what our fascination with the james charles scandal says about celebrity culture today
Even the most influencer-averse among us have been gripped by the fallout from Tati Westbrook’s viral video.
Image via YouTube
Until three days ago my opinion on James Charles was literally “what’s a James Charles?” Yes, I’d seen the memes, I’d seen the viral DM of him saying “my appearance rate is $50,000/hr, let me know if you need to speak to my manager!”; I’d seen the Coachella outfits that made me, a veritable non-binary fag who’s all for gay rights, literally want to revoke them; and I’d seen his implication that trans men aren’t men and simultaneously wondered why anyone gives a shit about him.
I’d heard of his racism and his alleged sexual harassment of heterosexual men, and I’d also seen him, just a week ago, imply his attendance at the Met Gala was a step forward for influencer representation, before I swiftly vomited all over my marabou dressing gown while watching Death Becomes Her (that’s camp!) But that’s it, really.
It came as no surprise, then, that young Charles has been swiftly cancelled over the last three days, losing somewhere in the region of three million subscribers on YouTube and half a million followers on Instagram, including the support of social media titans the Kardashians and the Jenners, plus Katy Perry (oh well), Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes.
We’d all seen it coming: when you’re a 19-year-old on the internet whose privilege is growing and growing, it’s likely you’ll be cancelled at some point along that journey. That’s a lot of pressure for someone who’s still in their teens, but it’s the responsibility that comes as part of the PR parcel of being Big On The Internet, and if anybody should know the rules it’s those who created them.
But what we didn’t see coming is just how hooked we would all get on watching the demise of this child star, literally wasting a total of 51 minutes of our lives watching the very un-witty, deeply sincere and excruciatingly vapid repartee between two former best friends. Here’s a quick explainer if you're not in the know with beauty YouTube royalty:
So, at Coachella James was getting mobbed by fans (goals tbh), when Sugarbear Hair came to the rescue -- a literal hair vitamin company and thus a big mood -- by offering him security at the festival if he promised to do a post endorsing their brand. The snag is that his best friend and self-appointed “mum” Tati Westbrook has a competing hair vitamin company called XOs, making James’s promotion of Sugarbear Hair the ultimate betrayal in her eyes. So, as YouTubers do, Tati uploaded a forty-fucking-three-minute-long video iconically titled ‘BYE SISTER’ ("Sister" being what fans of Charles call themselves collectively), in which she manages to both say absolutely nothing and absolutely everything. Picking up steam from the second it was published, the video now has over 33 million views. Naturally, James Charles then uploaded a response video which is frankly disrespectfully short in length -- coming in at eight minutes, and simply entitled ‘tati’ -- in which Charles spills crocodile tears over how sorry he is.
And, my god, was it a thrilling ride. Forget Game of Thrones or the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary on Netflix, forget climate change or the anti-abortion bill in Georgia, this is what really matters. Collectively these videos now have over 66 million views, which is the same as the total population of the UK, and comes as a frank reminder of where our culture’s at: petty, time-wasting but deeply gripping.
We were hooked, all of us -- people I respect, like my mum, or a friend of mine who’s a notable academic in labour theory, were in on the drama -- texting wildly, picking sides, creating YouTube accounts just so they could follow and unfollow Charles. I was there too, plugged in and desperate to see a 19-year-old burn, feeling a smug sense of satisfaction as people posted savage memes and videos of Charles’ follower count dropping by thousands a second. But, I ask again, why? Why is it so thrilling to watch someone literally a decade your junior lose everything?
Well it’s a heady mix of a few things. One, of course, is that there’s a part of us that really thinks James Charles deserves it, that he should have everything taken away from him because, after further research, he’s really quite anger-inspiringly irritating. He comes across as vapid and shallow and self-obsessed -- but what did we expect? The internet is a breeding ground for people who make money off literally being a mass of cells who can put makeup on, and if I was that influential at 19, I’d be far worse.
It’s also because Charles is really quite problematic -- it bears repeating -- and so in these moments, when people’s worlds come crashing down, there’s a sense of salty retribution which feels due. But even if James’s fan base of young teenagers comes with its own set of responsibilities, I also did some terrible shit at 19 which I wouldn’t want on the internet. And there’s jealousy in the mix too: I hate to say it, but I also want free stuff just for posting a picture.
In certain online circles, follower counts have become the ultimate sign of success: with the internet increasingly feeling like a phenomenon we have no control over, this kind of demise reminds us that there’s still a moral code online, which offers something reassuring.
And in smaller communities online, I’ve noticed there being a critique of cancel culture: one which describes how unproductive it is in actually making the person who’s done wrong change. Change is an apology cemented by action, and being thrown out into the trash surely won’t prompt that? That’s reassuring, too: because we’ve all cancelled people for doing things we would have merrily, unwittingly done in the past, at an earlier point in our sociopolitical development. But not in the case of Charles, who people seem overjoyed to be cancelling -- most probably because he’s been given the opportunity to change multiple times and doesn’t.
The truth is that very few of us now invested in this online-drama-for-the-ages could give less of a shit about both James and Tati. Literally zero. James’s followers will drop (he's currently lost so many that the equally problematic Jeffree Star is more followed), and Tati’s will rise, and we will all go about our lives of feeling bummed out by not having enough followers, while waiting for people who were once big on Instagram to vanish into dust.
It’s hard to remember that behind these accounts there are actual people who have emotions and feelings and worries and hopes and dreams, and more things going on in their lives than what they present online. After drinking in the drama for three days, I’m feeling both bored of it, a little sorry for Charles (unless he continues to be a racist, transphobic asshole) and with a strange lacuna of meaninglessness sitting in my gut that it took a hair vitamin for people to lose faith in him, and none of the awful stuff he’s done before.
I hope that the world will come to care about more, although next time there’s an influencer feud I’m sure I’ll be watching front and centre; escaping the demise of the world for the more satisfying demise of a teen makeup artist who was given too much power, much too young.