Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Tessica Brown/TikTok, Erika Thompson/TikTok, H3 Podcast/YouTube, Bellocqimages/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images and Kyle Dubiel/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Even though COVID couldn’t keep us locked inside all year, we somehow still managed to see our cursed browser histories and social-media feeds become a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” verse of Peloton drama, COVID toe, and Jen Shah memes.
No year is ever free of internet drama, but something about 2021 felt especially chaotic. The worst parts of YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram seeped into our real lives, as millions spent hours poring over tweet and memes, arguing over what is and isn’t cheugy, and investigating if Armie Hammer was really a cannibal. Despite the endless stream, we narrowed down 19 of the most defining moments of the year, born online, ranging from the comically benign to the genuinely abhorrent. Before we officially close the tab on 2021, let’s take a look at its most controversial main characters — in some case villains — and how they fared in the aftermath of their respective internet shitstorms.
The year kicked off with Bean Dad, musician John Roderick, whose moniker was awarded by the frothing mouth of the internet after he tweeted an (admittedly overwrought) thread about the hours he spent allowing his young daughter to struggle with a can opener instead of just showing her how to use it. Initial dislike of the anecdote, and the unearthing of old racist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise insensitive tweets by Roderick, resulted in a days-long pile-on, the removal of his music from the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and apparently even a visit from Child Protective Services.
All evidence of this debacle has been deleted from Roderick’s profiles, aside from his apology for exaggerating the story in a way that “conjured an abusive parent that many people recognized from real life” and for his past use of offensive words. Roderick is wisely no longer a Twitter user, but now you can find him on Patreon.
The accusations of sexual abuse against Armie Hammer were first made by an Instagram user known as @houseofeffie and amplified by celebrity gossip account DeuxMoi to its then-500,000 followers. A woman named Effie shared alleged Instagram messages the actor had sent to her and five other anonymous women detailing violent sexual fantasies including rape and cannibalism. Effie claims that their four-year affair, including an alleged instance of rape, took place during Hammer’s ten-year marriage to Elizabeth Chambers. Hammer and Chambers split in the summer of 2020. Following the messages and reports of alleged abuse, online sleuths, specifically on TikTok, teamed up to try to prove Hammer was a cannibal, a theory later debunked by police.
While Hammer denies the rape accusation, he stepped away from his role in the 2022 film Shotgun Wedding and has not returned to public life. He reportedly exited a treatment facility in mid-December as an investigation into the rape allegation is reportedly wrapping up.
Gorilla Glue Girl is a Hall of Famer in the beloved internet genre of “people accidentally fucking up their own hair” (never forget). In February, Tessica Brown, instead of using her regular hairstyling spray, applied Gorilla Glue to her scalp, resulting in unmovable, impenetrable locks for a month straight. Out of desperation, Brown took her story to TikTok, where she quickly went viral. The fame earned her a free procedure from plastic surgeon Michael Obeng, which, after a long four hours, released her hair from its Gorilla Glue prison. Only after she received an invitation to have her hair fixed did Gorilla Glue respond publicly. “We are very sorry to hear about the unfortunate incident that Miss Brown experienced using our Spray Adhesive on her hair,” they wrote in a Twitter statement. Those following the story urged the company to send Tessica a nice check following her hair trauma. Inevitably, Brown later came out with both a music single about the ordeal and her own line of hair care that, given her continued track record, I can’t in good conscience recommend you use.
While David Dobrik took some time away from YouTube during the pandemic, he and his YouTube-famous group of friends, referred to as the Vlog Squad, remained universally beloved, particularly on TikTok. In March, however, Insider reported an allegation from a woman who claimed she had been raped by Vlog Squad member Durte Dom (real name Dominykas Zeglaitis) in November 2018.
Dobrik addressed the allegation in a short video on his podcast, VIEWS, and again in more detail on his own channel as subsequent accusations were made about the behavior of the Vlog Squad and Dobrik’s enabling of uncomfortable, nonconsensual situations. Dobrik returned to regular vlogging in June.
Accusations of messaging and sexting underage boys had dogged James Charles for some time before multiple accusers came forward on social media in February to accuse him of soliciting nude photos and sending sexually explicit messages, including nude photos, to them when they were under 18 years old. In a now-deleted April 1 video titled “holding myself accountable,” Charles said that he had been “reckless” and that “these conversations should have never happened.” Charles returned to YouTube in July with another video about the accusations, titled “An Open Conversation,” and has since been posting regularly. Most recently, he got drunk with his parents for the first time ever.
On March 30, 24-year-old Hallie Cain went through something no decent person should: accidentally starting a pointless discourse. The Los Angeles–based copywriter, who goes by the username @webkinzwhore143, shared that she and her friends used the word cheugy to describe millennial, cringey, or overdone things like T-shirts with words on them, The Office, and Herbal Essences shampoo. Cheugy, which had actually been coined by 23-year-old Gaby Rasson, got a write-up in the New York Times and was subsequently torn apart on Twitter and TikTok for being inherently sexist. Cheugy officially died when it became part of a marketing campaign for a bank. Rest in peace, girl boss.
Chrissy Teigen spent her entire year entangled in various Twitter scandals and continues to say we have seen the last of her before coming back for more. The most significant and upsetting unfolded when Courtney Stodden accused the model and cookbook author of sending them DMs telling them to kill themselves in 2011. Teigen admitted to the messages, saying she had been “an insecure, attention-seeking troll” and was “ashamed and completely embarrassed.” The internet primarily sided with Stodden, for obvious reasons.
In a bizarre twist, the ordeal prompted former Project Runway contestant Michael Costello to claim he had also been bullied by Teigen. The alleged bullying felt off-brand for Teigen, and Insider soon found the messages to have been manipulated after the star’s rep said they were fake. A few months later, Teigen, back on Twitter and her bullshit, recently got into a spat with BuzzFeed after she shared photos online of her Squid Game–themed dinner party.
After going viral for saving bees and having long blonde hair, Erika Thompson, who goes by Texas Bee Works on social media, was criticized by fellow beekeepers on TikTok for not wearing proper protective gear and potentially staging bee rescues.
“I’m straight-up calling her out and saying what you do is fake,” user @lahoneybeerescue said in a passionate, now-deleted video.
The drama swarmed across the internet with people baselessly accusing Thompson of being a Trump supporter. She took to Instagram to call the accusations about faking saving the bees and improperly handling them “untrue and hurtful” before buzzing back to living her best bee life.
There were many moments in 2021 that Frenemies, the podcast hosted by YouTubers Trisha Paytas and Ethan Klein, appeared to self-destruct. Part of the entertaining dynamic between them was the potential for episodes to end with explosive arguments. The duo fractured for good in June, however, when Paytas announced in a video that they were leaving following a dispute captured in a previous episode about the division of labor between the two hosts. The episode of their split earned close to 5 million views, resulting in hundreds of TikToks and a number of YouTube response videos. The fervent attention from followers spoke to the show’s expansive fanbase who were equal parts heartbroken and enthralled by the demise of their favorite duo. Paytas expressed frustration with the crew of h3h3Productions, the show’s production company owned by Klein and his wife, Hila. The tension between the pair continues to this day. The podcast was then rebranded as Families with Klein’s mom taking Paytas’s spot, though no one could ever really fill those shoes.
Similar to Trisha Paytas — and sometimes alongside Trisha Paytas — Viner turned YouTuber Gabbie Hanna frequently makes drama-channel headlines. From her erratic content to her meme-worthy outbursts, she’s pretty much always starting something with someone, and over the summer, she came for Joey Graceffa and Daniel Preda, the creator and senior producer, respectively, of the YouTube reality series Escape the Night. Hanna appeared in season four of the show, which filmed in 2019.
In a now-deleted video posted in June, Hanna accused the pair, who were responsible for much of the day-to-day production, of exacerbating her eating disorder by ignoring her dietary requests and dressing her in uncomfortable clothing. She claims the disagreements culminated in an argument that resulted in her character being killed off. Both Graceffa and Preda immediately shot back, releasing their own lengthy videos with receipts detailing Hanna’s difficult behavior on set and the ways they had attempted to accommodate her constantly shifting schedule and requirements.
Following the backlash, Hanna went dark, returning in July with a video filmed from her bathtub.
By April 2021, OnlyFans had more than 120 million users and 1 million creators who earned more than $3 billion collectively, with the company taking a 20 percent cut. While OnlyFans hosts all kinds of content, it’s best known for providing a safe, professional space for sex workers to earn an income. But on August 19, the website announced plans to ban all adult content from the platform.
The outrage was swift and intense. Prominent users like Lena the Plug spoke out about the betrayal (“No platforms care about sex workers”), and others were quick to find and suggest sex-work-friendly alternatives. Because of this, just six days later, OnlyFans reversed its decision, perhaps to ponder other equally-savvy business ideas like neatly piling up all their money, setting it on fire, walking away, and stepping on a cartoon rake.
Look out, “Baby shoes, never worn” because “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding” is coming for your crown. Nicki Minaj tweeted this to 23.2 million people ahead of the 2021 Met Gala, which required all attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and promptly broke the internet. Immediately, jokes were made, doctors weighed in, and eventually the government of Trinidad and Tobago even weighed in on the claim. “One of the reasons we could not respond yesterday in real time to Ms. Minaj is that we have to check and make sure that what she was claiming was either true or false,” the health minister said in an official statement. “We did — unfortunately, we spent so much time running down this false claim. It is, as far as we know at this point in time, there has been no such reported side effect or adverse effect. And what was sad about this is that it wasted our time yesterday, trying to track down. Because we take all these claims seriously.” The tweet is still up. Nicki, if you’re going to stoke potential vaccine misinformation, at least do us the courtesy of giving us an update on the balls.
After years of comedian John Mulaney touring venues armed with anecdotes about his relationship with his then-wife, Anna Marie Tendler, and their French bulldog, Petunia, news of their divorce hit like a horse in a hospital. But no one was prepared when, five months later, Mulaney confirmed that not only was he now dating actress Olivia Munn, but they were also expecting a child.
Fans immediately pored over Mulaney’s past work, pointing out lines about marriage and his previous desire not to have children, which now stung with particular irony. In many ways, fans felt betrayed by how the persona in his Netflix specials didn’t match the person in the tabloids. While everyone was arguing on Twitter using fancy new terms like parasocial relationship, Tendler was on TikTok building an army of over 222,000 supporters and earning her account a recent write-up in the New York Times.
When Lauren Zarras went to surprise her boyfriend, Robbie McCoy, at college, she decided to film their reunion and post it to TikTok to the soundtrack of Ellie Goulding’s “Still Falling for You.” Over 60 million views later, the video has become one of the most contentious internet artifacts of 2021, with viewers insisting that her boyfriend’s muted reaction was a harbinger of their relationship’s demise. Speculation about the state of their union and accusations of cheating filled the comments, and celebrities and brands hopped on the trend of dissecting and discrediting the pair’s connection. The world was convinced that this man was cheating on this woman, all from a brief TikTok clip.
“It felt like the entertainment value of the meme began to overshadow our humanity,” Robbie wrote in a recent essay for Slate. As of Thanksgiving, Robbie and Lauren are very much still falling for each other.
Not since Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” had a piece of writing put Twitter in such a headlock. “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” written by Robert Kolker for the New York Times, documented the legal battle between Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. In 2015, Dorland donated her kidney and posted about it in a private Facebook group with friends, family, and fellow writers from the Boston writing center GrubStreet. One of these authors was Larson, who Dorland now alleges had plagiarized the Facebook post for her short story “The Kindest,” which is about a wealthy, entitled kidney donor. In 2019, Larson countered by suing Dorland for defamation and tortious interference. Dorland filed a counterclaim in 2020 for violating the copyright of her Facebook post as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Twitter picked sides immediately, and the battle of who had been most wronged culminated in the posting of legal documents and entire accounts dedicated to sharing updates. Twitter still hasn’t decided who the bad art friend really is.
Are the facts of #SurvivingSophia somewhat suspect? Yes. Does that mean it wouldn’t make for a great Netflix movie? No, give it to us. The story about a woman allegedly named Sophia Nur who potentially scammed a number of Los Angeles influencers was told in a Twitter Space as well as multiple viral Twitter threads. Nur has been accused of everything from faking a relationship with singer Jack Harlow to lying about the death of her mother to scam people into giving her money for funeral costs. Just as quickly as the story took over the internet, it seems to have disappeared, suggesting that maybe Nur is in hiding or that this potentially fictional publicity stunt (I’m not saying that, but someone else could) didn’t exactly pan out as hoped.
Disappointing Advent calendars are practically their own genre of online internet content, but no one expected Chanel to be this year’s perp. When TikTok creator Elise Harmon began documenting her unboxing of the $825 Chanel Advent calendar, she was surprised to find … stickers. Then a key chain. A plastic mini snow globe. A Chanel dust bag. The items in the nearly $1,000 festive stunt — the company’s first Advent calendar, in honor of its 100th birthday — were so laughable that Harmon accumulated millions of viewers who tuned in partly for the Schadenfreude and partly to see just how bad things could get.
In a statement to WWD, Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, said, “This controversy is a bit of a shame because it was not what Chanel intended. Chanel thought it would please some of its customers by offering this type of product.”
If you for some reason didn’t get a chance to snap up this item when it was $825, don’t worry, you can still get it on eBay for a very reasonable $2,000.
Turns out Mr. Big dying on his exercise bike (uh, spoiler) was not the biggest controversy Peloton would be dealing with this holiday season. Shortly after the episode aired, the brand, in partnership with Ryan Reynolds, attempted to salvage its image by turning around a winky ad spot with actor Chris Noth. On Thursday, December 16, The Hollywood Reporter published accusations from two women alleging Noth had sexually assaulted them in 2004 and 2015, respectively.
“The accusations against me made by individuals I met years, even decades, ago are categorically false,” Noth told the outlet in a statement. “These stories could’ve been from 30 years ago or 30 days ago — no always means no — that is a line I did not cross. The encounters were consensual. It’s difficult not to question the timing of these stories coming out. I don’t know for certain why they are surfacing now, but I do know this: I did not assault these women.”
Peloton has since wiped all evidence of the ad from its social-media profiles, meaning the commercial lasted just one day longer than the time it apparently took to make it. On December 18, a third woman accused Noth of sexual assault. On December 20, Noth was dropped from CBS’ The Equalizer.