On Friday 10 May, the famed beauty influencer and YouTuber Tati Westbrook published a video titled “Bye Sister”, in which she spilled the tea (an expression that has become a staple of social media parlance but originated in black drag culture) about her friend James Charles. In doing so, Westbrook started what will live on as one of the most confusing and sinister scandals influencer culture has ever undergone.
James Charles, in case you have made the healthy decision to live your life away from constant YouTube chatter, rose to worldwide fame in 2016, when the American cosmetics brand CoverGirl made him its first “cover boy”. Charles himself, who is now 19 years old but was at the time only 16, became a bit of a symbol: he was young, openly gay, and proudly queer in a way that made you want to protect him at all costs.
Over the years, Charles has been accused of many things (including instances of racism and transphobia) which he has apologised for. But none of his previous controversies compare to the deluge unleashed by Westbrook’s 43-minute video.
To give you a quick catch-up – well, as quick as humanly possible, since this story has generated enough content for a six-part Netflix special — Westbrook accused Charles of several things in her initial clip, ranging from disloyalty (because he promoted a brand of vitamins which was a competitor of her own brand) to predatory behaviour (which Charles has since denied). After Westbrook's video went live, Charles lost 3m YouTube subscribers over six days. He was subject to abuse and multiple allegations on social media. To all intents and purposes, he appeared “cancelled”.
But things are rarely ever that simple in the world of YouTube feuds. On 16 May, Westbrook shared a new video, titled “Why I Did it…” in which she tearfully reflected on the scandal, professed her love and friendship for Charles, and admitted that her initial clip attracted much more attention than she had thought it would. Charles, meanwhile, shared an eight-minute apology video on 10 May, then a longer, more detailed clip, in which he refuted Westbrook’s accusations against him, providing screenshots of text messages to back up his explanations.
Westbrook has since taken an apparent dig at the video on Twitter, calling it “littered with so many lies and half-truths”. Still, Charles’s subscribers have been increasing since 16 May, and he has now gained back 1.5m of them. Westbrook, meanwhile, has lost almost 400,000 subscribers since 18 May. Both she and Charles have publicly agreed to put the matter to rest, even though much of it still feels unresolved.
It would seem that the best thing to do is to with the Charles-Westbrook feud is to learn from it and move on. But what (if anything) can we even learn from all of this? That influencer culture is messed up? It certainly is, but we’ve known that for a while. Still, it seems that underneath the layers of drama, a few points need to be made about everything that went wrong during the most sordid YouTube scandal since Logan Paul donned an alien hat and encountered a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. So let's begin at the beginning.
Firstly, James Charles is 19 years old
Whatever you think of the accusations made against Charles by Westbrook, can we all agree that a 37-year-old making an entire video to settle matters with a 19-year-old is at best a bit of a red flag? Charles isn’t even old enough to order a drink in the US. He’s certainly too young to be held accountable in a court of public opinion.
Of course, being 19 doesn’t mean you can’t do any wrong. It does, however, mean that you’re still trying to find yourself and your place in the world. I certainly hope Charles gets some space to do that privately in the future.
Friendships are not transactions
Let’s go back to what started this whole thing for a second. Charles advertised a brand of vitamins on his channel, which happens to be a different brand of vitamins from the one launched by Tati Westbrook. In a normal world, this non-issue would be solved over the course of a five-minute conversation between two people, but no – it became the introduction of a 40-minute takedown. I can’t believe this has to be pointed out, but for what it’s worth: yes, it’s normal to expect friends to support our professional endeavours. No, that doesn’t mean they have a de facto exclusivity contract with you. The idea that I could ever end a personal relationship because a friend promoted someone else’s work fills me with so much existential despair I can’t think about it for too long.
Flirting with a straight man is not a crime
It was hard from the get-go to pin down exactly what Charles was being accused of. Part of it is because the accusations were laid out in a video, one of the least convenient formats ever as far as facts are concerned. Westbrook accused him among other things of trying to “trick a straight man into thinking he’s gay”.
Among the many accusations made against Charles, this one appeared to strike a particular chord on social media. People seemed to vocally agree that a gay man flirting with a straight man was objectionable. Sure, in any context, unwanted attention can be upsetting, and there is certainly a way to go about approaching someone, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. But the idea that this particular situation is bad because the flirter is gay and the flirtee is straight is baseless and reeks of homophobia. It also goes to show how unaccustomed straight men are to being hit on by people they’re not attracted to (in Women’s Land, we call this “just another walk down the street”).
Being an ally means celebrating your queer friends when they struggle and when they thrive
In her second video about Charles, Westbrook said she “loves James Charles” and has done so since the moment she met him. “I don’t know, he was like this underdog kid that everybody took a s*** on,” she said through tears. “That’s how I felt for a long time so I felt like I needed to help him somehow, like I needed to help him like it was helping me.”
Of course there’s nothing wrong with rooting for the underdog. Of course compassion is a quality to be celebrated. Of course supporting someone like James Charles (i.e. a young gay man trying to break into a crowded professional field) is a positive thing.
But if you withdraw that support once that person is thriving (say, someone like James Charles, who now has almost 15m subscribers and scored a spot in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 ranking in 2017), you’re getting allyship all wrong. Being an ally means supporting your friend through all sorts of circumstances – through highs and lows, through failures and successes — and not just when their struggle tugs at your heartstrings.
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