They can hide in their gated Malibu compounds and behind the VIP-room velvet ropes. They can armor up with steely publicists and bluff the world with crafty faux-mances. They can decree that certain questions are off-limits when they deign to talk for 20 minutes with hand-picked reporters in the neutral territory of a Four Seasons suite.
But sooner or later, stars are obliged to move the wheels of commerce by stepping out in public — for a movie opening or a major awards show. And it is there on the red carpet they must worry: Is my relationship status showing?
Two Oscar seasons ago, Susan Sarandon had a big new movie to promote. She brought her son Jack to the L.A. premiere of “The Lovely Bones” — but not her longtime partner, Tim Robbins. Days later, People broke the news: Sarandon and Robbins had parted ways.
J.D. Heyman, the magazine’s West Coast executive editor, can’t speak to the precise methodology of the scoop. A story such as that comes about via diligent reporting, not mere guesswork, he said. But “as a starting point, reporters do look at photographs and say, ‘Something’s up.’ . . . Engagement rings, baby bumps, new relationships — these are all things that you do see evidence of” on the red carpet.
It’s a kind of science perfected during the Cold War, when so little was officially knowable about the Soviet Union. To glean intel about possible leadership changes, U.S. analysts scoured photos and programs from party gatherings for clues — who was sitting two seats closer to the premier on the dais than at the last event, who was suddenly absent from the roster.
Today’s shrewdest Kremlinology is practiced by show-biz reporters and gossip writers. When unconfirmed reports emerged last fall that Ashton Kutcher had cheated on Demi Moore, neither would comment. So the red-carpet analysts trained their firepower on the stars’ public appearances. Both were still wearing their wedding rings, it was noted . . . but he arrived solo at a Clinton Foundation party, while she walked alone into the “Margin Call” premiere. The fact that she appeared unusually thin (“gaunt” was the paparazzi word of choice) solidified conventional wisdom that this was a marriage in trouble. They announced their divorce a month later.
These experts later kicked themselves for missing the warning signs about Heidi Klum and Seal. But they seemed so in love on the red carpets! Now ambiguously separated, the two are watched more closely than ever. (Still wearing their rings — what does that mean?!?!)
It’s why Shawn Sachs of the New York public-relations agency Sunshine Sachs will tell any coupled client who asks for advice to walk the red carpet solo.
“The red carpet is a place of business for celebrities,” he said, “and personal relationships should generally stay separate.” Many celebrities, of course, can’t resist using the red carpet as a medium to broadcast their happy news or show the world and their ex that they’ve Moved On. But Sachs thinks it’s a perilous tactic. When they put their relationships out there, the media feel entitled to ask more questions and demand more answers. Go ahead and take your significant other to the show, he recommends — but meet him or her inside. “It sets up for a better situation.”
After all, stars — as Us Magazine reminds us every week — are just like us. In the same way you might be reluctant to flaunt your fragile new relationship at the office Christmas party and prefer to grieve your breakup before alerting all the relatives, celebrities also crave time to process this stuff. But one day, the kids will notice that Mommy and Daddy are sleeping in separate rooms and that Russell Brand spent the holidays on a different continent than Katy Perry. That’s when a savvy red-carpet sage knows to start calling the publicists and demanding some truth.
Which seems to be what happened in the mysterious case of Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. In December, People reported that the laconically glamorous It Couple of the 1980s had broken up — two years earlier.
Why did it take so long for news to get out? One theory: Lange and Shepard, now in their 60s, lived far from Los Angeles and shunned the party scene. It wasn’t until she suddenly had a comeback last fall that anyone, frankly, was paying attention. Then suddenly, his absence from her “American Horror Story” premiere was conspicuous, as was hers from his “Blackthorn” opening in New York. Otherwise, who knows how long they could have kept it secret?
The flip side — the happy early months of a courtship — is equally fraught for a celebrity twosome. Google the phrase “making their red-carpet debut together” — it’s an actual thing in the round-the-clock entertainment-news complex, the show-biz equivalent of wearing his varsity jacket. No wonder so many leading men bring their moms to the Oscars. Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux, a couple for almost a year, made a point last week of arriving separately at the premiere of their new movie and not posing for photos together. (“It may well have been because Justin . . . prefers to keep their relationship out of the public eye,” the Daily Mail theorized.) Jessica Biel has not yet been seen wearing her engagement ring from Justin Timberlake on a red carpet (yes, someone’s keeping track). “She obviously has consciously chosen not to,” Heyman said, “because if she did, that will be a story.”
Currently, the show-biz intelligence community has focused its Castro Death Watch-like resources on Johnny Depp. He’s an inscrutable one: lives in France, owns his own island, hides behind glasses, facial hair and hats. But it’s been more than a year since he and longtime love Vanessa Paradis have red-carpeted together (yes, someone’s keeping track), and their prognosis is dire.
In this season of awards shows, you, too, can play along at home. To brush up your skills for Sunday’s Academy Awards, let’s rewind last week’s Grammys and watch it together like Red Carpet Kremlinologists:
Ice-T and Coco: together. Check. Carrie Underwood is solo. Perhaps her hockey-pro husband had a game that night? Hmm, no, but one the day before. (We checked.) Wiz Khalifa has Amber Rose on his arm, and they’re giggling together: All is good in their world.
Now, this is interesting: Fergie has brought . . . her mom. Red-carpet emcee Ryan Seacrest reads our minds and moves quickly to tamp down suspicions. “How did Josh feel about this dress?” he teases. (Josh Duhamel, you know, her husband.) “He loved it!” the singer replies. “He came in and gave me a little — ” she mimes a pat on the derriere — “before I left.” Okay, if you say so, Fergie.
Blake Shelton banters with Seacrest, alone. Where’s his wife, Miranda Lambert? Uh-oh: Is that who that terrible blind item was about? But then Shelton steps aside to let Lambert take his place before the camera. She glances up at him with a quick, tiny smile as they brush past each other.
A sign of frostiness? Or just the nonchalance of an old married couple who woke up together this morning, will end the day together and have nothing to prove to us, here on this red carpet?