Beauty YouTube has transformed how – and what – cosmetics companies sell. Thanks to YouTubers and Instagram influencers, foundation makers can no longer get away with offering a handful of token darker shades for non-white makeup wearers.
But Beauty YouTube is also home to something else: a web of drama between creators and rival fan groups that, last week, boiled over into a scandal about racism, online archives and to what extent influential creators are responsible for their offensive online pasts.
Laura Lee is a beauty YouTuber with nearly 5 million subscribers. But perhaps not for long: Lee has lost more than 200,000 of her channel’s followers in a single week after fans of one of her ex-friends (who is also a famous beauty YouTuber) uncovered some old, racist and fat-shaming tweets on her account.
Lee quickly deleted all of her tweets, and she did not respond to multiple emailed The Washington Post requests for comments. On Twitter, she has said that two particularly viral racist tweets attributed to her are “fake”, but she has not disputed that she tweeted “tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster.. #yourwelcome” in 2012, or posted several fat-shaming tweets in 2013.
She apologised on Twitter for “ignorant tweets that I made back in 2012”, and then apologised again in a video Sunday night, which opens with the beauty guru loudly crying.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry to you guys. I’m so sorry for disappointing you. It hurts me so bad to disappoint you all who have supported me for so many years. I know that I’m better than that person,” she said. In the video apology, which lasts about four minutes, Lee refers repeatedly to making several offensive “retweets”.
The apology was slammed online as insincere and incomplete, even by those who had no stakes in the drama that led to Lee’s old tweets resurfacing. Her words may also be too late: the week-long scandal has made Laura Lee’s name even more famous than it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Her views, her subscribers and her income are already dropping.
This is how we got here.
To understand what’s going on with Lee, you have to know about Jeffree Star. Star has nearly 10 million subscribers on YouTube and runs his own cosmetics line. Star and Lee used to be friends.
Star has had his own scandals: he once made a video, which appears to have been intended as comedy, where he talked about throwing battery acid on a black girl’s face to lighten her skin so that her foundation matches. He has repeatedly used the C-word to refer to women with whom he’s feuded. There are entire compilation videos dedicated to the racist and sexist things that Star once said on camera. In 2017, Star made a video apologising for his past racism and said he had grown in the decade since he posted the worst of the racist videos.
“In these videos I say some really disgusting, vile, nasty and embarrassing things,” Star said. “Those videos were 12 years ago. I look at them and I see them resurface and it makes me sick to my stomach because I do not know who that person was ... the person that said those horrible vile things, that person was depression, that person was just angry at the world, that person felt like they were not accepted, that person was seeking attention.”
His apology prompted a debate among YouTubers and fans about whether Star deserved forgiveness, whether he had changed, and what to do with past material from YouTube celebrities who grew up in the public eye. Then, this summer, YouTuber Shane Dawson (who also has apologised for a past racism scandal) made a documentary about Star. The five-part series was hugely successful, with 75 million views across all five videos and a lot of praise from within the YouTube community for how Dawson interviewed one of the platform’s most inaccessible stars.
In the finale of Dawson’s series on August 9, Star talked about his many very public feuds with people like Lee, who were once his friends.
“It’s not like I need to have the last word, I just don’t like it when there’s misinformation,” Star told Dawson. “Like with my ex-friends, people still don’t really know what went on. Why do I feel like they need to know? Because there’s so many versions of things that never happened out there.
“Half of the people still think I’m the bad guy, when I only loved and cared about all these people, boosted them up, and gave them all my connections, but I’m still the ... bad guy.”
Star also said that his rocky past friendships have left him “damaged” and unable to know when to trust the next person who might be a friend.
As praise for Dawson’s series rolled in, one of those ex-friends decided to say something on Twitter. Gabriel Zamora, another beauty YouTuber who has about 500,000 YouTube subscribers, posted on August 12 a photo of himself, Lee, Manny MUA and Nikita Dragun (also beauty YouTubers and ex-friends of Star) giving the finger to the camera. The caption was widely read as a subtweet of Star, claiming that he was “bitter” because “without him, we’re doing better”.
And then, Zamora followed up with another tweet that appeared to seal the fate of all of the friends in that photo: “Imagine stanning a racist? I could never.”
“Stanning,” in case you’re not familiar, is a particularly intense way to be a fan of someone. The person you stan is your idol; they can do no wrong. And Star, despite his rocky past, has a pretty big army of stans.
The stans took Zamora’s tweet as a challenge: It was true that Star had said racist things, but what about Zamora, MUA, Lee and Dragun? The search was on.
Soon, Star stans found a tweet from Zamora, who is of Mexican heritage, using the n-word. He apologised last week on Twitter “to anyone I hurt with an old tweet of mine”.
i'm sorry @JeffreeStar . Trust me, its been an eye opening 24 hours— Gabriel Zamora (@gabrielzamora) August 15, 2018
The stans also tweeted what they said were screen shots of Dragun’s old, offensive tweets about child abuse. The Washington Post has not been able to verify whether the screen shots are authentic. Dragun’s video acknowledging the controversy on Instagram Stories only addressed the controversy generally. “I know I have said some very insensitive things,” she said, noting that several years ago, she was a middle schooler who had not yet come out as a trans woman. The video also refers to “fake tweets”, but doesn’t specify which ones – or for what, specifically, she’s apologising.
The stans could not find offensive tweets in Manny MUA’s history. But he had to post his own apology for a past fan encounter that went wrong – drama that appears to be totally unrelated to the scandal engulfing the rest of his friends. The apology video trended Monday morning on YouTube.
The clustered scandals have become a meme where Star has come out triumphant against his ex-friends who are now all mired in scandals prompted by their own attempts to call him out. This is a meme that Star has also been playing up on his own accounts.
Imagine trying to bully me but you actually end your own career instead pic.twitter.com/JZCYBjbpI3— Jeffree Star (@JeffreeStar) August 18, 2018
Why does this even matter?
YouTube drama is a constant. As Star’s stans continue to do battle with their idol’s ex-friends, YouTube’s many drama aggregation channels are consuming every iterative update, processing it and churning out content about it.
But this particular drama has stuck in a way that YouTube fights don’t always do.
Beyond the walls of YouTube creators and viewers, there’s been a wider discussion about personal online archives and their meaning in 2018. The same internet sleuthing tactics that held Star and his ex-friends accountable for their past words are also used to bully and harass the marginalised. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the consequences for terrible online pasts often spread faster than the more complicated questions they raise – in particular, the questions of what responsibility people bear for their own online past, and whether becoming a public figure changes that. And what even is a public figure in 2018?
But YouTubers, like every person involved in this battle, are role models. They are definitely public figures.
The thing about online archives is that they flatten your past into your present, into a world where, for YouTube creators, they have influence and power. And if Lee’s multiple apologies are any indication, this is something that YouTube creators are still bad at addressing in a way that is effective and authentic when their own pasts come for them.