The most fascinating element of watching these splits play out, however, wasn’t simply the voyeuristic thrill of potential scandal. Instead, the way some couples handled their break-ups pulled back the curtain on many common (if cringeworthy) Hollywood PR machinations — the darkest of the dark arts of image management.
For example, Affleck and Garner’s split exposed how celebrities and tabloid press apparently collaborate on these stories — never mind all those pleas for respecting their privacy at this difficult time. In the days leading up to their divorce announcement, fans were treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about an imminent break-up. The couple responded with seemingly deliberate public outings — in one instance, getting frozen yogurt with their kids — that managed to be captured by the paparazzi.
As Gawker’s Allie Jones pointed out, a close look at the gossip coverage made it clear something was up: People magazine, known for forming close relationships with A-listers to get scoops (just look at the Sandra Bullock cover this week) seemed to stick to a company line, running only the most innocuous Affleck-Garner stories and ignoring all the divorce rumors elsewhere — even as its rival Us Weekly ran ever more vicious stories detailing a looming split. Moving vans at the Affleck-Garner house? Why, they were just renovating, People insisted.
The takeaway from the wildly different takes? “People Is So Thirsty for the Ben Affleck-Jen Garner Divorce Exclusive,” Gawker surmised. Sure enough, the strategy worked: The couple announced their divorce in July, and People got the scoop first.
Then it got ugly, with warring stories sourced by anonymous Affleck and Garner insiders — sometimes in the same publication. On Aug. 5, People published a cover story based on Garner sources who alleged Affleck had an affair with the couple’s former nanny. Hours later, People turned around and quoted an Affleck source saying that the actor was “only friendly” with the nanny, throwing in for good measure a bit of intel about Garner making him feel “inadequate” as a husband. Really, who to believe here? With pretty much everyone’s reputation soiled, People veered off to the more compelling Nannygate angle, as did Us Weekly, In Touch and other gossip sites.
On another end of the spectrum: Shelton and Lambert. The Nashville powerhouses shocked the music industry when they announced their divorce in June. Yet within days, the stories bubbled up online: He cheated. No, she cheated! The rumors got so intense that Lambert’s tourmate Chris Young was forced to release a statement denying he and Lambert had an affair.
As the dust started to settle in September, word spread about Shelton possibly dating his NBC “The Voice” co-star Gwen Stefani, who had just split with her long-time husband Gavin Rossdale.
It seemed a bit too perfectly timed — surely, a faux-showmance pegged to “The Voice” season premiere? The rumors subsided, but then the stars themselves resurrected the buzz. On the eve of the CMA Awards, with nominees Shelton and Lambert both expected, Shelton and Stefani were snapped holding hands at a party — in exclusive pictures posted by E!, which shares a parent company with NBC. Twenty minutes before the show started, Shelton and Stefani’s reps released a joint statement confirming the two were dating.
It was passive aggression at its best — a clear attempt for Shelton to “win” his break-up and/or steal the spotlight. Since then we’ve been besieged by displays of Shelton and Stefani showing off their relationship, like managing to get “caught” talking to each other on FaceTime or carpooling to work in front of the paparazzi.
Given that Lambert had been almost mum about the divorce (save for a sad acceptance speech at the CMAs), some were baffled why Shelton was trying so hard to prove he had moved on. Weeks later, all became clear when Us Weekly’s cover trumpeted that Rossdale cheated with their nanny. Ah — so maybe it wasn’t Shelton trying to win his divorce so much as it was him helping Stefani win hers.
Now, some of you may be thinking: “Why blame the poor, heartbroken stars for the work of these ghoulish reporters?” But think about it: The couples that want to stay out of the spotlight do. How much do you know about Mandy Moore and Ryan Adams? While some gossip surrounded the other splits (like Halle Berry and Olivier Martinez, or Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green), they never generated the steady stream of stories you saw from other famous couples. If you want everyone to respect your privacy at this difficult time, you simply have to respect it yourself.