James Charles and Tati Westbrook Are Rewriting Reality TV For YouTube

Illustration for article titled James Charles and Tati Westbrook Are Rewriting Reality TV For YouTube
Screenshot: YouTube

Over this weekend, James Charles’s beauty empire began to crumble. Fresh off the heels of an appearance at the Met Ball— a moment the beauty guru and YouTuber referred to as important step for “influencer representation” — Charles found himself in a roiling cauldron of drama, that, at first blush felt sort of authentic, but upon closer examination, is likely another plot point in the narrative he has been crafting for himself as a cast member of the culture’s greatest reality television experiment yet—YouTube. As YouTube has aged, the platform has begun to quietly reengineer the mess and the strife that reality television in 2019 lacks, and emerge as the clear successor to the genre, with Charles and co. as its willing guinea pigs.


For the uninitiated who have blessedly kept all news of James Charles and his mentor-turned-enemy Tati Westbrook out of their lives, the gist is as follows: Westbrook, a grand doyenne of the Beauty YouTube community, took Charles under her wing when he was just a fledgling beauty blogger with a penchant for highlighter and guided him through the wild and wooly world of brand sponsorships, contracts, and sudden fame. All Westbrook wanted from Charles was his fealty—to her as a mother figure, and also to her gummy vitamin brand, Halo Beauty. Charles violated that social contract by engaging with a rival gummy vitamin brand, SugarBear Hair in an incident that was apparently due to security concerns at Coachella. Both influencers have released apology videos; Westbrook’s star is on the rise, and Charles’s is rapidly declining.

At face value, the controversy is about loyalty, the most valuable currency in the beauty community. Alliances formed behind the scenes—both with brands and  other YouTubers—theoretically foster “community,” but function mostly as a means of savvy self-promotion. Fealty and betrayal are two of the oldest plot devices, used to great effect on the platform. Much like early reality TV experiments like The Real World, where drama was created by dint of circumstance—seven strangers living in a house—the construction of YouTube is fertile ground for petty disputes writ large. The end game, of course, isn’t ratings or even creating an authentic record of what it’s like to be alive—it’s subscribers, clout, and influence.

The allure of YouTube lies in its accessibility and its ability, as a platform, to provide a Warholian 15 minutes for anyone who wants it. Anyone with a camera and an internet connection can start a channel, like Charles did, but growing it from side hustle to full-time job requires business acumen, video editing skills, and above all, charisma that charms viewers into thinking they’re both friend and fan. According to Westbrook, she is the architect of Charles’s success. Without her, he would be nothing. The moral high ground, to hear her tell it, belongs to her.

This morality play of debt and allegiance is the kind of drama that powers the best kind of reality TV—think of a Real Housewife screaming across a banquet table in Aspen on a ski trip—and it’s the engine that keeps YouTubers running. But while reality TV plot lines are manufactured so much as to seem like actual fiction, YouTube drama retains a messiness that is inherent to authenticity. A savvy viewer can usually predict the results of a reality TV fall out. This clarity is thanks to producers who work tirelessly behind the scenes to create the drama that viewers so crave, and seasoned reality TV vets who are, essentially, poorly trained actors who can nonetheless hit their marks.


No one on YouTube is a professional. YouTubers lack this self awareness because their only guide is the the silent ticker on SocialBlade, a website that analyzes influencer statistics across all social media platforms. Watching subscriber numbers rise and fall is a real-time training in the narrative of drama, which ultimately feeds the kind of monster created by the attention economy.

Authenticity is difficult to mimic—it’s a manufactured form of intimacy that makes a stranger feel like a trusted confidant—but it is what all companies crave. Being real matters; sycophancy pays off, by way of access to product releases and brand relationships. But a constant stream of glowing reviews or model behavior, as any reality show villain knows, isn’t necessarily the kind of authenticity that builds name recognition and a following. That’s in part why YouTube is rife with drama.


Ten years ago, launching a career via social media had a sheen of disrepute. Charles’s earlier videos showcases some of his authentic self—bubbly and a teensy bit earnest— and while that thread runs through his later work, it is clear that at some point along the line, he slipped. Charles, whom I interviewed in 2018, told me that his goal was never to become a beauty guru. “I really started doing makeup because I liked the art behind it, not because I really wanted to be some big beauty guru superstar,” he said.


Part of his success was understanding immediately that the way to leveraging this platform into a viable career was simply by being himself. “I think that to make it in any entertainment industry, especially in the online influencer world, you really have to have a specific type of personality that’s very bright and bubbly and just open in general,” he said. “My brand has been build on being a little bit obnoxious and making a meme out of myself, which I really sell a lot, too.”


And if there’s anything we’ve learned from reality TV, it is that the most compelling, watchable TV is in these nastier parts of being: human-birth, death, breakups, and makeups. Playing up these private agonies for the camera is the “reality” in this contract. Westbrook is now the victim, suffering grievous emotional injury stemming, hilariously, from an endorsement deal involving vitamin gummies and Charles is now the unwitting villain—in it for himself, a master of the grudging apology. He isn’t here to make friends, even though he needs those friends for survival. Thanks to Westbrook’s masterful exposé of Charles’s behavior, whether you believe it or not, he’s the bad guy.

Say what you will about Charles’s particular personal brand, which has now been irrevocably tarnished for the next week or so, but he is game to embrace a joke: when he posted a photo of himself looking like a Victorian ghost in athleisure, Twitter pounced and Flashback Mary was born. Charles turned his memefication into content, in a video that has been viewed over six million times. It’s all in service to controlling the narrative, making lemons out of lemonade.


It’s hard to say how he’ll bounce back from this or if it will even matter to the some 13 million followers who still subscribe to his feed. Consider the ballad of Logan Paul, the blonde YouTuber who wandered into the “Suicide Forest” in Japan, stumbled upon a dead body, and kept the camera rolling. Though he was widely condemned across the internet for this action, he simply disappeared for a month and resurfaced, painting himself as the victim and bemoaning the damage his personal brand sustained in the wake of his scandal.

At this stage in the game, Charles is, for lack of a better word, canceled. Receipts have been proffered, a handful of famous fans have unsubscribed from his channel. Westbrook’s star is on the rise. But if we know anything about the conceit of the reality tv villain, he won’t be gone for long. Redemption, remorse and promises of change will soon come.

Senior Writer, Jezebel



I cannot believe there have been this many stories published about what boils down to two people arguing over gummy vitamins.