The Feuds, Fights, and Petty Drama That Made James Charles a YouTube Celebrity

The Feuds, Fights, and Petty Drama That Made James Charles a YouTube Celebrity

Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)

James Charles, one of YouTube’s most recognizable personalities, is pregnant. Or at least he is for the span of a 15-minute video posted in February. Pregnant women have cravings, Charles understands, as his best friend Laura Mellado, who is actually pregnant, tells him. Mellado’s craving is Taco Bell, and so the two besties decide to head to the drive-thru. But before cravings can be satisfied, Charles must experience the indignity of putting on shoes while navigating the girth of his (fake) pregnant body. His breathing is heavy as he struggles into his Jordans. Getting into the car is another story; Charles is driving and has to squish his prosthetic pregnancy belly against the steering wheel. Once in line at the drive-thru, another car cuts him off. “HEY, I was here first!” he shrieks. “There are two pregnant people in this car right now and this stupid Tundra 4x4 off-road bro truck just cut us off,” he complains.

Charles orders an unseemly amount of food and apologizes for the order when he pays. “I’m eating for two,” he says through a black surgical mask, as the employee hands him a large paper sack. She laughs. James Charles laughs. He eats Taco Bell. Then Charles prepares for an essential part of the pregnancy experience—a maternity photoshoot staged in front of a low flower wall, a la Beyonce. He sits back on his heels, fully naked except for the prosthetic belly, cradling it beatifically as if he were actually with child. An edited version of the photo appeared on Instagram, the edges of the prosthetic belly smoothed away. Four million people liked it.

Finally, Charles gives birth. Or rather, he lets Mellado’s husband, Victor, hook him up to a TENS machine, place electrodes on his stomach, and slowly crank up the intensity in an attempt to simulate contractions.

“You know how sometimes you have to poop really badly, you start to get cramps?” Charles asks. “That’s what this feels like.” After a few minutes, he relents to the machine. The electrodes come off, the belly is removed and Charles and Mellado wrap it up. “Oh my god, today was absolutely exhausting,” he says. “Please leave us a comment down below you guys, and let us know what you think my baby’s names should be.”

The video is a marked departure from the James Charles that I have been watching, for some inexplicable reason, since 2017. It’s a classic example of the new Charles, one beholden to the algorithm. Charles started out as a regular beauty YouTuber, focusing on makeup and keeping the antics to a minimum. Now Charles serves up content that exists in the same realm as more traditional YouTubers’ work—prank-adjacent, slightly controversial, sort of funny, with a self-deprecating edge that almost humanizes the person behind it. But what has always made Charles so compelling to watch is his energy—frenetic, hyper, and tempered with a hint of desperation that is both appealing and repugnant.

That very energy is arguably what propelled him to fame, and it is this energy that has kept me paying attention, even though I’m arguably older than his target demographic. But ultimately my fascination with Charles is about the space he occupies in the fame cycle, where fame is now the result of a volatile concoction of personality, gumption, and the willingness to step in a mess of one’s own making, time and time again.

Despite his massive following on YouTube, where he currently boasts over 24 million subscribers, Charles is definitively a Who in the parlance of the popular podcast, Who Weekly, which is dedicated to parsing the complex delineation between traditional and contemporary notions of celebrity. (All YouTubers are Whos.) But in the world of microfame on Youtube, he is a Them. His first YouTube video was posted in March 2016, and five years later, he is practically a seasoned veteran, with a career littered with plenty of mistakes and controversies. Those range in seriousness from minor-league internecine YouTube drama to allegations of grooming minors, the most recent of which occurred at the end of March, when a TikTok user claiming to be 15 claimed that Charles slid into his DMs and solicited nudes, prompting a by-the-books apology video from Charles, ripped straight from the celebrity apology playbook. But these scandals have done little to harm to his personal brand, instead they have propelled him further towards fame. That’s because Charles’s brand—the energy and the personality that made him a YouTube Them—is fueled by dramas both big and small.

Some stars are born, destined to be famous by dint of talent or circumstance, but for most, becoming famous takes work. Charles has always courted the spotlight. In 2016, Buzzfeed published an article about Charles, then an unknown teen with a tendency toward being extra, for retaking his senior photo with a ring light. “I brought a ring light with me because my makeup looked really, really, really bad in the lighting,” Charles told me when we spoke in 2018, for an article about authenticity on YouTube that was never published. “It sort of went viral. I was contacted by CoverGirl and became the first male CoverGirl. That’s what skyrocketed everything.” Charles’s story is the perfect encapsulation of the kind of content you can expect to see on his channel; he has a flair for the dramatic cut with a hint of self-deprecation, underlying a bit of melancholy. Being a famous person famous for nothing can be lonely. But Charles has used this skill—his combination of charisma and relatability, plus a dash of aspirational lifestyle content—to continue his journey to fame.

Initially, Charles was lumped together with the rising tide of boy makeup gurus on YouTube circa 2016, like Patrick Starr, MannyMUA, Bretman Rock, and Alannized. Charles said he got into makeup because of the artistry, citing RuPaul’s Drag Race as an inspiration in a 2016 Marie Claire article. But the fame found through Instagram, where Charles’s earliest work is very much artistic and creative, and less trend-focused and steeped in the strange vocabulary of YouTube, was not quite enough. When I spoke to Charles in 2018, he said that makeup was just an easy point of entry into another sort of fame, one that he was still crafting for himself. “I want people to know me for me,” he said. “Just to be known as James Charles, who happens to be really good at doing makeup. So hopefully by the time YouTube is gone, I have established myself as a celebrity, but I guess as a personality rather than a makeup artist.”

It’s remarkable to watch Charles operate so freely, with no filter and seemingly little to no second thought about what the right thing to say or do actually is. It’s practically endearing. Charles’s diction is rapid-fire and garbled at times, as if he is swallowing his words at both the beginning and the end of each sentence. Fans of Charles are not fans, but “sisters,” which is also the name of his apparel brand. His vocabulary is a nightmarish mashup of slang and catchphrases sprung from the fertile depths of his own mind. A 2019 video, “Doing My Makeup in Alphabetical Order,” lays out what he refers to as his “Sister Dictionary.” While some of the words in that dictionary are regular words most people use in normal life, Charles ignited a brief controversy for claiming ownership of words and phrases used primarily in drag culture and the LGBTQ community, too.

Aside from his personal vernacular, which for most people above a certain age is a deterrent, Charles presents like a good person who loves his parents and his brother, Ian. Charles’s parents appear very supportive of their son’s pivot to YouTube star, and have made appearances in his videos, like this one where he teaches them how to do TikTok dances. In what I feel is a very fair trade, Charles accompanied his father to his job for a day, where he helped him demo a bathroom. To repay his parents for all that they’ve done, Charles paid off the mortgage on their home as a surprise—and also for content. The resulting video made me cry.

Looking at Charles’s output over the past few years, it is easy to track the change in his content. Moving away from makeup videos as his fame increased, Charles focused more on traditional YouTuber-style content, but often with a beauty twist. A recent upload shows Charles “exposing” makeup hacks from the wildly popular YouTube channel, 5 Minute Hacks, which specializes in “hacks” for activities that don’t need to be hacked. Another video, posted in early February finds Charles bald as an egg, pranking Charli D’Amelio, the paparazzi, and his father into thinking that he had really shaved his head. In the latter, though, there’s a hint of vulnerability that’s cloaked in Charles’s standard defense mechanism, which is to come for himself before anyone else has a chance to do so. Losing his hair, he says, is one of his biggest fears. His hair is the center of his confidence, so why not test his personal boundaries by making himself bald?

Charles’s mistakes are often a result of the trait that makes him so approachable and appealing to his fans—he’s learning, in real-time, to think before he speaks. In 2017, Charles tweeted “I can’t believe we’re going to Africa today omg what if we get Ebola?” on the eve of a high school trip. After public outcry, he apologized via Notes App. As his star was rising that year, Charles watched It and tweeted through his feelings about the film, most of which were negative, much to the chagrin of Finn Wolfhard, the star of that movie. He recorded a two-minute-long apology video from the backseat of an Uber, when either ignoring Wolfhard or a simple “I’m sorry” would have sufficed.

As his fanbase increased and his fame grew, Charles picked fights with targets that were arguably bigger and much more influential than he was. In 2018, Charles got into it with Marlena Stell, one of the beauty internet’s original YouTube stars and founder of Makeup Geek, after she tweeted about being in talks with Netflix for a documentary about the beauty industry. When Charles released his very first product, an eyeshadow palette with Morphe, in November 2018, people took issue with the swatches—a bizarre metric that consumers and fans use to judge product quality. (Swatches are created by taking a fingertip full of product and dragging it down the arm to show payoff, color fidelity, and quality. An eyeshadow that does not “swatch” well means nothing about the actual performance of the product.) The integrity of Charles’s swatches was called into question, with accusations flying that Charles was faking the swatches in order to make more money and sell an inferior product. He weathered that particular storm without any real consequences; as his star rose, so did his confidence.

By 2019, Charles was famous enough to attend the fashion world’s biggest event, the Met Gala, dressed head-to-toe in Alexander Wanga moment that was documented in detail on his channel. In the caption accompanying his Instagram post, Charles wrote that attending Anna Wintour’s marquee cool kid event was “such an honor and a step forward in the right direction for influencer representation in the media.” Positioning himself as a member of a group in dire need of representation in the media didn’t sit right with a lot of people, all of whom made the salient point that Charles’s language made it seem like he was a member of a marginalized group fighting for visibility. Charles’s response to this kerfuffle was notable. In an Instagram story addressing the issue, he said, “I knew this was going to happen though… Anytime anything like this ever happens, with an influencer doing something new, people tend to be very up in arms about it, but I can see why.” Displaying an awareness of his own impact was new—a sign that he was finally able to acknowledge the power of his platform, and also, understand on some level that what he says matters and that people are listening, waiting for a misstep.

Positioning himself as a marginalized group because he is an influencer did not feel entirely calculated, but the Sugar Bear Hair Care vitamin incident of 2019, which found Charles pitted against Tati Westbrook, in an epic battle of ego and influence, sort of did. Parsing the strife is difficult because YouTuber drama is necessarily layered, nuanced, and fast-moving, beholden to alliances that are ever-changing. For this drama between Charles and his former mentor to blow up into a months-long ordeal indicates just how close Charles was to breaking out of YouTube’s gilded cage of fame and into the general public.

The short of Charles’s fallout with Westbrook, dubbed Drammageddon 2.0, is as follows: Westbrook, an established YouTuber and mentor to Charles, called him out in a video for many transgressions, some of which included Charles allegedly preying on straight men and taking advantage of her generosity as an early supporter. In the wake of the scandal, Charles’s follower count plummeted, a thrill ride that viewers could watch in real-time, while Westbrook’s soared; her legions of followers also attacked Charles online for days. Jeffree Star, another ghoul, came for Charles in a video echoing Westbrook’s allegations. Perhaps realizing her mistake, Westbrook made another video asking her followers to leave Charles alone, even though she had effectively deployed an army of bored teenagers with nothing better to do than to turn Charles’s mentions into shambles.

Later, Charles told his side of the story, in a video entitled “No More Lies,” addressing each and every allegation Westbrook lodged against him, complete with a veritable filing cabinet of screenshots to back his claims. As Dramageddon 2.0 raged on, others accused Charles of preying on straight men, including singer Zara Larsson, who alleged Charles hit on her boyfriend. YouTuber Anthony Amorim claimed that he saw Charles try to force one of his “intoxicated straight” friends to cuddle with him in a hotel room. These sorts of secondhand allegations lodged against Charles are all similar, featuring Charles “preying” on straight men, stoking the flames of the gay panic fire lit by Westbrook.

Star, who had inserted himself into drama where he did not need to, released a video that was nothing more than an attempt to cover his own ass for his involvement in the first place. When Star entered the conversation in 2019, he added more fuel to the fire, writing in a deleted tweet, “There is a reason that Nathan banned James Charles from ever coming over to our home again. There’s a reason why I haven’t seen him since @GlamLifeGuru’s birthday in February. He is a danger to society. Everything Tati said is 100% true.” When Charles’s brother, Ian, rose to his kin’s defense, Star doubled down:

Part of Westbrook’s allegations against Charles were that he uses his fame and power to sexually manipulate people—the implication being that Charles, a gay man, is preying on straight men who are not interested, and then wielding his considerable clout as an influencer against them when they reject his advances. Star agreed with Westbrook, perhaps in an attempt to take the heat off of his own alleged behavior. (In October 2020, Star was accused of physical and sexual assault as well as paying $20,000 to two of his accusers for their silence. In December 2020, leaked documents showed that Star paid $45,000 to another accuser in an attempt to prevent the October 2020 story from going to press. Star’s lawyers denied the allegations.)

In May 2019, Gage Gomez, then a 20-year-old Instagram model, claimed in a since-deleted video that Charles had pressured him into sexual circumstances that were non-consensual. Gomez and Charles attended Coachella together, which was the root of Westbrook’s beef with her former mentee. In a statement, Charles said that he and Gomez had been talking for five months prior to their Coachella experience, and while they “held hands” and “slept in the same bed,” he did not pressure Gomez into a sexual situation. Charles admitted to speaking to friends, who alerted him of some “red flags,” including “more serious things like him only holding/kissing me when a celebrity or influencer was around.”

As Charles tells it, Gomez told him that he didn’t have feelings for him, and in an impulsive moment when Charles was “upset” that he ignored the red flags, he called Gomez a con artist on Twitter in response to a fan expressing excitement about his new relationship. “I deleted it, but it was too late,” he wrote. “I take full responsibility for starting this whole mess and have already apologized to this person in private.”

These allegations, or others like it, continued to follow Charles as his career continued to climb. In April 2020, Star appeared on the podcast “Mom’s Basement” armed with an alleged phone recording from someone claiming to be the victim of Charles’s unwanted sexual advances. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna out a victim of James Charles,” Star said on the podcast. “If it’s real, because I don’t know if it’s real, and I’ll go into another room and play it for you.” It’s worth noting that Star never played the recording on air, nor did he disclose any further information about these accusations. This incident led to the slow unraveling of Star’s career, which found his former ally, Westbrook, saying in a video that she had been gaslit by Star and another YouTuber, Shane Dawson, into believing what they said about Charles.

Dramageddon 2.0, which is the easiest way to refer to the mess above, was a turning point for Charles’s notoriety and fame. It seems clearer now in retrospect that Westbrook was likely using her platform to attack a teenager in order to boost her own sales. For a while, that worked. But eventually, as Charles was vindicated in the public eye, his star eclipsed hers. The drama worked to his advantage as was his relentless drive to attach himself to influencers at the peak of their impact in order to further bolster his own.

For a while, Charles ran with a pack of influencers in a loose collective dubbed the Sister Squad, an unholy alliance consisting of Charles, Emma Chamberlain, and the Dolan Twins, two Vine-famous teens who pivoted to YouTube once the app died. Charles aligned himself with these people at the height of their popularity, understanding innately that in collaborating with influencers as powerful as they were, his power would also increase by proxy. Any video featuring the squad would automatically boost views across everyone’s channel, a symbiotic relationship that flourished because it was beneficial to all. For a brief period of time, the Dolan twins and Chamberlain showed up in Charles’s content, but in 2019, around the same time Westbrook was running her smear campaign against Charles, the Sister Squad disbanded for reasons that are still unknown. It could be because Chamberlain made the decision to distance herself from the title of “influencer,” or because one of the straight men Westbrook implicated against Charles was Grayson Dolan. Dolan has never addressed these accusations, though fan edits of Charles “flirting” with Dolan proliferate on YouTube.

Regardless, when Charles’s world seemed to implode in 2019, the Dolans and Chamberlain cut ties. YouTube purports to be a community where every content creator is not a business, but a friend—but at the end of the day, likes and subscribes translate to income. Associating with a content creator embroiled in a scandal as messy as the one Charles endured in 2019 would be career suicide, and the Dolans and Chamberlain recognized this, pulling out in an attempt to save their bottom line.

Unmoored from the protective circle of the Sister Squad, all of whom have kept their noses clean of scandal, Charles continued to make mistakes that read like a celebrity at the dizzying apex of fame, still unaware of their impact. In 2020, #JamesCharlesIsOverParty trended on Twitter after a video of him supposedly saying the n-word while singing along to Saweetie’s “My Type” circulated on Instagram. By now an expert at acting a fool and refuting his behavior, Charles apologized not by issuing an apology, but instead saying that he simply wasn’t stupid enough to use a racial slur in a video that he confidently uploaded to social. The mugshot challenge was yet another misstep from which he bounced back; after posting a photo of himself wearing makeup to look like he’d been the victim of abuse, Charles faced backlash, and explained after taking the photos down that it was in response to a TikTok challenge and that he obviously meant no harm. Various pandemic-related mini-scandals proliferated over the past year, most of which were related to Charles being photographed at large indoor gatherings with other influencers, maskless and living life as if nothing had changed, allowing himself to be photographed by the paparazzi as if he was flaunting his lifestyle instead of at least pretending to empathize with his fans. Charles weathered these storms deftly and, eventually, turned the tables on his previous behavior by acting as savior and guardian angel for TikTok superstars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio when they found themselves in hot water for a video that made them look like picky eaters at best and entitled, whiny brats at worst.

In an episode of their series Dinner With the D’Amelios, Charli and Dixie were served paella valenciana with snails, a dish that caused both of them to pretend to gag. Charles was present for this dinner and had no adverse reaction to what was presented. The uproar in response to the D’Amelios’ reaction was swift and vicious, Charli lost 1 million subscribers in one day as a result, because naked entitlement is ugly in a way that wealthy teenagers whose claim to fame is dancing on TikTok and being thin apparently is not. Charles acted as the elder statesman with years of experience in backlash under his belt, rightfully clarifying that what the viewer was interpreting as candid and real was actually planned, pre-scripted, and just as produced as an episode of reality television.

“What people don’t know with reality television—I hate to break it to you—it’s scripted. It’s planned. You have a story board. Nobody’s going to watch it if its boring, hello! The team was behind the camera telling Dixie to try the snail. She ate the snail, didn’t like the snail, and therefore threw up the snail. And obviously your team was in control of the edit... But that was kept in the video because everyone genuinely thought it was funny.”

Showing how the sausage is made is one thing, but as Maria Sherman noted in her original writeup of the incident, Charles squashed the controversy not by apologizing, but by painting the incident as a teachable moment rather than a fault.

What’s notable about Charles’s response to these lesser dramas is that he bothered to respond at all—a strategy in and of itself. The state of modern celebrity leaves room for the general public to comment on every famous person’s every move and breath. While other, more seasoned celebrities do not respond to every possible slight or misstep, Charles leans into the impulse to apologize almost immediately every time he makes a mistake, as if the speed of his apology will be enough to erase his supposed wrong. Constantly needing to apologize is a surefire way of nullifying any one apology; “sorry” becomes a mollification not for the victim, but for the alleged perpetrator, like crossing an item off a grocery list and moving on. Where constantly apologies do succeed: making news. Whether or not this is part of a master plan, which I do not think actually exists, is one thing; but suffice it to say, it’s certainly generating attention.

But Charles’s tendency towards scandal has now finally led to something that’s an actual problem for his brand and his bottom line. Recently, Charles has been in the news for some more unsavory accusations that fall in line with the allegations of sexual predation that Westbrook dredged up in her beef. In February, a man accused Charles of sending him unsolicited nudes on Snapchat and further pressuring him into uncomfortable and unwanted sexual situations, even after Charles learned that the man in question was 16 years old. Charles denied these allegations in a lengthy statement posted to Twitter, clarifying that the person in question initially sent him “lewd” photos of himself, at which point Charles asked if he was of age. It was only when Charles began to doubt the age of his new suitor that the suitor revealed that he was 16, at which point Charles eventually unfriended him, cutting off contact. “Because of situations like this, instead of taking someone’s word for it, I will now ask to see the ID or passport of every guy I have a conversation with,” Charles wrote. The accuser in this instance has yet to come forward with their side of the story beyond the original TikTok, but the damage was already done.

On April 1, Charles uploaded an apology video, entitled “holding myself accountable.” Over 14 seemingly unscripted minutes, Charles steps into the role of seasoned apologist, stating from the outset that unlike his first entry into the apology canon, “no more lies,” there is no script and no defense. Instead, Charles is going to attempt the sticky work of accountability without leaning into the natural human impulse towards defensiveness—vulnerability as a Hail Mary to save himself from obscurity.

As Charles told his own narrative, while watching the allegations against him unfold, his first reaction was self-defense: gathering the binder of receipts, screenshots, and proof, and then filming another video that would attempt to clear his name. “As I did some self-reflection, I realized that the receipts, the screenshots, and the details really don’t matter because I fucked up,” he said. “And I needed to take accountability for my actions and apologize to the people that were affected by them.”

Charles has seemingly done the work required by society after a celebrity makes a mistake, and after a period of self-reflection, has reached a sad conclusion: “In all other areas of my life—my friends, my business—I like to think of myself as pretty put-together and on top of things,” he says. “And I couldn’t understand why relationships were the outlier... it sucks and is embarrassing to admit this, but I think that I have to. I’m desperate.”

The rest of the video is underscored by this admission and when viewed through the lens of desperation, comes off as not quite pathetic, but definitely very sad. Yes, he has learned now that this “Explore” page on Instagram is not a dating app, and that the people he might find there are just as enamored with his celebrity and his power as they are with him as a person. “The only way to show and prove ‘sorry’ is through action and change,” Charles says. He is taking a break, he says. He is listening and learning. Charles posted his apology on April 1 and has been silent on social media since. His most recent accuser, the 15-year-old whose TikTok prompted the most recent apology video from Charles, has now admitted that the allegations were fabricated. He has apparently apologized to Charles (the accuser’s TikToK is now private), saying that he fabricated the screenshots that seemingly “proved” the inappropriate behavior. “It was fake and it was my stupid, stupid, irresponsible idea to do that, to try and ruin someone’s career and try to gain clout along the way.”

While Charles retreats from the public eye to learn about the depths of his own desperation, YouTube tea channels that exist solely to document influencer drama in minute detail are filling the void. Tea Spill analyzed Charles’s latest apology, poking holes in his arguments by saying, quite plainly, that despite his claims towards “accountability” and self-reflection, he is doing this because he knows it will play well with his audience.

As of right now, Charles’s social media break appears to be ongoing, with no indication from his team or from Charles about when it will end. (Jezebel’s attempts to contact Charles and his team went unanswered.) For all of Charles’s mistakes, he is still unflappable, continuing to upload to the channel (his own) that made him famous with fresh new content for his growing army of Sisters. But part of his allure is his resilience—hardened like a seasoned celebrity used to taking their licks over and over again, only to get back up stronger than before. It’s impressive, especially when you remember that Charles is only 21, and has been “famous” for the majority of his adult life, by choice and also by circumstance. But the fame and the scandals haven’t erased what makes Charles appealing in the first place—those brief flashes of the real person, peeking out from behind the beat mug of James Charles, YouTuber and self-anointed star.

DISCUSSION

By
Mortal Dictata

Can someone honestly explain to me why it is that for decades gay men seem to have some readily accepted godgiven place as the deciders of what women must and mustn’t wear in terms of clothes and makeup as the “perfect look”?

It’s a question I always find myself having whenever this fuckwit’s face, or frankly that of any of what I see as the weird group of gay man youtubers telling impressionable young girls what to do in terms of body image, appears on any newsfeed I have where it’s someone not just repeatedly shown to be a toxic piece of garbage but also when his “look” seems to be so amateurish and terrible as though applied with a trowel that I swear I, a generic guy whose idea of fashion is t-shirts and jeans for all occasions and for beauty just basic bathing each day and then shaving a couple times a week, could probably do a better job applying this stuff.