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6 September 2019updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

James Charles, Tati Westbrook and the internet’s insatiable appetite for “tea”

By Amelia Tait

On 10 May 2019, a 37-year-old woman posted a 43-minute YouTube video about her former best friend, a 19-year-old boy. Tati Westbrook and James Charles are two YouTube beauty gurus – make-up artists who have significant followings on the site. In her video, Westbrook alleged that “fame, power and a fat bank account” had changed Charles, and stated that she no longer wanted to be associated with him. In the following days, Charles lost three million of his 16 million subscribers. On Reddit, there were over 88,300 comments about the saga. And after a week, Westbrook’s video had been watched 46 million times. What exactly caused the greatest scandal in YouTube’s history? A £33 bottle of hair vitamins.

You have – although you might not be aware of it – just been sipping on a cup of tea. “Tea”, which comes originally from black drag culture, is slang for gossip – to sip it is to consume drama as a bystander, to spill it is to expose someone else’s business online. Westbrook spilled the tea on Charles because he failed to promote her brand Halo Beauty – which sells hair, skin and nail vitamins – but promoted a competitor, Sugar Bear Hair, in April. She also alleged that Charles, who is gay, had acted in a predatory manner towards straight men.

Yet Charles has now gained back one million subscribers after he shared his side of the story with “receipts” – slang for evidence such as text message screenshots, video recordings and pictures. Charles denied accusations of predatory behaviour and the internet at large now believes him. How is it that a YouTube star can fall so dramatically and rise again so quickly? Why did Charles break the record for the most subscribers lost in 24 hours, and not Logan Paul – the LA-based vlogger who infamously filmed the body of a suicide victim in 2018? The answer is simple: it all lies in the internet’s insatiable appetite for tea.

“When I got into school the next morning everyone had watched it,” says Lily, a 12-year-old from Peckham, south London, of Westbrook’s original video. Lily says that her schoolfriends were angry at Charles, and considered him “cancelled” – slang for the rejection of a celebrity who has fallen out of favour. In recent years, “Tea channels” have become exceptionally popular on YouTube – rather than just consuming famous YouTubers’ videos, fans consume videos about them.

“I find it quite funny and interesting sometimes just to see what’s going on, especially because I’m in a girls’ school so a lot of us follow the beauty influencers and just kind of get caught up,” Lily says. Asked how she’d explain what it’s all about to older generations, she points out that our appetite for scandal is nothing new. “It’s just like when they were younger, if two celebrities that they read about in magazines had a falling out,” she says. “It’s just the people we’re watching – and I guess sometimes looking up to – getting into drama and arguing and fighting.”

It’s lucrative to get into drama and argue and fight. Westbrook gained over four million followers after posting her video. Lily unfollowed Charles after Westbrook’s video, but says she will now wait to see both sides of the story when it comes to future scandals. “I think it can be quite manipulative to take someone down so your career can skyrocket,” she says. “[Tea is] not always true, it’s sometimes just for views or followers.”

Ruby, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Warwickshire, also sheds light on this new type of drama. “Because I like James Charles, people did tease me a little bit, but it was fine,” she says of the scandal’s aftermath. She owns Charles’s £39 eyeshadow palette, which he released with make-up brand Morphe. After his cancellation, many fans smashed his palette publicly on Instagram and YouTube. “I think that was not good because it’s still a really good palette and you paid loads of money for it,” Ruby says. She is troubled by the scale of the scandal and how it affected Charles.

“It’s worrying how many subscribers he lost and how many people bullied him online, because it potentially was cyberbullying,” she says. “They were all judging on something that three people had said and not much proof had been given.”

It’s not just pre-teens who care about the Westbrook/Charles scandal – adults commented on it across the web and nearly every major British publication ran a story. Celebrities such as Kylie Jenner unfollowed Charles, adding fuel to the fire. We now have a disturbing taste for online schadenfreude, gleefully watching as the internet tears people down, regardless of the scale of the transgression. At least in 17th-century witch trials, villagers would bother to go down to the river and check if the accused could float. Nowadays, a single rumour is enough to get us stacking the pyre.

Whether the circles we’re interested in are US beauty gurus or UK politicians, the internet allows us to log in every day to watch another drama unfold. Destruction has been normalised – like vultures, we gather around the corpses of the cancelled and pick at them with abandon. We expect tea every day, and if it isn’t forthcoming, we elevate minor scandals to major incidents.

Lily and Ruby originally followed beauty gurus for make-up tips – neither subscribed to them for drama. Cassie, a 13-year-old from Reading, also watched YouTube videos to see which products she should buy.

“I think this drama was quite stupid and was a ridiculous thing to be arguing about,” she says. “The arguments have no purpose, especially when there are bigger problems in the world like starvation and global warming.” The 13-year-old has one word to sum up the actions of 37-year-old Westbrook and 19-year-old Charles. “I think they were acting immature.” 

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This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake