The Problematic Relationships Between Some YouTubers and Their Fans
When fan-performer relationships routinely become inappropriate, how do we dredge through the filth to find a solution?
Illustrations by John Garrison.
Bella was ecstatic when she learned that her favourite YouTubers would be staying at the Alton Towers Hotel. The 19-year-old, who worked on the housekeeping team, emailed the Ingham Family account asking if she could meet them. Sarah Ingham, wife to Chris and mother of their three kids, replied saying she could. Delighted, Bella approached the family in the hotel restaurant while she was on her break.
"I spoke to Sarah and the kids – they were really nice and friendly," Bella tells me over the phone. "I didn't speak to Chris much; it was weird. I don't even think I said a word to him."
When Bella finished work that day, she checked her phone and saw an email from Chris Ingham. He thanked her for meeting the family and asked for her Snapchat and Instagram. "I got excited and thought he'd follow me off his main accounts… but he didn't," says Bella. Instead, she says, Ingham started messaging her "massive paragraphs" about her body, from his personal account.
You can read some of the screenshots of messages allegedly sent between Bella and Ingham on Bella's Twitter account. The messages say Bella is "super good looking" and has a "banging body", "something that most girls and women would find a role model in. Especially with that six pack and thighs!!" In one picture seemingly sent from his Snapchat account, Chris pulls a face under a filter and text overlay, inviting Bella to "Drop that towel and re send!! HAAAA." He asks if she's ever been propositioned by a guest to join them in their room. He tells her to quit her job and be his PA.
"I did think he was a creep. That's why I took pictures of the messages straight away: for evidence of what had gone on," Bella tells me. "I knew it was so wrong, him talking about my face and my body when he has a wife and everything." She confided in friends, who told her to be friendly back. "Because, obviously, you do anything to speak to your favourite YouTuber."
Over the past four months, multiple young female fans have come forward with screenshots of conversations with Ingham, conducted over social media. Some of these girls and women were issued warnings from solicitors after making their accusations, while some say the Inghams have blocked them on social media channels.
VICE contacted Chris Ingham's lawyer, who said that Ingham would not be responding officially about allegations to press, but would likely pursue claims for defamation.
Based on the accounts of women who say Chris Ingham communicated with them online – conversations that have been seen by VICE – his relationships with younger followers appear to exemplify a skewed fan-performer power dynamic. Although his behaviour does not constitute grooming or any illegal act (none of the women involved were underage), given that power balance, clearly visible in the interactions with his fans, it could be argued that his behaviour matches some of the descriptions of the initial stages of online grooming, as outlined by the NSPCC checklist: offering understanding and advice, giving attention, using the professional position or reputation to gain trust. As the explainer reads: "Groomers can use social media sites, instant messaging apps including teen dating apps, or online gaming platforms to connect with a young person", and can do so "using their professional position or reputation" as well as by "offering advice or understanding".
To be clear: none of the women who spoke to VICE were below the age of consent, and none allege criminal activity. But because of the imbalanced power dynamic between fans and online performers, there are issues presented here that raise questions beyond these specific accusations.
YouTube is one of multiple entertainment platforms where fan-performer interactions regularly go unchecked. These relationships don't necessarily break the law – often, fans are of legal age, and physical contact isn't always made – but they are indicative of a power imbalance, and often lead to fans being put in positions they would rather not be put in. Despite the many accusations against YouTubers, there has been no proper discussion of how best to protect these fans in the future.
In 2014, when YouTuber Sam Pepper was accused of rape, sexual assault and soliciting nude photos and sex from both women and underage girls, he briefly disappeared. When allegations surfaced, a lawyer gave a statement on his behalf, saying: "Sam Pepper denies any and all allegations that have been made against him," and Pepper continues to do so. He was never charged for any crime. That same year, YouTuber Tom Milsom was accused by a Tumblr user of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 22. He never commented publicly on allegations and wasn't charged. YouTube star Austin Jones, 24, was released on bail in 2017 for two counts of producing child pornography. He allegedly instructed one 14-year-old fan to be more sexually explicit in videos to prove she was his "biggest fan". Jones admitted to "receiving videos from the victims, and he admitted it was for sexual pleasure". These are just a few examples that indicate there may be a widespread and ongoing issue.
When it comes to incidents such as these, YouTube as an organisation has proved itself unlikely to take action against individuals. In the case of Sam Pepper, for instance, the YouTuber was never banned from the platform, although his partnership was later dropped. It's when a specific video violates community guidelines that they'll step in. A YouTube spokesperson told VICE, "When we're made aware of serious allegations of this nature we take action, which may include terminating business relationships, suspending monetisation or, in some cases upon conclusion of an investigation, terminating channels entirely." In order words, when criminal activity is proven to have occurred.
To explore this morally murky landscape, understand why fan-creator relationships can quickly become toxic and look for preventative measures which might keep female fans safe from coercion – as well as the online onslaught that follows any accusation – VICE spoke to a tech journalist who has covered abusive behaviour in the YouTube community; a male YouTuber who created strict boundaries for his relationships with fans; and two fans who alleged they have had interactions with Chris Ingham that made them feel uncomfortable.
On Christmas morning of 2016, the Ingham children woke up to a living room full of presents. To date, the video from that day has 57 million views. In it, the family wear matching elf pyjamas with their role in the family printed on the front. "Owhh, I love you so much," Chris says, hugging one of his daughters. Chris Ingham is "Dad Elf".
Sixteen-year-old fan Jess had shown her mum, Theresa, the video, astonished by the gifts. To Jess and the millions of other girls watching, the Inghams seemed an idyllic family unit. Theresa remembers watching the video and feeling more cynical about what she saw. "There's no way you could tell the girls who follow these YouTubers that they could do wrong, because they see 20 minutes a day and just assume that’s what their lives are like. They don’t see it as a film or a storyline that could be faked to increase their views and make them money," Theresa tells me. "They [think], 'That's how I want to live my life.' It took Jess a long time to realise that Chris Ingham is a man. And he doesn't have to be a good man."
Last October, Jess and Theresa were on a family holiday at Disneyland Florida when Jess found out that the Inghams were staying there too. Like Bella, she says she contacted the Inghams, asking to meet them and take a photo.
Jess alleges that, a couple of hours later, Chris began messaging her from his private social media accounts (she later posted screenshots of the messages on Twitter). In them, Ingham called her "mega pretty", told her he could "make [her] feel a lot better about things" (she says she had divulged information about her mental health) and tried to get her to sneak out of her hotel room and meet him between midnight and 2AM. He allegedly alluded to wanting to come over to her room when she was alone to "have a party" with her.
Instead, Jess confided in her mum, and never went to meet Chris. "Jess said that 2AM was the only time he was free. When I said that seems a bit dodgy, it isn't right, she tried to defend him," remembers Theresa. "She listened to me in that respect, but still was under the impression that he was a nice man. She wouldn't believe there was anything more to it." It was only much later that Jess re-assessed what had happened.
Tech writer and editor, Amelia Tait, has followed allegations of abuse within YouTube culture since writing a tentpole piece for New Statesman last year. "When it comes to family vloggers, anecdotally it seems to me that many fans see them as their second family," she tells me. "Very often, the father figure will be the dad they never had – comments will frequently say, 'I wish my dad was like this.' So what you have there is a very trusting, familial bond that has been forged, meaning children can't see this figure as potentially dangerous."
For nine months after that trip to the US, Chris Ingham used the photograph of Jess with his family as his profile picture. "He'd written something [when he posted it] like, 'Thank you so much Jess for making my night,'" Theresa remembers. "Jess showed me the post that night and was so chuffed that she'd been noticed and put on there."
The allegations against Ingham share similarities. All the fans who have shared their alleged contact with him are young (between 16 and 21 at the time of the alleged contact) – another power imbalance, in addition to the performer-fan relationship. Messages attributed to Ingham in these exchanges show his fans confiding in him that they have anxiety, depression or low self-confidence. In return, he suggests he will provide some sort of personal and professional support, an emotional connection.
Fandom culture is nothing new, but what's changed over the past decade is how interactions with one's idols can play out. "As we've seen with some autobiographies and recent writings, it's known that famous musicians would point into the crowd and grab an underage fan to take backstage... now imagine the crowd is everywhere, at all times, and there are no parents or crew around," says Amelia Tait. "A YouTuber can just click on the social media profile of a fan commenting daily, and they can instantly strike up a conversation. This is very exciting for a young fan, which again leaves them open for manipulation."
And why not trust a YouTuber? Fans stare into their eyes every single day. The intimacy of the medium forms an impression of YouTubers in the minds of some fans as people who are open and honest about their feelings and lives, especially those vlogging the inane details of the everyday.
There is something so innocent in the confidence in YouTubers this fosters. One set of message screenshots from another teen Ingham Family fan – then 18, now 19 – who claims she was at Disneyland Florida at the same time as Jess and the Inghams illustrates this succinctly. In messages sent by Ingham, he asks the girl to go skinny dipping with him at 2AM. He tells her she will look "fit af" in her Minnie Mouse ears. He invites her to a campsite where people can watch the stars.
She replies: "Sounds lovely. :) Would Sarah and the girls not do it?"
In Essex, Tom Ridgewell lives a fairly normal life for someone with 6 million subscribers across his two YouTube channels. With the TomSka channel he launched 12 years ago, he became one of the original key members of the UK's YouTuber scene – and has come to understand the fan-creator dynamic well. Namely: that it can be a head-fuck.
"The transition to power was very, very messy. I think it's true for a lot of creators," he tells me candidly. "I went from being a social outcast with no friends and definitely no female attention – not romantically – to now people paying attention to me, acting like they liked me. And that was very, very strange for me when I was a mid- to late teenager."
As is common in DIY industries where relative fame can hit suddenly, people also rapidly attain power. "We don’t have a management course, and we don’t know what to do when we have a plethora of impressionable kids saying they’ll do whatever you want them to do," says Tom.
Rather than flirt with fans when he was younger, Tom would guilt them into buying his merchandise. Or he'd talk about someone who'd been pissing him off, getting his fans to take his side. These are very common tactics he sees YouTubers exercising, he says. "As I've gotten older, I've appreciated the dynamics and realised this attention and teenage infatuation is not ever something you can capitalise on – not that that has ever happened; I am insanely paranoid about accidentally ending up in a relationship with a fan. But it's something you quickly learn. This isn’t a normal interaction: this is someone you have power over."
I ask him to make an analogy. "I want to say it’s like a boss over an employee, but actually it's more like parent or teacher and child. Because they’re so young and impressionable, even if they’re the same age as you, that power dynamic has already been established."
YouTubers occupy a particularly intense fan-to-star relationship. Not unlike, say, pop-punk – which has also had its fair share of problems in this area – there's a collective false perception that everyone is on an equal footing. "People already feel like they know you, and that can make it so much more intense," says Tom.
To compound the problem, this is also a world in which fans are encouraged to meet creators. "YouTube culture has always been founded on meeting up, collaborating and then, later, a willingness to meet fans," Amelia Tait explains. "This means alarm bells don't necessarily ring when a young fan is approached by an older creator." She adds: "It's still hard for me to understand, though, because stranger danger is internet 101. So I guess that's the crucial thing here – [girls] don't see these YouTubers as strangers."
"Vloggers and influencers who target young people with sexually explicit or inappropriate messages are grooming them. It is a blatant abuse of their fame and their position of power, and it's wrong."
When YouTubers are reported, or allegations are made, there's normally not much of a lasting dent. The emergence of activist Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement has exposed a pit of unresolved trauma and (hopefully) started to help people renegotiate gender relationships within workplaces, and sexual and romantic relationships more broadly. This rebalancing doesn't yet seemed to have rocked the world of YouTubers.
Years after allegations were made against him, Sam Pepper has just under 2.5 million followers on YouTube and – as far as I can glean from the uploads and livestreams of his apartment, road trips and meals with friends – appears to live comfortably in LA. In March, he did a livestream advising his friend on how to pick up girls. Tom Milsom never commented publicly on the accusations of coercing an underage girl into sexual activities, and neither was he charged. According to his website he is now a working musician and offers, among other services, teaching. Austin Jones, who was released on bail for two counts of producing child pornography, is staying with his mother and was told to stay off the internet until trial. Another YouTuber and musician who was accused by young women, one underage, of emotional manipulation and nonconsensual sexual relations, and later admitted to these allegations, now has a book coming out explaining his actions. He remains unnamed here to avoid publicising it.
At the end of our conversation, Tom tells me of new allegations of abuse within the YouTube community that had just come to light and were being spoken about between YouTubers. It depresses him. "Up until recently, I was under the impression that things really were on the up, but it happened again, with somebody we all thought we were safe with," he says, with a deep exhalation. "It paints us all in a bad light. I hate that."
Age is at the crux of so many allegations against YouTubers. Their fans are young, sure, but not necessarily below the legal age of sexual consent in the UK. Many, like Bella, are not children, and thus this is not a question of criminality or paedophilia. Jess and her mother reported Chris Ingham to the police, yet because Jess was of legal age – 16 – Theresa tells me her details are simply being kept on file in case younger girls come forward with accusations. "The contacts were of a sexual nature," the police told The Sun at the time, "however they did not meet in person. As the girl was over 16, no offences have been committed."
Since Amelia Tait's YouTuber abuse article picked up traction, young people have often approached her, asking for help because they've had a troubling interaction with a YouTuber. She tries to point them towards the police or relevant support, but has encountered so little infrastructure that she’s considering setting up her own organisation: "No one takes responsibility for this issue – YouTube, managers, agents and YouTubers themselves shy away from it," she says, adding that police are widely useless due to not only inadequate services for sexual assault survivors, but the online nature of the crimes.
What could be done? Tait says: "YouTube needs to step up to the plate by implementing a warning system for young users – something as simple as a pop-up that explains to under-18s that they should be careful who they message and meet online – while simultaneously it needs to issue guidelines to vloggers, with a proper punishment system in place. Abusers remain on the platform to this day. Talent managers need to work with YouTubers so they understand their responsibilities as celebrities, and are taught how to handle and navigate fame."
As far as a broader response to the allegations, the situation is more complicated. In 2010, OFCOM tried to step in as a regulator, which would have required YouTubers to pay a licence fee. It didn’t happen. NSPCC have a Trust To Lead campaign that aims to ensure all adults who work directly and regularly with children can be trusted to do so; think of it as an extension of the rules we have around teachers and doctors. YouTubers, however, aren't included and there are no plans for them to be. A spokesperson for the charity told VICE: "Vloggers and influencers who target young people with sexually explicit or inappropriate messages are grooming them. It is a blatant abuse of their fame and their position of power, and it's wrong." They look to the government, which "must deliver on its commitment to regulate social networks, to tackle grooming behaviour, fast-track grooming reports through the system, and put consistent child safety standards in place across the board".
In the weeks since Jess and Bella made their allegations against Chris Ingham, male YouTubers posted their response videos. YouTube megastar Alfie Deyes tweeted: "This behaviour is NOT welcome in this community." With regards to that community, Tom says, "It was, 'Heads up, this guy [Ingham] is a piece of shit, he’s done.' People will just not touch him with a barge pole."
After a few weeks of silence (while still posting from the family account), Chris Ingham uploaded a video to his own YouTube account titled "The Reason For My Silence", on Thursday the 23rd of August. Over the course of 23 minutes, Ingham denies grooming his fans and/or being a paedophile. He does not address the screenshots and videos of his alleged exchanges with women and teen girls. Instead, he says he's the subject of a witch hunt. Looking down the lens, Ingham says: "You’re destroying my children, my unborn child that’s on the way. They’re the people that you’re damaging right now, and that you’re hurting. Why does anybody want to do that? Especially to children."
As for Bella, she ended up leaving her job at Alton Towers. "After it happened, I used to keep checking the doorway [of the hotel rooms] because I was really paranoid that he’d just come in after me. Having said that weird thing about being in the room with other men [he asked her if men invited her to their hotel rooms], it made me feel uncomfortable. Then, when I posted about it on Twitter, I kept expecting him to come to Alton Towers or something."
Would she go to meet a YouTuber again? "I would." Without missing a beat, she adds: "The other ones I like are a lot bigger, so I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to meet them."