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Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has proven to be entertainment’s great democratizer.
The video hosting website has made it possible for creators to sidestep the gatekeepers who’ve made it so hard for so many to break through in legacy media—aka film, TV, and music—and foster a connection directly with the consumer. Got a camera and a computer? Then (theoretically) you too can be a star.
And it’s worked. For a generation of entertainment consumers—Gen Z, to be exact—there is no turning on the TV when they get home or heading to the multiplex on a Friday night. No, they just unlock their iPhones, open the YouTube app, and get all the content they need or want. And through that, stars have been born and some serious money has been made.
But when you remove the gatekeepers and create a path for literally anyone willing to find success of their own making, that means everyone. And sometimes, the people who find their way to the top aren’t exactly the most savory of entertainment icons. And the scandals they find themselves embroiled in? They’re next level.
Shane Dawson, a popular vlogger who began uploading to YouTube in 2008 and garnered half a billion views by 2010, is simply the latest personality on the video-sharing site to find themselves forced to answer for some eyebrow-raising past behavior. The self-made comedian has parlayed his YouTube notoriety into gigs with legacy media, including the release of two books, a short-lived singing career, a feature film, and a podcast. And it’s that last one that’s central to this story.
On Sunday, March 17, Dawson was forced to clarify remarks made on a 2015 episode from Shane and Friends, remarks that saw him joking about performing sexual acts on his cat after they randomly began circulating on social media. “I didn’t f–k my cat. i didnt cum on my cat. i didnt put my d–k anywhere near my cat. Ive never done anything weird with my cats,” he tweeted. “I promised myself i wasnt going to make apology videos after last years thing so im just trying to be as short and honest with this as possible.”
“That story was fake and was based on a dumb awful sketch idea I had years ago that i never made (THANK GOD) and when the opportunity came up for a funny moment in the podcast I told it as if it was a real story which was DISGUSTING and VERY VERY DUMB,” he continued. “My goal with the podcast and with my videos years ago was to tell shocking stories that would make people laugh and scream ‘OMG NO U DIDNT!!’ and think i was ‘soooo crazy’. its embarrassing and i f–king hate myself for it. Now that im making stuff i love and im being myself it feels so much better and i finally feel like im putting stuff out into the world that means something. im not saying i hate everything ive made over the years…theres so many things im so proud of. but all of my offensive jokes, over the top stories, and insensitive jokes are something that still haunt me and something I have to be faced with everyday on the internet. and it never gets easier.”
As he concluded his explanation, he apologized for his previous misguided attempt at humor, telling fans, “So im sorry for what i said about my cat, im sorry for what i said about anything or anyone that was offensive, and im sorry for being someone who thought being super offensive and shocking all the time was funny. im sorry for my past. but im really to make it right and i feel like without my past i wouldnt be who I am today and i wouldnt be able to grow & spend my energy on things that actually mean something. this has been the best 2 years of my life & its because ive been able to drop the act & be myself. and im sorry for not doing it sooner.”
Dawson’s not the only YouTube personality who’s been forced to face their digital firing squad for their questionable behavior. Hell, this isn’t even the first time he’s had to. And compared to the others, he’s a Boy Scout. Behold, the 15 darkest moments in YouTube history.
Dawson’s need to clarify that an old joke about participating in sexual acts with his cat was just that—a joke—was hardly the first time the popular vlogger has found himself embroiled in scandal over questionable comments or behavior. In January of 2018, a since-terminated YouTube channel released a video entitled “I think Shane Dawson is a pedophile. Here’s my proof.” The video proof was an edited clip from another episode of Dawson’s old podcast in which he said he looked up “naked baby” online and called the search results “sexy.” Dawson quickly responded with a video of his own in which he played the clip in full, which included him quickly saying he was “kidding” after calling the images “sexy.” “I wanted to play that clip in full—that moment especially in full—just for context because that seems to be missing nowadays. I cannot believe I’m having this make this video,” he said, before declaring that he is “not a f–king pedophile.”
That same year, he also found himself embroiled in controversy courtesy of his sponsor BetterHelp, a wellness app that described itself as “the largest online counseling platform worldwide,” aimed at helping people deal with issues “such as stress, anxiety, relationships, parenting, depression, addictions, eating, sleeping, trauma, anger, family conflicts, LGBT matters, grief, religion [or] self esteem.” The service advertises its services costing anywhere from $40 to $70 per week, billed monthly, and many felt that Dawson and the other YouTubers who made videos praising the services were actually profiting off their followers’ mental health issues.
Fans of Olivia Jade were shocked last week when it was revealed that the Gen-Z lifestyle queen with nearly 2 million YouTube subscribers was at the center of the alleged college entrance exam controversy otherwise known as Operation Varsity Blues thanks to the charges leveled against her famous parents, Full House star Lori Loughlin and fashion mogul Mossimo Giannulli. According to court documents obtained by E! News, Loughlin was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud to get her children into college. “The Guannullis agreed to a pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team—despite the fact that they did not participate in crew—thereby facilitating their admission to USC,” the affidavit noted.
As a result of the arrests, Olivia’s seen her endorsement deals disappear into thin air and been forced to disable the comments on both her YouTube channel and her Instagram account, where her followers total over 1.3 million.
In June 2017, Austin Jones, who’d amassed over 500,000 subscribers thanks to the acapella pop music covers he uploaded onto the video sharing website, was arrested and charged with two counts of production of child pornography. According to court documents obtained by E! News, the then-24-year-old YouTuber had allegedly been in communication with two underage female victims in August 2016 and May 2017 over Facebook, with the complaint describing Jones requesting that one girl “prove” she was his “biggest fan” by sending him sexually explicit videos. The arrest followed a 2015 incident where he apologized for lying about his age to solicit “twerking” videos from underage fans. On February 1, 2019, Jones pleaded guilty and faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison with a maximum of 20 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 3.
To ring in 2018, Logan Paul treated his Logang (of which there are currently over 18 million) to a video entitled “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest…” In the 15-minute video, which has since been deleted, Paul and his entourage visit Aokigahara, a forest on the slopes of Mt. Fuji in Japan, which has been home to hundreds of suicides. In the film, he comes across the body of a person who had hanged himself from a tree, blurring out only the victim’s face. Reaction to the tasteless video, which racked up over 6 million views in less than a day, was swift and overwhelmingly negative, prompting Paul to apologize and assert that he didn’t “do it for the views. I get views.” His channel was later removed from Google Preferred by YouTube and Paul said he would be taking a break from posting. He returned to the site on February 4.
A year after posting the controversial video, he returned to the headlines when he declared on an episode of his Impaulsive podcast that he would “go gay for just one month” in March of 2019. After being condemned from just about everyone, GLAAD included, for perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is a choice, Paul claimed it was a “very poor choice of words” before eventually apologizing.
Buckle up, because this one’s bizarre. Back in 2016, fans of popular UK vlogger Marina Joyce noticed a marked difference in the then-19-year-old beauty YouTuber’s personality. What was once upbeat and quirky now seemed sullen and uncomfortable, with videos full of silent stares and off-camera glances. They even thought they heard her whisper “Help me” in one video. Soon, the hashtag #SaveMarinaJoyce was trending worldwide and fans were frothed up in hysterics, postulating that she was being held against her will or using drugs or, in the most outlandish theory, had been absconded by ISIS. Eventually, police in her hometown made a visit to her residence to check on her well-being and determined there was nothing wrong. A year later, she would finally speak out about the ordeal, saying the reason she waited so long to speak about it was because she was “not in the right mind” to provide an answer. She added that she had been suffering from depression and felt “so grateful to this day that I am still alive.” To this day, fans still don’t seem to be buying it. In the comments on her most recent video, uploaded on March 14, 2019, one user wrote, “I feel like you are scared of something I think your [sic] in horror if I’m telling the true send me a emoji under my comment,” while another said, “I hope you are ok and not kindaped [sic].”
In June 2017, then-19-year-old Monalisa Perez claimed she accidentally killed her boyfriend and father of her two children, 22-year-old Pedro Ruiz III, when she shot him in the chest. The couple had begun posting videos in May and wanted to increase their viewership, so they thought up a stunt involving Perez shooting Ruiz while he held a thick encyclopedia. They believed the book would stop the bullet. It did not. Right before the tragic incident, Perez (who was pregnant with her second child) tweeted, “Me and Pedro are probably going to shoot one of the most dangerous videos ever HIS idea not MINE.” After pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter in December, she was sentenced to six months in jail in March 2018. As part of her plea agreement, she was allowed to serve her jail time in 10-day increments. She has since returned to YouTube, where she has over 35,000 subscribers.
Michael and Heather Martin
This Maryland couple who ran the controversial YouTube channel DaddyOFive, which saw the five children of their blended family subjected to humiliating pranks and abusive behavior in order to film their reactions, were eventually turned into the authorities by fellow YouTubers in April 2017. By September, they had both pleaded guilty to child neglect charges and were sentenced to five years of probation each. As part of their probation, they lost complete custody of 11-year-old daughter Emma and nine-year-old son Cody and were barred from filming their other children for social media. Their videos have since been removed from the streaming site, but the Martins have resumed posting videos of only themselves, under the name MommyOFive.
In November 2015, Sam Pepper, a British YouTuber, uploaded a video entitled “Killing Best Friend Prank,” which featured fellow internet personalities Sam Golbach and Colby Brock, whom were kidnapped by a masked Pepper. In the video, Pepper takes both men, only one of whom was in on the prank, to a rooftop where one is forced to watch as he “shoots” the other, leaving the horrified Golbach in tears. Over 100,000 people signed a petition calling for YouTube to remove Pepper from the website over the cruel prank, while, in an interview with Metro, Golbach tried to defend his friend, saying the video was “about living life to the full.” With the criticism unwavering, Pepper turned to GoFundMe, stating he would delete his channel if $1.5 million was pledged to him. The campaign was quickly removed, along with the accompanying video on his YouTube channel.
It wasn’t the first time one of Pepper’s videos had landed him in hot water. In September 2015, he uploaded one called “Fake Hand A-s Pinch Prank,” in which he seemingly accosted unsuspecting women. Facing allegations of sexual harassment and rape, Pepper claimed the video was “staged and scripted,” with sexual harassment “the focal point of the experiment.” He later removed the video from the streaming service.
Trevor Martin and Tom Cassell
These two gamers, known online as TmarTN and Syndicate, respectively, shared videos in which they heavily promoted Counter Strike: Global Offensive. In the videos, they were seen playing and gambling on the game, which seemed harmless enough until everyone learned that the pair actually owned CS:GO Lotto, the gambling website affiliated with the game that permitted users as young as 13 to join in. Cassell apologized for his shiftiness on Twitter, but Martin refused to, saying in a 2016 video, “Obviously, on my end, me playing on Lotto rather than other sites gives me an advantage because it promotes my own site, but it is not immoral, there is nothing wrong with it. I am 100 percent honest.”
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Kian Lawley, who launched his first YouTube channel in 2010, was well on his way to a more traditional acting career in 2017 when he landed a role in the film adaptation of the socially-conscious YA novel The Hate U Give. But he had the film role swiftly taken away on February 5, 2018 when a video of him using racist language surfaced on YouTube. Replaced by Riverdale star KJ Apa, Lawley later tweeted about his “mistakes,” writing, “If u don’t learn from ur mistakes, u can never grow as a person. I’ve learned a lot & i am grateful to have the power to change. i never want to be who i was yesterday. we’re in a constant battle to become a better version of ourselves, use ur voice as ur weapon.”
Sam & Nia
Sam and Nia Rader, known to their fans simply as Sam & Nia, began vlogging about their daily life as a Christian family and rose to prominence with a March 2014 video of them lip-synching to the song “Love Is An Open Door” from Frozen. In August of 2015, they went viral yet again with a video of Sam surprising Nia with the news of her own pregnancy. As he claimed in the video, he’d secretly used some urine his wife had left behind in the toilet, prompting some to question whether they were telling the truth. Three days later, another video was posted, revealing that Nia had miscarried, adding even more fuel to the naysayers’ fire. Three days after that, it was revealed that Sam had an account on Ashley Madison, the website where people arranged to cheat on their spouses. (He confirmed he had an account, but insisted he never went through with anything.) A few days later, while at a vlogger convention, Sam would confront some fellow vloggers over their comments regarding the miscarriage, resulting in him being forcibly removed from the event. After that very intense string events, they took an indefinite hiatus, returning to the site a month later.
In September 2015, self-proclaimed comedian Nicole Arbour uploaded a video to her channel entitled “Dear Fat People.” In the six-minute video, she speaks cruelly and relentlessly about people who are overweight, going so far as to advocate for fat shaming. Needless to say, it did not go over well. She was fired from an upcoming job choreographing, ironically, an anti-bullying video for kids. An appearance on The View saw Arbour try and defend the clip as “satire” that was “made to offend people.” Speaking with TIME, she claimed, “I find seeing someone’s head being blown off offensive. I find children starving in a country with more than enough food offensive. I find women’s bodies being mutilated for religious purposes, that is offensive to me. But words and satire I don’t find offensive.” She continues to post videos on her YouTube channel, where she maintains over 400,000 subscribers.
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Felix Kjellberg, or, as he’s known to his over 90 million YouTube subscribers, PewDiePie, is a Swedish YouTuber known for his video game commentary and quote-unquote comedy. He remains one of, if not the, most-subscribed users on the website. And in early 2017, he posted a video featuring two men, whom he’d hired, holding up a sign that read, “Death to all Jews.” While many saw the video as anti-Semitic, he defended it, saying he had posted it “to show how crazy the modern world is.” Whatever that means. After he published the video, YouTube canceled the second season of his YouTube Red show, Scare PewDiePie, and removed his channel from Google Preferred.
In late 2018, he was under fire once more after promoting and linking to the channel of another user whose videos often include homophobic and anti-Semitic language. That year, he also called new NBC late-night star Lilly Singh a “crybaby and an idiot” after she raised concerns over the complete absence of women on a recent Forbes list of highest-paid YouTube stars.
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Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother and famed YouTuber in his own right, came under fire in July 2017 when his neighbors in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles considered filing a class-action public nuisance lawsuit against the star after he’d made his home address public, leading crowds of fans to gather outside the residence, turning the street into a madhouse. “I feel bad for them, for sure,” he told local station KTLA when it visited the street, before adding, “There’s nothing we can do, though—the Jake Paulers are the strongest army out there.” Days after the reports broke, he was fired from Disney Channel series Bizaardvark while in the middle of filming the second season.
In January of the following year, a video was leaked to TMZ which featured him rapping the n-word twice. He still posts videos on his channel regularly to the apparent delight of his 18 million+ subscribers.
Ah, the one that started it all. Back when YouTube was just getting off the ground and we were all naive enough to believe that everything people posted on the site was, you know, the truth, along came Lonelygirl15. Launching on June 16, 2006, just 16 months after the video platform went online, we all believed we were watching the video diary of a teenage girl named Bree dealing with the sort of mundanity that we’re all familiar with. Somehow, Bree’s vlog became one of YouTube’s most popular. Three months later, we would learn that Bree wasn’t actually Bree at all—rather, she was a 19-year-old actress named Jessica Rose and the entire thing had been developed by three creators Mesh Flinders, Miles Beckett, and Greg Goodfried, under the working title The Children of Anchor Cove. And just like that, we would never truly trust anything ever again.