I’ve been a bit lax watching my favorite beauty gurus on YouTube lately, but you’d have had to be under a really heavy rock to not hear about the drama between Tati Westbrook and James Charles. Both are big name digital influencers with millions and millions of followers across multiple social media platforms. But as of today, Tati’s up a good 5M subscribers while James is down a good 3M – all because of a single upload.
Let me back into the drama with some context. Tati is a veteran. She’s had her channel since 2010. James has been on since 2015. They met when he DM’d her, expressing his admiration for her channel etc. and a friendship/mentor relationship developed from there.
Or, Tati thought it was a friendship. She gave him advice, plugged him and his various products on her channel on numerous occasions, helped him monetize his channel – significantly – she and her business savvy husband helped him negotiate higher percentages on contracts, he even did her makeup at her wedding. She helped to make him who he is, and she didn’t ask for anything in return.
Now, until recently Tati did videos Monday through Friday, and none of them were sponsored. She didn’t use affiliate codes, I never saw her on any of the influencer trips brands throw for YouTubers, I never saw a sponsored ad on her Instagram feed, and she never attached her name to any brand or product that I’m aware of. She stood by her claim of providing unbiased makeup product reviews. But when Halo took off, she scaled back on the videos to focus on her new business.
In contrast, I know very little about James Charles. I know he likes makeup and seems good at it, he’s gay, he’s a teenager, and he had some firsts with Cover Girl in that context.
A week ago Tati made a video busting the friendship into a million pieces. From what I can gather she did it to protect herself and her brand. But the blowback was greater than even she imagined. She gained 5 million new subscribers as the world picked sides. When the online hate got thick, and James began to lose millions of subscribers, she did another video asking for the hate to stop.
I’ve been subscribed to Tati’s channel for years. I used to watch her every single day. She is just as she describes herself, a little escape from real life into the world of makeup. I haven’t watched her as regularly as I once did. I run a business myself, I like to read, and I like to give my other favorite YouTube favorites – Jackie Aina, Patricia Bright, MakeupShayla – some time and support. But I’ve always admired her work ethic, professionalism and her firm stance on providing unbiased product reviews. I also like how she carries herself. She’s very feminine, and makes an effort to be nice. That’s not always easy.
There’s three things I think anyone can learn from this debacle that has surpassed typical beauty influencer gossip and made its way into the global, mainstream media. In business, especially in a digital-based business:
1. Integrity matters. Tati is known for consistently producing high quality, unsponsored content that people enjoy, and her subscriber base is correspondingly large. It grew organically along with her production value, which is both admirable and respectable. When push came to shove, she was able to speak her truth and stand firm on her reputation.
2. Being nice matters. James is apparently not a nice young man. Liar, user, sexual predator, these are just a few of the descriptors that are now firmly attached to his name. Once Tati opened the door, a floodgate of mistreatment came pouring out as everyone took their turn recounting their tale of bad guy James, and all the while he’s losing “friends” and his subscriber count is dropping.
3. The online world can be a vicious place. If you don’t behave well, sometimes even if you do behave well, you will be punished. People love to call out wrong doing and take up for their online idols. And since the online currency that influencers live off is attention, that punishment could mean your career is canceled – or that your brand is extremely damaged by gossip, drama, and bullshit.
For what it’s worth, I believe Tati. I watched these recent videos, but more telling, I’ve been watching her videos for a long time. These were no different. She was hurt by someone she thought was a friend. When she realized that he’d been using her all along, that he did not value their relationship seemingly at all, and that gossip around him had filtered onto her and was damaging her brand, she did what any businesswoman would do, and she took a risk and stepped up to stem the tide.
Defense doesn’t always work. It worked in this case because Tati had a positive reputation to fall back on. She had years of consistent behavior and high quality content to back up her words. James didn’t. People are used to associating Tati with a high standard of conduct. Him? Well…you see what happened.
When you live life and career in the public eye, it pays to keep it professional, keep it classy and a little do onto others type hype would seriously not go amiss. Even when you trade on your personality for a living – and that personality is spicy – there are lines of decorum that you just shouldn’t cross.
It’s not always easy to know what they are, or what behaviors will set people off. It varies from person to person. What Tati can get away with, I might not be able to – if we were on the same level of online influence, which we are not. But there are definitely limits, and you don’t want your ego to blind you to what those limits are.
Here’s to lessons learned and lives lived better. Oh, and don’t bite the hand that helps to feed you. Good friends and business allies are hard to find. If you have both in one glam, supportive person, hold on to her/him tight.