A spat involving the beauty vlogger James Charles shows that one shouldn’t underestimate the value that authenticity, or at least a performance of it, carries in the influencer marketplace.
On a recent Monday, the beauty influencer James Charles made his way up the pink-carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a first-time attendee of the annual Costume Institute Gala. Charles, a nineteen-year-old who has become known in the past three and a half years for sharing makeup tutorials on his popular and lucrative YouTube channel, was wearing a diaphanous Alexander Wang top, custom-made of scores of safety pins, coupled with a pair of cinched and shiny black trousers. His face was painted and contoured, as it often is, to dramatic effect—his skin matte, his dark eyeliner winged, his lips a deep taupe. Compared with the other celebrities at the Met, like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, Charles was a relative nobody. But among beauty vloggers on YouTube whose followers number millions—many of them Gen Z-ers fluent in the medium—Charles is a superstar.
When he began his career, Charles was an unknown gay teen-ager who dabbled in makeup while living with his parents in a small town in upstate New York. And though his fortunes have risen exponentially since then—he served as the first male spokesmodel for CoverGirl, came out with his own makeup and athleisure collections, and reportedly made millions along the way—his persona, which captivated early fans, has remained unchanged. He refers to his followers as “Sisters” (an epithet that also conveniently serves as the brand name of his clothing line) and continues to affect the sassy, hyper-excitable manner of your ingratiatingly gossipy high-school B.F.F. In a video posted a day after the Met Gala, he breathlessly takes his subscribers, who then numbered over sixteen million, behind the scenes of his preparations for the ball, from the initial invitation (“I am so beyond excited and grateful to tell you that we have been invited to the 2019 Met Gala”) to the car ride to the museum (“I’m so nervous right now, my arm is literally shaking . . . This is a really amazing step forward for YouTubers and the community”) and the event’s aftermath, which he describes while whispering in what looks like a hotel bathroom (“That was so. Much. Fun. Oh, my God, you guys”).
But after the peak came the tumble. On Friday, another hugely popular YouTube influencer named Tati Westbrook (subscriber count: nine and a half million), who, at thirty-seven, is an elder of the community and a mentor to Charles, released a video titled “Bye sister. . . .” In it, Westbrook—an impeccably made-up brunette who, like Charles, streams makeup tutorials—expressed her intention to cut ties with her fellow-influencer. The video begins with an “in happier days”–style montage, showcasing moments in which Westbrook gave her friend support—wearing her Sisters-branded hoodie, shouting out Charles’s YouTube channel, promoting his eyeshadow palette. She then proceeds to give a forty-some-minute blow-by-blow of how Charles hurt her, most notably by refusing to promote Halo Beauty, her beauty-supplement brand (he had said that his followers were too young to be the target audience for a line of vitamins), and then doing a sponsored post for a competing supplement, named, delightfully, SugarBearHair. (In the video, Westbrook also expresses her discomfort at Charles’s alleged attempts to seduce straight men who she said were uninterested in his advances, a claim that Charles himself did not directly counter later in a response, saying only that, in his love life, he has been “involved in many unique and strange situations” and has “learned the hard way about ways I can interact with boys I’m interested in and also ones I should or shouldn’t be talking to.”)
Watching Westbrook’s video, I might have felt boredom (forty-three minutes?), but, instead, I felt the excitement that must overwhelm an anthropologist discovering a lost culture, obscure but oddly fascinating, with its own dramas, alliances, and enmities. Added to this effect was the comedy of the gaping chasm between the flimsiness of the conflict and its melodramatic presentation. Speaking directly to the camera, her hair and skin smooth and gleaming and her legs drawn up to her chest, Westbrook’s tone often seems more appropriate for a bereavement support group than a skirmish kindled by a supplement sponsorship. At one point, she claims that she feels betrayed because she and her husband helped Charles with business decisions for years, without expecting payment in return. “Life will never stop being painful,” she says. “No matter where in the world you are, no matter your circumstances, you are always going to experience heartbreak, and that’s part of being human.” Viewers responded enthusiastically. “Tati is no longer a beauty guru… she’s a freaking legendary life guru,” a fan wrote, in a comment that received a hundred and seventy-four thousand likes. In response, Charles came out with his own YouTube statement, in which he appears weepy and makeup-less, apologizes in vague terms to Westbrook and her husband for “everything I have put you through over the last few weeks,” and promises, in possibly even vaguer terms, to “continue to learn and grow every single day.” (He also said that he didn’t receive any payment for his SugarBearHair promotion and instead did it as a favor to the company; SugarBearHair, he said, had recently given him an artist pass when he felt “unsafe” in the less secure V.I.P. area at the Coachella music festival—the traditional ground zero for influencer drama.)
In an Instagram post from the Met Gala earlier in the week, Charles had written, “Being invited to such an important event like the ball is such an honor and a step forward in the right direction for influencer representation in the media and I am so excited to be a catalyst.” His suggestion that influencers are a marginalized group that deserves affirmative-action-style media attention was justifiably met with derision, but it did evoke the strange, liminal position that they occupy. On the one hand, people like Charles and Westbrook—so-called civilians who have amassed millions of followers through a combination of relentless vlogging and a savvily fashioned persona—now wield enormous financial power by using their accounts to promote brands. (One report predicts that the influencer economy will be worth ten billion dollars by 2020; Instagram recently partnered with several prominent influencers to test out a program that would enable direct sales on the social-media platform.) On the other hand, influencers’ power relies on their relatability. (“I want to show you guys that, no matter who you are, you can make it,” Westbrook says, feelingly, toward the end of her “Bye sister . . .” video. “I had freaking nothing, nothing, when I started out.”) Traditional celebrities serve as powerful marketing tools precisely because, though we are enticed by the fantasy that they offer, we understand that we could never really be like them. With influencers, conversely, it feels like, with a little help and a little of their product, we could be. Influencers: they’re just like us.
An influencer is, by definition, a creature of commerce. Unlike with a traditional celebrity, there is no creative project necessary to back up the shilling of products (say, a movie franchise used to promote merchandise)—the shilling is the project. But, paradoxically, the commercial sway that influencers hold over their fans depends on their distinctive authenticity: the sense that they are just ordinary people who happen to be recommending a product that they enjoy. Charles’s sin, according to Westbrook, was trading their friendship for lucre (or at least a Coachella pass). “My relationship with James Charles is not transactional,” Westbrook says in her video. “I have not asked him for a penny, I have never been on his Instagram.” Railing against Charles’s SugarBearHair sponsored post, she continues, “You say you don’t like the brand. You say that you’re the realest, that you can’t be bought. Well, you just were.” Later in the video, she takes on a Holden Caulfield-like tone: “You should have walked away. You should have held on to your integrity. You’re a phony.” She, herself, she claims, would never pay anyone to promote her beauty supplement in a sponsored post: “My product is good enough on its own. We’re selling like hot cakes.” Indeed, one shouldn’t underestimate the value that authenticity, or at least a performance of it, carries in the influencer marketplace. Since “Bye sister . . .” was posted, it has been viewed a staggering forty-three million times, and Westbrook has gained three million subscribers. Charles has lost roughly the same number.