As the old song says, “Breaking up is hard to do.” This is certainly true for most—anger, grieving lost dreams, and rejection have one or both parties feeling like the pain will never end. It’s not something you’d wish on your worst enemy. (Well, maybe that complete dick from high school who told everyone you slept with the French exchange student, which you totally didn’t do!). You have to deal with your friends and nosy aunties prying into whose fault it was, or maybe even giving you the old ‘I told you so.’
Now imagine if you also had to face millions of people speculating about what went wrong, reporters and bloggers everywhere discussing who did what (or didn’t do what) to whom. Former friends, along with anyone who’s ever seen you on the street giving interviews in which they try to sound like experts on your marriage. Yuck, right?
This added weight sits on the shoulders of celebrities—Hollywood’s ultra-elite.
I know, I know, you want to roll your eyes and say, “MJ, don’t ask me to feel sorry for them. They can just get in their private jet and fly away until the storm passes. They knew what they were getting into when they decided to go chase their Hollywood dreams.”
And, yeah, I feel you. There are days when that life looks pretty damn sweet to me, too, when the kids are tearing around the house screaming, and there’s a huge pile of laundry waiting for me as soon as I’m done scraping baked-on cheese out of a casserole dish. In those moments, I wouldn’t mind having a nanny, a housekeeper, and a jet waiting for me in a hangar somewhere nearby.
But recently, I had an experience that allowed me to look at things in a different light. In September, I started working on my fifth novel, The Break-up. It’s about an A-list Hollywood actress who finds out her husband is cheating on her while she is being interviewed on national television. Ouch, right?
As I researched and wrote the first few scenes of the book, I started to come to a new understanding—how lucky I am that I’m unknown. I was immediately struck by how difficult it would be to not only find out your husband was leaving you for someone new, but also to have everyone in the world talking about it. Knowing that a personal tragedy was going to become extremely lucrative for some photographers and tabloids would somehow add a heaping teaspoon of salt to the wound, wouldn’t it?
I interviewed a couple of Hollywood insiders (who I cannot name, I’m sorry). Both were in the publicity/talent management side of things. Both were very open to answering questions about what happens behind the scenes during a break-up, and I have to admit it was fascinating.
When two celebrities divorce, the one who has ‘a higher currency’ (i.e., the one who brings in the most money at the box office) generally has more clout with spinning the story. If there is a broad enough chasm between their ranking, one may find oneself in some serious trouble as far as how he or she is represented in the media. The media knows they need to play nice with the high power player, or they will lose access to them in the future.
If the couple shares a publicity/management team, the lower value client will be dropped immediately, (which is what happens to the heroine in my book). Now you’re out of your marriage, your press agent, your manager, and your publicist all at the same time Folding my own socks is starting to sound pretty good right about now.
One of the people I interviewed spoke at length about the power differential between some couples, even mentioning one actor who reportedly vets his wife’s scripts before they are presented to her. He has veto power over her entire career, and she doesn’t even know about it. It seems that the higher the level of fame and ‘value’ a star has, the more freedom they lose. Not just as far as trying to ditch the paparazzi, but also as far as managing their marriages. The couple becomes a brand, with a public persona to uphold. The lines between their public image and their actual interpersonal relationship must wind up horribly blurred in some cases, especially if one is more committed to their career than their partner. While most people argue about the toilet seat being left up, or whose family you’re going to spend Christmas day with, these couples have a whole new problem to sort out together, and it wouldn’t be one that your parents would have taught you about either. Expectations and obligations soon outweigh romance and intimacy, and I’m guessing that before long you’re left wondering if you’re there because you love each other, or because it’s good for your box office numbers.
When break-ups happen, there could be weeks of planning before either camp gives an official statement. Both parties’ publicity teams may work together to draft joint statements, which generally seem to make it sound like the two involved have the utmost respect for one another, will always be b.f.f.’s and that the end of their marriage is actually the path of transcendence to a higher level of consciousness. Nobody says, “He’s fucking his trainer, so I’m leaving the cheating, lying sonofabitch,” which is what most women would tell their friends and family, (and their child’s piano teacher, and the postman, and the dog groomer…).
But that’s not what happens in Hollywood. Rather, carefully staged photo ops will be set up with sympathetic media outlets. The stars may go into hiding for a while until they stop looking like a normal human does while grieving (with puffy red eyes and blotchy skin and a semi-permanent scowl set on his/her face). While they’re busy trying to get over their ex (e.g., making little voodoo dolls and asking their personal assistant to swing by Walmart for some pins on their way over), their publicity team is busy looking for the most advantageous way to spin the entire situation.
Recently, we saw Jennifer Garner’s Vanity Fair interview come out days before her latest flick, Miracles from Heaven. This was the first time that she or Ben Affleck spoke out publicly since their split was announced. He responded in an interview with the NY Times days later promoting the most recent installment in the Batman franchise. The internet went nuts with criticisms of the pair, now being accused of using their divorce to promote their films.
Did they? If they did, I’d call it a smart move. Publicity isn’t exactly cheap, and it’s hard to grab the public’s attention, especially if you’re selling a religious-themed, family film. Maybe it took so many months for Ms. Garner to give an interview because she was too distraught to conduct herself with decorum when the whole thing was going down. (I know I wouldn’t exactly be Grace Kelly myself if I were in her shoes.) Maybe neither of them knew with one hundred percent certainty that things were over for the first few months. Maybe she believed in this film so much that she agreed to hold off until it would draw the most attention possible for the story. Maybe Vanity Fair had her slated in for a cover/interview before the split happened. Magazines tend to plan many months in advance, so I’d say that this simple explanation is a definite possibility.
And wouldn’t that be sad, if it were the case? You’re going along, raising your family and happily making a movie, your publicist sets up an interview for the release of the film, you then find out your entire world is about to come crashing down on you, you spend months trying to help your children heal, figure out what life after your ex is going to look like, you decide to uphold an interview commitment you made ages ago, only to be accused of using your divorce to boost ticket sales. You can try to deny it, sure, but people are going to decide for themselves what the truth is, even though they’ve never met you and never will. For that reason alone, most celebrities take the high road and say nothing. I don’t know about you, but for me, this would leave a pretty bad taste in my mouth.
So as I get ready for bed tonight, I’m doing it with a little more compassion for the famous who walk among us. I’ll fall asleep secure in the fact that when I drive the kids to school tomorrow, and they’re arguing and I’m yelling at them, no one is going to be snapping photos of me with my mouth gaping open (except maybe a photo radar camera). I’ll sleep well knowing that when I go to the grocery store checkout line, I won’t ever see a tabloid with a photo of my ass in a bikini with a zoomed-in shot of the cellulite on my thighs. When I wear that new black jersey-knit dress I bought on sale, I won’t lose a round of ‘who wore it better’ to Rihanna. And there’s something comforting in that.
Even if the private jet would be really fucking nice.