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25 February 2016

Sam Pepper, Dapper Laughs and the art of the internet apology

The vlogger has hidden his videos and released a video revealing that his controversial pranks were faked. But is this just a ploy to save his career?

By Barbara Speed

Sam Pepper is an enormously successful British YouTuber who eventually went too far. In December, Pepper released a video in which he pretends to kidnap and kill fellow YouTuber Colby Brock in front of Brock’s vlogging partner, Sam Golbach.

The video, along with allegations of sexual assault and harassment from several women, sparked petitions for him to leave the site, and now, a few months later, he seems to have all but done so.

Earlier this week, he made all the videos on his channel private and deleted all his tweets, leaving only a single one reading  “i give up”.

But it looks like Pepper isn’t gone for good. In a video posted yesterday, he explains that from now on, he’s going to make videos which “represent me” and are “real and honest”.

He explains that many of his videos, including one in which he approaches women and grabs their bums using a fake hand, were faked, and apologises to his fans: “No more pranks, no more stupid videos.”

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In Pepper’s narrative, the backlash against videos in which he appears to harass women turned the tide of public approval. He claims he began faking pranks to “get views” and “make money” when other, competing prank accounts did the same. It was his falling viewer numbers, he says, which made him think the “killing best friend” prank was necessary to get more attention to his channel.

Much more problematically, Pepper also claims that the real-life accusations of harassment and sexual assault against him came out of the anger surrounding these videos. Following the fake hand video, he says, “stories were coming out, people were saying Sam’s done this Sam’s done that, to the point of people saying I raped them”. (At least one of these women has taken her accusations to the police.)

Beneath its rambling, unfiltered façade, the video actually seems a little sly. In tone, and even in costume, it’s a mirror of the Newsnight of appearance of Daniel O’Reilly, the comedian who used the appearance to distance himself from his onstage, rape joke-cracking persona, Dapper Laughs. Both men wear dark, sombre tops with carefully coiffed hair. Both take full responsibility for the fact that the public didn’t get or appreciate their joke – but never stray from the narrative that their pranks and jokes were simply meant to be funny, not offensive. 

Image: BBC.

Both seem to argue, wide-eyed, that they had no idea they lived in a world where people would condone rape or randomly grab women in the street. They are so against rape and assault, they argue, that the fact they could appear to be taking it lightly never crossed their minds. 

Of videos in which he appears to approach and inappropriately touch women, Pepper says: “Of course I know in real life that I can’t do that and I asked everyone before I did it.” O’Reilly, meanwhile, told Maitlis that, of course, he was satirising the awful men who joke about rape: “I don’t think that. I’m taking the mick out of what I though men would think, do you know what I mean?”  

The real question is whether the parallels between the two will continue. O’Reilly told Maitlis that the Dapper Laughs character was “gone”, but has later made it clear that his apperarance was nothing more than a PR move. As I write, you can buy a DVD of “Dapper Laughs: the Res-Erection LIVE” in all good shops. 

In a recent Reggie Yates documentary, Dapper is seen telling an audience he wanted to yell “Get your gash out!” at Maitlis during his Newsnight interview. Pepper’s video has already spawned the hashtag #ForgiveSam on Twitter. Once he’s forgiven, might he not revert, too?

Pepper’s apology also has parallels with that of another social media star, Essena O’Neill. She was a model and Instagram star who attracted none of the hatred shown towards Pepper, but who explained in a series of Vimeo videos (now removed) that her online persona was fake – her posts were mostly sponsored by brands and she had even been approached to carry out a fake relationship online. In their videos, both stars appear slightly out-of-focus, not looking their best. Neither use the fancy, quick-cut editing favoured by today’s YouTubers (including, usually, Pepper himself).

Here she is in her video “Why I am REALLY quitting social media” (reposted on YouTube by another user, here):

Image: Essena O’Neill.

In their videos, both Pepper and O’Neill seem to genuinely reject their online personas, and seem sick of the pressure that accompanied them. But if you’re even remotely cynical, it’s clear there’s something else going on. Both know, somewhere deep down, that given the rising fakery of social media stars, authenticity will soon be the most effective selling point of all. Pepper has presumably realised that to restore his career, it’s crucial he appear “honest”. Whether he means it or not, it looks like it’s working.