Beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook posted a video that lost fellow YouTuber James Charles three million subscribers, and then asked fans to stop unfollowing him. They listened — and showcased a cycle that defines fan culture on YouTube.
After Westbrook’s plea, fans started re-following Charles in droves, with more than 45,000 people hitting subscribe just one day after her second video went up. That video has more than quadrupled since Charles published his own lengthy video about the situation. He also asked fans to stop spreading hate, but the YouTube community needed to pick a side. Fans acted the only way they knew how: subscribe and unsubscribe.
Westbrook began her beauty vlogging career in 2010, and has spent the last nine years building an impressive fan base — one that doubled in size to more than 10 million this week alone. (She was at 5 million subscribers before the drama.) She’s also known for acting as beauty YouTube’s fairy godmother, helping aspiring artists break into the scene. Charles was one of those artists.
Over the last two years, they’ve collaborated on more than a dozen makeup videos. But on May 10th, Westbrook put up what amounted to a break-up video: she accused Charles of promoting a vitamin brand called Sugar Bear Hair — a direct competitor to her own company, Halo Beauty. After also saying Charles “manipulated straight men into thinking they’re gay,” Westbrook said she didn’t want to be friends or associated with Charles anymore.
Charles promptly lost more than three million subscribers over about 72 hours, an unprecedented number that caught everyone’s attention, on and off YouTube. #JamesCharlesIsOverParty trended. TikTok exploded with videos of people throwing out Charles’ branded makeup palettes. The Kardashians unfollowed him on Instagram.
But on the third day, things began to change. People started re-subscribing to Charles’ channel.
That’s when Westbrook published a second video. She tearfully asked her audience to stop unsubscribing. “This has been way, way, way bigger than I think anyone could have imagined,” she said. “I didn’t think it would get to this magnitude.”
Peace, kindness, and love is the same message Charles pushed in his own 41-minute follow up video. “No More Lies,” a 41-minute video that stars a manicured Charles standing in front of a white wall and addressing the myriad of offenses that caused this spectacle in the first place, was published Saturday afternoon. He uses many of the same techniques as Westbrook. An unkempt version of Charles appears at the beginning of the video. He wants his fans to know how hard and trying this time has been for him. He wants their sympathy. His entire appearance changes when he’s attacking Westbrook for spreading “false information.” He becomes pristine; he wants their support.
Again, it worked. Just one day after Charles’ video defending himself went live, Westbrook has lost close to 200,000 subscribers. He’s gained nearly a million. Two competing videos created the perfect storm for fans, and painted a clear picture of how subscriber growth or loss is often emotionally driven and reactionary.
The relationship between online creators and fans is adoring at best and corrosive at worst. Careers are dependent on fan approval, which can lead to strange behavior.
Because of the direct relationship between fan service and revenue, YouTube creators go further to please fans than traditional celebrities. Controversial Twitch streamer Ice Poseidon will roll through Los Angeles neighborhoods hitting on random women in the most vulgar ways, or throwing out-of-control house parties where chaos is the main objective, just to please fans. Other YouTube personalities report experiencing anxiety, depression, and burnout as a result of trying to upload every day.
YouTube creators form intense bonds with their audiences because of the relentless demand to upload daily and engage them in direct conversation. Some of that is strategic, as Leslie Rasmussen, an assistant professor of communications at Xavier University, told The Verge last September. She published a paper in the Journal of Social Media last year that detailed the relationships between beauty vloggers — like Westbrook and Charles — and their fans.
Vloggers use “we” instead of “I” or “you” to help intensify their relationship, Rasumussen said. They might also come up with nicknames for their community. Charles, for instance, refers to his fans as “sisters,” and starts every video by saying “Hey, sisters.” It makes his audience feel like they’re more than just viewers. They’re his friends and, in the hours since his second video went live, they’ve returned to support him.
But because the fans feel closer to these YouTubers, they also have more intense emotional reactions. So when Westbook posted a video saying she was hurt by Charles, her fans wanted to reassure her and rally support. And, perhaps, Charles’s fans felt personally betrayed.
Intense emotions are good for one thing, though: attention. On YouTube, attention is money. Westbrook’s first video, which includes links to Halo Beauty supplies, has more than 48 million views. Her second video has close to 16 million at time of publish.
Neither of these have ads. That doesn’t matter. Those are huge numbers for Westbrook; usually her videos get about a million views. On top of the more than 60 million views, Westbrook’s subscriber base grew by five million. Any future views from her new subscribers amount to, effectively, a raise.
The financial angle on the drama may be why some prominent YouTubers are questioning Westbrook’s intent. Why did Westbrook air her grievances with Charles in public, wondered Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, one of the most popular and controversial creators on the platform.
Logan Paul, another YouTuber who’s had brushes with notoriety, suggested that unsubscribing from Charles’ feed had become popular because it was popular. “There are going to be a group of 13-year-old girls who go to school, and are like, ‘Did you guys unsubscribe from James? Same,’” Paul said on a recent episode of his podcast, Impaulsive. “And really, if I sat down with any of them and asked, ‘What was the real problem here,’ none of them would have a real answer.”
So while Westbrook’s video is an attempt to stay positive, it can also be read as damage control. Westbrook knows how quickly fans can turn on a creator — after all, she just watched it happen to Charles. So she’s used the main way she can communicate with her fans: her channel.
Even the title of her follow-up video, “Why I did it…” suggests Westbrook is nervous. She says the reaction was “way, way, way bigger than I think anyone could have imagined.”
Westbrook is already teary as the video opens. She takes a breath, and then she begins. For 18 minutes, Westbrook talks about how ugly social media has become since her first video, and how she needs time away. She’s ready to tell fans she’s struggling, but her perfectly manicured fingers and expertly applied makeup suggest she knows people still want to see the Tati Westbrook they know. Tati Westbrook is YouTube’s original beauty queen. Not even the trauma of ending an important friendship will cause a strand of hair to fall out of place. It’s the same formula Charles’ uses in his own lengthy video.
Both videos are edited in places to tighten up their speeches. Using editing to toy with viewers’ emotions is a hallmark of reality shows, for instance. Cherry-picking editing techniques give devoted viewers someone to cheer for and someone to hate; YouTubers have just recycled those methods.
Creators are known for manipulating their audiences using specific editing cuts and over-exaggerated performances, a phenomenon documented by Bobby Burns, a YouTube commentator, in a 2017 video, “How to Emotionally Manipulate Your YouTube Audience.” If a YouTuber needs to talk “about something serious, or make an apology, they do it in an overproduced, overemotional way to get people to watch the video,” Burns pointed out.
But Westbrook may not be intentionally trying to manipulate her fans, says Chris Boutte, host of The Rewired Soul, a channel dedicated to analyzing YouTube drama. Because YouTubers are in such close contact with their audience, Westbrook may simply be responding to what she’s hearing from her community.
And she’s right to try to quell unrest. Westbrook has been criticized by fans on Twitter for filming her new video with lipstick from controversial beauty entrepreneur Jeffree Star in the background. (Star has a history of racist comments, and has been accused of bullying others.) But that’s how closely these fans watch. A lipstick in the background of the video was enough to bring Westbrook’s sincerity and authenticity into question.
“A lot of people just subscribed because of tribal mentality,” Boutte said. “Those same people are going to unsubscribe because they don’t like her content. Tati Westbrook is still Tati Westbrook. They’ll get a notification for a new beauty video when things return to normal and they’ll think, ‘Wait, why am I still subscribed to her?’”