The biggest feud in the history of social media influencers started, innocuously and improbably, over a bottle of $43 hair vitamins.
On April 22, global beauty guru Charles James posted praise for SugarBearHair vitamins, later saying it was in return for them offering him security when he felt “threatened” at the Coachella music festival.
CoverGirl’s first male ambassador, James, 19, has made his name and fortune with YouTube videos that tell how to put on eyeshadow. A short video he posted three weeks ago called ‘Making my own Starbucks Pinkity Drinkity’ has been watched over 15 million times.
Still buzzing after the Met Gala on May 6 he wished aloud on Instagram that he wants to be the lightning rod for “influencer representation in the media … so excited to be a catalyst”.
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my first met gala 🥺 thank you so much @youtube for inviting me and @alexanderwangny for dressing me! 💕 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. video coming tomorrow!
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In other words, he wanted more fame than he already had via his YouTube channel subscriber base of 13 million ‘sisters’, as he calls them, mostly under 30s. He wanted mainstream fame – and now he’s found it.
James’ SugarBearHair rap was interpreted by his beauty mentor Tati Westbrook, 37, herself a towering figure in the social media influencer sphere, as a slap in the face she couldn’t ignore.
Westbrook’s Halo Beauty line is a direct competitor to SugarBearHair. Pricked, she turned – of course – to the internet, releasing an emotional 43-minute video on May 10 that slammed “close friend” Charles for betraying her trust.
She also claimed the teenager, who was touring Australia at the time the fuss erupted, had a history of predatory behaviour towards other men.
So huge is the interest in the online beauty industry that the ‘Bye Sister’ video was watched 49.4 million times in its first week.
“If I didn’t make this video, and I didn’t say things publicly, I think I would be feeling worse, “ Westbrook said.
“You don’t get to the success that James Charles has without knowing how to work someone, and I don’t want to be worked.”
The effect was instant, despite Westbrook making a second video calling for “the hate to stop”.
More than three million subscribers including fellow beauty maven Kylie Jenner abandoned Charles, who overnight became the villain of the YouTube community.
But more than seeing Charles bleed fans, the brouhaha also highlighted the tangled ethical issues that are an integral part of sponsored influencing, an industry estimated to be worth around $3 billion.
In the US, home base for both Westbrook and Charles, Federal Trade Commission guidelines have said an influencer is liable for false product claims, but it’s not known how that is enforced.
“Without enforcement, influencers are accused of violating both the guidelines and informal sponsorship code,” Vanity Fair said on May 18, noting neither Halo Beauty supplements or SugarBearHair vitamins have been approved by the FDA or undergone clinical trials.
Charles himself brought up the issue of paid sponsorship in a May 18 41-minute response to Westbrook’s takedown that was watched 13.4 million times in its first 11 hours.
He said he tried to reach out to Westbrook to explain the situation to her and give her a direct apology, “but at this point, I had signed the contract and I absolutely had to post [the endorsement]”.
Praising Westbrook for “taking some of the responsibility for blowing this whole thing up and starting everything,” Charles said, “I think we’re all aware at this point that it has gotten way too far” but that he believes Westbrook never intended for things to “get so vile”.
Saying “this whole situation is a lot bigger than just vitamins,” Charles said he had never used his “fame, money or power” to “get any sexual action from a guy. That is disgusting”.
Fans who had been waiting for him to fight his corner were quick to respond.
“Social media … it’s the worst worst version of high school,” posted one.
Said another, “This whole thing is really stressing people out, like why can’t the beauty community just be a ‘beauty community’, like, u know what I mean?”