Nineteen-year-old celebrity makeup sensation James Charles was dispirited but self-reflective when I met him after his Sunrise appearance last Friday. Dozens of his young fans had waited for hours outside of the Channel Seven studios just to catch a glimpse of their idol, but a high-profile romantic rebuff and a developing spat with a fellow YouTube superstar over sponsorships had taken its toll.
Little did the photogenic online phenomenon know, far worse was to come.
James Charles at the Met Gala.Credit:AP
Over the weekend, the highest of Charles' high-profile friendships, that with fellow beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook, came crashing down, splitting their lucrative hordes of followers into two camps.
Chances are if you're over 30 you'll have never of heard of these people and not understand why this is important. Unless, of course, you have a teenage son or daughter who is one of the 36.4 million who follows Charles' social media accounts where he posts online makeup tutorials and interviews with big name celebrities (such as with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea or US media personality Kylie Jenner). To put that number into context: 481,000 watched ABC TV Austalia's Q&A panel program across Australia's five major capital cities on May 6.
Charles is known for helping destigmatise men wearing makeup – he became the first male ambassador for cosmetics brand CoverGirl in 2016 – but the internet sensation's rise to fame has not been met without multiple controversies.
The latest came on Saturday, when his former best friend and mentor Westbrook, 37, uploaded a video called "Bye Sister" (Charles starts every video with his catchphrase "Hey sisters!").
After giving up on privately giving him advice about what she believed was poor behaviour – and Charles choosing to promote a rival haircare vitamin company instead of her own – Westbrook released a video calling him out on it. The video quickly spread, gaining 30 million views by Monday.
"Fame, power and a fat bank account will change almost anyone," Westbrook said in the video. "And if you don't have people who will tell you to your face that you are doing the wrong things, you will change… I don't want to be associated with you. And I need to say that very publicly."
Since the video was uploaded, more than 2.5 million of Charles' fans have stopped following from his YouTube channel. Meanwhile, Westbrook has gained 2.7 million subscribers.
While his fans might have forgiven him for past errors of judgment like his joke about Africans and Ebola, this was a scandal that saw Charles, in internet parlance, "cancelled".
When we met at Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour's Champagne Bar mid-morning on Friday, the day before Westbrook's video was uploaded, the young star was already talking about needing to take "time for myself".
"I'm okay," he said, before what would turn into a quasi-therapy session and interview about dealing with fame, scandal, and stupid things people say online when they're young. "I'm hanging in there. There's been a lot of things going on in my personal life that I'm really trying to deal with one-on-one."
The next day, Charles arrived two hours late to his Pacific Fair Beauty Weekend appearance in Queensland, after posting a teary video response to Westbrook in which he doesn't deny Westbrook's claims and told people he will stop "playing the victim card".
So, putting aside the haircare vitamins, how did Charles get here? That would be his alleged "predatory" and "manipulative" behaviour towards straight men that Westbrook later claimed in her video had come about from the alleged abuse of his influence and money to lure them into performing sexually or romantically for him (Charles is gay, came out at age 12, and regularly tweets about being attracted to "straight boys" while claiming that everyone is a little bit gay, referencing the Kinsey scale).
Just days before we met, Charles was forced to address the straight-boy scandal when the other party went public about his experience with Charles in a negative way, via two online videos. The videos were published after Charles responded on Twitter to a fan speculating about the status of their relationship by saying that they weren't a couple and he had been led on by a "disgusting con artist".
While Charles' tweet was later deleted, it was saved by fans. This is the internet after all, where nothing is truly erasable and where there are fans taking screenshots of everything, colloquially referred to as "receipts".
A large swatch of celebrities have since come out in support of Westbrook, including social media personality Jeffree Star, who called him a "danger to society" and claimed his boyfriend had banned Charles from entering their home. Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes have all since unfollowed Charles after the release of Westbrook's video.
Back at the Sofitel, I ask Charles about yet another controversy where, in March 2017, fellow YouTube make-up artist Thomas Halbert posted screenshots of previous conversations with Charles where he admitted falsifying a story which gained him many of his fans: Charles notoriously claimed he had his high school prom photographs retaken with a ring light, however the conversation revealed that he had actually edited the photographs.
James Charles at the Sofitel in Sydney.Credit:James Brickwood
Charles clearly wants to move beyond this years-old tale, dismissing it as the story of "somebody that I wasn't really friends with anymore that was upset that I unfollowed him".
"He later came out and said that he made it up, so there's been a lot of controversy, but I've always been somebody that hits everything head-on," he said.
Asked what the true story is, Charles left out the ring light.
"The story was exactly what it was," he said.
"I took my yearbook photo just like every other senior, and I got the photos back, and I hated them, and I emailed the photography company asking if I could do them again, and they said absolutely. So, I got the photo back. I Facetuned it [edited it], posted it on Instagram, and the rest is history."
While it might seem pedantic to go over ancient history, it goes to the heart of who Charles is a person and how he tends to get himself into trouble – a lot. Even the smallest falsehood in a world of intense online scrutiny — where millions are watching and living for "the drama" — can lead to controversy.
Before knowing what the next day would hold, I asked him: What does he think about this so-called "cancel culture", where fans take sides and abandon online stars?
James CharlesCredit:James Brickwood
"I think there was a time when people were really looking into cancelling others and 'cancel culture', but I think people have realised how toxic it was to hold people accountable for their behaviour from 10 years ago," he said.
"People have now become a little bit more understanding, but people are able to learn and grow. It's something that I've preached a lot about on my channel; [which] is that we're learning and we're growing as human beings every single day. The human brain isn't even fully matured until we're 25, so even though I've been forced to kind of grow up in the spotlight, I still have a lot of learning I'm going to do, and I can happily admit that."
He added that he's "not willing to ever shy away from" being held accountable.
"I think it's important to allow others to learn and grow, and unfortunately, being in the public eye, I'm doing that in front of millions of people, but at the same time, I've been able to learn so many valuable lessons early on that I may not have never really learned otherwise."
In an attempt to find peace from recent self-inflicted scandals, Charles recently revealed he disconnected from the internet for five days (in a tweet, naturally).
"Did you honestly do that with no phone?" I asked him.
"No. Absolutely not," he said with a wry smile, batting his fake eyelashes.
"I had my phone, of course, but … at the end of the day, as much as I would love to literally put it away, I can't; It's my job."
Although, he was committed to logging off.
"I really didn't check social media pretty much at all, but I'm in a family group chat, and we talk all day every single day, so it's really important that I get to keep in touch with them when I'm not able to be there with them."
American Internet personality, make-up artist, and model James Charles.Credit:James Brickwood
I asked Charles how he stays sane and doesn't break down like Britney Spears did in 2007 (Spears suffered crippling anxiety leading to a highly-publicised breakdown that year, in which she shaved her head and abused drugs).
"It's hard," he said. "Honestly, I'm not going to lie. I think growing up, kind of Britney's the same way, like she grew up in the spotlight and had a lot of people looking at her and criticising her, and it's something that's really, really hard to deal with.
"It's really easy for people on the outside to look in and say, 'Oh, get over it. You've signed up for this'. But, nobody really knows the effects that social media and hatred, but also positivity, can have on someone until you're actually in the position. It sounds stupid to say that, but it really, really is true. No human being, I don't think, is prepared for the amount of negativity and pressure that comes with having people look at your every move."
Back at Pacific Fair on Saturday, Charles apologised for being late as he addressed the crowd for about seven minutes.
Last year, around 5000 people showed up when he visited the same shopping centre. This time, there were fewer than 1000, with many mocking his presence and lateness online.
The moral of the story? In this day and age where almost anyone can become a celebrity, fame can get to your head; especially if you don't have the right people surrounding you.
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