YouTube gossip channels are so popular that they’re becoming influencers themselves.
Racist tweets. Messy divorces. Sketchy social media advertising practices. Accusations of hacking. No, I’m not talking about the current players in American politics. I’m talking about beauty YouTubers.
It all starts with influencers. While it might be hard to believe if you’re over 25, YouTube and Instagram now produce legitimate celebrities, the kind that can draw a crowd of thousands and shut down meet-and-greets.
Influencers with large followings on social media have become an important force in the beauty economy, and companies have shifted their marketing resources to focus more on social media and less on traditional advertising like TV and magazines. Now, influencers land the kind of lucrative cosmetics collaborations that were once saved for traditional celebs. And where the money and power goes, so does the scrutiny.
For major beauty influencers — like Jackie Aina (2.7 million subscribers) and Jaclyn Hill (5.4 million subscribers) — some of that scrutiny comes in the form of drama channels on their own home turf: YouTube. There is a robust group of self-appointed watchdog/gossip channels that chronicle, expose, and analyze all manner of bad behavior perpetrated by so-called beauty gurus.
Channels like TeaSpill, Sanders Kennedy, and Petty Paige explain the gossip and stoke the flames, including digging into the current scandal in which popular members of the YouTube beauty community were accused of racism and of failing to disclose paid posts, among other claims.
These claims — known as the “Dramageddon” — have rocked the community and even culminated in some influencers losing hundreds of thousands of followers, the YouTube ad money those followers bring in, and the trust of the people who made them successful in the first place. The drama channels — and their fans — have been right there, chronicling every last step.
In fact, drama videos are so popular now that the drama channel creators themselves are getting fame, notoriety, drama, and money of their own, leading to one giant beauty drama ouroboros. It’s yet another data point in the continuing narrative about how the powerful ecosystem of YouTube creators is fundamentally changing how people are communicating and consuming information online, and taking a global industry with it.
The rise of beauty, the rise of drama, and the rise of the beauty drama channel
Beauty influencers aren’t like traditional celebrities; untouchable in their gated Beverly Hills mansions. These young women and men happily flip on their ring lights and show you their houses, boyfriends, cars, and designer bags along with their favorite eyeliner techniques. They speak directly to fans via social media and on YouTube. They frequently show millions of viewers their faces without a speck of makeup on, a particularly vulnerable act that makes them seem even more approachable.
“When fans see a person online frequently, they develop a parasocial relationship — the one-sided sense of knowing, which feels like a real relationship,” explains Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist. “When people are given intimate details, it’s as if they are being rewarded for being a close friend.”
Because of this intense interest in influencers and their own oversharing tendencies, there has always been gossip about them. For years, anonymous fans and haters alike have snarked on forums like Guru Gossip, the users of which can be shockingly cruel to their subjects, and Reddit’s r/BeautyGuruChatter, a generally more civilized arena for discussion.
One r/BeautyGuruChatter moderator said in an email to Vox that she considers YouTube to be “the new magazine,” with all the aspiration the old glossies offered. Then she added: “That said, you know people love to watch these people fall from their pedestals, too.” Drama channels document this fall.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who the first beauty drama channel was, but it’s generally acknowledged that Sanders Kennedy (215,000 subscribers) was one of the earliest ones. Other popular early adopters of the genre include Peter Monn (169,000 subscribers), Karina Kaboom (108,000 subscribers), and Rich Lux (204,000).
The popular ones now are the controversial John Kuckian (382,000 — more on him shortly), Here For The Tea (393,000), Teaspill (403,000), Beauty Truth Sleuth (20,300), and Petty Paige (116,000). A lot of the original drama channels started out dabbling in makeup reviews and tutorials themselves and pivoted to drama when they saw increasing view counts after posting that kind of content.
That is certainly Kennedy’s story. He dropped out of college, briefly worked at Home Goods, and went on to write for the pop culture website Dos Lives, which has been defunct since 2014. Around the same time, he started posting makeup reviews on his personal YouTube. One of the first drama posts he ever did in 2015, about a disappointing encounter with guru Nicole Guerriero, is still his most viral video at 1.8 million views and counting. Kennedy says he is inspired by Wendy Williams, Perez Hilton, and Andy Cohen.
“When it took off and I was just like, ‘Okay, let’s just be real about things that I do not find great in the YouTube world.’ The beauty industry is already a shady business, and I think that if people are going to pay money for these products and work so hard and not pay their rent because they want an eyeshadow, they should know what’s behind the story,” Kennedy says. He eventually wants to expand his coverage of pop culture on his channel.
Paige Christie, a.k.a. Petty Paige, is an ambulance dispatcher by day in the UK and part of a second wave of drama channels. She started hers in early 2017 for the same reason that many beauty influencers start posting — as a black woman, she couldn’t find someone who looked like her in that area to relate to.
“I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got gay male voices, you’ve got Caucasian female voices, but there’s not really a voice that represents me and where I come from,’” Paige says, describing the landscape of the drama community. “That was kind of my motivation to start making videos. Because there was no voice that represents my demographic.”
Drama channels, most notably the notorious Keemstar, have popped up in many YouTube communities over the last few years. Vegan channels have had their fair share of incidents as has the gaming community. Shane Dawson, who does documentary-style long videos on subjects that cooperate with him, focuses on general interest vloggers like Jake Paul, and has even done one on frequent beauty drama target Jeffree Star.
But beauty seems to have spawned more gossip videos per capita than other interest areas have. Now, at least a dozen so-called drama channels are documenting these gurus and their behavior on YouTube — spilling the tea, as they say, on the same platform where the gurus pour it.
“Tea” is another term for gossip, and it originated in black drag culture. It was referred to as T for “truth,” but it eventually evolved into “tea.” The term has thrived in this community and several drama channels name themselves a variation of it — HereForTheTea, TeaSpill, Mango Tea. In a particularly entertaining Twitter thread, Sam, the woman who runs HereForTheTea, asked for potential new names for her channel and her followers suggested things like TeaMZ, BeauTea News, and Teatorials.
And “TeaMZ” is an apt comparison. Graphics and teasers on drama videos take a cue from the fonts and visual hyperbole that traditional tabloids use. You’ll see lots of red, lots of exclamation points, and screengrabs of the video subjects with unflattering facial expressions.
The channels cover everything from influencers “cheating” fans out of giveaways to influencers fighting amongst themselves. Jeffree Star’s many beefs with others in the industry have become its own genre. Jaclyn Hill’s split from her husband Jon was predicted, analyzed, and picked apart with the zeal of the paparazzi stalking the Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston/Angelina Jolie triangle in 2004.
Like InTouch or Life & Style magazines, the channels are sometimes accused of using clickbait thumbnails that don’t deliver quite the piping hot tea that was advertised.
Drama channels collect information that’s already out there — often posted by influencers themselves, on Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram — then organize these “receipts,” and give some context along with text, voice over, dramatic music, sound effects, and occasionally really funny comedic delivery. Some take a newsreader tone in their videos, and some deliver with full-on dish and snark. Some never show their faces, while some have become as recognized as the YouTubers they cover.
A handful of the drama channels see themselves as investigative reporters, and their mission as journalistic, but they often have a subjective slant. The videos run the gamut from providing actual evidence of a transgression to a channel creator analyzing and opining in the style of a cable pundit.
Gathering receipts is a top priority. Some of the drama channel personalities who spoke to Vox say they get tips from viewers, and occasionally even get dirt from influencers about other influencers. They get sent PDFs, screenshots of conversations, and Google Drives. One has paid to access legal documents. Some reach out to the parties involved for comment; others don’t. “Beauty gurus do not typically reply to me. They either ignore me or block me,” says Alicyn, proprietor of the Beauty Truth Sleuth channel.
Sometimes they make judgment calls about what’s appropriate to post. Christie, of Petty Paige fame, says, “Sometimes you get some sensitive information and you think to yourself, ‘Holy crap. There is no way I should know this.’ But it’s a part of the game.”
The consequences of spilling the tea
The game has entered the big leagues over the last few months. Three separate storylines played out all within a few months of each other.
The recent Laura Lee racist tweet scandal, documented by Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos in painstaking detail here, involved enough high profile influencers to keep the drama channels busy for weeks. Among other things, Lee — who has collaborated with several mainstream beauty brands and also launched her own makeup line — was accused of tweeting at black people to “pull ur pants up” to make it easier to “run from the police.”
A short time after that came to a head, influencer and Makeup Geek beauty brand founder Marlena Stell called out influencers for their reported high pay rates and not disclosing when they get paid by brands. Finally, Jaclyn Hill (5.5 million subscribers), a popular vlogger who gained mainstream fame after doing a highlighter collaboration with makeup company Becca that went viral, has been in the drama channels’ crosshairs.
She went through a well-chronicled messy divorce and is now enduring scrutiny for a big collaboration with indie brand Morphe that has been controversial since it launched. Collectively dubbed the “dramageddon,” the confluence of scandals has been an existential crisis for the beauty world, but a boon to drama channels, which gleefully covered it all:
Unsurprisingly, influencers don’t love the drama channels. Recently, Hill posted a long video about everything happening in the beauty community generally and about the unflattering portrayals of her own business practices specifically. She tossed in a rant about drama channels toward the end.
“It’s like a game of telephone,” she says. “It’s been filtered through this strainer of bullshit and by the time it gets to them, there’s 5 percent accuracy in it. I take their videos with a grain of salt and you guys should too. I do not hate drama channels. It’s not something that I would personally ever do with my career, but I do not hate them.”
Christie says some influencers, like Kathleen Lights, have utilized the drama channels savvily. In September 2017, she was recorded on Snapchat by Jaclyn Hill saying the n-word. “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.’ She used us effectively and essentially she silenced the entire community by telling us her side of the story,” Christie says.
Tati Westbrook, of GlamLifeGuru (4.9 million subscribers), is a beauty guru veteran and a godmother of sorts to younger influencers in the beauty community. In a recent video with influencer Thomas Halbert, she says, “You’re going to have great channels that actually do research and report fact and then you have some that completely manipulate and run things in a really bad way.” Halbert claims that a drama channel “extorted” him out of $6,000 in exchange for taking down a “slanderous” video. He implied that he paid it.
“I know drama channels haven’t always had the best reputation in the community. There are a lot of great drama channels that just give you all the facts and let you form your own opinion and most of us even have boundaries on things we’ll cover on our channel, like breakups and relationships for example,” writes TeaSpill, who does not share her name and does not speak in her videos, in an email to Vox.
In a rare drama channel alliance, HereForTheTea and TeaSpill teamed up for a huge Jaclyn Hill project that was supposed to comprise three videos. Part 1 has more than 1 million views, but the pair decided to abandon the project after TeaSpill supposedly (according to HereForTheTea) received a private message from Jeffree Star, which they said “honestly left us with no choice but to cancel the series.”
They continued: “Although our intent was to share the truth, we cannot possibly move forward given that someone’s life is potentially at risk.” It’s not clear what this was a reference to. (Hill did not respond to a request for comment.)
My channel is lighthearted and no video or series is worth risking someone’s mental health. That being said the series will no longer be going forward.
— Tea Spill (@TeaSpillYT) September 25, 2018
Several prominent influencers on Instagram spoke to Vox anonymously about the drama channels. Two of them noted that they respect HereForTheTea and watch her channel specifically, but a few had concerns that the channels in general promote bullying.
“I feel like there are channels who do their job well and then there are other channels that stretch the truth and reach for drama just to post new content, which can lead to false news, rumors, and hurtful words against influencers. Some can even verge on bullying. The moment a drama channel starts making derogatory comments about a person is when I turn their video off because I don’t find satisfaction in putting others down,” says one.
“My biggest issue with drama channels is the impact they have on people online, on the subscribers. In my opinion, the language used in those videos can truly be associated with bullying. And certain drama channels tend to abuse that type of language, a behavior that their subscribers repeat afterwards,” says another.
Some drama channels pay lip service to this, like Rich Lux writing in his video’s notes, “Please don’t go out of your way to ‘witchhunt’ anyone that I have talked about in these videos. This channel’s purpose is to entertain people and not to spread hate to anyone else’s channels.” And Karina Kaboom starts her videos off stating that her videos are “opinion videos these are not facts” and “please don’t send any brands or people I mention any mean-spirited comments.”
Some drama dishers do seem conflicted about how they present information. “I was 100 percent a character. Then when I got the attention, I was asking myself, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with this? This is a chance for me to be professional. Am I going to be a clown?’” Kennedy says. “I got a lot of criticism over some stuff. I listened and I was like, ‘You know what, that is mean and that is bullying,’ and that’s how I learned.”
When the drama channels have drama
You can’t talk about beauty drama channels without mentioning John Kuckian, the notorious persona non grata of beauty drama YouTube, with followers he calls his “tittyfam.” While he has one of the largest followings of them all at over 380,000, he is also the most despised, at least by his peers. (HereForTheTea’s Sam originally declined to be interviewed for this story because Kuckian was going to be mentioned.)
He has had a beef with pretty much every single other drama channel out there and is generally characterized as one of the more mean-spirited drama channels. He once reportedly made and sold ringtones of one prominent influencer having a sobbing meltdown.
“He’s pretty much been declared an outcast by the entire beauty drama community. Nobody takes his opinion seriously,” says Christie, who actually started her channel by specializing in videos about Kuckian. “When people make a John Kuckian [drama] video, they don’t necessarily receive any backlash at all because I think everybody is kind of synchronized in saying, ‘Yeah, he’s a piece of shit.’” (Kuckian did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
It was probably inevitable that these drama channels would become the subjects of gossip in their own right. In some cases, they’re doing the same thing as beauty influencers — showing their personalities and personal experiences on YouTube, like Christie sharing her weight loss surgery and her wedding on her channels.
They become the subjects of drama too. Imagine TMZ publishing something juicy about Perez Hilton and you get the idea of what that looks like. Beauty Truth Sleuth says she was “doxxed” by another drama channel, which got ahold of an old mugshot of hers. That prompted her to post a video “exposing” her face and talking about her history with addiction. She was arrested after allegedly trying to steal from her parents, and spent several months in prison.
“When the whole situation happened I was super duper worried and scared. I was getting a lot of hate across all social media platforms. People just like straight up emailing me to tell me to go kill myself,” Christie says.
There are times when there is a lot of infighting among the drama channels. Someone stole someone else’s receipts. Someone is getting a bit too cozy with influencers. Someone gets things wrong in their videos. But both Alicyn from Beauty Truth Sleuth and TeaSpill say that there is less drama among the drama channels since the Dramageddon.
“I think every community on YouTube is bound to have some drama when you’re all out here doing the same thing,” writes TeaSpill. “It’s just like going into an office every single day. You’re not going to get along with every person you work with. I think all that matters is how it’s dealt with.”
It could also help their business by promoting a sense of tribe. “Drama with other channels is an easy way to enlarge the audience and extend the narrative,” says Rutledge, the media psychologist. She compares them to cliques. “It benefits both parties and replicates social behaviors. It triggers feelings of loyalty and affiliation that enhance the connection by creating a social identity.”
Kennedy has had spates with other channels in the past. “I don’t want to be the news,” he says. “I want to be the person who talks about the news. I pulled back a lot and I feel like if I didn’t pull back, maybe I would be at a million subscribers right now and I would be on these vacations and around the world like these beauty gurus go.”
Drama channels are the new influencers?
“That’s their thing, honestly that’s their business. They sit around talking about us. That’s how they get a paycheck,” opined Jaclyn Hill in her video rant about the industry. She’s right, kind of.
Some drama channels say they only make a few hundred dollars a month. Kennedy says he makes “definitely enough to have an accountant.” In addition to his YouTube ad income, he, like many of the other channels, sells merchandise such as T-shirts with his catchphrases (“Allegedly”) printed on them.
TeaSpill, who was a 21-year-old college student with a part-time job in a veterinary clinic with 43,000 subscribers in the spring, now has 407,000 followers and has made it her full-time job. Her days look a lot like that of any YouTube creator.
“When you work with social media, it’s easy to constantly be on your phone but it’s important to step back and find a healthy balance,” she says. “When I’m working on a video, if it’s over ten minutes long it takes me about 10 hours to research, put everything together, and then edit. Longer projects can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week to complete.”
While this can all seem petty and niche, beauty influencers are a significant part of the beauty industry economy now. Brands spend millions on influencer advertising and multiple millions of people follow them and buy things they recommend. The fact that some scrappy channels have been able to draw attention to potentially sketchy practices and call influencers and brands to account is remarkable.
But there’s definitely a dark side. The idea of “tea” as entertainment is one as old as the gossip that surrounds more traditional celebrities. Princess Diana’s death following a paparazzi chase is the worst example of what can happen. And detailing people’s personal relationships very rarely has no endpoint except pure voyeurism. Gossip magazines — and drama channels — ostensibly seek to demand accountability from the powerful, but often it’s really about schadenfreude and entertainment at someone else’s expense.
But what’s clear is that as long as beauty influencers remain so, well, influential, gossip will follow them. “Every single person is into gossip. You don’t think you’re into gossip. You don’t think that gossip is a part of your life, but it is. And it will always, always be there,” says Christie. “If I can take people’s mind away from the bullshit of life for 30 minutes in a video, then I’ve done my job.”
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