James Charles Is Not Your Experiment

James Charles Is Not Your Experiment

By Ivan GuzmanApr 26, 2024

One definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. James Charles relates to this, having lived out multiple public cancellations surrounding his pursuits of love, because, as his new song, “Can We Just Be Friends,” proclaims: “I guess that I’m insane/ Are you entertained?”

The 24-year-old YouTuber and makeup mogul is no stranger to feeling like a clown, jesting for the internet’s enjoyment. He even admits that a lot of the time, the hate was warranted. But he’s in a new era, one that is all about healing from past traumas, specifically surrounding his tumultuous experiences with dating. Earlier this year, he dropped his first single, “Call Me Back,” a piano ballad about ghosting. His latest is about hooking up with straight and DL men and ultimately getting stuck in a toxic cycle of gaslighting and secrecy.

“Whether it's queer people, trans people, plus-sized people, even people of color, there are so many people that are fetishized or used as an experiment in the bedroom,” he tells PAPER. “I think it's something a lot of people can relate to.” The music video for “Can We Just Be Friends,” out today, is a self-directed dark ballad that depicts the sick, cyclical fantasy of wanting something that will clearly never happen. Charles hopes music can be a healthy outlet for reaching enlightenment when it comes to trying to find queer love while in the public eye, and with JoJo Siwa recently bringing “Gay Pop” to the public consciousness, it begs the question: could James Charles soon be at the top of the charts?

Below, we sit down with Charles to discuss self-awareness, the therapeutic act of songwriting and his now-iconic performance at that Morphe store opening in 2018.

How was Coachella?

It was interesting this year. Coachella is always a big moment for me — just the outfits. And I don't know why I became the poster child of Coachella. But it's always really fun to go and just see everybody and post the content and get ready for the fits. It was a bit overwhelming this year trying to do all the TikToks, all the photos, all the Get Ready With Mes. We vlogged for YouTube just because I got so much hate for not uploading a vlog last time. So it was quite a work trip, but it was great to finally get all the stuff posted and enjoy what little was left of the nights..

I listened to the new song. I love the line about insanity. What makes you feel insane sometimes?

Although this is my second song being released, this was the first one I ever wrote. I really wanted to write a song about working on healing through a lot of trauma that I've experienced trying to find love as a queer person. And this song, it's no secret, you'll realize from the lyrics that the song is very much about the several years that I allowed myself to be a science experiment for men that were never going to love me back. This is when I first moved to LA and was so excited about even getting to explore and be romantic because I grew up in a small town where I was one of two queer kids in the entire school; at least, that was out. So it was one of those things where I would have all these fun experiences and meet these great people, but at the end of the night, it would either end in a block, or at best, a friend zone, or at worst, you know, a threat of violence. And it was a reoccurring thing of this constant feeling of, "Oh my God, I'm so single, this is so sad. Why is this happening to me?"

Eventually, I realized at the end of the day this is my own fault for putting myself into that situation over and over and over again. That was kind of my experience of just hooking up with straight guys or hooking up with guys that were in the closet. But as I've started to tease this [song], it's been so interesting to hear how other people have interpreted their definition of insanity, of doing the same thing over and over again. Whether it's queer people, trans people, plus-sized people, or even people of color, there are so many people that are fetishized or used as an experiment in the bedroom. I think it's something that a lot of people can relate to. I didn't see that coming. But the song is so personal to me that it was kind of shocking to see how many people are able to relate when I'm thinking that my life is so crazy.

Yeah. It’s complicated, right? Do you feel like part of you likes it and craves it, but at the end of the day it’s just toxic?

Finding queer love is just weird in general. We're in a time where, thank god, it's becoming more and more accepted to be out and be queer. But at the same time, we're fighting all sorts of laws against us that are threatening our community and threatening our rights to even exist. So we're in a weird time where people want to express themselves and maybe have no problem doing that in the shadows or in the dark when it's easy and fun for them to do that. But then when it comes time to potentially be with somebody or be something serious, a lot of times it gets too overwhelming and too scary. You're right, there's a sense of fantasy that comes with that and a sense of desire that all of us have from growing up and not being able to fully express who we are depending on our circumstances or where we're from or where we're living. It took me a really long time to take a step back and realize, at the end of the day, I'm putting myself into this situation. I deserve better. I want better and I deserve better, but it's never going to come if I keep repeating the same thing over and over.

The Tumblr generation got fucked.

Beyond, beyond! Absolutely, yes. Beyond.

Do you overly romanticize things?

I don’t think so, to be honest. I feel like I used to when I was younger. I wanted the perfect dream relationship, the perfect dream boyfriend, the jacked muscle jock in secret. But as I've gotten older, I've realized I want somebody who's gonna love me, somebody that's going to take care of me, make me feel safe, and make me laugh. Of course, I would still love to find that person. I'm holding out hope that that person will come along one day, but I would say I’m in a much healthier space with looking for love and the sense that I'm no longer really looking. I'm patiently waiting for it to come to me. And if it does, great. But if it doesn't, that's perfectly fine with me too because I have so much going on right now I don't even have the space for that.

It sounds so fucking cheesy to say, but working on this music has really been so helpful for me to work through a lot of these traumas. I mean, “Call Me Back” was all about getting ghosted, which is obviously something everybody experiences, not just queer people. Now this song is about being a science experiment. There are many more songs that are all about different aspects and sometimes really hard lessons I've had to learn to be a healthy lover, or how to be healthily loved. It really has been a form of therapy for me.

Then there’s this added layer of everyone being obsessed with what you do at all times, obsessed with your love life, trying to find ways to cancel you. I feel like it must be so therapeutic to write.

It really is. It's really funny and maybe [my publicist] will interrupt if I try to say this, but when I first wrote “Can We Just Be Friends,” I decided that it was song number one. I really wanted to write a song about this experience. And when I finished it, I was like, “Okay, we're done, let's put it out.” And my manager was like, "Relax. First of all, it's a great song. So let's not jump the gun. But also, if this one's really good and if this one really helped you, then you should keep going." At first, part of me did really want to put it out to try to prove people wrong and get my side of the story out there. But as I kept working on more and more songs, it did become a form of therapy. At the end of the day, of course, I'd be completely lying if I said that I wouldn't love for everyone on the internet to love me and understand what I've gone through and be Team James, but that's unrealistic. I'm not stupid. I understand why some people may not be the biggest fans and I can respect that. There's nothing that I can do to change that aside from continue to be myself and continue learning and growing. So my goal has just been to put out the songs and tell my story from my POV, and hopefully along the way people will come around to maybe having a better understanding of what I've gone through.

I feel like that’s a big part of music now. It’s all about the narrative, the gossip, the storytelling aspects. You're a master at that, but singing has been a passion of yours for a long time, right?

Unfortunately, yes!

But it’s also been tied to this hate and criticism.

I’ve been singing my entire life. It's no secret, obviously. Unfortunately for me, it’s been documented online very heavily, much at my own doing. But I think that's one of the weird things about having a following. As you know, I've never claimed to want to be a pop star. I've never claimed to be a musician. I don't think that I'm going on tour. I'm not trying to do live performances, I'm not selling vinyl. I'm just doing this for fun and to express myself. And that's always been the case. And it is normal, right? When you have a social media profile, you naturally want to share things that you love and have a passion about whether you have 20 million followers or literally 20. The difference is 20 million people think that that's your next career move. And now you're opening yourself up to all that criticism and critiquing.

So I definitely learned my lesson about posting singing videos online and triple quadruple checking before I do anything. Even as a kid, when I was doing all those Morphe store openings, they would hand me a microphone to say hello to the 10,000 fans waiting and of course, my little gay brain is like, "It’s time to be a pop star. Let's go, everybody!" Looking back on these videos, I was like, wow, holy fuck, somebody should’ve taken that mic out of my hand and said, "Not the time, baby!" But they’re really iconic videos, and as embarrassing as they are to look back at, I don't mind laughing at them. They’re great memories. You know, who gets opportunities like that? As embarrassing and stupid as they all are, they've become great memes. And, you know, it is a great way to show growth. That's the silver lining. You can look back at those and see how awful I was and now listen to these new songs and say, "Oh, something happened here. Somebody cooked."

I loved that era, though. Do you remember Emery Bingham? That little girl who was trying to be Ariana Grande?

I’m obsessed.

I loved when she performed at that mall. I feel like those events aren’t a thing anymore.

No, the influencer space has just changed so drastically. I will always have such fond memories of that time, even though it generated quite a lot of embarrassing moments for me. But also, that was the whole reasoning and strategy behind the way we released “Call Me Back.” I knew that if we started teasing that we were putting out music, it was going to get an awful response of people saying, "We don't want to hear it." Granted, even when we did release it, that was a lot of the comments. But I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted people to hear it and be like, "Oh my God, James Charles put out a song, I need to go listen right now because it's going to be awful." Then they listen and are like, "Oh, shit, this is kind of good."

I have the best supporters ever. They've been with me since day one. I knew they were going to love the song and hear the growth. I'm speaking more about the people that I knew would not like me to add some context to what I just said. So with the first song, I knew that the best response was going to be, “I don't like him, but this is a decent song.” And now with this song, it's been, "Oh, shit, this one's also really good." I feel like we're slowly taking the right steps into getting that this is just plain old good with no caveats attached.

All these songs are ballads. Do you plan to do anything more upbeat?

I don’t know. I will say that I have quite a lot that are fully ready to go in the pipeline. I don't have any sort of strategy or plan or release schedule. I'm not signed. I’m doing this fully independently, funded by myself, which has been really interesting because, as much as I’ve loved singing my entire life, I truly have no idea how the music industry works. I literally made a Spotify account a couple of weeks before the release just to figure out the backend. It's been so cool to learn all of it. It's so fascinating how playlisting and radio and all these different facets of the music industry actually all run. So that's been really cool. But right now, the majority of the songs that I've worked on have a more emotional, sad ballad-type vibe. I will never say never. But as of right now, I can't really envision myself doing like a pop-bop as much as I love listening to them.

I feel as though I'm a pretty self-aware person. Or at least I like to think so. I don't think my voice would sound the best on a pop-bop. When I get off this call, I'm heading to a session today. So, who knows? I could get in, and we could write a pop bop, and I could have completely lied to you by accident. But right now, I'm more focused on writing story-oriented songs. That's really the music that means a lot to me. When I got into this project in the first place, as I said, I really wanted to try to write a song about my experiences. I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and I was like, "I just want to write a fucking song, I don't know what to do." One of my friends Alexandra was like, "You should hit up our friend Noah Davis.’ He's amazing." He was on American Idol and had that wig meme with Katy Perry. Do you remember that?

Oh my god, yeah.

Wig, I feel that already. He's the one with whom I've written all my songs and we're roommates. My friend Alexandra was like, "You should listen to this Noah Davis song called Thinking of Her." And I hate romantic stuff. I don't like romantic movies, I hate a rom com, would never read a romantic novel. I don't really like love songs either because I can never relate to them. They're just never my dating life. Unfortunately, much at my own doing, it has been extremely public and traumatic and weird in comparison to other people, especially straight people. It's always hard for me to relate to that type of content. But I listened to the song from Noah, and it was this beautiful song about being with this guy who you're so in love with, and he's feeling the same way. But you know that you are a side piece to a woman. I burst into tears when I listened to it. It just hit me so hard. Because it was the first time I ever heard a queer-coded song that I could relate to. I reached out to him immediately. He was like, "I would love to work with you." It was a literal match made in heaven. It's been so much fun. I think that's where I've really found my passion for making music telling stories through it. That's what is fun to me. I'll always respect a pop-bop. Sometimes, I even think it's way harder and takes more talent to write a catchy pop-bop that's gonna be an earworm and get in somebody's head. But I don't know if that's really my cup of tea, at least not right now.

I feel like you just need the right hook, or to work with the right writer. Maybe hit up Bonnie McKee.

When I signed up for my Apple Music artist profile thing, one of the questions was, "What do you think is the greatest album of all time?" And I had to sit and think about it for a second, but my answer was Teenage Dream. I was like, all time. There are so many pop-bops. Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, duo made in heaven. Need her back immediately. I'm praying she's on KP9. But I don’t know. I will never say never.

Who are your top three pop girls of all time?

I am a Dua Lipa stan. I think she's so talented, hot, gorgeous, and amazing. I saw her concert in LA, and I was blown away. I love Bebe Rexha. She's a great friend of mine and so criminally underrated.

I love Bebe so much. I wanna interview her.

She is amazing. I can try to connect you guys. She performed at Coachella and like I said, we're great friends. So we’ve hung out a bunch of times. I've heard her sing many times. She sounded so good at Coachella that I literally was like, "Oh, is she lip-synching?" because it was so perfect. Then her microphone fucking died. And I was like, oh my God.

She’s a really good singer!

Unreal. So I would say Dua, Bebe, and then maybe I would give it to Katy. It's been a while, but that album [Teenage Dream] is just so perfect to me. It really did inspire me so much as a kid. Sia was also a massive inspiration to me when I was working on my music.

She’s one of my favorites. I think she’s one of the greatest singers of our time.

I met her at Paris Hilton's Christmas party a couple of months ago. I was so scared to go up to her because I’ve been a stan my entire life. I was in acapella groups as a kid, and the first song we ever did was “Elastic Heart.” And of course, “Titanium,” the Pitch Perfect scene in the shower. But I literally went up to her and I was like, "I just need to say hello to you." And she turned and was like, "Oh, are you James?" And I was like, I'm gonna fucking die. And she's like, "I love watching your YouTube channel. I've watched your makeup tutorials." It was so special because I got to talk to her all about makeup. She's a huge fan of Survivor. It's my favorite show. I was lucky enough for her to give me her number, and I was able to share the songs with her before they came out. I didn't really know what to expect. I mean, everyone in the music industry is so busy. Some people are more willing to listen to a song than others. Obviously, she's a fucking icon. So I was expecting like, maybe a thumbs up or, "Oh, nice job," or no message at all. I would have been so okay with that. But I literally woke up the next morning with a paragraph response to every single song about what she loved about it, the different lyrics that stood out to her and how cool the project was. I burst into fucking tears. That was just one of the most special moments I’ve ever had, especially after all the nastiness and hate comments, which once again, were deserved! But I was like, wow, I'm doing something right here. I will forever be grateful for that.

Who are some trailblazers in ‘Gay Pop,’ as JoJo Siwa would say, that you idolize?

I mean, Gaga and Madonna. I grew up on Gaga, she was the biggest inspiration to me. Troye Sivan is a really big inspiration to me right now as well. He’s newer and hasn't been around for as long, but he started on YouTube. He started as an influencer in his bedroom in Australia, and he's just been killing it. It's also been really cool, too, because some of the songs he's released are, they're not similar to mine in terms of the actual music, but it's been cool to hear him write about experiences that I've also gone through. “One Of Your Girls” has a very similar premise to “Can We Just Be Friends,” about being a man who’s down to be a secret hookup for somebody else. Even seeing him go on different podcasts and do interviews talking about this type of stuff is really relieving for me because I've avoided and stopped talking about my love life and relationships online, once again, for obvious reasons. But it's been really cool to hear him talk about similar experiences and some of the things he's gone through and to hear people be a bit more receptive to it and a bit more understanding. Maybe straight men are hooking up with gay men on the DL. Maybe straight guys are hooking up with trans girls and threatening their lives after they have sex with them. It's all these crazy things that seem like fantasies or seem like crazy stories, or it makes us seem like we're crazy and we're lying. But the more people telling these stories that are like, "No, this really is happening. This is the experience," I think it forces people to be like, "Oh, okay, maybe these situations aren't as crazy or aren't as you know ... "


Aren’t as uncommon as they might seem. I was gonna say, aren’t as nasty as people make them seem.

Yeah. It’s scary out there.

Like I said, I'm not looking. I've been in a much healthier, better mindset about waiting for the right person to come along. So I'm too busy to even get around these days, which is fine for me. Obviously, it's safer. It's better. But yeah, it's been really fun to be able to finally get to tell my story. It feels like a big weight off my shoulders for people to be a bit more receptive to it this time around.

Photography: Ernna Cost