James Charles and Tati Westbrook's online feud is proof of how social media fame can build or break a brand
Well, let's just say that this week clearly belonged to gummy vitamins on social media, as the hair supplements gave rise to one of the most bitter social media feuds between beauty influencers James Charles and Tati Westbrook. According to Google Trends, ever since the drama, searches for "James Charles," "Tati Westbrook" and "Sugar Bear Hair" have spiked drastically.
While a lot of people tried to desperately search for who James Charles was and why he was getting "canceled" on social media, a lot of people tried to find the greater meaning behind the drama that shook the world of beauty influencers all over the world last weekend.
Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations, exclusively spoke to MEAWW and weighed in on the ongoing feud between the two biggest names in the beauty influencer market, saying: "We’re at a point where once you’ve presented something out to the public it becomes tethered to everything you do moving forward. Whether you mean it or not, celebrities and influencers at this level are putting themselves in a position where they could potentially tarnish their name – even in one single tweet."
For those who still haven't caught up with the drama, it all started when Charles posted a sponsored Instagram story for Sugar Bear in April, knowing perfectly well that the company was a direct competitor for Westbrook's Halo brand. Westbrook, however, did not see it as a mere advertisement and looked at it as a personal jibe at her brand and her long-standing friendship with the star.
And so, the 37-year-old beauty influencer, who is considered to be the 'OG' in terms of the beauty blogging business, uploaded a 43-minute video outlining Charles’s wrongdoing against her to YouTube on May 10. The video, which went massively viral and has now accrued more than 40 million views, saw Westbrook frame herself as a brave truth-teller, alleging that Charles uses his fame and influence to “trick” and “manipulate” straight men into thinking they’re gay. She also spoke about how she was backstabbed by the star even after she stood by his side when he weathered controversies, and Charles, coincidentally, filled in perfectly for the role of a villain, given how it was found that he charges exorbitant prices for fan meet-and-greets, his comments about trans men, and his celebration of his own role in increasing “influencer representation” at the Met Gala.
After Westbrook's video went viral, Charles too posted his own Instagram story, writing, “I want to publicly apologize to my close friend Tati. She has been like a mother to me since my first days in this industry and has given me more love, support, resources, and advice than I could ever ask for.” But his apology clearly fell on deaf ears.
You can watch Charles' response HERE
Meanwhile, Westbrook too did not emerge victorious in the feud, since her accusations against Charles branded her as a moral crusader rather than a businesswoman who’s upset that a much younger and queer upstart undercut her by making his own business deals, and by doing so, refused to kowtow and just play the gay best friend.
The vicious video greatly hurt Charles, who once considered Westbrook to be his "mentor", considering the fact that he is the more mainstream famous personality in the world of beauty blogging as compared to Westbrook, for before the feud, at his peak, he had 16 million YouTube subscribers and nearly 15 million Instagram followers. Westbrook, in contrast, had 5 million YouTube subscribers and a little under 3 million Instagram followers before her recent burst of fame.
Talking about the backlash received by Charles, Torossian explained, "When it comes to James Charles, he lost over 3 million followers on his YouTube channel and surely that number will continue to drop as more things start to get uncovered, and especially if people start to come out and prove these accusations. Honestly, I don’t see his fan base moving past this, which is the basis for why cosmetic companies would seek Charles out to promote their brands."
He added, "There’s tons of influencers in this space and he will easily be forgotten as brands distance themselves from him and his behavior. From a public relations standpoint, I don’t foresee a positive reaction from the public sphere, especially if one of his main partners, Morphe, drops him from their brand.”
Which forces one to look back at the spilled tea and think: how fleeting is fame on social media? Furthermore, is there a definite way in which social media influencers can keep themselves in check when it comes to losing out on potential (as well as existing) fans? Torossian says there's definitely a way out.
“While it’s important for social media influencers to interact with fans and share their personal lives at every given moment, whether it be via Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc. they should not treat these accounts as if it were their personal diaries. We might have been moved to share, promote and 'like' our way to the top – but it’s very different when you’re also representing a brand that has its own image and reputation to protect," he explained. "Once the fan pool has run dry and your popularity or celebrity status has been downgraded, it’s only a matter of time before brands pull the plug. The more popular you become, the riskier it becomes.”
As for fame being an extremely fleeting concept for influencers on social media, celebrity culture expert Anand Bhatt explained in an exclusive conversation with MEAWW, "[Fame on social media] is shockingly and outrageously fleeting. People who haven't experienced it won't even believe you when you tell them how quickly fading it all is. The media still pushes the notion that fame is somehow satisfying, worthwhile, and lasting."
Bhatt further shared tips for social media influencers on what they can do when it comes to keeping their fans devotionally loyal to them, saying: "If you are smaller, 5k-20k fans, you can personally respond to a few messages, comments and replies here and there. This seems to help a lot, and the whole game will feel more meaningful to you too. As you grow, that becomes harder of course."
He continued, "Beware of getting caught up in analytics and metrics. Fans are human beings, not stats - no matter how much the big data fanatics try to make you believe otherwise. Also, don't obsess over engagement. Engagement is not predictive of post-success at all. Remember, you do this for a living - if you don't have to have a day job, you're doing fine. Trust that the type of fans you want are the ones that follow and stick around."
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