How YouTuber beef is taking over celebrity gossip

The James Charles-Tati Westbrook drama was this week's biggest celebrity story. And whether or not you've heard of it, it's a symbol of what celebrity gossip fodder will soon be made of. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Before Friday morning, James Charles was a YouTube prodigy. The 19-year-old make-up artist rose to fame shellacking the faces of Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Demi Levato and several queens off RuPaul’s Drag Race for his rapidly growing social media audience. He has released his own make-up products, walked the Met Gala red carpet and brought Birmingham city centre to a standstill with more than 8,000 fans turning up to meet him. And before last Friday morning, Charles had more than 16 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1.5 billion video views. He was one of the most beloved YouTubers on the platform.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by James Charles (@jamescharles) on

All that changed on 10 May, when one of Charles’s biggest cheerleaders, fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook, uploaded a whopping 43-minute video to YouTube, calling him out as a fraud. Westbrook, a 37-year-old YouTuber, influencer and business owner, promoted Charles well before he was famous, featuring him regularly on her popular channel and even hiring him at 17 to do her wedding make-up. 

While not as popular as Charles, she had just under 6 million YouTube subscribers before uploading her video.Titled “BYE SISTER” – alluding to Charles referring regularly to his fanbase as his “sisters” – Westbrook spends nearly three quarters of an hour explaining why she, after years of promoting him from nobody to millionaire, would be cutting ties with him completely. She cites his newfound egotism, a personal betrayal when he promoted her company’s No 1 competitor, Sugar Bear Hair – and one particularly shocking allegation. While Westwood appears to have wanted the video to focus on the business betrayal, she slips in the claim that Charles was a serial and aggressive sexual harasser. She alleges that he inappropriately harasses straight men (Charles is gay), has done so in her presence (a waiter, at her recent birthday party) and has a history of threatening straight men who reject his sexual advances.

The results of the video have been astonishing. In the first 24 hours after it was uploaded, Charles lost over one million of his subscribers. In three days, he lost over three million. 

Some of his high-profile followers, including Kardashian and Jenner, have since unfollowed and unsubscribed to his various accounts. And over the weekend, several others began to share their stories of his alleged sexual harassment of their straight partners – including the singers Zara Larsson and Olivia O’Brien. Westbrook, in the midst of this, has managed to nearly double her subscriber count. Her following has gone from just over five million to, at the time of writing, nearly ten. 

The “James Charles-Tati drama” is getting coverage on CNN and the BBC, prompting older generations to ask why a story about YouTubers is mainstream news. But YouTube’s dominance in celebrity gossip spaces is only growing, and social media stars are increasingly becoming the most important celebrity names for the under-25s. 

Even in the midst of the James Charles-Tati drama, another YouTuber gossip story emerged when gaming YouTuber Jared Knabenbauer, aka ProJared (who has just under 1 million subscribers), tweeted that he was getting divorced from his wife, Heidi O’Ferrall, another social media star. O’Ferrall responsed by tweeting that her soon-to-be ex-husband was lying about their amicable break-up. She claimed that not only was he cheating on her with another YouTuber, but had been gaslighting her for months about it, proceeding to tag the alleged “sidechick”, Holly Conrad, in her thread. 

While you may not have heard this story either, it is – like the beef between Charles and Westwood – getting mass mainstream coverage. And while it may not have crossed your Twitter timeline, O’Ferrall’s thread alone has been retweeted cumulatively over 17,000 times. 

The James Charles story raises many issues – for one, whether the behaviour of a teenager, exploring his sexuality, should really be the target of a global discussion so toxic it could permanently destroy his career. Westbrook is nearly 40, and is spending her time raining down furious aggression on a teenage boy. Most YouTube stars are incredibly young – some not even teenagers, and perhaps shouldn’t be given this much spotlight in the first place. 

But one thing is true: YouTube celebrities are becoming, simply, celebrities. We should expect more of their internal drama to become fodder for mainstream gossip.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.