Mr. Donaldson declined to be interviewed. A representative for him declined to address the working conditions at his companies but said of the videos with offensive content: “When Jimmy was a teenager and was first starting out, he carelessly used, on more than one occasion, a gay slur. Jimmy knows there is no excuse for homophobic rhetoric.” The representative added that Mr. Donaldson “has grown up and matured into someone that doesn’t speak like that.”
Many younger creators said they wanted to emulate Mr. Donaldson’s entrepreneurial path.
“I think Mr. Beast inspires all of Gen Z,” said Josh Richards, 19, a TikTok creator in Los Angeles with nearly 25 million followers. “He’s giving a lot of kids a new path to take, to teach these young kids on how to be entrepreneurial, not just to get a lot of views or become famous.”
A perfect viral recipe
Like many members of Generation Z, Mr. Donaldson, who grew up in Greenville, N.C., founded a YouTube channel when he was in middle school, back in 2012.
To crack YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, he initially cycled through different genres of video making. He posted videos of himself playing games like Call of Duty, commented on YouTube drama, uploaded funny video compilations and livestreamed himself reacting to videos on the internet.
Then in 2018, he mastered the format that would make him a star: stunt philanthropy. Mr. Donaldson filmed himself giving away thousands of dollars in cash to random people, including his Uber driver or people experiencing homelessness, capturing their shock and joy in the process. The money initially came mostly from brand sponsorships.
It turned out to be a perfect viral recipe that mixed money, a larger-than-life persona and wholesome reactions. Millions began watching his YouTube videos. Mr. Donaldson soon rebranded himself as “YouTube’s biggest philanthropist.”
The combination was also lucrative. Though Mr. Donaldson gave away increasingly large amounts — from $100,000 to $1 million — he made it all back and more with the advertising that ran alongside the videos. He also sold merchandise like socks ($18), water bottles ($27) and T-shirts ($28).