.
However, Star posted stories on Snapchat soon afterwards that appeared to debunk the rumors against him, and claimed Halbert was just trying to get attention for his merch line.
"Because he couldn't get what he wanted out of me, he flipped the subject to something that he knew was going to get a lot of attention because it's sensitive, and he made up a full false story to try to harm me," Star said.
Meanwhile, people were rifling through the social media histories of Lee, Dragun, Manny, and Zamora. Tweets were dug up that revealed they weren't in the clear when it came to a problematic past of racial stereotyping.
What happened next was a flurry of apology videos from Zamora, Dragun, Manny, and Lee, directed at both Star and the wider YouTube community. Lee arguably felt the biggest impact with an apology video that is considered one of the worst ever made, and a loss of about 300,000 subscribers in a week.
While "Dramageddon" has all blown over now, the ripples still remain. Zamora briefly made up with Star but the two don't appear to be on speaking terms any more since he took Charles' side in his feud with Westbrook. Dragun also stuck by Charles, recently making some of her private messages public to try and prove his intentions of advertising Sugar Bear Hair were innocent.
heard a situation needed some clarification ?? my friend was in an emergency and texted me in the moment... unfortunately since @dragunbeauty used all of our marketing budget on the ??????????????, i connected him with sugar bear. nothing shady. pic.twitter.com/fNNtMReApm— Mama Dragun (@NikitaDragun) May 14, 2019
The audiences of beauty YouTubers also seem to be particularly prone to mob mentality, which can be shown in the dramatic losses and gains of subscribers in the midst of drama.
For example, at the start of last year, YouTuber Logan Paul uploaded a video of a dead body he found in a forest in Japan. He lost about 80,000 subscribers during the controversy - nowhere near the damage Lee and Charles experienced. Paul gained them all back, and then some, in the months afterwards, and still gets millions of views, despite experiencing an initial drop-off.
Rutledge said herd behaviour can help explain what happens when the public attack those in the beauty community - it's like when drone bees attack to protect the queen. In Westbrook's initial video, the trigger for the attack was the vitamin promotion.
"Her fans rise up in arms, unfollow James Charles, and raise enough stink so that it moves off YouTube into the broader media," Rutledge said. "This may be due in part to the fact that James Charles had achieved a level of success that was giving him exposure beyond YouTube."
YouTubers feel like your friends
Audiences of beauty YouTubers may feel a particularly strong sense of allegiance because of how their videos are set up. The creator spends a lot of time talking to the camera, up close and personal to the screen, while they apply their makeup. This sense of authenticity through speaking directly to the audience creates what is known as a "parasocial relationship."
"In a parasocial relationship, the audience comes to feel that the personality is a friend and they experience the person as if they were in a reciprocal relationship, rather than a one-sided one," said Rutledge. "This experience is amplified in social media where influencers respond to some comments and fans, increasing the illusion of friendship."
Fans then come to their favourite creators' aid during a conflict, or they may unsubscribe and "break up" with them if they feel abandoned (if they disappear), or betrayed (if they do something wrong).
"This tendency to become emotionally attached to influencers occurs from frequent viewing and the brain's natural instincts to interpret virtual as social, such as making eye contact, smiling, and personal disclosure - as it would in person," Rutledge continued. "This is not a pathology, but a normal response."
Without fans, Rutledge added, there is no YouTube star, and many people don't realize how much money the biggest creators are actually making.
Star, for instance, has a whole makeup and clothing line, and also owns Killer Merch, which holds and ships out products made by various other influencers.
In a docuseries with YouTuber Shane Dawson last year, Star said he makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year. In one of his latest videos, you get a taste of it - he shows off his collection of shoes, Birkin bags, and diamonds in a hot pink vault which has its own armed guard.
Charles hasn't reached that level of wealth yet, but with his Morphe makeup line, he's definitely made a good living so far.
"Even if James Charles was to completely resign from doing YouTube anymore, I think he'd have a very cushy life...with the money he has," Relph said. "I don't think he's gonna be struggling financially any time soon."
Making and breaking careers
Despite all of this, according to Jenny Tsai, the founder and CEO of influencer marketing company Wearisma, data shows that past influencer scandals involving racism or mental health have damaged careers, with sponsorships being up to 12% lower following the incident.
For example, Lee's makeup brand's Instagram account "lauraleelosangeles" reaches just 50% of the audience it used to because only smaller influencers tag and share its posts.
Meanwhile, for Paul, while he's seen an increase in social media mentions, there has been a strong decrease in his media value, suggesting his content is not getting the same engagement it once did.
However, with a scandal like English YouTuber Zoella's, where she received criticism for charging £50 (R909) for a basic advent calendar, she now has 4% more sponsorship deals than she had prior to the incident.
"It seems the adage 'all publicity is good publicity' could be true," said Tsai.
"From this data, we would conclude that where influencers themselves are deemed 'inappropriate,' the scandal has a more long-term adverse effect," she added. "Where influencers make questionable commercial decisions on the products they promote, they are more likely to bounce back both in terms of commercial partnerships and their follower counts."
James Charles seems to be the latter, she said, "but whether he'll recover as some of his peers have … only time will tell."
Big personalities mean big bust-ups
If the recent drama has shown us anything, it's that scandals can happen to anyone. Up until a few weeks before the controversies, Star and Charles were talking to each other on social media. Their last collaboration on Charles' channel included Westbrook and was just three months ago. Charles appeared on Star's channel four months ago, where they destroyed makeup made by other creators they'd had issues with.
However, beauty YouTubers also tend to have huge personalities, so it's no surprise they're constantly clashing, making up, and breaking up.
"It's always going to happen, there will always be another scandal," said Relph. "I think there's an element of people wanting to see the big people fail and that sort of contributes to it. Plus people don't keep allegiances for very long."
The higher the stakes, the bigger the battles, so when YouTubers fall out, the impact is usually huge. But all things considered, the drama could all be part of the game they simply have to play.
"Do I think James is gonna be the last? 100% not," Relph said. "It's only a matter of time of who's going to be hit next."
James Charles, Tati Westbrook, Jeffree Star, Manny MUA, Nikita Dragun, Laura Lee, and Gabriel Zamora didn't respond to requests for comment.
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