A Cosmopolitan profile of notorious beauty influencer James Charles went viral this weekend, with many readers and historians of YouTube’s 2018 beauty era astonished by the piece. With the tone-deaf title, “James Charles Would Like to Be Un-Canceled, Please,” the legacy media outlet sat down with the makeup guru, who has admitted to sending sexual messages to underage fans, for an interview and a lavish photoshoot as he gets ready to launch a new line of body paint.
“This very interview is to be a trial balloon, its reception the answer to the question both of us—and maybe you, too, if what auto-populates in Google Search can be believed—are here to ask: ‘Is James Charles still canceled,’” the piece said.
Judging from the web’s retching response, I think the balloon may have already popped.
From Lavish Influencer to Accused Abuser
Charles was once one of YouTube’s biggest beauty influencers, amassing over 26 million subscribers and becoming the de facto face of the makeup community. It’s really hard to overstate how large Charles was at one point: I still remember how truly startling the video of over 10,000 of his fans screaming in excitement and shutting down a Canadian Shopping Center just to see his face was.
But Charles hit the limelight when he was still a teenager, and missteps derailed a promising career. In 2019 events known to the beauty influencer world as Dramageddon, YouTube beauty expert and top player Tati Westbrook cattily accused Charles of promoting a rival vitamin brand to hers and said he often flirted and “manipulated” men he knew were straight using his online fame. Charles released a response video that momentarily cleansed his online image.
That was until 2021 when more serious allegations started to surface online that he had sent private sexual messages to at least 15 men and boys, according to the Cosmo story, including two 16-year-old fans. Charles, who was 20 at the time, denied some of the claims but admitted to sending sexual messages to the two 16-year-old minors. However, he claimed he did not know they were underage when he messaged them.
Though no legal action was taken in these instances, Charles was soon thereafter sued by his former creative director in 2021, alleging wrongful termination and that he used the “N-word” in front of her (there hasn’t been a public update on the case status).
The clear power dynamic Charles abused by messaging young fans, even those who he may have thought were older than 18, was enough to sully his reputation. Shortly after the news broke, he returned to the comfort of his $7 million farmhouse, taking a whopping three months off from posting content.
Years later, Charles has decided that his cancellation sentence is up, and he will use a legacy media outlet owned by the Hearst communications media conglomerate to fancy him up. According to the Cosmopolitan piece, he’s here to promote his makeup line Painted, “a solo venture four years in the making” that releases in just a few weeks.
Dear Cosmo, From a Fellow Digital Culture Journo
There’s a lot in this Cosmopolitan story that has nothing to do with paint. The article hints Charles’ team only granted Cosmopolitan access to an interview with Charles in order to promote this new body paint line. The result of the interview is an extremely sympathetic tone, promoting the brand multiple times while weaving in information about the very serious allegations against Charles.
The tone, pictures, and headline paint a narrative levity when in reality, the allegations against Charles are incredibly disturbing.
“At this point, you’re likely familiar with the specific quid pro quo inherent in celebrity profiles like this—the ones that come together post-cancellation, after a respectable amount of time has passed post–cancelable sin,” the article reads. “It’s no surprise that a star’s willingness to answer intimate questions about a catastrophic stretch of their lives increases dramatically when they have a project to promote.”
Despite being somewhat self-aware about this exchange for access, the article largely downplays Charles’ behavior and the power dynamics he abused. It touts that “Charles says he recognizes the power imbalance at play in his interactions online” despite not admitting to being a “pedophile” or “groomer.” It’s got the same energy as he’s reawwy sowwy he texted underage boys, it was an accident, uwu.
The piece broke the news that Charles’ own brother “stopped talking to him because of the allegations,” and it’s been two years since they chatted. Unfortunately, this news aspect gets bogged down in an attempt to reframe Charles’ past behavior.
Later in the story, he discusses his dating life in oddly casual detail, saying that he doesn’t like using dating apps, instead still using Instagram and TikTok to find potential suitors and verify individuals’ ages’ before moving forward. At least now he asks people on social media for an ID, he suggests.
The Myth of Cancellation
The piece does acknowledge that “Cancellation” is a bit of a myth. “Would a still-ousted person be allowed to pose for red carpet cameras at the People’s Choice Awards or chat amiably with paparazzi while out and about in Hollywood,” it said. “Would a still-banished person have hundreds of thousands of fans enthusiastically engage with his YouTube beauty tutorials?”
But other lines paint him in a more sympathetic light that comes off as a bit biased, attempting to make the argument that he was an unjust martyr of cancel culture. The article says there’s “an absence of hard evidence” of these claims, despite Charles having admitted to knowingly sexually messaging fans (whether or not he admits to knowing their age at the time).
The end result is, y’know, the same sort of tired dialogue you see whenever a white man is held to the consequences of his actions. Charles is still a multi-millionaire that gets nearly a million views on each of his videos. If cancellation means you get tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue week and you get to go on red carpets, then I can’t see why he would ever want to be “un-canceled.”
As digital culture journalists, it’s our job to break through the bullshit and explain a world built on confusing lies and misinformation. This rallying cry against “cancel culture” should have been immediately picked apart as a narrative used to dismiss justifiable criticism of Charles’ actions.
Creators Respond to Charles’ Attempted Comeback
Online, Charles’ bold victim mentality was quick to be torn apart.
“He really has no business asking to be uncanceled, he’s a whole groomer,” said one TikToker.
“James Charles has been uploading to his YouTube channel getting millions of views every week since he got ‘canceled’ — is that supposed to be what ‘cancel culture’ is?” wrote political YouTuber the Kavernacle.
One claim in particular that was torn apart by the internet was Charles saying, “Quickly, please name five famous male gay celebrities from the ages of 20 to 25. You can’t because they don’t exist,” in the Cosmopolitan piece.
Many online were quick to point to a plethora of queer icons in that age range, including beauty influencer Sarah McGonagall who tweeted that she “brought him as my plus one to a convention and afterparty where there were at least 100 famous male gay celebrities between the ages of 20 to 25 in one room.”
Colleen Ballinger, Logan Paul, David Dobrik, Jeffree Star: the list of “canceled” creators goes on and on. But even after extreme or dangerous allegations, these creators have managed to pop back up and continue living a millionaire lifestyle.
Should creators like these and Charles be really condoned as famous YouTubers and have access to potentially millions of underage fans? Platforms are a privilege, not a right, and when you allow bad actors to take center stage, they can continue their actions. While people should be allowed to grow and learn from their mistakes, it’s important to put some limitations — even if it’s just criticism on social media.