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James Charles, Tati Westbrook, and the feud that’s ripping apart YouTube’s beauty community

The feud between two giant stars, explained (for people who don’t follow the YouTube beauty community).

James Charles at the 2019 Met Gala
James Charles at the 2019 Met Gala for “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On May 6, in the afterglow of the Met Gala, YouTube beauty guru James Charles typed out a wish on Instagram. Charles, a hugely successful vlogger who can’t even drink legally yet, wished to be the lightning rod for “influencer representation in the media” — or, in other words, to be more famous, in the traditional platforms of fame, than he already is.

Four days later, fellow beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook granted that wish, but likely not in the way Charles envisioned.

Charles is a 19-year-old vlogging sensation whose subscriber base runs more than 13 million deep. He lives in a strange pocket of fame where he’s relatively unknown to people over the age of 30 but an inescapable peacock of a person to anyone born after 1995. He first found popularity through Instagram, attaining viral success by wearing makeup in a yearbook photo. From there, he blew up on social media and elsewhere, as CoverGirl named him the company’s first male ambassador.

Charles quickly parlayed that into a successful YouTube channel, where he creates makeup looks and vlogs about his personal life for his fans (whom he calls “sisters”). He’s since launched his own merchandise and his own eyeshadow palettes, and now even has his own national tour. His videos, like “FaceTune Battle” and “Why I’m Going to Be Single Forever” regularly rake in more than 5 million views, with some videos reaching 20 million hits. Now he also “sings.” (That’s a generous way of putting it, in our opinion.)

Meanwhile, Westbrook, 37, courts a similar, if smaller, audience. She’s run the GlamLifeGuru channel since 2010, accruing north of 6 million followers with her makeup tips and skin care advice. And though her image and videos skew simple and positive, her beauty-loving viewers are devoted enough to protect their beauty idol at all costs — and powerful enough to deal major damage to Charles overnight.

So when Westbrook uploaded an emotional 43-minute video on May 10 that outlined times when her “close friend” Charles betrayed her trust, the fallout was immediate. It wasn’t just about the interpersonal drama, however — Westbrook stoked even bigger flames by digging into what she claimed was Charles’s predatory behavior toward other men.

“If I didn’t make this video, and I didn’t say things publicly, I think I would be feeling worse, “ she said. “You don’t get to the success that James Charles has without knowing how to work someone, and I don’t want to be worked.”

Since Westbrook released the video, Charles has bled more than 3 million subscribers from his channel and become the villain of the YouTube community. Celebrities and cosmetic brands have symbolically stopped following him in solidarity with Westbrook, and some of his closest friends have publicly dropped him. And more and more men have come out to add to Westbrook’s claims about Charles’s tendency to slide into their DMs, unwanted and unprompted.

This clash has all the makings of a traditional feud and the tale of a friendship gone sour, and that’s part of the attraction. Watching Charles’s follower count drop in real time is like watching a train wreck — it’s hard to look away from this explosive self-ruination, even if you have no ties to YouTube’s beauty community.

But the Charles-Westbrook feud is also as good a look as any into the lucrative ways YouTube works. The platform may reward authenticity and encourage gurus like Charles to open up about their personal lives as well as their work. Yet the YouTube audience can just as easily flip the script and turn on their favorite personality — and decimate not just their public image but their entire livelihood.

The feud between Tati Westbrook and James Charles was over business. Or so we thought.

To understand what prompted Westbrook to call out Charles, and how it damaged Charles to the extent that it has, is to understand the workings of the YouTube beauty vlogger community. Westbrook is the rare YouTube beauty guru who does not take sponsorship money from brands to promote their products on her videos. Though she receives products to review from cosmetic brands’ public relations departments, she has been very adamant about not receiving compensation from them, even including screenshots of email correspondence from brands to prove it. This has been true since she started vlogging in 2011, and has helped account for her popularity and establish her as a trustworthy figure.

Aside from YouTube ad revenue — Westbrook’s videos average around a million views — her income is drawn from her own company, Halo Beauty, a beauty vitamin/supplement brand she launched in 2018. That doctors say beauty supplements aren’t regulated and that there’s no scientific evidence suggesting they actually deliver on their multiple claims is a different article. What’s important here is that Westbrook owns and runs Halo Beauty, and it’s also the only brand she promotes, endorses, and fully stands by.

James Charles, Westbrook’s longtime friend, used to be on the same page. But at this year’s Coachella music festival, which kicked off April 19, Charles dealt her a devastating blow: He filmed an Instagram ad for SugarBear Hair beauty vitamins, a rival to Halo Beauty.

That’s a major diss in the world of sponsored content, especially to one’s friend, and Westbrook noticed. On April 22, she posted multiple, time-limited Instagram stories about feeling let down by an unspecified friend. But it wasn’t difficult for fans following her and Charles to know who she was talking about. (There was precedent here: Westbrook filmed a video in April 2018 about feeling betrayed by another friend and guru, Manny MUA, who had also promoted SugarBear.)

After speculation, some sleuthing fans deduced that Charles was the culprit. It prompted Charles to apologize.

“This weekend, I did an Instagram story for sleep vitamins that I’ve been taking because the brand helped me with security when the crowd around me at Coachella became unsafe,” Charles said in a public apology following Westbrook’s Instagram stories. “I did not accept any money from this post,” he added.

Westbrook didn’t respond immediately. But, goaded by Charles’s actions and a few Snapchat videos from an orbiting YouTuber named Gabriel Zamora who also had beef with Charles, she then uploaded that now-infamous YouTube video on May 10 and accused Charles of sending out a phony apology attempting to save his image.

“It’s embarrassing, and you know that because of things I’ve had to deal with in the past,” she said in her Charles-centric response video. “You sold me out, you threw away our friendship, you lied to me, made up a story, knew this would be embarrassing … I know you’re easily bought.”

Westbrook cited her two-year friendship with Charles, dating back to 2017, and how much she helped his career, to establish Charles’s actions as underhanded. When Charles and Westbrook met, she was already a well-known name in the beauty YouTuber community, while Charles was a 17-year-old fresh on the scene. Westbrook invited Charles to appear in some of her videos, including one where he did her wedding makeup, and in promoting him through her YouTube channel, she helped build his brand. (Westbrook said her husband even offered Charles financial advice.) Westbrook has also appeared in Charles’s videos, as recently as three months ago.

Most importantly, Westbrook maintained that she never did this for the promise of any money. Beauty vloggers and fans are precious about the nature of business relationships on YouTube and elsewhere, as well as ensuring that the people they’re attached to are honest — that they’re not just hanging out because they want to ride each other’s success, but because they are truly friends. So Westbrook’s claims that Charles betrayed her trust were enough to cause a retaliatory stir.

In an attempt at damage control, Charles uploaded an apology video directed at Westbrook.

Though his response has been viewed more than 41 million times, it’s received more than 2.7 million downvotes (compared to around 579,000 upvotes) — likely not the kind of ratio he wanted. Meanwhile, Tati’s channel has bloomed to more than 10 million subscribers, up over 4 million from when she first posted the video.

Tati Westbrook made it about more than money. She blew open a discussion about Charles’s alleged predatory behavior.

Westbrook called Charles’s choice to film a SugarBear ad just the latest in a string of crass, even manipulative behavior. She claimed Charles has a tendency to boast about approaching straight men and then “cracking” their sexuality.

“You’re doing that to have them behave sexually in your favor — even if they’re straight — and you know what, that’s not okay,” she said. “How dare you take that and laugh about it and make meme after meme [jokes like this one] about it.”

While Westbrook doesn’t name names or mention specific instances, it seems she might be referring to Charles’s interactions with a model named Gage Gomez. Charles and Gomez were seen together at the same Coachella where Charles filmed the now-infamous SugarBear ad.

Shortly after they were seen together at the festival, Charles tweeted — without naming Gomez — that a boy he was seeing had essentially conned perks out of him.

“Nope unfortunately i am still very single. this boy played me for months on end and is a disgusting con artist. I’m thankful I had my friends with me to protect me,” Charles tweeted (he has since deleted the tweet.)

After some back-and-forth on social media, in which Gomez indirectly talked about Charles being sexually aggressive toward him, Gomez posted a YouTube video detailing his relationship with Charles. He said that when they met, Charles pursued him despite Gomez insisting that he was straight — and even after Gomez repeatedly rejected Charles’s advances.

“He continued to [insist] that he didn’t know or that he forgot that I told him that I was straight in the beginning,” Gomez said. “I thought it [Coachella] was going to be a good time … there were some points where I guess he was not sure how I was feeling, even though I was telling him the whole time I wasn’t into, I guess you could say, ‘experimenting.’”

The situation Gomez describes doesn’t seem to be unique. In the wake of Westbrook’s video, other men said they’d had similar experiences with Charles making advances on them over Instagram DMs or other social media.

The highest-profile of these statements comes from Jeffree Star, another huge YouTube star turned brand maven whose career and fame long predates Charles’s. In a now-deleted tweet, Star — who is friends with Westbrook and was thought to be friends with Charles — said Charles’s behavior is why he and his boyfriend do not allow Charles in their home.

“There is a reason that Nathan [Star’s boyfriend] has banned James Charles from ever coming over to our home again,” he tweeted. “He is a danger to society. Everything Tati [Westbrook] said is 100% true.”

The accusations against Charles occupy an area of misconduct that our culture doesn’t really have a good grasp on. Charles is accused of using his fame to intimidate and make unwanted passes at men online, which is deplorable but may not be legally punishable. But the inflamed response suggests that Charles has been tried in the court of public opinion — and lost.

James Charles is a walking controversy

Charles has shed 3 million subscribers since Westbrook’s video, some unfollowing because of his perversion of YouTube branded content code — be good to your friends, not your wallet — and others turning against him because of his alleged misbehavior.

But that number might not include the bigger names that no longer wish to associate themselves with the contentious YouTuber. As redditors have pointed out (there’s a meticulously live-updated thread of the latest Twitter and Instagram unfollows), brands like Sephora, Smashbox, Ulta, and Fenty Beauty, and celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Kylie Jenner, and Shawn Mendes have unfollowed Charles on social media in the wake of Westbrook’s video. Losing these celebrity followers shows those celebrities’ fans that they don’t support James; same with brands and clients.

Former fans on social media are taking it even further, destroying their James Charles merchandise and eyeshadow palettes. Charles is now the prominent example of “influencer representation in the media,” but for negative reasons.

He has been a lightning rod for scandal before; in 2017, for example, when he tweeted a racist joke about catching Ebola from Africans while on a flight to Africa, which was met with rightful backlash:

And again late last month, when he announced a nationwide live tour where he will conduct meet-and-greets and “sing”; tickets were going as high as $500, but after backlash and ridicule over the actual value of the event, Charles eventually lowered the VIP ticket prices to $250.

For the most part, though, Charles’s largely teenage fan base has defended their idol. And that’s led to controversy too. In November, for example, Charles launched his first eyeshadow palette and responded defensively to negative reviews. Fans rushed to back him up, lashing out at his critics online through social media messages and comments.

Some of Charles’s fans are standing by him even now, leaving comments on Westbrook’s Instagram and calling her a bully for hating on their favorite YouTuber:

James Charles fans are on Tati Westbrook’s Instagram page.

Charles’s young career has been marked with a pattern of offense and apology, each time with the promise to be better. But it’s been a long two years of controversy. The dramatic distance that other celebrities, and the people who throw money at Charles, are putting between themselves and him indicates that Charles may have crossed a line he can’t uncross.

Becoming an influencer means turning yourself into a brand. James Charles is finding that out the hard way.

What lies at the heart of Charles’s scandals is that he doesn’t view himself as a business beyond, of course, being the shill. His more minor controversies, like the Ebola “joke” and tour prices, already showed a myopic view of how his behavior reflects his brand. But his inability to separate his personal issues and opinions from his business dealings may be because the line is nonexistent.

And that’s due to how YouTubers become famous.

Back in the day, fashion and beauty magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan used to teach the public what was in fashion, what was good to put on our faces, and what we needed to buy to look great. But after the 2008 financial collapse left its mark on consumers as well as advertisers, the growth in democratized platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram rapidly began to disrupt the beauty industry.

Consumers no longer need a magazine to tell them what to purchase, what’s good and what’s skippable. Conversely, no one has to be printed in a magazine to be considered an authority. Beauty gurus — or influencers, as they’ve come to be known — deliver a promise: that they’ll give honest opinions on products, that they won’t be swayed by advertiser dollars (though this has changed over time), and that they’re more like you and me and all the other people watching than some high-paid beauty editor in a glass tower.

But the sell doesn’t stop at beauty products: Beauty gurus themselves have become products.

BeauTubers’ authority is born out of a perception of authenticity, and many gurus underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen. They reveal their darkest secrets, talk about their miscarriages, or detail their plastic surgery. They continually reassure their subscribers that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without them. They ask their subscribers to pick their makeup looks. Some even ask their followers to appear on their channels.

The thought is that since they’re sharing all parts of their lives and ostensibly being completely honest, beauty gurus are being honest about products they endorse or use. Because just like the Kardashians, some of the most powerful influencers in the world, beauty gurus want to sell you intimacy and friendship. It’s in their best interest to be earnest in their vulnerability.

Charles, with his 16 million subscribers (before Westbrook’s video), hit a point where he became more than a guru — hence the “tour” and the overpriced meet-and-greets. His fans adore him as a personality beyond the makeup looks he creates (though they like those too). But the Westbrook feud suggests he lost sight of that.

YouTube’s equation is that subscribing and upvoting becomes an important way to show loyalty and support to a YouTuber, built up by approval of their perceived honesty. Subscribing to a channel is also a tangible way for a vlogger to prove their worth — it’s akin to a valuation, and often comes with the ad revenue to match.

The flip side of that, then, is unsubscribing. In Charles’s case, the mass subscriber exodus was a forceful demonstration against him. Former fans were taking a stand to tell Charles that he was no longer the trustworthy, admirable idol they once thought he was; he was no longer a face they wanted to spend time watching or put money toward. As the numbers fell, so did Charles’s vlogger stock.

And that’s exactly why Westbrook’s video damaged him so much: It was an account from someone who knows him on a personal level, who claimed Charles has a dark side that fans didn’t know existed beneath the jokes and memes. Suddenly, the “friend” they knew, that Tati knew, wasn’t who they thought he was, because he was exposed by his actual, real-life friend (who also appears on his videos). Westbrook called out Charles as someone she couldn’t trust — and 3 million others followed suit.

Tati Westbrook faces backlash for her James Charles video

In the wake of Westbrook’s video and Charles’s subscriber exodus, there has been a second, separate wave of backlash that emerged — this time against Westbrook. Westbrook also acquired critics that asserted that her video was self-serving, and that she made it for personal gain, and not to protect the integrity of beauty vlogging.

The argument is that Westbrook had long excused Charles’s behavior, and only called him out when she felt her business was threatened. Had Charles not made the ad for the rival beauty supplement company, her critics believe, Westbrook would not have made the video. Patricia Bright, a beauty guru from the UK, tweeted out a criticism seemingly directed at Westbrook on May 10, the day Westbrook’s video came out:

There’s also the criticism that Westbrook is relying on predatory stereotypes about gay men to hurt Charles. “By accusing Charles of trying to ‘turn’ straight men, she’s branded herself as a moral crusader — rather than a businesswoman who’s upset that a much younger (queer) upstart undercut her by making his own business deals, and by doing so, refused to kowtow and just play the gay best friend,” Pier Dominguez wrote for Buzzfeed.

Westbrook’s critics also cite her ongoing friendship with Jeffree Star, an astronomically popular beauty guru who has a past peppered with racist and misogynistic scandals and multiple apologies, as indicative of her disingenuous virtue-signaling. Westbrook has defended her friendship with Star despite his inarguably more offensive actions, and she still makes videos using his products.

The question therein is: If Westbrook is so offended by how Charles treated her and takes advantage of his young audience, then why does she continue to support Star? Is it because Star hasn’t filmed a video for Sugar Bear?

Fellow YouTube beauty guru Jackie Aina also weighed in, arguing that there’s a double standard when it comes to white beauty gurus — that Westbrook can maintain friendships with Charles and Star without being judged for still associating with them. And in that same vein, when Westbrook does call personalities like them out out, she gains millions of followers, while non-white gurus who have called out Charles and Star sometimes get attacked.

In the aftermath of her initial video, Westbrook released a teary follow-up that explained why she called out James Charles in the first place. She said that, initially, she thought she was going to lose followers over the video, and did not ever expect anything like Charles’ subscriber exodus, or for the seeming feud to become national news. Without directly addressing the criticisms about her claims, Westbrook opened up about the backlash and reaction from Charles’s fandom, stating that she wants both sides to stop attacking each other.

“I do really want the hate to stop,” she said. “I want the picking sides, and the abusive memes and the language, and all of that, and I really hope on both sides it can stop. That’s not why I made the video.”