Earlier this month, James Charles walked the red carpet of the Met Gala wearing a chain shirt made of safety pins by designer Alexander Wang. It was a privilege reserved for the famous, and he was famous because of YouTube. His immensely popular makeup tutorials had landed him a position as the first male spokesmodel for CoverGirl. At 19, he is capable of shutting down portions of a city as fans flock to see him in a mall. He had amassed more than 16 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Now, in a matter of days, Charles has lost 2.5 million of those subscribers and counting. The reason? A conflict with his mentor, Tati Westbrook, who publicly ended her friendship with Charles in a 45-minute YouTube video posted Friday.
It has been big drama even by the standards of YouTube, where conflict among creators and their fans is a constant churn and careers rise and fall on waves of rivalry, apology and redemption. But the contretemps between Westbrook and Charles stands out not just because of how many people are watching (Westbrook’s friendship-ending video has 36 million views as of this writing; for perspective, about 17.4 million people watched the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones,” according to Nielsen), but also because everybody seems to be on the same page about who is right and wrong. The clarity of Westbrook’s win and Charles’s loss shows how, even as creators raise loyal fan armies who are eager to go to war for them, there are unspoken rules to being a famous YouTuber.
Westbrook’s main accusation has to do with Halo, her line of skin care vitamins. Her video was the culmination of simmering tensions over Charles’s decision to advertise for one of Westbrook’s biggest business competitors, SugarBear, a hair and beauty vitamin brand that advertises with many influencers.
In April, when Charles promoted SugarBear on his Instagram account, Westbrook saw it as a betrayal. She had been established in beauty YouTube when Charles came on the scene a few years ago. Westbrook had promoted him and helped him find representation. Now, it seemed as though he had no loyalty to her. (Charles then apologized, kind of, in another Instagram post. All of these posts have since disappeared, but BuzzFeed published some images of them, if you’re curious.)
Then came Westbrook’s latest video, posted Friday with the title “BYE SISTER...” — a reference to Charles’s frequent use of the word “sisters” in his videos and on his merchandise.
“I wrapped as much love as I could around this kid,” Westbrook, who is 37, says, “more from a parental stance than a best friend stance.” She describes helping him monetize his videos, find better management and weather controversies. “I wanted him to make it,” she says.
She also accuses Charles of using his fame to “manipulate someone’s sexuality” — apparently a reference to an incident in which Charles, who identifies as gay, pursued a straight man.
“Cracking someone’s sexuality is not an escape room,” Westbrook said.
She added: “All of us are somehow forgetting that his audience is made up of 12- to 14-year-olds."
Westbrook’s video was a powerful blow. Charles started hemorrhaging YouTube subscribers. Soon, the 19-year-old beauty icon had posted a video of his own. He appeared without makeup, wearing a hoodie, with a single safety pin hanging from his earlobe.
Apology videos are just as constant as the drama that prompts them in YouTube culture, and Charles’s was a classic of the genre. When a beauty YouTuber apologizes, they wear little to no makeup. They dress casually. They speak quietly. They are raw; they are working to give an impression of authenticity, one that their fans, or those simply smelling the blood in the water, will believe and accept.
Charles gave it his best shot. “Um, I’m sorry for everything that is going on, for everything that I put you through over the past few weeks,” he says, addressing Westbrook and her husband. “I am so disappointed in myself that I ruined a relationship that did mean so much to me.”
He also partially addresses her accusations about pursuing straight men. “I’ve learned the hard way about ways that I can interact with boys that I’m interested in and also ones that I should or shouldn’t be talking to,” Charles says, adding that he “should have been far more careful” when it came to talking about his relationships publicly.
As Charles’s subscriber count continues to tick downward, the many YouTube channels that run on drama have rushed in to capitalize on Westbrook’s victory. Some channels are live-streaming Charles’s shrinking audience. Meanwhile, Westbrook’s subscriber count has been going up.
The rules and rhythms of YouTube celebrity are still being written, but if the disciplining of James Charles has taught us anything, it’s that there are certain unspoken rules that seem to resonate in this world: Don’t betray your friends. Don’t abuse your fame.
The parts of YouTube fandom that live for drama will spend the next days combing though Charles’s old videos and tweets for proof of Westbrook’s accusations, but the most dramatic damage has been done. In addition to the 2.5 million lost subscribers, other YouTubers (including some of his friends) have signaled whose side they are on.
(This post, originally published on May 13, has been updated)