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How YouTube made Jeffree Star too big to fail

Jeffree Star has a past full of racism and intimidation. So why is he still one of YouTube’s biggest stars?

Jeffree Star at the Sports Illustrated Super Bowl Party in February.
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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.

In a world dominated by the latest releases, the hottest products, and fleeting popularity, the beauty industry has at least one constant: YouTube beauty guru Jeffree Star apologizing for awful, possibly even racist behavior.

Controversy is nothing new for Jeffree Star. This time, in a 10-minute video titled “Doing What’s Right,” Star addresses allegations that he and YouTube mega-influencer and documentarian Shane Dawson manipulated YouTube beauty star Tati Westbrook into lashing out against influencer James Charles last year. Star also takes on assertions that neither he nor Dawson have been held accountable for their on- and off-camera racism and misogyny.

“I didn’t try to take anyone down,” Star says in the video, responding to the latest drama swirling around him and Dawson after Westbrook called them out for their role in her own YouTube scandal. “I’m not a villain in a movie. This isn’t a Netflix series with a crazy storyline. I know it sounds like it, and trust me, I’m sure I’d watch it as well, but this is my real life.

“A lot of things that are happening and being said are false,” he said.

The video has been viewed more than 10 million times since it was posted on July 18.

Star became a controversial figure in the beauty vlogger community and beyond because of moments of racist and misogynistic behavior, behavior he’s admitted to in past videos and public apologies.

This May, he uploaded a video called “Responding to the Backlash Over My ‘Cremated’ Palette”; in May 2019, he posted a similar apology in “Never Doing This Again”; in September 2018, he uploaded “Starting Over ... Should I Make New Friends” (a reference to a racist spat against fellow YouTubers Laura Lee and Manny MUA); and in June 2017, he posted a video titled “Racism.” about his use of racist slurs and at least one specific threat to beat up a female beauty YouTuber.

With other industries in the pop culture sphere finally taking solvent actions against implicit and explicit forms of racism and misogyny, it might suggest Star’s history would excommunicate him from the beauty community and industry.

This time, he’s not only facing accusations of pettiness, backstabbing, and attempting to sabotage James Charles’s career and threats against Tati Westbrook. He’s also apologizing on behalf of Shane Dawson, a YouTuber who has been criticized for past videos that feature Dawson in blackface and making ableist and pedophilia jokes. For any other YouTube beauty guru, or any other celebrity for that matter, being held accountable for racism and alleged inaction on sexual assault would sink them.

While Star’s history is peppered with awful behavior, each incident is accompanied by apologies viewed millions of times. All those views translate into a bank account — that we see in the form of a fleet of sports cars, luxury clothes, a palace, vacations to plush resorts, etc. — that seemingly never feels the stress of the situation. Star’s products constantly sell out, and while there may be fellow influencers who disapprove of the system he’s built for himself, there’s a fear about calling it out.

Star represents a different kind of celebrity, and his power in the beauty community reflects the economics and politics of that world. His latest apology post shows how, despite this massive controversy, his place in it may not ever change.

What Jeffree Star has been accused of

The story behind Star’s latest apology has been brewing for more than a year and represents the culmination of Star’s history on YouTube. It goes back to a specific spat between three immensely popular beauty gurus, who were all at one point considered friends.

In May 2019, Tati Westbrook released a video in which she said that a fellow guru, James Charles, had engaged in inappropriate behavior by using his celebrity to pressure men into sex and used his friendship with Westbrook for personal gain. At the time, Star hopped on Westbrook’s side, saying that he witnessed the alleged appalling behavior.

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

In response, Charles posted a 40-minute video defending himself against the allegations, with screenshots of messages he said served as evidence.

The fight between the three YouTubers (spectators dubbed it “Dramageddon”) is hard to ignore because of the millions of subscribers the trio have between them.

“Businesses who engage with influencers look at view numbers on YouTube, and for Instagram they will look at engagement rate over follower counts (i.e., how many average ‘likes’ and comments per image), as that’s the best way to determine if the account has an active following,” Marcus Stringer, partner manager at Social Blade, a site that compiles and tabulates influencer metrics, told me.

He added, “In terms of YouTube, subscriber counts used to be a measure of scale for channels, but these days it’s more view amounts plus subscribers which you would want to look at as a measure of success.”

The more subscribers and views a YouTuber has, the more money they make off views of their videos, because more brands see their influence as powerful and worth paying for. These stars influence their fans to buy or not buy products, and putting a strike on a fellow YouTuber can damage that person’s credibility and possibly their business model.

“Influencers are appealing because they appear more authentic — even though the videos and images on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram are all [orchestrated] in the ‘social media sensibility,’” Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who studies media issues told Vox, explaining what makes influencers like Star so effective and popular.

“The result is extreme loyalty that is perceived as word of mouth from a friend and not an advertisement. The more successful the influencer, the more likely that recommendations have a monetary benefit to the influencer,” she added.

Star is one of YouTube’s bigger successes, having first amassed a cult following over a decade ago during the Myspace era. He now has more than 17 million YouTube subscribers and a hugely lucrative cosmetics line. He and other beauty gurus on YouTube have essentially disrupted the beauty media industry; instead of old-guard magazines like Vogue, Glamour, and Allure, consumers often turn to YouTubers for their reviews, wear tests, and recommendations. Their influence over their fans is worth a lot of money to brands, which see them as the new way to sell products. Some, like Star, have used their fame to launch their own cosmetics brands.

Before the dustup and in its wake, Star, Charles, and Westbrook parlayed their YouTube fame into very successful personal business ventures, including Westbrook’s eye shadow palettes and beauty tools, Star’s cosmetic line, and Charles’s nationwide tours.

“The only way to make and keep fans is to continue to provide engaging content,” Rutledge told me. “That might be puffed-up lips and a new makeup color or it might be creating inter-influencer drama, such as Jeffree Star, James Charles, and Tati Westbrook. These dramas allow the fans to pick sides and show their allegiance, just like people who paint their faces or wear team jerseys to sporting events.”

Westbrook’s 2019 blowup damaged Charles’s following, causing him to lose millions of subscribers. It was a boon for Westbrook, who enjoyed an initial surge of subscribers but later saw her viewership level off.

Star, meanwhile, leaned into the spectacle in his own way, cultivating a friendship with YouTube documentarian Shane Dawson, who went on to create a seven-episode series last year — “The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star” — about Star’s life and the beauty community. He and Dawson released an eye shadow collection called “Conspiracy” in November 2019. In the documentary series, Star mentions he could make tens of millions of dollars off the launch of a new makeup palette.

Charles, Westbrook, and Star have since moved on from the May 2019 beauty vlogger implosion and kept relatively quiet about its fallout — save for subtleties like not mentioning each other or each other’s products anymore.

That’s why the events of the past few weeks shocked many followers.

On June 30, just over a year after the 2019 meltdown, Westbrook released a 40-minute video titled “BREAKING MY SILENCE,” in which she explained that her fight with Charles last year had actually been the result of Star and Dawson manipulating her.

“I made [the infamous “Bye Sister” video, in which Westbrook accused Charles of inappropriate sexual behavior and using her for personal gain, and which she has since taken down] as a result of all the poisonous lies that were fed to me by Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star,” Westbrook says in her new video. “Believing those lies and letting myself be gaslit into making that video is one of the biggest regrets of my life. The information they were giving me was terrifying. I was told there were a lot of victims that were going to come forward.”

Westbrook says Star was jealous of Charles’s popularity and wanted to sink Charles’s career.

Star and Dawson, according to Westbrook, used Westbrook, her image, and her platform to attack Charles without getting blood on their hands. Star and Dawson have millions of fans and hundreds of millions of YouTube views between them — Dawson’s docuseries about Star amassed tens of millions of views — and it’s not difficult to see why Westbrook might have wanted to be in their good graces.

Westbrook says Star has dirt on other YouTubers that he’s using for blackmail purposes. She also says in the video that she and Charles have made up (Charles seemingly tweeted his support of her and the video) and has evidence of scheming by Star and Dawson, but says she’s following legal advice and cannot reveal it yet.

“However,” she continues, “there will soon come a day where we will be able to present this evidence and you’ll be able to see why it is that we believe Jeffree and Shane are responsible for so much of the damage that has been caused.”

Jeffree Star’s latest apology video is also about Shane Dawson’s cancellation

Parts of Star’s July 18 “Doing What’s Right” video correspond to Westbrook’s “Breaking My Silence” video. Star apologizes to Charles and directly addresses Westbrook’s blackmail assertion and her claims of receiving legal pressure from Star.

“I will not be entertaining it,” Star says. “My lawyers are entertaining it behind the scenes, but I will not be. I know this may sound shocking coming from my mouth, but when you accept that you are the problem, you can become the solution.”

He continues, saying, “We all have to take accountability for our own actions and no one else’s.”

But the video is about much more than his feuds with Tati Westbrook and James Charles.

Over the past couple of months, coinciding with Black Lives Matter protests and marches across the country, there have been reckonings in multiple industries regarding accountability, particularly when it comes to race and gender. These reckonings stem from a variety of controversies, including recipe superstar Alison Roman’s rant against Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo; accounts of toxic culture at the Wing, the women-centered coworking company; the resignations at Bon Appétit; and a flare-up over diversity at the New York Times.

And YouTubers aren’t immune to that same kind of career-damaging backlash.

Last month, Jenna Marbles, a longtime, prominent YouTuber with more than 20 million subscribers, apologized for appearing in blackface and making racist jokes in her past videos. She said that she was going to take a break from the platform to help her process the reaction she received from fans who dug up her older, offensive content.

And Dawson, Star’s friend and ally, faced calls to address his older videos that included racism, anti-Semitism, and jokes about pedophilia. Like Marbles’s videos, Dawson’s offensive content can be found in several of his older videos, as part of an early “shock” persona that he has since moved away from. Viewers expressed dismay at Marbles’s and Dawson’s old videos before, but the number of critics increased in part because of the cultural moment at hand. The backlash also came after Dawson tweeted that he was done with the “beauty community” and its toxic culture.

“The beauty gurus who are ALWAYS involved in scandals are ALL THE F***NG SAME. They are all attention seeking, game playing, egocentric, narcissistic, vengeful, two-faced, ticking time bombs ready to explode. And I’m OVER it,” he wrote in a since-deleted tweet on June 22.

Dawson took down the tweet after facing criticism over his lack of awareness in not only teaming up with the controversy-happy Star for the documentary and collaborations but also for not recognizing how he entered and profited from the community. One could argue, and some gurus did, that a man who’d previously posted racist and ableist videos and then made his way into the beauty community didn’t make it any less toxic or any better.

Dawson apologized, voice cracking and tears welling, in his own apology video, “Taking Accountability” posted on June 26, not long before a different, older video of him pantomiming masturbation to a poster of 11-year-old Willow Smith surfaced. That caught the ire of Willow’s mom, Jada Pinkett Smith:

Companies began cutting ties with Dawson. Target stopped carrying his books after the Smith video surfaced, according to an Insider report from June 29. YouTube suspended ads on Dawson’s videos on June 30, while acknowledging that the content of Dawson’s videos and the attention they were garnering wasn’t acceptable. The Verge reported:

The company told The Verge that in rare but damaging situations like this one, YouTube has a responsibility to protect its creator community and advertisers. Even if a creator’s current content doesn’t violate the company’s guidelines, when past videos are brought to the company’s attention, it has a responsibility to take action. The impact of Dawson’s videos, as well as on and off platform behavior, warranted that action, according to YouTube.

Westbrook’s video of allegations against Dawson and Star was posted the same day.

Because Star accused Charles of predatory behavior in 2019, his response or lack thereof to what was going on with Dawson, his close friend, and Dawson’s offensive Willow Smith video seemed, to his critics, to expose a double standard.

Star’s history is peppered with racist and misogynistic attacks — sometimes against other YouTubers — and then apologizing for them. Recently, after a few of Star’s old tweets resurfaced, he came under fire for what he did or didn’t know about sexual assault allegations against Dahvie Vanity, a musician who toured with Star with the band Blood on the Dance Floor. Star had a live interview on YouTube with To Catch a Predator’s Chris Hansen on April 26 to try to clear his name.

“I know Shane from now. I don’t know Shane from 10 years ago,” Star said in the video, referring to Dawson and the repercussions from Dawson’s videos. “I know the amazing person he is today. And you don’t abandon your friends.”

While Westbrook’s “Breaking My Silence” video reignited the very public, very petty 2019 feud between Star, Westbrook, and Charles, it’s not the sole reason Star is once again in the spotlight. There are definitely juicy bits of backstabbing and Mean Girls-ing worthy of gossip. But the broader issue at hand, as Dawson found out, and what Star is really addressing, is accountability and coming to terms with undeniably serious issues like racism, sexism, and sexual assault.

Jeffree Star’s “apology” used the Black Lives Matter movement as a shield

About halfway into Star’s “Doing What’s Right” video, the tone changes. Star, his face framed with long, straight hair streaked with Sunny D- and fruit punch-hued highlights, asks viewers to really look at themselves. His face narrows. And then he scolds them.

“Right now, outside of our walls, our world is falling apart,” he says. “Breonna Taylor still has no justice. Black trans women are being murdered every day and the news is silent. Elijah McClain has no justice. And the countless other people who are murdered every single day while everyone goes about their business like nothing’s happening.”

Star isn’t wrong; marches and protests are happening in the US daily against injustices and deaths that disproportionately affect Black men and women. But humans are capable of multitudes. People can want the cops who killed Breonna Taylor to be arrested and see Jeffree Star held accountable, too.

Star’s pivot to Black Lives Matter also feels a little hollow given that Star has, in the past, used racist language and verbally attacked women of color. In 2017, he posted a video titled “Racism” in which he apologized for saying “disgusting, vile, nasty, and embarrassing” things.

“I said those horrible things to everyone to get a reaction. I hate the ‘r-word.’ I think it’s so far from who I am but I’ve said things that are racist to women of color and other people so I get it,” he told Allure in June 2017, around the time the video was posted.

In 2018, Black beauty guru Jackie Aina addressed Star’s pattern of racism and controversy, saying she would never work with him or use his cosmetics. Star attacked Aina in 2017, saying she did not pay her taxes and calling her a rat.

“Jeffree Star does not represent those values. I have not and will not excuse his blatantly racist behavior — not his past references to me in derogatory terms, his continued use of the N-word, nor his efforts to eliminate spaces and opportunities for people of color,” she wrote.

Last month, Star’s racist past came up again after pictures of him posing with a Confederate flag resurfaced on forums like Twitter, beauty gossip channels, and Reddit, as did his use of the term “lipstick nazi.” He explained in a June 18 apology that the latter was intended as a Seinfeld reference. And he said that his Confederate flag photo was a “shock” photograph taken more than a decade ago.

“I was asked to be in that photo for shock value because I was ‘gay’ and obviously not what the flag represents,” he wrote. “I was mocking the flag but now see how ugly and wrong it is to be next to it.

The end of the “Doing What’s Right” video betrays Star’s message about more important matters at hand.

After his message about how the deaths of Taylor and McClain and injustice are more important than anything happening in the beauty industry, Star concludes the video by teasing an upcoming August release for his cosmetics line.

“What is next?” he says, smiling. “Jeffree Star Cosmetics will never be slowing down. And I am so excited for everything that is coming in 2020. … What’s coming next is one of my most exciting projects ever and I can’t wait — August is going to be very exciting.”

Is Jeffree Star too big to fail?

This is the frustration with Star: Despite a broader cultural reckoning against racism, misogyny, and sexual misconduct in industries that feel older and more rigid than YouTube, it never feels like Star’s clout or brand is in jeopardy. There’s always another apology, another video that gets tens of millions of views, and another product that’s launching. His success, for better and worse, is the result of having a rabid fan base and powerful reach.

“For somebody, you know, like Jeffree Star, it’s not that there’s like a lack of accountability,” Samantha Ravndahl, a beauty influencer and makeup artist, told me. “It’s that there was never accountability and there was never meant to be accountability. That’s his brand. What’s going on right now, all of this controversy, all this drama ... that is how he built himself.”

Essentially, the constant controversy with Star isn’t a bug but the feature of a system he built.

Influencers and beauty gurus are famous because they speak in a way that traditional media and magazines and editors don’t. They give you “real” opinions, and Star made a name for himself for dispensing his raw, unvarnished opinions. In the same vein, Dawson’s shock persona was the raunchy alternative to the comedy and social media stars that were already out there. The bigger the shock or the more honest the review, the more true they were being to their audience.

“The thought of Will Smith having a conversation with Jada about me? That makes me want to die. My soul would die and leave my body,” Ravndahl said, referencing Pinkett Smith’s tweet about Dawson.

Ravndahl has been one of the few beauty gurus to speak up about Star and Dawson, something that caused her general unease.

“I’m not in any capacity trying to have it out with Jeffree Star — that sounds like my absolute fucking nightmare,” Ravndahl said, explaining that she had been afraid to post a video she made calling out the hypocrisy in Dawson’s beauty community exit.

“At the same time, I’m really frustrated and disappointed and upset with the state of [the beauty] community and that this one person does hold so much power over the top of people. It makes people feel nervous, and it forces people to be bystanders with something we wouldn’t normally be okay with,” she said.

Ravndahl’s words sound similar to stories we’ve heard from the magazine industry and racist editors, or Hollywood and its harassing producers, or the United States’ gymnastics team and its system of abuse, or startups and toxic work environments — people allowing what would otherwise be unacceptable behavior because they feel like they aren’t protected or the environment they’re in wouldn’t support them. And it’s difficult for beauty influencers to speak up against Star considering the clout he wields.

The beauty community that Ravndahl cherishes is an ecosystem of makeup artists and reviewers, which Star’s Machiavellian dramas swallow whole.

There are plenty of gurus and influencers who never touch the astronomic follower count of Star and his cohort. For many, it’s about recreating and sharing a love for the artistry behind makeup and beauty, or finding and sharing a holy grail product.

Those people come with their share of flubs, too. Ravndahl has had her own, including supporting problematic brands. Many of them don’t have the power to bounce back as quickly as Star.

“I’m not fully convinced that everyone’s going to suddenly be held accountable to the same level,” she told me, when asked if she feels the bigger cultural movement of accountability will shift the beauty community. Seeing other industries change “makes me want to believe that maybe the tide will be turning a little bit, but ... in an effort to be pragmatic — is that realistic? I don’t know. I’m not fully convinced.”

On July 20, after his apology video dropped on YouTube, Star posted a photo of himself on Instagram in a Dior suit with the caption “PLAY TIME IS OVER.” It currently has over 986,000 “likes” and counting.

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