Online teenage megastar James Charles is “emotionally drained”, pouring his heart out to me about what it’s like being the centre of attention amid multiple scandals. “You can’t make everybody happy, which is something that I had to come to terms with, but it sucks coming to terms with it. Not going to lie,” he says.
[This is part two of an extended interview with James Charles. The original article was published on the Sydney Morning Herald and you can read it here.]
Exclusive: It’s Friday last week and celebrity makeup sensation James Charles, 19, is in the interview chair at Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour’s Champagne Bar, responding to dozens of questions about his life in the beauty industry, his fame, and the multiple scandals that seem to follow him around as an online teenage celebrity, otherwise known as an “influencer”.
“I’m very very emotionally drained right now,” Charles says, “which is why I [am] wanting to take more time for myself and really get back to what really matters the most, which is creativity, my fans, and my family”.
Just a day later on Saturday, as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age would document on Tuesday, Charles faced the biggest challenge of his career to date: a very public shaming from the highest of Charles’ high-profile friendships, that with fellow beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook.
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 42 million views by Wednesday.
Then, on Tuesday, just four days after our interview and three days after the Westbrook video was uploaded, news website Variety reported that Charles had put his primary home and residence in Los Angeles, a mini-mansion, up for lease for about $US17,000 ($24,500) per month.
By Tuesday, there were reports he’d “gone into hiding”. The last sighting of him then was leaving a “meet and greet” event on Saturday at the Gold Coast Pacific Fair shopping centre.
Australia’s top paparazzis said he had a target on his head, with one telling Australia’s Daily Mail: “It’s like he has just disappeared and gone into hiding. There’s a huge price on his head for any photos right now.”
By Wednesday morning, he was spotted by paparazzis at Brisbane Airport, surrounded by Virgin Australia employees and security staff.
It’s understood Charles is taking time away from the spotlight to consider what he does next. One source close to the star said to expect something from Charles by Saturday.
“Fame, power and a fat bank account will change almost anyone,” Westbrook 37, said in her Saturday video, describing the makeup star’s alleged abuse of’ influence and money to lure straight men (Charles is gay), as well as his alleged betrayal of her when it came to her offering to pay him for promoting her vitamin company and him rejecting the sponsorship for a rival company.
Since Westbrook’s video was uploaded, about 3 million of Charles’ fans have abandoned his YouTube channel. Meanwhile, Westbrook has gained about 4 million subscribers.
Charles uploaded his own teary video response to Westbrook on Saturday, in which he didn’t deny Westbrook’s claims and told people he would stop “playing the victim card”.
“I’m such a workaholic that I sometimes let my work get in front of my mental health,” Charles says when asked how he is feeling about recent scandals, “which is now something that I’m realising and trying to kind of work backwards and relearn how to really take care of myself and make sure that I’m good before making sure everybody else is good too.”
Charles is known for helping destigmatise men wearing makeup and became the first male ambassador for cosmetics brand CoverGirl in 2016. He was 16 when he first used makeup.
“It was for Halloween,” he says, “and I did skeleton makeup on myself. It’s literally the first picture of me on my Instagram.
“And, for a beginner, I will say it’s pretty good. I just fell in love with the art of doing it, and it was just such a cool way of expressing myself because I’ve always loved art and painting and faces. I used to draw portraits all the time as a kid. So, it’s just another way of doing that basically.”
I ask who he credits the most for his rise to fame in the makeup world.
“I would say I’ve had so many role models come before me that really paved the way to allow me to come up and be who I am,” he says.
He also credits Michelle Phan – “love her the absolute most” – as an influence, who he says was “a huge inspiration to me starting off”.
“I watched a tonne of her videos and kind of learned how to do makeup from the three of them.”
A YouTube channel run by makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic was also “a huge role model of mine”, Charles says, as Dedivanovic was “one of the first ones to kind of bring makeup to social media, like Kim [Kardashian]”.
“So, there’s a lot of amazing people that I’ve been able to work with that have been incredible role models, and I’ve idolised along the way,” he adds.
There’s a short pause. “Tati Westbrook, as well,” he says, almost as if she’s an incidental figure to his fame. Arguably, fans and critics would say it is in fact Westbrook who helped the most in making Charles the superstar he is today.
But after a very public feud just days earlier over vitamin sponsorship, and a friendship breakup that was only about to get worse by Saturday with the release of Westbrook’s video, titled “Bye Sister” (Charles starts every video with his catchphrase “Hey sisters!”), Charles only mentions Westbrook by name without describing why she should be credited with his success.
As for why people come to his online profiles, including his YouTube channel and Instagram profile (as of Friday there were 16.5 million YouTube subscribers and 16.2 million Instagram followers), Charles credits this to the way he produces content in a different way to others in his industry.
“I think that people have come to my channel because it’s something different in beauty,” he says. “It’s makeup content, of course, which we all know and love, but it’s entertaining. It makes people laugh, and it inspires people as well, which, of course, a lot of other people do as well.
“But I think that beauty, for so long, has been strictly interviews and strictly tutorials, and I was the one to kind of come in and say, ‘Let’s mess things up a little bit, and have a little bit more fun that this’.
“I think that’s why I’ve been able to grow such an amazing following of people that just love the same thing and want to laugh.”
To make as much content as he does requires a small army of staff, including a full-time manager, an assistant, a videographer and editor, a “concept coordinator” who “helps me bounce ideas back and forth and manage some of my other accounts” and, of course, a full-time attorney, to presumably fend off the various defamatory things that are said about him online.
On the various online dramas he’s been involved in — including a joke about Africans and Ebolo, a dispute over the story of his edited high school photos, and outraging the trans community with a comment about not being “fully gay” —I ask what his approach has been to addressing scandals.
“I think it’s ‘honesty is the best policy’ always,” he says, “and unfortunately, online, when something does happen, people never want to know the true story, what really happened.
“A lot of times, you can’t talk about it or can’t address it, but at the end of the day, your fans will be there for you and will try to look at things from the whole picture and will be there to support no matter what’s really going on.
“I know that, in my heart, that I’m good at what I do, that I work really, really hard, and that I’m in this for the right reasons of making people happy and wanting to build a future for myself and the people that are close to me.”
And while people will “leave comments all they want, question my character, which does upset anybody”, he says he tries “really hard” not to let it get to him. “It doesn’t get to me because I know it’s not true, but I do want to always address it and make people know the real me, which is something that I’m personally working on because … you can’t always please everybody.
“You can’t make everybody happy, which is something that I had to come to terms with, but it sucks coming to terms with it. Not going to lie.”
He adds: “I know who I am. I know that I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I know that I’m talented. There are a lot more people out there who are far more talented than I am, and there are a lot more people out there who are funnier, who work way harder. But at the end of the day, it’s all those factors working together, and I’m very blessed to have the platform that I do have.”
So are there any pros to life in the spotlight if it’s a barrage of negativity?
“I have a beautiful house and I’m working on buying my family one as well, so there’s lots of pros, but at the same time, the cons are just that … everyone’s looking [at you] and that people, no matter what, will form an opinion without truly knowing whoever you really are. And unfortunately, most of them will never get the opportunity to really know who you truly are.”
When asked about dating and boys, Charles then reveals his struggle with being vulnerable and making new friends, once you’re in the spotlight.
“You can’t [be vulnerable],” he says. “You can’t. It’s a hard lesson for me to learn, especially with dating. It’s always been a trouble for me to be a young gay kid because a lot of people aren’t comfortable with themselves yet.”
As a gay teenager who has bragged about chasing straight men, which is one of the main reasons he finds himself in trouble he is in now, perhaps this will be the moment he changes his approach.
“[I came out as gay at] 12, so I’ve been comfortable with myself for a very very long time now, but I’ve had to understand that not everybody’s going to be the same way,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s caused me to get into a lot of rocky situations with different guys.
“So, it’s really hard being vulnerable, honestly, but I think I’m so blessed to have an amazing group of friends and family and team around me that really help me spot the red flags and are able to push me in the right direction when it comes to making new relationships with either boys or just friends.”
A theme is beginning to emerge as a I ask more questions: negativity.
The internet has become a toxic dumpster fire and we all seem to have YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to blame.
But is it the companies’ fault?
Instagram is making more people anxious than ever before. If you don’t get enough likes on your photos, are you good enough? If someone leaves a read receipt on your message but doesn’t respond, do they hate you?
I ask Charles whether Instagram specifically should remove the public like counter, the angst of many young teens and young adults alike.
“No,” he says. “You want the like counter?” I ask. “I do… It’s very very important to businesses, and I do brand deals, and the top people are able to differentiate an active influencer to a non-active influencer with bad engagement. It really determines people’s income at the end of the day.”
But isn’t it detrimental to peoples’ mental health, I ask?
“I think it can, but I think that’s not Instagram’s fault,” he says. “It’s a personal thing that we have to deal with as human beings.”
He does blame Twitter the most for negativity online, however.
“Everyone’s anonymous on Twitter pretty much,” he says. “There’s just so much hatred and negativity and honestly, cyber-bullying on Twitter, and people think it’s funny, which it’s just not. It doesn’t feel good. I deleted Twitter off of my phone a few days ago actually.
“I just didn’t [want] to look at it anymore. Since then, I’ve honestly found myself waking up in the morning not wanting to roll over and go back to sleep from checking my phone, which is crazy to say, but like I said, it’s something that I’m working on and trying to be positive.”
It is this moment of the interview that will likely resonate the most with many of his teenager fans and young adults who grew up in the internet age.
The society we live in right now expects the best of us – at all times. It’s filled with negativity, a fear of missing out, or FOMO. The fact Charles finds it a struggle to wake up some mornings because of negative things he sees online shows once again, no matter how famous you become, you are still human.