Westbrook’s beef with Charles began over something seemingly trivial. Westbrook owns a nutritional-supplement brand called Halo Beauty. Its main competitor is a popular brand called SugarBearHair. Charles posted an ad for SugarBearHair sleep gummies to his Instagram Story at Coachella last month, claiming that it was a last-minute favor after the brand offered him security on-site. Westbrook was livid that Charles would advertise SugarBearHair’s products and not her own, and claimed that there was no way the ad could have been a last-minute favor. Charles posted a tearful apology video to Westbrook later that day.
If this all seems minor and petty, it is. But that’s the appeal.
Westbrook argues in her video that Charles wouldn’t be anywhere without her. She says that she and her husband, a former entertainment executive, negotiated higher rates for Charles’s brand deals and leveraged their connections to get him on the radar of Hollywood power players. Westbrook also remained fiercely loyal to Charles in the wake of previous scandals, such as when he joked about getting Ebola on a school trip to Africa and made transphobic comments on video, writing off his behavior as youthful indiscretions.
But Westbrook said this new betrayal wasn’t the only reason fans should hate Charles. For years, she claimed, she had overlooked Charles’s problematic behavior. She claims that Charles, who is gay, sexually harassed straight men. Westbrook said Charles attempted to “trick a straight man into thinking he’s gay, yet again,” at her recent birthday party. (Charles did not immediately respond to a request for comment and has not addressed the allegations publicly.)
No one other than Westbrook cared about the gummy vitamins, but this last accusation seemed to stick. And as Charles began hemorrhaging followers and Westbrook began gaining them, influential channels exploited the situation. These drama channels, often called tea accounts, painstakingly documented every incremental update on the feud and shared them live, around the clock, on social media until they became too big to ignore.
Tea accounts, so called because the word tea is slang for juicy information, are like online gossip magazines on steroids. They are networks of Instagram pages, YouTube channels, Twitter handles, and Facebook groups, many of them run by young fans and observers, though some tea-account admins are in their 30s or even 40s. They have names such as Shook, Spill, What’s the Tea?, and Tea by Ali and serve as real-time news sources for millions. “My channel is Investigations all through the week. Some more serious, some more fun,” the bio of one tea account reads. Many tea accounts are monetized, and Social Blade, a social-analytics platform, estimates that Tea Spill alone is earning up to $65,000 a month. Running a successful channel is also a fast track to clout in the influencer world. Successful tea channels can amass tens of thousands of followers overnight.
Young people are desperate for news about influencers, a category of people the mainstream press often ignores or patronizes. They also want that news delivered 24/7 through social-media channels. Several years ago, accounts such as the Shade Room (an Instagram-based celebrity-gossip destination) and DramaAlert (known unofficially as “the TMZ of YouTube”), and YouTube commentators such as Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco stepped in to meet the demand. Their meteoric growth, coupled with the rise of stan accounts (social-media pages, mostly run by teenagers, that tirelessly document every minuscule update on an influencer or celebrity), gave birth to the current tea-industrial complex.