YouTube Beauty Community
Westbrook posted a video on May 10 that led to Charles losing millions of subscribers. (Illustration by Jaila Desper, University of Maryland, College Park)

In case you’ve been living under a rock, allow me to break down the James Charles and Tati Westbrook drama that’s currently consuming the internet.

Westbrook and Charles are well-known beauty gurus on YouTube and have been public about their close friendship. Throughout the past couple years, Westbrook has acted as a mentor to 19-year-old Charles, helping him navigate the tricky waters of business, internet fame and adult life in Los Angeles. She and her husband took on a more parental role in Charles’ life, and he would frequently refer to them as “Mom” and “Dad,” both on social media and in everyday interactions. Charles even did Westbrook’s makeup for her wedding.

Recently, that relationship is no more, as a result of a number of issues. Allegedly, there have been many actions leading up to the demise of their friendship. Westbrook claimed that Charles would frequently manipulate straight guys into being with him and often made sexually explicit comments in public. This aligned with another scandal involving Charles, in which he was accused of trying to force a romantic relationship with a smaller social media influencer, who happens to be straight.

The final straw was when Charles posted a sponsored Instagram story video promoting SugarBearHair, a vitamin company that is a direct competitor to Westbrook, who has her own line of supplements. Westbrook stated that she felt betrayed because Charles had previously claimed that he didn’t feel comfortable promoting her brand, Halo Beauty, because he has a young audience and didn’t think it was appropriate to be recommending vitamins to them. But this sponsorship suggests it wasn’t about the age of his followers, but rather about the dollar signs attached.

Westbrook posted a video “exposing” Charles on May 10, and it has already garnered almost 40 million views. She gained millions of subscribers as a result. Charles posted a response video, which has a similar view count, but has instead lost almost 3 million subscribers.

Since then, numerous people have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Charles. There have also been many other videos made, with topics including negative fan encounters, outside opinions about the feud, summaries of the drama and more. People are capitalizing off of the situation to the fullest extent.

The Charles and Westbrook scandal is just the latest in a long history of toxicity in the YouTube beauty community. Not too long ago, similar levels of drama were surrounding Laura Lee, Jeffree Star and Manny MUA. Friendships seem to be based on social climbing and/or convenience rather than genuine, loyal connections. As a result, they form just as quickly as they break.

This trend isn’t specific to just the beauty community, as plenty of other YouTubers are guilty of false friendships and other problematic behaviors that end up making the news (anyone remember Tanacon?). However, it seems to be especially prevalent among beauty gurus.

Charles is still pretty young, but the majority of other popular beauty influencers are in their 20s or 30s, which is, in my opinion, way too old to be publicly fighting on social media. The latest feud demonstrates that the boundary between what should be kept private and what should be shared online is incredibly blurry. Frankly, there’s a lot of money that can be made from scandals.

People that were once friends with Charles, both from within the beauty community and outside it, are now suddenly speaking out against him. Some claim they didn’t say anything earlier because they were afraid of potential repercussions. And, while I’m sure that’s true for some, I also think others are slandering him because it has become the trendy thing to do. Being friends with him is bad for their own images, so they’ve cut him out of their lives. Oh, and then they make a video about all the terrible things he’s done, even though they were best friends a few weeks ago.

None of this is to defend Charles, because he has certainly done some shady things. There’s nothing wrong with being money motivated. However, taking a paycheck from fighting with someone else is questionable at best. It also crosses the line when creators post dishonest content for financial gain. For example, many SugarBearHair products have been proven to not actually work, yet Charles still endorsed them. This is especially problematic for younger viewers who might not do their research before buying a product or asking their parents to buy them a product.

Many people feel a closer connection to YouTubers because they interact more directly with their audience. They also seem more relatable than celebrities. As a result, beauty gurus have huge amounts of influence, and their recommendations are taken very seriously. Hyping up items that they don’t actually use or believe in is incredibly selfish.

The beauty community already glorifies materialism and consumerism just by nature of the subject. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on its own, at least not for everyone. But when you add social climbing, public feuding and money-hungry behaviors, it becomes toxic. Is it too much to ask that beauty gurus just go back to focusing on, I don’t know, beauty?

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