During a holiday vacation in 2005, right after New Year’s day, Jennifer Aniston clutched Brad Pitt’s waist on a beach in Anguilla. She looked forlornly, jaw set, into the waves just out of the frame, while he clutched her shoulder and stared straight into the camera lens. It was a look of knowing. A week later, ABC confirmed that the pair had split. The vacation was their last together, at least in front of the paparazzi, and for almost 15 years, it was the last time they were formally in the same photograph together.
Photographs like this one have become increasingly rare. Stills that capture a definable celebrity mood (aside from purely commercial photo ops outside Craig’s in WeHo) seem less and less accessible as celebrity becomes less definable and more controlled. The pandemic could be in part to blame; celebrities have retreated inward with little to promote. Influencers and Kardashians could be seen out at Nobu in their masks and fancy clothes, but the gossip wells ran dry, and the crops of rumors withered and turned to dust. But to blame this retreat of the American celebrity from public life solely on the pandemic is short-sighted, as the slow transition began with the introduction of social media.
Social media has offered a glimpse into the curated personalities of Tinseltown, sure, but more traditional means of engaging with celebrities—pap shots, interviews, public appearances—slowly ceded ground to this more curated approach to their personal lives. Why speak to journalists or pose for cameras when an iPhone could snap the picture instead? But now that celebrities have returned to pre-pandemic everyday activities, including award shows and raucous parties (that the rest of us can see evidence of, at least) the tides have changed yet again. If the logic goes that this is bound to be the horniest, wildest, and most nonsensical return to public life in recent human history, should not celebrities be included in the new normal? I’d say yes, considering their recent forays in front of the eager paparazzi, a break from the tightly curated standards of social media and an embrace of publicity the old-fashioned way. It’s a return to celebrity mess, in which is all too apparent that Hollywood’s glitterati is just like everyone else, save perhaps a few more personality disorders and zeros in the bank account.
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez landed the first real blow to the imagined wall that has separated the public from the public figure in the pandemic, evidenced by the cavalcade of paparazzi that has marched down Sunset Boulevard and documented their every move together. In a recent makeout session at Nobu, Affleck nuzzled up on her neck, and the two made out in full view of onlookers. Kanye West was also photographed on board a private plane with Irina Shayk, Bradley Cooper’s ex, who famously split with the actor after rumors swirled about an emotional affair with Lady Gaga. Gossips were shocked by the chaos, especially by seeing Shayk on Kanye’s jet, as she’s maintained a relatively low profile since her split with Cooper. And wait, didn’t Kanye just get divorced?
Most commonly, chaotic celebrity encounters in public ensconced in the popular imagination are throwbacks to the aughts, when the internet helped spread pap shots beyond the pages of magazines and newspapers. Some of the photos remembered are harrowing, if triumphant, like Nicole Kidman’s joyous exit from her lawyer’s office after finalizing her divorce from Tom Cruise. Ecstasy and a hint of terror practically leaped from the hazy portrait, her hands clenched into fists. I’m also inclined to mention Brad Pitt’s ex-wife, Angelina Jolie, who in the early ’00s would be found in tabloids draped across Billy Bob Thornton, vials of each other’s blood bobbing around their necks.
There’s one photo in particular that most remember, of Jolie in a stark white shift dress, Thornton’s own shirt unbuttoned to the navel. They smile coyly at the camera, inviting onlookers to wonder what secrets they keep between them. They’d later split after rumors of Thornton’s infidelity and private behavior overtook the gossip news cycle.
Speaking of Jolie, perhaps her messiest relationship was her marriage to Pitt, who she famously met while filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the summer of 2004. They both later claimed to have fallen in love during this time, although Pitt was still with Aniston. The latter would call it quits privately that winter. By July 2005, however, tabloids would claim Pitt had left Aniston for Jolie, after the two were featured in a W magazine profile titled “Domestic Bliss,” as promotion for their movie. The frenzied gossips even drew connections between tabloid reports that Aniston had called it off because Pitt wanted children and she did not. In his spread with Jolie, the two could be seen at a table with five children. (By the end of their relationship in 2016, they had six children together.)
The national obsession with celebrity mess often comes with a cost. In the ensuing split, Pitt was investigated by authorities for an alleged physical altercation with Maddox, their son, who publicly rebuked his father in comments to the press. Other celebrities were less fortunate than Jolie and Aniston, like Britney Spears, whose PR team simply could not contend with a public intent on ridiculing her for her extremely public breakdown throughout 2007.
Kanye West, who’s been photographed publicly with Shayk, is no stranger to intrigue. His ex-wife Kim Kardashian had her own string of extremely public breakups, like her short-lived marriage to Kris Humphries, documented on television and in the tabloids. Their own divorce has been quite the scandal, evidenced by photographs of her sobbing in a car in 2020 somewhere in Wisconsin, clearly in a heated argument with West. For months afterward, rumors plagued the couple. They didn’t officially file for divorce until February 2021.
The fascination with Shayk’s appearance on the private plane ride seen around the world is largely due to her existence outside the ecosystem of the Kardashians. Sure, they’re entangled by the association of Hollywood, but she neither runs in their social circles nor is seen with anyone even remotely consider an “acquaintance” of the Wests.
Funny, isn’t it? The arc of the last 20 years in celebrity gossip has come full circle with a fateful kiss between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Nobody saw it coming, least of all them, I’d bet. Welcome to the new era in celebrity chaos.