Welcome to the Circus

19 moments that defined YouTube drama’s economy … and then destroyed it.

Left to Right: Jeffree Star, D’Angelo Wallace, Logan Paul, Shane Dawson, Tati Westbrook, James Charles, and Tana Mongeau. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Youtube
Left to Right: Jeffree Star, D’Angelo Wallace, Logan Paul, Shane Dawson, Tati Westbrook, James Charles, and Tana Mongeau. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Youtube

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

It was only a matter of time before the drama channels came for each other. Since YouTube invaded our screens 16 years ago — big, medium, and little — the platform’s beauty community has run things with an aspirational Regina George–like charm. “Gurus” such as a young woman from Florida named Jaclyn Hill could have viewers wearing Champagne glitter as an everyday look and spending their paychecks on her exact lipstick shade … until they watch a 50-minute video revealing her lip products are allegedly full of hairs. Then, beginning in the mid-2010s, all the glamour of the beauty community began to be overshadowed by its ugly stepsisters, the drama channels. Known for exposés, spreading rumors, and clickbait, drama channels emerged to expose the unblended underbelly of the picture-perfect beauty community, and they’ve overtaken the space at a dizzying rate.

Such was the dynamic that when a veteran vlogger, the perennially canceled Shane Dawson, found himself ensnared in Dramageddon 3.0 — the latest career-ending installment of online chaos in which he and former Myspace star-turned-villainous beauty guru Jeffree Star were implicated in the 2018 cancellation of beauty influencer James Charles — Dawson blamed it on the beauty community in a wildly dismissive, infamous iPhone note titled “Welcome to the Circus.” What Dawson missed, presumably while he was filming oversize commercials disguised as investigative documentaries about Jeffree Star and his cosmetics empire, is that fans have already moved on from the unreliable web of rumors drama channels and YouTube creators spent years spinning.

For the better part of a decade, Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and many other savvy creators used the internet’s predisposition to sensationalism to deny and start drama. If your clickbait is shocking enough, “exposing” people boosts your channel while tearing down a competitor. Tattoo artist-turned-cosmetics mogul Kat Von D’s attempt to call out Jeffree Star’s racism in 2016, which ended both their friendship and business relationship, was a defining moment for drama channels that had been accustomed to averting their gaze to anything beyond affiliate links. The contentious history between the two beauty-brand owners gave channels something to dig into, and they’ve been poking holes in major YouTuber controversies ever since.

(Accountability came back to haunt Von D, who sold her beauty brand in 2020 after being called out for an anti-vaxx Instagram post.)

As YouTubers face increasing legal scrutiny, they’ve been hit with a tidal wave of accountability, giving way to the rise of the watchful commentary genre and altering the way we consume influencers. More conscientious “commentary” channels like D’Angelo Wallace, DefNoodles, ItzKeisha, and more are flourishing, and the notorious drama community is lost without mess. As that evolution has occurred, we’ve witnessed a transference of control among YouTube’s influencer economy, from creators to consumers. Calling out influencers is a team sport now; last summer’s Drama Olympics saw Twitter sleuths and commentary channels converge to try and cancel Star and Dawson for good. Meanwhile, the internet battled its own virus: influencers’ complete disregard of the pandemic in favor of flexing on their followers. Audiences needed researched, fact-checked, and fair reporting on influencers. And so, a new kind of clout chaser, one who cared more about the story than the subject, logged on. With no effective way to address harmful creators besides demonetizing their content, which doesn’t stop them from continuing to share, YouTube as a company lets its viewers handle deplatforming … and they’ve gotten good at it.

Drama doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Feuds happening today are rewriting internet history. Niche drama from years ago has helped set up the next generation of watchdogs. The sea change came from millions of dedicated fans, undeniably passionate creators, and in spite of more than a few narcissists. Below, we track the biggest drama (and drama-channel drama) that’s led to the end of the genre and the beginning of accountability culture.

April 12, 2017: Jackie Aina VS Petty Paige - Jackie Aina Copyright Striked Me!

Fans had to turn on beauty queen Jackie Aina during her extended feud with British drama channel Petty Paige, run by Paige Christie. In April 2017, their tensions came to a head when Aina issued a DMCA takedown against one of Paige’s videos, titled “Jackie Aina: When Beauty Has 2 Faces But Only One Bank Account.” In her video, Paige had used clips of one of Aina’s recent videos but with significant editorialization so that the video fell under “fair use,” a copyright-law permission slip that all commentary channels have had to become familiar with. “My, my, how the mighty have fallen,” Petty said at the time. Later that year, Aina insinuated in a since-deleted video that Petty Paige was behind an email hack and stole money from her bank account, an accusation Paige and many in the beauty community found “slanderous” to the point that Aina eventually apologized on her Instagram Story. A YouTuber’s response to criticism, especially when it comes from a smaller creator, is an immediate identifier of when they’ve gotten out of pocket. It’s easiest for influencers to deflect and let the internet’s short attention span latch onto something else. But when other fan bases — and sometimes members of their own — demand a response, it becomes an issue larger than just creator versus creator. Refusing to handle it personally becomes the public’s business. Drama channels had the power of the people backing them up, but unlike here, they didn’t always have the people’s best intentions in mind.

September 2, 2017: Kathleen Lights Saying the N-word

Beauty YouTuber KathleenLights mostly flew under the radar until Jaclyn Hill posted a Snapchat where she could be heard saying the N-word. Kathleen, whose real last name is Fuentes, later posted a lackluster iPhone notes apology, and the controversy was swept under the rug, overshadowed by those who questioned Hill’s intentions in publicly sharing Fuentes’s use of the slur (questions fueled by none other than Jeffree Star). “She went out of her way to contact every single drama channel, including myself, and basically said, ‘Hey, just to let you know, this is not the situation,’” Petty Paige told Vox in 2018. “She used us effectively, and essentially she silenced the entire community by telling us her side of the story.” Beauty influencers were able to influence their way out of major scandals with relationships and PR packages. Fuentes largely avoided accountability until recently, when the supporters of her nail-polish brand resurfaced the controversy, leading her to issue a formal video apology three years later.

October 11, 2017: Viner on Viner Violence

Jake Paul’s YouTube presence is just one of the many downsides to Vine’s death. After that app closed up shop, several of its stars migrated to YouTube for either slightly better or much, much worse. In the fall of 2017, two other less-obnoxious Vine creators, Noel Miller and Cody Ko, made a video reacting to a medley of Jake Paul’s awful attempts at fame, earning 17 million views. Up until that point, commentary on YouTube existed mostly as a subsection of reaction videos. Cody Ko and Noel, whose YouTube fame eventually surpassed their Vine fame and kick-started their career as a rap duo, put a spotlight on popular creators outside the beauty community. Fellow former Viners Danny Gonzalez, Drew Gooden, Kurtis Conner, and more instilled comedy into commentary while calling out everyone from kids creators to life hacks to pick-up artists. Jake Paul saturated video titles, creating his own little economy off angering his neighbors and off-beat diss tracks. Inspired by Shane Dawson, Jake Paul actually confronted Cody Ko in a very poorly received 2019 vlog (over 800,000 dislikes) that the commentary community ate up. Ultimately, Cody Ko’s impact on drama trends circled back to assist him and the never-ending cancellation of Jake Paul.

August 1, 2018: The Secret World of Jeffree Star

Jeffree Star’s reputation got a face-lift with the release of Dawson’s documentary vlog “The Secret World of Jeffree Star.” Batting away several racism and abuse scandals, the video series gave Star the redemptive and sympathetic origin story that only he (and his stans) were asking for. Shortly after its release, Dramageddon 1.0 erupted, leading to the “cancellation” of his competitors and former friends in the beauty-guru space, Manny MUA and Laura Lee. Star used the king of YouTube to absolve himself of any part in the drama, and Dawson used Star as a way into the highly profitable beauty world. The monetary stakes were raised higher than ever. Polygon estimates Laura Lee lost around $25,000 a year in income along with 200,000 subscribers, not to mention lost endorsements and sponsorships, when Star’s fans exposed a series of old racist tweets. The events here made the financial and career repercussions, on top of social consequences, much more real. And the chaos only brought more views to both Star and Dawson, ultimately providing them the blueprint for manipulating the internet’s attention span. By this point, even Shane Dawson’s loyalists were realizing the good PR he was creating for controversial YouTubers.

(He’d already done it once that same summer with “The Truth About Tana Mongeau,” a docuseries on the scandal-driven then-19-year-old’s Fyre Festian influencer convention TanaCon, launched to spite Hank and John Green’s long-running YouTuber festival VidCon for deciding not to feature her on its creator lineup; instead of selfies, her guests walked away with condoms, dehydration, and sunburns.)

September 25, 2018: Tea Spill and Here for the Tea Canceling Their Jaclyn Hill Collaboration

In 2018, two big-league drama channels, Tea Spill and Here for the Tea, canceled their multipart Jaclyn Hill collaboration after episode one, saying that “no video or series is worth risking someone’s mental health.” According to Here for the Tea, Tea Spill allegedly received “an alarming DM from Jeffree Star which honestly left us with no choice but to cancel the series.” Fans were disappointed in the tea channels for bending to Star’s will, especially those who were distrustful of him. Influencers reaching out to major drama channels was now an open secret, and it was becoming increasingly clear who might really be deciding the stories and subjects those channels cover. The drama community as a whole became more and more saturated in the wake of Dramageddon, putting the pressure on beauty gurus to be flawless and on drama channels to stand out.

May 18, 2019: No More Lies

How does anyone come back after losing 3 million subscribers overnight? Veteran beauty guru Tati Westbrook’s now-infamous video “Bye Sister,” where she ended her friendship with the then-19-year-old beauty influencer James Charles over hair gummy vitamins and accused him of sexually harassing a straight guy, led to a record-breaking loss and a heartbreaking response. Charles’s first reply, a since-deleted teary vertical video titled “tati,” earned him no support. But eight days later, the teen absolved himself in a 41-minute-long video titled “No More Lies.” Laying out “receipts,” just like a tea video would, he refuted Tati Westbrook’s claim and asked for no sympathy. Charles won fans over with his fact-based, professional approach to addressing the situation; his response contributed to a shift in the tone and aesthetic of major influencer responses going forward. Rather than address fans with raw emotions and a stream of consciousness while wearing the stereotypical YouTuber apology drag, Charles’s video respectfully and professionally breaks what he needs to say into points, sticking to what people have said publicly. Succinct apologies like this happen on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram Live far too often nowadays.

With fans back on his side, the threat of real-life repercussions from Westbrook’s video reverberated throughout the LGBTQIA+ community; many argued that the allegedly false accusations about James propagated a harmful homophobic stereotype. And that if he could get canceled for that, then the apparently more legitimate accusations of sexual misconduct and assault against other major YouTubers could be called out too.

August 30, 2019: Petty Paige Exposes Spill

After the drama community started getting suspicious of a new anonymous channel on a meteoric rise, Petty Paige uncovered that the animated drama channel Spill and its universe of sister channels was actually a project by Canadian media corporation AWED. A month prior, they had released a video addressing the rumors, claiming to be started by two people “as a side job” who registered as a corporation when Spill took off. The corporatization of drama channels came as a shock to no one, given the growing sponsorship opportunities. In 2019, Spill was estimated to be earning over half a million dollars a year by Social Blade, a website that tracks online metrics. Fast-food franchises like Wendy’s and Burger King were already using social media to appear more humanlike and relatable; Spill tried to mimic the idea and instead ruined the reputation of well-run-and-researched independent drama and commentary channels before them. Ultimately, Spill’s entrance proved that anyone can adopt an educational tone to their videos and pass off whatever information they want.

October 1, 2019: The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star

Step one of being a clown? Apply your clown makeup. For Shane Dawson’s eight-part follow-up doc to “The Secret World of Jeffree Star,” he actually followed his own journey scamming people into believing he had any business creating a makeup palette with cosmetics brand and influencer magnet Morphe. This time, rather than selling us an idea of Jeffree Star, they literally sold crap (see a makeup palette curated by someone with no makeup experience). The series included generally favorable coverage of Dawson from drama channels, like Angelika Oles and Smokey Glow, an inclusion outed years later as a conflict of interest when it was alleged that Shane Dawson would regularly DM several drama channels, “love-bombing” them or sharing his opinions of other YouTubers.

November 28, 2019: Smokey Glow RSVPS “No” to Nick Snider’s Christmas Party

Inevitably, drama channels start their own drama. For Thanksgiving 2019, drama and beauty YouTuber Smokey Glow (real name Hannah) made a video saying she no longer wanted to go to the holiday party of another drama channel, The Viewers Voice’s Nick Snider, because she did not feel that his then-close-friend, walking scandal and fellow tea-sipper Rich Lux, had properly apologized for past offensive language. The party ultimately kicked off drama between … all of the other drama channels, like Snider and Rich Lux, who continue to use Smokey Glow’s video as an excuse to call her problematic. There’s a reason why drama channels have built a messy reputation of their own: Snider and Lux are two of the most popular with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and billions of channel views each yet two of the most problematic drama channels, both of which are regularly called out for offensive or tone-deaf language, like when Snider called guru MannyMUA’s father a “reformed homophobe.” If they can’t hold themselves accountable, how can they hold other channels accountable?

A year later, in December 2020, Smokey Glow put another drama channel in the hot seat and released a statement condemning fellow beauty-commentary-channel creator Angelika Oles for her allegedly racist and transphobic past. Twenty-four hours earlier, Smokey Glow had defended her friend against those accusations when they first surfaced, but said she was now apologizing and retracting support for Oles once she learned more information after they collaborated for a video that month. The same drama channels Smokey Glow first distanced herself from — those by Rich Lux and Nick Snider — proceeded to make video responses calling her out for being a “bad friend,” making Oles the victim in this situation. It was at this moment it became clear that certain parts of the community are more interested in preserving cliques than reporting on potentially harmful creators whose alleged actions have implications offline, too.

April 28, 2020: Colleen Ballinger, Stop Lying

Eighteen-year-old Adam McIntyre made his pivot to commentary by airing out his own drama. McIntyre had to make a video to get established YouTuber Colleen Ballinger (best known for her narcissistic YouTube character Miranda Sings) to address the allegedly inappropriate way he claimed she’d interacted with him and other fans when he was “between the ages of 13 to 15.” Ballinger crossed the line in multiple ways, he said, by sending him lingerie as a joke and briefly hiring him to run her Miranda Sings Twitter. Ballinger ended up quietly and quickly uploading a video to her vlog channel, titled “Addressing Everything,” providing screenshots and footage from the time. McIntyre’s own experience as a fan, a creator, and someone who’s been through drama himself has since added credibility to his own commentary. Rather than casting accusations or starting petty drama, he and other creators have been trusted to report based on facts. Previously, drama channels would gather their tea from tabloid-style blogs like Guru Gossip, Lipstick Alley, or reader submissions, but now exposés straight from the source are predominant. During Dramageddon 3.0, some of Jeffree Star’s closest friends spoke out against him in videos not unlike “No More Lies.” Several alleged victims have also made their own videos accusing James Charles of sending unsolicited nudes to minors as recently as February 2021.

April 28, 2020: Jeffree Star Alleges on Mom’s Basement He Has an Incriminating Voice Memo About James Charles

Out of nowhere, Star reignites Dramageddon 2.0 by alleging in an interview with unfailing shit-starter Keemstar on his now-defunct Spotify drama podcast Mom’s Basement, co-hosted with gaming influencer FaZe Banks, that he has a voice memo corroborating Tati Westbook’s previous accusations against James Charles. Keemstar, 38, has inserted himself into every incident he can on his DramaAlert YouTube channel. An interview with him is an invitation to a free-for-all, sowing chaos and conflict among YouTube pariahs Gabbie Hanna, Trisha Paytas, and so, so many more. No one is safe. In general, podcasts have become a lucrative next step for those who want to monetize their drama. Logan Paul, Trisha Paytas, Ryland Adams, and more have capitalized on their internet popularity by starting a podcast. Star let the machine work for him, inadvertently (if you wanna believe that) kick-starting Dramageddon 3.0, a.k.a. Karmageddon.

June 12, 2020: “I Was on Jeffree Star’s Payroll”

It was absolutely no shock to anyone that drama channels were profiting off beauty guru scandals. But even so, when drama channels Ashlye Kyle, Sanders Kennedy, and The Viewer’s Voice (Nick Snider) each made videos admitting that Jeffree Star gave them info under the table that helped them rake in that AdSense money, it was seen as a major betrayal. Until then, close relationships between drama channels and beauty influencers were an open secret; Jeffree Star had manipulated most of the community that was supposed to be protecting audiences. In his wake, tea channels were “canceled,” reputations were ruined, and he profited.

June 21, 2020: Welcome to the Circus

Shane Dawson started his own #ShaneDawsonIsOverParty; his since-deleted Twitter manifesto attempting to rid himself of the drama in the community he’d just spent two years kissing up to and milking was the final straw. Dawson attempted to use beauty YouTube’s bad reputation as protection against exposing his alleged involvement in James Charles’s cancellation, but he must have forgotten his own track record was worse. It was way too easy for scandalized fans to compile Dawson’s worst offenses on Twitter from minstrelsy to slurs to sexualizing children. There was only one clown at this circus. From that point forward, criticism of Dawson became as mainstream as the Red Table Talk (even Jada Pinkett-Smith tried to cancel him) and as notorious as his BFF Star’s own villainy had long been. Drama and commentary channels were inspired to go harder on him, leading Dawson to lose his contract with Morphe. After his follow-up response, a YouTube video titled “Taking Accountability,” YouTube demonetized all three of his channels. According to its advertiser-friendly content policies, YouTube has the power to suspend monetization when the company is made aware of content that violates its community guidelines. So although Black users had been shedding light on Dawson’s content for years (see comedian and former YouTuber Franchesa Ramsey), it took a beauty-community controversy to force action from YouTube. No matter how many hashtag parties fans make on Twitter, they still had to capture the entire YouTube community’s attention before getting real change. Commentary channels now routinely amplify this power to round up receipts and get at creators’ ethical violations.

August 15, 2020: Bryce Hall and Blake Gray’s COVID Parties

Comedian turned YouTube watchdog DefNoodles, real name Dennis Feitosa, has made his name monitoring influencer parties during the COVID-19 pandemic. He exposed the social media of TikTok stars Bryce Hall and Blake Gray’s house parties in violation of California’s coronavirus safety measures; each were packed with influencers, and DefNoodles made sure the world (or at least the one that exists online) knew about it. In the replies to his near-constant tweets, he’ll often link to California’s updated coronavirus safety measures, case rates, or to CDC guidelines, educating followers as they gossip while Jason Derulo and Charli D’Amelio continue living their best lives. It shouldn’t be up to satirical YouTubers to call out health and safety disrespect, but it’s become a drama genre in itself — from racist pandemic jokes to superspreader parties to unsafe collaborations. Viral tweets calling out TikTokers and their COVID parties are treated like public-service announcements, small forms of vigilantism against the bourgeois Gen Z. Bryce Hall and Blake Gray were both charged with misdemeanors for their hazardous parties.

July 24, 2020: The Exact Moment Shane Dawson’s Career Ended

YouTube drama’s biggest new star D’Angelo Wallace’s over-one-hour-long Shane Dawson video essay was actually his second video to go crazy viral. The first in the extensive three-part series individually covering Star, Dawson, and Westbrook around the Dramageddons, in that order, had come out the week before, earning him over 200,000 subscribers in less than two weeks. The meticulously edited middle installment used detailed, fact-based research on Dawson’s 12-year career on YouTube to bring awareness to the extent of Dawson’s racism and sexualization of minors. As a result, Wallace gained over 400,000 subs in one week; the video now has over 18 million views. Its viral success spoke to the hunger for more thoughtful takes on events dismissed as low-brow drama. Wallace and other commentary channels, like DefNoodles, itzKeisha, Adam McIntyre, and more, provide a crash course in ethics and moral dilemmas with each news update, tasked with defining terms like manipulation, gaslighting, and grooming to their young audiences. Wallace went so far as to turn off the ads for his documentary so he wouldn’t be profiting from reposting some of Dawson’s most disturbing content. It’s a complete 180 from Dramageddon 2.0, where drama channels like Ashlye Kyle made tens of thousands of dollars off the attempted cancellation of James Charles.

Without a Crystal Ball vs. Tati Wesbtrook

Tati Westbrook ignites a lawsuit against drama channel Without a Crystal a Ball (real name Katie Joy). Originally, Joy rose to fame for going after Westbrook following “Bye Sister” and gained even more fame when Westbrook sued her for defamation, trade libel, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, per court documents, in October. Legal action from influencers is a serious threat to commentary channels — often outmatched financially and in follower count by the people they’re critiquing — and the genre has responded by attempting to report fairly with creative twists. A personal favorite? Adam McIntyre’s “allegedly” bear, who chimes in whenever he needs to make that important qualification. By now, it’s clear that the reputation of a bigger creator could wipe out a small commentary channel with ease. Do we really need another Gawker situation?

October 1, 2020: Jeffree Star Accused of Paying Off Assault Victim

Kat Tenbarge of Insider reports that Jeffree Star allegedly paid a sexual-assault accuser to retract their claims. In the big leagues now, Star has a lawyer issue a denial where they say Star is “considering all of his legal options”; he has not commented on the accusations since. This time, though, Star can’t seem to run from the alleged facts. He’s used to denying and deflecting accusations — is it a coincidence that he made a donation to a children’s charity around this time? — but anti-fans and reporters don’t let up. The old model of handling drama has no leverage now. And yet, unlike his former “friend” Dawson, Star remains uncanceled. Karma, huh.

February 5, 2021: H3H3 Interviews David Dobrik Accusers

Inspired by Trisha Paytas, Ethan and Hila Klein of the H3H3 podcast interviewed Seth François and Big Nik, two creators who were formerly part of David Dobrik’s ultrapopular Vlog Squad. All you need to know about them is that Dobrik has generated enough wealth and clout to get them to do anything. (Like riding-a-moped-into-a-pool anything; like letting him post a video of someone performing oral sex in a car full of people, which has almost 16 million views.) François accuses Dobrik and his sidekick, 47-year-old comedian Jason Nash, of sexual assault for two videos where Nash made out with him without his consent. Big Nik claims he was subjected to years of ableist jokes and abuse about his dwarfism. The seemingly impossible revolt against David Dobrik was actually spearheaded by Paytas, who was briefly in the Vlog Squad while she dated Nash. She alleges her consent was violated during a “prank” where Dobrik hid in the shower while Nash had sex with her. Paytas herself has a long history of her own controversies (and often playing up those controversies for views), but in recent months has pivoted from crying on the kitchen floor to coming with receipts and sticking up for alleged victims of fellow YouTubers.

February 17, 2021: Ryland Adams Says No More Drama on His Drama Podcast

While Jeffree Star continues to play the avoiding game and Trisha Paytas evolves into accountability, where does that leave Shane Dawson and the state of the drama union? Right now, his presence is felt solely through his fiancé Ryland Adams, who’s borne the brunt of Paytas’s glow-up. Recently, Adams and Dawson, who’d publicly been Trisha’s supposed best friend for more than a decade, took Jeffree Star’s side in a feud between Trisha and Jeffree that’s not worth getting into. (Just know that, for once, Paytas was completely right.) One apology later, Adams announced that his YouTube drama podcast, The Sip, with co-host actress Lizze Gordon, was going to step away from … drama. “If we’re gonna talk about hot topics, the hot topics inside of YouTube are the community in which I’m involved in which is YouTube drama,” he said, saying that reporting on his world would essentially make him a drama channel which he “never wanted to do.” It’s an attempt at controlling the narrative that’s spun wildly away from him, likely pushing back whatever return date Shane Dawson has planned.

It’s a full-circle moment: There’s no longer space on the internet for creators who prefer chaos to transparency. Our new way of observing and critiquing influencers positions audiences not as kids at the circus but as the ringmasters. As Gen Z becomes ethics autodidacts, the expectations for all creators will get higher, pushing the community to even greater measures of accountability. When powerful influencers inevitably wage war in Dramageddon 4.0 (*shudder*), they won’t be the ones deciding the victor.

More From This Series

See All
Welcome to the Circus