Almost a decade ago, a young Canadian woman with the username EssieButton uploaded her first video to YouTube. With a simple white background and rudimentary editing skills, what really shone in EssieButton’s videos was her homegrown sweetness. When Essie vlogged, viewers felt like they were hanging out with a friend.
Flash forward to 2019. This young everywoman is now an established beauty guru, Instagram influencer, and jewelry designer. As Essie moved from the Ontario suburbs to London, England, she transformed from the girl next door to a jet-setting blogger. The luxe rebrand was complete with a conspicuous name change. EssieButton was dead. Long live “Estée Lalonde.”
Fall From Grace
For a time, the world was Estée’s oyster. Beloved by brands and viewers, she experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the beauty guru world. But things have changed. On the gossip forum Guru Gossip, few threads are as active (and as vicious) as the one dedicated to hate-watching Estée’s videos.
This scorn isn’t just found on anonymous messages, but in dwindling subscribers. Even if viewers don’t take the time to post mean comments, their disinterest speaks volumes. As YouTube gives way to Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok, many OG YouTubers (who peaked in the early 2010s) struggle to maintain views, with Estée’s subscriber count either stalling or falling.
But just how does the internet’s It Girl become the bread and butter of a trash blog? It actually has very little to do with Estée herself and everything to do with what I call “the YouTube trap.”
The Relatability Paradox
In the YouTube world, vloggers become popular because they’re charming and relatable. Their viewers feel like they know them so that watching videos seems like chatting with a friend.
However, as a YouTuber gains success, they inevitably lose their relatability. As they move into expensive houses and enjoy lavish vacations, YouTube stars don’t seem like regular girls anymore. At a certain point, a viewer’s happiness at a friend’s success curdles into confusion, discomfort, and alienation. The girl next door now lives in a penthouse and gets paid to fly to exotic locales. Do we even know this person anymore?
Hello from the Other Side
From the YouTuber’s side, this is a cruel and often insurmountable paradox. The audience roots for your achievements—until you actually achieve them. It’s like how people support the underdog instead of the reigning champion. People want to watch someone ascend, not someone who’s already at the top.
On a narrative level, people like stories with momentum. To paraphrase the literary theorist Peter Brooks, we like to see events progress, not stall and lag. Once a YouTuber breaks into the big leagues, it seems like their story has hit its apex. Why tune in to watch a rich person drink lattes when a spry up-and-comer’s quest to gain a million subscribers is available?
But the reason behind a YouTuber’s fall from grace isn’t provided by pop psychology or literary criticism. It’s economics. When viewers leer at newly-wealthy internet personalities, they also confront class and structural inequality. Against its own will, YouTube is a breeding ground for conversations about the western world’s most forbidden topic: Money.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
One of the strangest things about YouTube is that even though the platform is defined by oversharing, YouTubers are very quiet when it comes to their thickening wallets. No one discusses money. Like, at all.
Of course, getting anyone to talk about their finances is a big ask, so maybe this reticence just transplants social norms onto our computer screens. But then again, a newly wealthy person’s unwillingness to acknowledge their assets (while still, like a nouveau riche character in a Jane Austen novel, flaunting pricey purchases) distills a key element of capitalism: An individual wealthy person’s desire to separate their privilege from the structural antagonism of class.
In other words, when a rich person low-key refuses to talk about class, they’re often trying to distance themselves from their role in the vagaries of capitalism. “I’m not like the other rich people,” they seem to imply, “because I remember what it was like to be middle class.” But refusing to address the economic hierarchy doesn’t do us any good. Silence is never neutral.
Failure is Inevitable
By failing to talk about money, YouTubers play into the toxic idea that the system rewards hard workers. The wealthy deserve their cash, while the impoverished can better their circumstances through industry. As such, playing by capitalism’s rules seems like a worthy endeavor—even though we know that individual actions rarely overcome inherited wealth and entrenched privilege.
YouTube’s attitude toward money is simultaneously evasive and showy. Vloggers celebrate their success with shopping sprees and endless purchases, making it clear that they have much more money than they did before. At the same time, they refuse to actually think about what this money means. Most beauty and fashion YouTubers won’t talk about their money as anything but a good thing, which ignores class’ ugly link to inequality. These mixed messages are…complicated, and once you start thinking about them, they quickly balloon into bigger questions.
Can someone be rich and relatable? Is it possible to hold extreme wealth and still read as likeable and politically progressive? Based on beauty gurus’ YouTube dwindling subscriber counts, the answer seems to be “no.”
Do Influencers Work?
These thorny topics only get murkier when we think about the strange work-life balance of a YouTube personality. Because every YouTuber’s job started as their passion project, viewers often feel resentful when gurus present themselves as fellow workers, instead of one-percenters with a hobby. Thousands of posts on Guru Gossip repeat this point: YouTube isn’t real work.
Creating and editing content is a full-time job (it’s my job!) but viewers resist recognizing it as such, likely because as YouTubers move up, they outsource the technical parts of their labor. As employees take on a YouTuber’s editing and financial management, the once-relatable vlogger seems more and more like an untouchable boss. This wouldn’t be a problem, if a YouTuber’s brand wasn’t built on needing to feel like a viewer’s dear friend. At this point, it seems impossible for a YouTuber to have it both ways.
This tense balance often leads YouTubers to mix life and work so greatly that they become inextricable. For example, Estée Lalonde hired a woman named Chels, though the duo seemed more like gal pals than employer and employee. Lalonde even calls Chels her “bestie” in an Instagram post. Like a 19th-century governess and her privileged ward or the #girlboss who says they’re BFFs with their staff, this dynamic blurs the line between friend and laborer, bud and boss. And this effect isn’t limited to a vlogger’s staff. Viewers experience a version of this too.
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Many message boards repeat a shared lament: As YouTubers accept brand sponsors and ad placements, viewers feel less like friends and more like customers. Money is the third wheel in the relationship between a vlogger and her fans, or maybe as time passes, viewers become the third wheel blocking the YouTuber from her unimpeded pursuit of money.
While YouTube isn’t going to overthrow capitalism, it could handle the awkward topic of money more productively. It would be great to see established YouTubers use their platforms to change the way we talk about YouTube, wealth, and ethics by discussing their changing social status frankly or perhaps breaking down how they run their businesses and manage their finances. (On a personal note, I think someone like BestDressed could pave the way towards this kind of content).
Social change won’t happen because a vlogger thinks about money, but transparency and accountability are incredibly important. Changing the discourse is the first step to collective action. And with such a large audience at their disposal, YouTubers could introduce millions of young people to ideas far more critical than “buying things will fulfill you.”
And on a more pragmatic note, the internet is changing. As audiences wonder about the links between the climate crisis and capitalism, slow fashion moves into the mainstream, and freaking Teen Vogue publishes articles about Karl Marx, sweeping money under the rug seems like a doomed endeavor. If the basic idea of YouTube is to give audiences what they want, avoiding class and money probably won’t keep millennial viewers tuning in long.