inside the world of the internet meta-celebrities you've never heard of
Make a living from spilling the tea on YouTube.
What springs to mind when you hear that someone is “spilling the tea”? A juicy bit of gossip, a little bit of drama. But if you’re part of the YouTube community, you know it means infinitely more.
On YouTube, the tea is everything. It’s the inside information, the gossip, the backstories. Everyone wonders about the tea, and so of course there are channels dedicated just to spilling it. Sometimes called “drama channels”, these are the E! True Hollywood Story of 2018. The TMZ of social media influencers.
As long as there have been celebrities there have been outlets dedicated towards speculating about them - but what sets drama channels apart is the type of celebrity they’re covering. Many influencers live in a strange fame limbo whereby huge swathes of the population have not only never heard of them, but have never even heard of their jobs. At the same time, among YouTube viewers, they’re the pinnacle of success, drawing huge crowds to conventions or live events.
It’s not unusual for YouTubers to be in relationships with each other, or in close-knit friendship groups, which keeps the community feeling insular and exclusive and creates a stronger relationship with their viewers, who feel they are inhabiting the same space as their idols. Nowhere is this truer that the beauty community, which is at the heart of so many of the feuds and controversies. Drama channels also cover other big topics on YouTube, such as the Logan Paul controversy over him filming a suicide victim, or Chris Ingham, the family YouTuber who was accused of sending inappropriate text messages to a teenage girl. But the incestuous, sprawling nature of beauty influencers creates fodder on a whole new level.
Last summer saw the American YouTube beauty community explode with a dramatic feud unprecedented in its scale. It all seemed to stem from one of the biggest names on YouTube, Jeffree Star, falling out with a group of high-profile beauty gurus including Manny MUA and Laura Lee. When Gabriel Zamora posted a group picture of them without Jeffree with the caption “Bitch is bitter because without him we’re doing better”, the internet became convinced it was about Star and two clear factions formed, with Zamora bringing up allegations of racism against him, prompting Star’s fans to uncover similarly problematic posts by Laura Lee and Nikita Dragun (who also appeared in the picture). The original photo was taken down, but that led to a further public feud between Manny MUA and Zamora, who claimed he was pressured into publicly apologising. There were daily updates of leaked messages, allegations of racism, backstabbing, lies, cover-ups and, of course, the drama channels were living for it.
I spoke to Canadian YouTuber Sam, who runs the drama channel Here For The Tea. She has over 400,000 subscribers and models her style on Gossip Girl -- building on her own intrigue by not revealing her face nor any information about herself. Her videos focus solely on the subjects of her investigations.
“Last summer was insanity,” she said. “Those of us who ran drama channels just didn’t sleep -- we were on this around the clock and there was constantly more stuff coming out.” Sam tells me she was in contact with a number of other drama channels and they were all working constantly to try and stay on top of all the possible developments, watching the different platforms where the seeds of drama might be planted to catch it as quickly as possible in case it blew up. This isn’t like typical celebrity reporting -- there are no news wires or press conferences. The drama channels are piecing together the stories from social media snippets which are often deleted immediately afterwards, by looking through Insta Stories frame by frame, using software to determine subscriber counts and work out who’s followed or unfollowed whom and when. Proof of these discoveries are known as “receipts” -- the tea spill term for any form of verifiable evidence, most often in the form of screenshots.
This level of sleuthing can seem laughable for what is ultimately a subculture based around make-up, but drama channels are the only ones holding these influencers accountable. Beauty YouTube has existed for over decade, and when it began it wasn’t seen as a potential career. Now, with brands lavishing gifts and sponsorship deals upon them, and influencers themselves becoming the face of the products they used to objectively review, it can be incredibly difficult for an average user to discern who is reliable and what they can trust.
Hollie Brooks is a freelance journalist who writes about youth culture, but three years ago she was the editor of We The Unicorns, a website which covers YouTuber news. She was an early adopter of the platform, particularly beauty channels. She thinks it was around mid-2016 that drama channels began to gain huge popularity. “YouTube suddenly seemed to change from a friend chatting to you in their bedroom to an area with huge amounts of money.”
YouTubers were increasing living in mansions and showcasing lives that were clearly unattainable to the majority of their viewers. “People became more attuned to the business side of things -- the sponsorships, the affiliate links [whereby YouTubers receive a custom link to a product and are paid a commission for every person who makes a purchase through it]. Suddenly there was a need for authenticity again, and drama channels provided that, while also exposing a side of YouTube we hadn’t seen before,” said Brooks.
The drama channels and their constant “calling out” of influencers has undoubtedly turned the community into a more cautious environment. Influencers seem to feel more accountable and consumers can have a more informed perspective on what they’re watching.
But there’s a fine line between drama channels reporting on influencers and becoming one themselves. John Kuckian perhaps best exemplifies this phenomenon. He runs a UK-based channel and has been making spilling-the-tea videos since the 2016 boom in drama content. Unlike Sam, he shows his face in videos and uses his personality to sell his brand, which has turned him into something of a YouTube celebrity in his own right. With more than 384,000 subscribers, his popularity has surpassed that of some of the YouTubers he comments on, and he has even released his own make-up line as a result. But he has also been at the centre of a number of dramas himself, being accused of plagiarising content and implying that other creators are peadophiles and perverts, which has led to a huge amount of backlash. With drama channels making videos about each other, it can start to feel more like a very public high school feud than a space to hold people with huge amounts of power accountable.
Taylor Jones is the founder and CEO of Hello Management, a talent agency that represents musicians, comedians and influencers. He agrees that certain drama channels can have a positive impact, but thinks there’s a darker side. “Selling drama is always a good way to gain an audience. On one hand these channels can act as moderators, calling out clickbait and underhand tactics, but it can also be perceived as bullying,” he said. Taylor is conscious of the impact influencers have on their younger audience, and discourages his clients from getting involved in any kind of tea-spilling, as he’s concerned it could lead to the normalisation of cyber-bullying.
Another issue facing the drama community is the murky legality of their videos. While many creators focus exclusively on receipts-based factual investigations, a lot of others make videos built on speculation and conjecture. As the stakes get higher it’s not impossible to imagine a high profile lawsuit hitting the genre hard in the near future.
Copyright is a further issue. As Taylor points out, the European Parliament has voted to back Article 13, and assuming it passes into law it could have huge implications for content creators who rely heavily on using other people’s material, such as drama channels which recreate large portions of YouTube videos in order to comment on or react to them. Currently it’s up to the copyright holder to ask for these types of videos to be taken down, but under Article 13, YouTube could be obliged to remove them automatically.
Despite the potential pitfalls, the huge popularity of channels dedicated towards YouTuber drama shows no sign of abating, and drama videos are lucrative. While they can’t always secure the same level of sponsorship deals as traditional influencers, viewers do tend to be more tolerant of ads, allowing Sam from Here For The Tea, for example, to make it her full-time job thanks to the revenues from AdSense alone. While a typical beauty guru may have ads bookending their videos, it’s not unusual to see between two and five ad breaks during a drama video. And as long as there’s a career to be had in exposing YouTubers, there will surely be people eager to get involved.
The genre has its fair share of gossip fluff, but it also holds huge value. Videos that start out reporting on feuds or relationship breakups can end up exposing a creator for not disclosing brand deals for example, or for expressing problematic views which in turn spark conversations around consumer rights or cultural appropriation -- something few people imagine could stem from a world based around getting that smokey eye just right. In the past year alone we’ve seen more influencers than ever become transparent about sponsorships and affiliate links (sometimes seemingly in direct response to a video being made about them) and using their social media channels to address political issues, as Alfie Deyes did after the controversy over his notorious £1 a day video, in which he tried to live below the poverty line for a single day and made comments which seemed to be completely out of touch with the real struggles of those less privileged than him.
In an industry which remains largely self-contained, self-policing is crucial to maintaining standards. This drama and gossip may not always be the most savoury of content on the surface -- it may seem snarky or unkind to the casual viewer -- but as long as YouTube influencers who market themselves primarily to young people remain immune to mainstream media and business scrutiny, they provide a valuable source of accountability to an ecosystem that functions to shield its talent and wall itself off -- and that can only lead to a fairer future for the digital content creation so many of us enjoy.