Laura Lee, Jeffree Star, and the Teary-Eyed Cynicism of YouTube Apology Videos


“Imagine stanning a racist? I could never,” YouTuber Gabriel Zamora tweeted on August 12. He followed with a thread of damning accusations and thinly-veiled insults, including a photograph of fellow influencers Nikita Dragun, Laura Lee, Manny Gutierrez (better known as Manny MUA), and Zamora himself, middle fingers in the air, with the caption “Bitch is bitter because without him we’re doing better.”

Zamora, a BeauTuber with 676,000 subscribers, was calling out makeup mogul Jeffree Star, a social media celebrity and veteran of the beauty community, in a series of subtweets transparent enough for most fans to understand the reference. The tweets have since been deleted, but the internet never forgets: Zamora’s thread described the casual racism he allegedly witnessed while hanging around Star during his come-up—part of an ongoing trend of boys in makeup befriending and collaborating with one another—and how he eventually ended their casual friendship over Star’s racist remarks. (As Zamora wrote in his thread, Star allegedly said things like, “I’ve had so much black dick I can’t be racist.”)

Star’s legion of followers began digging into Zamora’s social media history—as well as Dragun’s, Lee’s and Gutierrez’s— hellbent on finding any digital ammunition to use in retaliation. (Their relentless dedication is noteworthy, but certainly not uncommon in stan spaces. Such singular loyalty often leaves fans to do a celebrity’s bidding.)

Star’s stans found almost identical comments to those Zamora criticized in the first place, ranging from the casual use of the n-word (Zamora) to jokes about pedophilia (Dragun). Laura Lee’s unearthed tweets were, inarguably, the most venomous and far-ranging. “Tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster.. #yourwelcome,” she wrote in one tweet. In another, she used some vintage hate speech: “How do you blindfold a Chinese person? Put floss over their eyes! #dumbgook.”

Thus began a series of Twitter apologies, all following a familiar formula: those offensive remarks were made in the past when Dragun, Zamora, and Lee were “younger…and ignorant” to quote Zamora; that they are “literally….changed [people], growing and changing everyday,” according to Dragun. The phrasing is now standard in the way social media personalities perform the “sorry” role, which includes Star’s own apology video just last year.

Still, the consequences hit hard and fast. Zamora and Dragun have bled subscribers since the incident; Dragun, alone, has lost at least 1,500, SocialBlade reports. But it’s Lee, the Los Angeles-via-Alabama beauty influencer, who has been hit the hardest. Since the discovery of her racist tweets, she’s lost over 200,000 YouTube subscribers. According to Polygon, that “equates to a loss of $70 a day—or, $25,000 a year.” Lee apologized the next day, on August 13, largely blaming her racist language as the result of her Southern childhood. It did not go over well.

And so, on Sunday, August 19, exactly one week since the original Twitter thread, Laura Lee did what many YouTubers before her have done when their controversies have long tail effects: She made an apology video.

“I, six years ago, decided to retweet things that were so vile and hurtful,” she squeaks through unconvincing tears around the one-minute mark. “I was so stupid and ignorant and I have no excuses… I’m so sorry.” Later, she repeats the argument: “I can’t even believe I would retweet ugly things.”

She shifts into the role of victim and alleges that “people have gotten [my mother’s] number and threatened to kill her. They’ve attacked a child, my 14-year-old niece—attacked her.” At three-and-a-half minutes, the video cuts to dry eyes. Lee directs her attention to the photo included in Zamora’s initial tweets, claiming the image was simply an attempt to mimic this photograph from Kylie Jenner’s 21st birthday bash. The remaining minute is an apology directly addressed to Star. (Lee did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)

Lee’s video accentuates the failing of the format, underlining the ultimate goal of the apology video: to convince the viewer that the YouTuber is worthy of continued and absolute loyalty—not necessarily that they feel remorse. And if they do feel apologetic, it might be because they’ve done something that could result in you clicking away from their page, unsubscribing, losing interest—therefore hindering their source of income. It’s impossible to gauge what is genuine redemption and if they’ve actually learned from—let alone abandoned—their casually racist ways.

Lee’s apology video is the most recent in a now seemingly interminable history of Youtuber apologies. Star himself is familiar with the genre: In June 2017, videos of Star from the early 2000s, wherein he made racist and sexist remarks, resurfaced—including comments about wanting to lighten a black woman’s skin by throwing battery acid on her. He posted a 15-minute apology video with the clickbait title, “RACISM.” in response, but failed to address his more contemporary impropriety, such as his ugly feud with black BeauTuber MakeupShayla in 2016. (They had a back and forth, Star allegedly said he’d beat MakeupShayla up, that she needs lip fillers and that she looks more like a man than he does.)

In September 2014, Shane Dawson, one of the first content creators to find real YouTube fame, did the same in a 12-minute video titled “My Apology (Blackface & Offensive Videos).” Then, of course, there was the infamous Logan Paul apology (simply titled, “So Sorry.”) from earlier this year.

Though the YouTube apology video is now familiar—complete with its own language and narrative arc—it often fails to reckon with the fact that YouTube offers a unique kind of celebrity different from the traditional fame machine. Internet democratization facilitates an often false sense of accessibility and accountability: If you’re online, you can do better, the argument goes, simply because you have the ability to perform the courageous act of opening another tab, Googling something, and educating yourself. It’s interesting to see how YouTube celebrity often veers in the complete and total opposite direction, where idiocy is celebrated and elevated—then stripped when it crosses an un-demarcated line into racist or sexist terrain.

Such is the failed promise of internet celebrity in general: what is presented as an opportunity for learning is often much more myopic and interior-focused, like crossing a digital field of precariously placed landmines in the woke Olympics. No one wins, and those who’ve gotten the furthest are only looking out for themselves. But people with bad politics will and have already acted on those bad politics. If there are consequences for hypocrisy—such as combating the idea of bullying and then engaging in oppressive language—they’ll do everything in their power to shield others from seeing those ugly parts. Value is placed not on growth, or consideration, but damage control.

YouTube celebrity exists in the microcosm of the internet: cult of personality reigns, especially when doing something as mundane as talking directly into a camera for a half hour. When YouTubers fuck up, the fuck up follows them—in interviews, on Twitter, potentially throughout their entire career, until it’s addressed. But unlike the traditional celebrities, some of these YouTubers don’t have a-list publicists, managers, and a paid team to help them navigate the aftermath.

Lee’s apology video, in contrast to what Dawson, Star, and countless other YouTubers have produced, is just over four minutes long. It’s exceptionally short, especially by the standard of the genre. The YouTube algorithm, a colleague at Gizmodo recently pointed out to me, favors videos over 10 minutes long. Lee’s decision to release a short video could very well be an attempt to reassure her most loyal subscribers that she’s being genuine; that she isn’t in it for the views. Or it could be that Lee’s contrition can’t last for 10 minutes. It is also unlikely that her apology was monetized. Lee’s refusal to profit off of her apology video is an easy way to convince viewers into believing she’s truly repentant. Apologies need to be authentic, and money-grubbing is shameless.

Still, authenticity can only be stretched so far on YouTube: Lee lies in her video, and not just once. Her past tweets were posted six years ago (in 2012, when she was 23 years old) show that she was clearly aware of what she was writing and certainly old enough to understand that it was racist. She didn’t retweet them, as she says in the video. She wrote them.

Lee is an unreliable narrator, but she’s not here for confession; the video is made to preserve fame and to seek performative redemption. So she makes a plea for empathy, a request dependent on the grace of her viewers and fans. (At the time of publishing, Lee’s video has nearly seven million views, 53,000 thumbs up and 566,000+ thumbs down.) Unlike the pop star panopticon, YouTubers offer the appearance of unguarded access in exchange for fame and fortune. That’s the reason Lee was able to film herself, crying tears of waning believability, minimizing her actions, and seeking forgiveness from her rapidly disappearing fan base.

In the final minute of the apology video, Laura Lee directs her monologue away from her fans and addresses Jeffree Star, her former friend and source of endless YouTube hatred. But she’s not really talking to Star, she’s speaking to his fans, many of which learned of her existence through him. “I didn’t know that picture was going to be taken out of context,” she deflects blame, “But at the end of the day, it was done. So I need to owe you an apology for this.” She does this, of course, without taking real responsibility.

Her apology, even in its few and most forgiving moments, feels like the age-old adage turned real: she’s not sorry about what she did, she’s sorry she got caught.

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