Glimpsing Behind the Curtain of YouTube’s Anonymous Tea Channels

Here For The Tea, Spill Sesh, Sister Spill, and Beef (formerly BeefTube) on the many challenges and peculiarities facing channels who remain faceless. Illustration: by Carolyn Figel

If you’re deeply invested in influencer drama, there’s a good chance you’re just as, if not more, invested in the YouTube tea channels that cover their every scandal, feud, or social-media snafu. Among this increasingly populated society of one-person outlets that have risen to rival TMZ is a cohort of accounts helmed by completely anonymous creators who reveal only their voices (often distorted) to narrate videos filled with receipts on all the big creators.

But in a world where hypervisibility and shameless self-promotion are king, who are the people behind the avatar-fronted accounts endeavoring to hold these influencers accountable — and how do they think about their anonymity? Vulture spoke with four such tea accounts — Here For The Tea, Spill Sesh, Sister Spill, and Beef (formerly BeefTube) — about the many challenges and peculiarities facing channels who remain faceless.

What made you want to start a tea channel in the first place?

Here For The Tea: I originally wanted to do, like, a beauty channel. But then I was like, I also watch tea channels, and at that time, there were only a couple of them. So I decided, You know what, I’m going to try and make my own video … and it took off from there.

Spill Sesh: A lot of the people that I talk about, I’ve just been watching in my free time — except for beauty videos like Jeffree Star. I honestly never really heard of them before I started getting into drama and stuff. But I was just watching a video one day, and I saw Tea Spill’s channel, and was like, Wait, I feel like I could do this. And then I just decided to make a video, right then and there.

Sister Spill: I was bored one weekend at home. I had seen all of this drama between these two girls on Instagram, and I thought I’d make a video about it on a completely new channel [separate from my regular account] for fun.

Beef: I was browsing YouTube at one point, and I saw a channel that made [tea] videos. I started [watching them] and I was thinking, This has a lot of potential, because it was the first kind of videos [popping up in the tea] category … So I started [making my own], and the first video I remember doing was NikkieTutorials annoying Kim Kardashian for three minutes, and it blew up overnight. I woke up and I had, like, thousands of views, and I was like, What is happening?

So then what went into your initial decision to be anonymous? 

HFTT: I always wanted my channel to kind of be that Gossip Girl vibe. Where it was just somebody telling the story, but you didn’t know who it was. And I always wanted my receipts to speak for themselves. Initially, I thought, Oh, I wanted to be like a beauty channel, but then I was like, I don’t really want to be a beauty channel. I want to talk about beauty, but I don’t want to be the focus. So this was kind of perfect for me.

B: Me dragging myself into the drama and making videos and doing all of that, I had to be anonymous for legal reasons. And also, it’s very fascinating from a viewer’s perspective … to not know who is on the other side that makes the videos.

Sesh: I saw Tea Spill doing it, and I was like, Oh my gosh, I don’t even have to be in these videos. Because at first, she was just doing text videos, so I was doing text, but then I was like, I make a bunch of typos. I need to just do voice-over. It’s way easier.

Sister: Being a 16-year-old girl, I had dealt with people finding my YouTube channels before, and I figured I’d rather be safe than sorry. I initially used a really tacky voice filter in my first few videos in order to mask how I sounded, but I eventually stopped, because I knew there would be little to no chance that anyone would uncover me solely through my voice.

Right, that makes sense. But at the same time, it’s no secret that YouTube commentators like Philip DeFranco are huge, and all of you have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of subscribers. Have you ever kind of secretly wished that you could capitalize on the popularity of your channel and become a well-known internet personality yourself?

B: I wouldn’t mind being famous. Everyone wants that. Not everyone, but a lot of people do. And I was getting that type of fame, but through anonymity. I was getting that because I had the followers, I had interaction, it was just not my face being everywhere, which was kind of helping at the same time, because I’m not getting involved in the drama. You had interaction, you had the love of the fans, but you didn’t get involved in the drama.

Sesh: I do have moments where I’m like, Oh my gosh, I wish that I could be on camera, and I know that [for] a lot of other people that are on camera, you get more brand deals, and your Instagram could be another source of income. But honestly, I really think it’s the safety thing at the end of the day that makes me think that I couldn’t handle that. I would just be paranoid all the time that someone was going to come and get me.

B: Everyone likes to judge everything and everyone. Even if I was this cookie-cutter YouTuber that had nothing wrong with them, and I had all these followers, someone would still find something to say about my face, about my voice, about everything. So having this anonymity, it’s only showing my work to the world. It puts a barrier with my followers and my personal life and what I do.

Speaking of keeping your YouTube channels separate from your personal lives, is privacy the main reason you want to remain faceless? And have there been any close calls when it comes to protecting your identity? 

Sesh: I’m friends with a lot of drama channels — I talk to Tea Spill, Angelika Oles, Dustin Dailey, Nick Snider — and the ones that are on camera, I must applaud them … Just the things that people try to find out about them [is crazy]. Like, Nick and Dustin just bought a car together, and people were trying to contact the dealership to find out if they had bought the car or they were just leasing it. Like, why do you care? It’s so weird.

Sister: I think once I started blowing up, I knew that staying anonymous wasn’t much of a choice, because I didn’t want to risk anyone at my school finding out it was me. Plus, I think I’ve always preferred the format that drama channels use — with just text, media, and voice-overs to relay information — rather than someone explaining it to a camera.

HFTT: We live in a world where stan culture exists, and it’s scary. You go up against people’s faves, and they protect these people who do not give a fuck about them. And I’ve gone against some pretty big [people]. Like, I’ve gone against Jeffree Star for years. And I just feel like now, if you’re going to be on the internet, you have to just expect that you’re going to be doxxed at some point.

Sesh: Someone tried to send my information around. It was right in the beginning — I didn’t even have like 100,000 subscribers or anything — but someone managed to find my information and sent it around to all these other drama channels being like, “This is who she is.” But I was friends with all of the people that they had sent them to, so they ended up telling me and were like, “Oh, we just deleted it. Because that’s so effed up.”

I think it’s wild that people would doxx a purposely anonymous channel. Like, that just seems like so much effort.

HFTT: [When it happened to me], it was horrible. I was terrified … You never know where a doxx is going to go, and that’s why it’s dangerous … Like, I don’t really don’t care as I don’t have anything to hide, but I want to protect my information, my family and everything, as much as I can — like anybody would. But that’s why it’s dangerous. It’s just this innocent thing on Twitter, but then it turned into something very serious. And then this person was DMing my information to brands, and from there, one brand sent me a cease and desist. So I had to take the video down, because of them.

It was a mess, but this is definitely something that happened and things that can happen. Especially when you’re talking about brands, when you’re talking about people, it becomes personal. But I think it’s important to show that these things do happen on the internet. It’s not like it’s always a possibility, and maybe it doesn’t happen to somebody as bad as what happened to me, but I have a lot of friends that do run tea accounts and stuff like that, and most of them have been doxxed.

Sesh: Sometimes I debate like, “Oh, I would love to be on camera or whatever.” But then I think about things like that, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know.” People are so scary sometimes.

On that note, the biggest argument against tea channels is that they foster a toxic environment online and feed into things like doxxing and cyberbullying. Do you feel like that’s a fair assessment? Or is there something missing from that narrative? 

Sister: I think there are definitely tea channels who deserve this criticism. I won’t name any specifically, but there are some who deliberately create dramatic thumbnails with entirely false or Photoshopped information in them. They pair these with misleading titles, claiming that people are dating, etc., even though it’s nowhere near true. Little things like this can really lower our credibility, so I think people are right in criticizing tea channels. After all, this misinformation spreads and can lead to cyberbullying or rumors, and that can be dangerous.

B: I’ve been getting a lot of messages saying, “Oh my God, this is so toxic” … But it’s like, making a story, you know? I’m just telling a story to a lot of people, to 500 to 500,000 people. It’s just that. I’m not saying lies. I’m not gaslighting anyone. I’m not making fake videos with fake drama in order to make YouTubers or celebrities beef with each other. I’m just telling a story and “gossiping.” But instead of doing it in a five-person friend group, I’m doing it [with] 100,000 people.

Sister: People assume that I’m trying to ruin the lives of my subjects, or that I’m trying to publicly “cancel” them, or encourage them to receive hate. It’s quite the opposite. I’m like a news source for younger kids so they can understand what’s going on with their favorite public figures.

Sesh: Last year when all of this stuff was going on with Shane [Dawson], I was watching an interview with Taylor Lorenz, and she was saying it’s accountability culture … That’s what I would like to describe [my channel] as: It’s like seeing influencers do things and wanting them to take accountability and really address things. And I think in my videos, I try to say, “I wish they did this,” or “I wish they would do this,” and “I wish they would say this,” and not so much be like, “They’re awful. They’re horrible.” I really try not to use those superstrong words, because I do think that at the end of the day, everyone is human. So I try to give advice in a way, while still really being honest about what’s going on, what people are saying, what they’ve done, and how upset some people are.

HFTT: Holding influencers accountable and revealing the truth behind influencer marketing, I don’t think that’s toxic. The community can be toxic, and yeah, I’ve definitely had my share of my moments, but there’s no rule book that comes with this job, so you do have to navigate things on your own. Yes, I’ve made poor decisions and fucked up and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel like I’m using my platform maliciously. I think I post things for a purpose: to show people who they’re supporting, and the influencers that they’re supporting, and the brands that they support. I think consumers have a right to know.

Sesh: I do think it’s important to let people change and make space for them to respond, and I think that’s sometimes lost. Sometimes people just hear us say what they did and think we’re trying to hate on them or give them hate. But I think I’m just trying to get across what happened, and I also hope that other people don’t follow their footsteps. Like, if someone does something that people find really offensive, I would hope that other people don’t go and also do that. I hope that they would see the video and be like, “Oh my gosh, like, maybe I shouldn’t be doing those things either.”

Sister: There are “good” drama communities that try to avoid judging influencers and don’t allow hate on their platforms. I try to be one of those channels, but I can’t say the same for a lot of others. I definitely think that there is a morally acceptable way to report on influencers without encouraging things like hate or doxxing. In the end, it does fall on the shoulders of the tea channel to encourage good behavior, but it’s up to their followers to decide if they want to follow that example.

B: I never wanted to hurt anyone, or make someone be canceled. People decide on that themselves. I’m just telling the story and people are hearing my words with their words, and then they come up with a new solution [of] what to do. But also, I could see a lot of celebrities — either from me and from other channels — get clout and become even more famous. So I don’t know if that’s a bad thing that I was just gossiping.

So aside from trying to manage your audience and report ethically, what’s the most difficult part about running a tea account? And what are some of the challenges the tea community as a whole is facing right now?

HFTT: For YouTube drama channels, I think the biggest issue is YouTube and their terms of service and their guidelines … Because they say they’re cracking down on what they consider to be bullying or harassment. But if they consider drama channels to be bullying or harassment, that’s the end of drama channels.

B: I would say copyright. Even at the start, copyright and striking were two main reasons that most of the channels decided to take a step back or even stop doing videos. I see a lot of category change, because a lot [of accounts are moving] from drama to memes … But Instagram doesn’t have these issues. The issues were with YouTube, because YouTube would copyright a lot of videos.

HFTT: YouTube could shut down tomorrow, and there goes your whole YouTube channel that you’ve worked on for ten years with millions of subscribers, and there goes your income, and that’s it. My understanding is that [copyright claims are] automated, and there are channels that go down [or] are demonetized out of nowhere for no reason. And YouTube will sometimes take your videos down, and they don’t tell you why, they just take it down. So you’re really at the mercy of YouTube all the time. YouTube can decide literally tomorrow to demonetize your channel, and are half of these people going to continue their channels without being monetized? Absolutely not.

With the threat of demonetization hanging over your head, how do you avoid copyright issues? After all, you kind of always have to use someone else’s content, because anonymous accounts can’t easily do things like record a talking-head segment.

Sesh: I think about it all the time, because I’m just like, Okay, well, this is like my job now. So what’s the future going to be like? I think I just keep trying to make my content new — like adding a new intro, a new song, new graphics every now and again — to make it seem fresh. But the whole copyright situation is just really tough, because honestly, anyone could just copyright your video, and it’s really messy.

HFTT: That was a big thing, when YouTube started demonetizing like meme channels, because that was mostly reused content. But we all reuse content. I reuse content, but I guess it just depends where it falls in terms of like fair use, or on a scale of whether it’s transformative.

Sesh: Things are really unpredictable: The rules and changes that YouTube makes all the time are really kind of scary. So I really just stuck to making sure that most of my content is just screenshots and not really showing a lot of other people’s videos. And if I do, I try to put them on a graphic or make it look different somehow.

B: Unfortunately, I had to delete [most of my videos] … I privated all my videos, because I decided I wanted to do a fresh start … I was trying to think, Do I still want to do that? And also a big reason was I was getting [a lot of copyright claims] … So I was thinking, Let’s not lose my channel. Let’s [take] a break and take a step back, and then start again. Because I was on the verge of losing it, and it was kind of scary.

HFTT: You want to show examples, you want to show receipts, you want to show clips. I would try to use as little of a clip as possible, [because] I’m not out here trying to re-upload people’s content for the sake of it. I find meme channels do that a lot, or they’ll put words on the screen or whatever and use five minutes of somebody’s video, but put little captions on the screen. That’s not transformative in my opinion. But I think YouTube is really cracking down on that.

Which I guess leads me to ask, between these videos being a ton of work, all of the copyright claims, and the potential of being doxxed, why do you keep at it?

HFTT: I mean, I’ve taken a break from videos. I haven’t made a video in a year, but I’m coming back. I took a break obviously for personal reasons, and because of the doxxing. I was just so shaken by it ….But I do it because I still love making videos, and I still love talking about the beauty community. Obviously, people make videos because of the money too, so I don’t know. I feel like at this point, I’ve been doxxed and everything so I don’t know how it could get worse. But you do it because you love it, and I’m not going to live my life in fear and stop doing what I love to do.

Sister: I never made a video with my only intention being to make money. I still have so much fun with what I do. It has been a really great thing though, because it’s like a part-time job for me and I’ve been able to afford a new laptop to edit on and even buy myself a car. In general, though, making videos is my passion and I’d love to get into the film industry when I’m older, so this is like a dream job for me.

B: I started out of fun. You know, I wasn’t monetized. I wasn’t getting anything. And then money started to come, and the interactions between the people and the followers, and all that it was very exciting. Plus being anonymous, and no one knowing your real identity was also exciting. Because I could be anyone I wanted without people judging or anything.

Sesh: At the end of the day, I really do enjoy making the videos. I try to make them have cute graphics, and I just put a lot of effort towards them. And I mean, it’s my job now, so that’s really a big reason why I’m still doing it. But also I love it. I genuinely have always loved making videos and being creative in this way. I definitely tried to make YouTube videos in the past — that are long gone from YouTube — with me in them, but this was the thing that took.

These interviews were conducted separately and have been edited for length and clarity.

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