The “James Charles Scandal” headlines have been coming out hot and heavy over the last week. And while it’s not exactly Watergate, it is an interesting debacle that reveals a troubling trend in the ongoing culture wars, so for all of us outside the YouTube make-up community here’s a quick run down.
James Charles is a “Make-Up Vlogger and Influencer” which means he makes videos and posts photos of himself doing make-up on various social media platforms (namely YouTube and Instagram). He is adored and has millions of followers. One of the ways someone like this makes money is through promoting people’s beauty products, like a celebrity endorsement. He is also 19 years old and openly gay.
Tati Westbrook was a good friend of Charles’ and in the same business (influencer) she is a 37 year old married woman who has her own company. One of the thing she sells is vitamins for “wellness.” Charles even did her make up for her wedding and would regularly hang out with her and her family.
Last week, the scandal hit. Charles dropped a shoutout for a competitor’s vitamin company on his Instagram. This made Westbrook angry as she felt she had supported Charles a lot over the years. Most of us would settle this matter privately, but in a world where all exposure is good exposure, the 37-year-old Westbrook decided that the best course of action would be to post a 43 minute video on her Youtube Channel on the matter, entitled “Bye Sister” (a play on Charles’ catchphrase)
In the video, Westbrook lays out the situation of the vitamin endorsement and how betrayed she felt by it. And then drops a bombshell… that she has also felt that James’s habit of pursuing straight men is “problematic” and she doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore.
It went mega viral being watched by over 53 million people. The fallout has been well documented, James Charles started hemorrhaging subscribers faster than anyone has ever done. His reply video was also watched by 53 million people but it was too late. He lost over 3 million subscribers and Wesbrook gained that many and more. Westbrook had also run adverts on her video, making a tidy profit off it in the meantime.
It seemed for a few days that Charles was the internet’s most hated man with 1000s of memes being made ridiculing him, 100s of video responses and every celebrity with an online presence denouncing him as persona non grata. Not for the “vitamin dishonesty” but for his accused sexual misconduct of pursuing straight men.
But if you look back and think critically about it, the original video was only made because of a business deal gone wrong. It was retribution for a breaking of an unwritten contract between the two. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Westbrook wasn’t the sexual misconduct (that she had witnessed and not spoken about ever) but Charles’ endorsement of a rival product.
The more you look, the worse the situation becomes. It seems to me that Westbrook had obviously kept this information in her back pocket knowing she could enact vengeance on Charles if he ever stepped out of line. Charles had admitted in the video it was an oversight and apologised publicly, but it wasn’t good enough. She knew in the current climate, it only takes a little spark to light the fire of the #MeToo movement. No charges needed, no judge or jury, it just took a 43 minute video to cancel a man.
What’s more worrying though is how people responded. Historically, when women accused someone of sexual misconduct, many people would defend the accused by suggesting that the woman was using it as some sort of revenge for something that has happened between the two. This time though there was little thought about this, even though her main point was the vitamin endorsement, the sexual misconduct came as an aside. A very troubling aside.
That so many people were blind to this is stunning. It’s part of a massive collective disregard for due process, a key tenet of a free society. That so many people didn’t care that Westbrook kept working with Charles, despite knowing about his conduct, and the only reason she went public was because she didn’t want to continue to work with him, is troubling. Presumably, if he had never endorsed the other vitamin product he would have been free to continue hitting on straight guys. Just as long as everyone was still making bank selling “wellness vitamins” to insecure teens.
The whole story is ugly, and for many of us, millionaire influencers arguing over vitamin endorsements sounds like the least relevant thing. But the casual use of sexual misconduct allegations to seek revenge on an LGBT teenager who didn’t “stay loyal” to a 37 year old businesswoman is the new normal–a reality that no sane person ever wanted.
Westbrook is set to make bank for her initial video and additional follow-up video. Charles chose not to monetize his response video, but it’s estimated that he would have made $80,000 if he had monetized it.
And make no mistake, this is all about monetization. In this case it was an appalling monetization of the #MeToo movement. As NBC reports, “the influencer market is projected to be worth $50 billion by 2020 …
In the end, experts think all this drama is mostly just good advertising for all involved.”
The winners of this whole debacle? The influencers and the products they peddle. The losers? Due process and civil society.