The Influencer Backlash Is Real: Ariella Charnas, Shane Dawson and More Who Had to Apologize

Pocketing cash for maintaining a carefully cultivated Internet presence seems like a plum gig. But in a post-COVID world, it feels like people are no longer buying what these influencers are selling.

By Sarah Grossbart Sep 26, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Downfall of Influencers, Arielle Charnas, Jessica Mulroney, Tanya Zuckerbrot, Jake Paul, Bryce Hall, James Charles

Back in March, when we were all still trying to find our pandemic footing—Is it okay to go out for groceries? What about a run? Should we be spraying down every last piece of mail with bleach?—there seemed to be at least one situation the Internet could all agree on. 

Arielle Charnas had f--ked up. 

In mid-March, the founder of the Something Navy clothing line and the OG blog of the same name told her 1.3 million Instagram followers that she was being testing for COVID-19 after experiencing a fever, sore throat and chills. Despite the limited number of tests available at the time in New York City—then the epicenter of the pandemic—she said that her friendship with a clinic director gave her an in. Naturally, she posted a video of the whole drive-up testing experience.

Later announcing that she had tested positive, she vowed to quarantine in her relatively expansive Manhattan apartment with husband Brandon Charnas and their daughters Ruby, 4, and Esme, 2. But then, not eight days later, her social media showed that the whole crew—including her nanny—decamped to a place in the Hamptons. This despite the increasing strain on the upscale enclave's resources, medical and otherwise, and Governor Andrew Cuomo's urging that New Yorkers shelter in place. 

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Michael Kors

Let's just say, it wasn't her best look. 

The year 2020 has been kind to pretty much no one. But among those most affected are the cadre of influencers who make their (quite lucrative, very splashy) living by telling the rest of us how we should dress, eat and which of the 237 subscription boxes we should sign up for.

Once the career choice most desired by Bachelor hopefuls, influencers pocket beaucoup cash, free trips and other swanky perks for posting Instagram ads, crafting quippy captions and maintaining a dedicated social media presence that lets fans in on their authentic, yet very carefully cultivated, self. Though it requires a willingness to overshare and the constant pressure to be on 24/7, for the right personality, it's not a bad gig 

But in a post-COVID world, those that tout their views on parenting, fashion, design and wellness have been questioned and outright derided, their posts about coordinated quarantine loungewear feeling more than a little frivolous as death rates rose across the country and as people continue to struggle with child care, unemployment and the very real challenge of home-schooling.

Related: Amanda Seyfried Calls Out Influencer Arielle Charnas

And while there's certainly an argument to be made that a bit of frivolity is good when everything else feels so heavy—and people still need to put on clothes sweats, find ways to practice self-care and show off their skills with a sourdough starter—not everyone is buying what these influencers are selling. It can be pretty hard to aspire to that curated, filtered existence when, for many, the goal each morning is to just make it through the day.

Many influencers have pivoted to content that feels more appropriate in the current climate, but more than a few outlets have been wondering if that's enough to save the still nascent industry. As Vanity Fair put it in an April article, "Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It?"

The crux of their reporting was focused on the tale of Charnas. How the comments on her Instagram page grew increasingly heated as she boasted about taking walks outdoors for "fresh air" and snuggled with her daughters rather than maintain any sense of social distance. 

When her husband cracked that apparently only "hot" people were getting the virus, emotions boiled over as Charnas more or less gave a master class on how not to behave in the middle of a crisis.  

She later posted a lengthy apology addressing many people's concerns—their nanny was with them because she, too, had contracted the virus; they had doormen clear out the lobby of their NYC building before departing, hadn't stopped for gas and had groceries delivered to their new spread; her Hamptons pad was on a relatively isolated street—but the damage has lingered.

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2019 American Influencer Awards: Red Carpet Fashion

Nordstrom, who had been carrying Charnas' line, announced they wouldn't be renewing the contract that had expired in 2019 (in response, Charnas pivoted to a direct-to-consumer relaunch in July, explaining, "I wanted more control"). In May, another designer came forward accusing her of swiping his idea (in a statement, she insisted, "We did not know about Juan Carlos Obando until his dress was brought to our attention,") and, amid all the chaos, Charnas decided to make her Instagram page private. "People wanted me to be more sensitive about what was going on in the world," she would note on The Glossy Podcast in July, "and I should have been."

But in 2020's six long pandemic-plagued months, she hasn't been the only one stepping a Proenza Schouler-clad toe in it. 

Whether it's a seemingly inflated sense of importance driving social media's popular crowd to make mistakes or just the spirit of cancel culture bumping up against people at home with more time on their hands, a number of influencers have been called out in recent months. Their missteps range from the relatively benign and somewhat forgivable to—at their most egregious—actions that could have a true detrimental effect on a society kinda struggling to keep it all together. 

Allow us to recount the errors of their ways. 

Tanya Zuckerbrot

This summer, fashion influencer Emily Gellis Lande dished out a healthy serving of criticism to registered dietitian Zuckerbrot. In a series of posts, Gellis Lande shared anonymous tales from dieters, at least one of which who had paid upwards of $20,000 to follow the New Yorker's high-fiber F-Factor Diet only to experience rashes, intense cramps, indications of metal poisoning and—in the most extreme allegation—a miscarriage. Gellis Lande's crusade caught the attention of The New York Times which published a piece detailing the saga, with some of the tipsters recounting their stories to the paper. 

Having hired lawyer Lanny Davis, once White House special council to former president Bill Clinton and attorney for Michael Cohen, Zuckerbrot denied the claims and the suggestion that her plan led to disordered eating, telling the paper that across upwards of 176,000 purchases of her snack bars and powders she had received just 50 health complaints. She later released a Certificate of Analysis to dispute concerns the products contained heavy metals and went on Today to further defend her program.

As for her online adversary Gellis Lande, who's continued to share anonymous testimonies with her 208,000 followers, Zuckerbrot is hardly impressed. "I believe in her mind she thinks she's helping people and that the lifestyle I lead is poisoning everyone and giving them anorexia," Zuckerbrot, who's worked with Megyn Kelly, sniped to the Times. "But she's a fashion blogger. She doesn't work for the World Health Organization. If this was Barbara Walters or John Stossel, maybe I would have paid attention sooner. But this is a young woman who has no credential in health and wellness or any medical or clinical experience. The girl sells clothing for a living."

Still, Gellis Lande vowed in an August Instagram, "I won't stop until there is justice for you guys and until your voices are heard, acknowledged and addressed!"  

Jessica Mulroney

Much of the world underwent a long overdue racial awakening this summer, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others pushing the Black Lives Matter movement back to the forefront. But it was stylist—and close Meghan Markle friend—Jessica Mulroney who got a true wake-up call. In a nearly 12-minute Instagram video, Canadian lifestyle blogger Sasha Exeter took Mulroney to task, saying her issues with her onetime acquaintance began when Mulroney "took offense" to Exeter's plea that her 144,000 Instagram followers "use their voice for good and help combat the race war and what's happening to the Black community." 

Believing the message was targeting her, Exeter continued, Mulroney engaged in what she called "very problematic" behavior, allegedly speaking poorly about Exeter to other brands and "sending me a threat in writing." Though Mulroney commented on Exeter's video with an apology, she later sent a DM that Exeter shared, Mulroney writing, "Liable [sic] suit. Good luck."

Though Mulroney later posted a lengthier mea culpa to her own 400,000 Insta followers, announcing her intentions to promote "Black voices by having them take over my account and share their experience," her planned reality show I Do, Redo was dropped from CTV and her social media account was later made private.

Her husband Ben Mulroney (son of former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney) also stepped down from his role as co-host of CTV's eTalk, stating, "It is my hope that the new anchor is Black, Indigenous, or a person of color who can use this important platform to inspire, lead, and make change." But the mom of three did get to keep her most high-profile friendship, writing in a since-deleted post, "I'm going to tell this once and for all. Meghan and I are family. She is the kindest friend and has checked up on me everyday."

Jake Paul

Known for such cinematic greatness as "I DUCT TAPED My Brothers $400,000 Dollar TRUCK!" and getting fired from Disney Channel's Bizaardvark, the Vine star turned YouTube personality graduated to the big leagues this summer.

On the morning of Aug. 5, FBI authorities executed a federal search warrant at Paul's Calabasas, Calif., home, the bureau confirming it was in connection to a May 30 incident at a Scottsdale, Ariz., mall. Broadcasting live from a Black Lives Matter protest that ended at the city's Fashion Square Mall, Paul unlawfully entered and remained inside the shopping center after cops ordered everyone to leave, police insisted in a statement. (Paul responded on Twitter that while he was documenting the protest, "neither I nor anyone in our group was engaged in any looting or vandalism.") 

Though rumors about the FBI raid grew as outsized as his YouTube following, reports emerging that multiple firearms were seized, Paul insisted in a since-deleted Aug. 12 video that the search was "entirely related to the Arizona looting situation that happened. It's an investigation. There are rumors about it having to do with so many other things that have nothing to do with me or my character and the s--t that people are making up is absolutely absurd." While no charges have been filed, Paul's attorney told E! News in a statement that they intend to "cooperate with the investigation."

James Charles

More than a year after making up with fellow beauty vlogger Tati Westbrook, the YouTube sensation started falling into some new feuds. First, in an August subtweet, he insinuated that perpetually bare-faced Alicia Keys had no business launching a skincare collection, later apologizing because he's "not the gatekeeper of makeup" and "anyone should be able to secure their bag and it's not up to me which brands people should or shouldn't support." 

But not two weeks later the Instant Influencer host was forced to cover up another mistake when he came for Lauren Conrad's new beauty line. Slamming The Hills alum in a series of Instagram Stories, he showed his 22 million followers the empty packaging he'd received "from a new makeup brand from somebody who has no business having a makeup brand."

Fortunately the LC Lauren Conrad fashion designer didn't shed a single mascara tear, hilariously copping to her misstep on Instagram by blaming the "woman who put together the gifts" (read: the winged eyeliner expert herself). Having put empty samples into a bag to test if they would fit, "When beauty products arrived and it was time to fill all the makeup bags she (again, me) accidentally included the bag full of empties with the others and it was sent out," Conrad shared. "She will be let go immediately."

Charles later apologized, saying the videos were meant to be funny and sharing that "Lauren and I spoke privately about the misunderstanding & are both good." Still, it's pretty clear he knows what he did. 

Myka Stauffer

When The Stauffer Life vlogger and YouTuber kicked off a May video by saying, "This is by far the hardest video James and I have ever publicly had to make," it was evident she wouldn't be sharing her newborn nighttime routine or her daily diet. Instead, she and her husband revealed they had placed their nearly 5-year-old son Huxley, adopted from China in 2017, with "his now new forever family" after struggling to manage his autism. 

The reaction from their nearly 1 million subscribers could best be categorized as outraged, fans debating whether the couple—parents to four other children—were simply naive or had exploited Huxley for clicks and donations only to discard him when his care became too challenging. The two lost followers and willing brand collaborators, the likes of Fabletics, Suave and Danimals announcing that they were severing ties and Ohio's Delaware County Sheriff's Office even confirmed to E! News that they were investigating the well-being of Huxley. 

Authorities announced in late June that they had closed their case "without any charges," but Myka's brand remains shut down as well. A once constant Internet presence, she hasn't posted to YouTube or Instagram since June. 

Bryce Hall & Jaden Hossler

Quite the ride. When Hall announced May 20 that he and his fellow TikTok star "might do a whole road trip all the way across country in the next few days..." they received more than just the sightseeing recommendations they were after. Hall's Twitter followers were already less than thrilled that the two were flouting stay at home recommendations to take a trip, causing the Gen Z idol to shoot back, "most states lifted quarantine, the boys are driving across country staying out of contact from everyone... it's not that deep."

But they dug an even deeper hole when they passed through Lee County, Tex. five days later, the sheriff's office confirming that Hall was arrested for possession of marijuana and Hossler for possession of controlled substances. (They both posted bail the next day.) In a June essay, Hall told People he'd "started on the path" toward getting sober: "While I've messed up in the past, I'm learning and growing... and I will make you proud. I promise."

Which brings us to...

Bryce Hall & Blake Gray

Among the summer's least inspiring trends: the heady mix of youth and self-importance that caused a certain sect of social media celebrities to party like it's 2019. (Naturally, they captured their irresponsible behavior on camera for their hordes of impressionable fans to see.) 

The whole lot of them got called out by Tyler Oakley in a July tweet, the YouTuber telling his followers, "If your favorite influencers are at huge house parties during a pandemic (& are dumb enough to post it on social media)... they are bad influences. unfollow them."

But it was TikTok stars Hall and Gray who would face true repercussions. Issued a citation Aug. 8 that a gathering at Sway House, their Hollywood Hills rental, violated the Safer L.A. health order and the city's Party House Ordinance, per a press release from the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, they responded by throwing a bash for hundreds six days later to mark Hall's 21st birthday. Officers, once again, responded to a call (gun shots were reported, but no evidence found that one had been fired), the press release confirmed.

Given another citation and final warning of noncompliance, per the release, authorities cut the power to the home Aug. 19 and both Hall and Gray were hit with two misdemeanor charges. They face up to a year in prison and $2,000 in fines, which, if you think about it, is quite the party foul. Hall and Gray have yet to respond. 

Alan & Alex Stokes

Some pranks are cute. Say, George Clooney and Brad Pitt covering Ocean's Eleven costar Julia Roberts' dressing room door in shaving cream. This is not that. In October 2019, the YouTube personalities, known as the Stokes Twins to their 5 million followers, clad themselves all in black, adding ski masks and duffel bags full of money, and, pretending as if they'd just robbed a bank, called an Uber to serve as a getaway while a video camera rolled. Definitely not in on the joke, the Uber driver refused to peel away and a bystander—believing the boys were adding carjacking to their list of crimes—called the cops. 

"Irvine police arrived and ordered the Uber driver out at gunpoint," the Orange County District Attorney's Office later shared in a press release. Though the driver was released once authorities determined he was not involved, the release continued, "Police issued a warning to the Stokes brothers about the dangers of their conduct and let them go."

Lesson learned, right? Please. Four hours later the twins allegedly recreated the routine on the University of California, Irvine campus. Now facing up to four years in prison if convicted on false imprisonment and swatting charges, they received the ire of Orange County D.A. Todd Spitzer, who said in a statement, "These were not pranks. These are crimes that could have resulted in someone getting seriously injured or even killed."

But in a September news release, their lawyer said, "We have reviewed all of the discovery provided to our offices in this case. We can say without hesitation that our clients are in fact not guilty of any crimes." Having pled not guilty to all charges, they are due back in court Oct. 27.

Shane Dawson

Crowned the "King of YouTube" for his documentary series-length videos that earned him some 34 million followers, Dawson saw his 15-year reign come to an end in June after he posted a since-deleted explosive tweet about why he was leaving the online beauty community. "They are all attention seeking, game playing, egocentric, narcissistic, vengeful, two-faced, ticking time bombs ready to explode. And I'm OVER it," he griped, calling out James Charles in particular as "a young, egocentric, power-hungry guru who needed to be served a slice of humble pie in the size of the f--king Empire State Building."

His followers were, uh, not impressed, noting that those that live in glass glam rooms shouldn't throw stones. And within days Dawson had posted a 20-minute video titled "Taking Accountability" in which he apologized for a slew of his own bad behavior, including using blackface, making racist remarks and jokes about pedophilia and posting one truly disturbing video that sexualized a then-11-year-old Willow Smith

"This video is coming from a place of just wanting to own up to my s--t, wanting to own up to everything I've done on the internet that has hurt people, that has added to the problem, that has not been handled well," he said in his lengthy mea culpa. "I should have been punished for things." Which he was, YouTube stepping in this June to suspend his ability to monetize his three accounts.