celebrity

The dirty business of public celebrity divorce.

On Valentine's Day last week, rapper Kanye West sent a truckload of roses - yes, a truckload - to his estranged wife, media personality Kim Kardashian.

We know this because we saw them. In an image posted to his Instagram (that has since been deleted), the rapper declared: "My vision is Krystal Klear." The gesture, which is a part of an ongoing campaign to win back Kardashian, was there for all of his almost 14 million followers to see, as well as anyone who happened upon pretty much any news website that day.

Not Kool. (Image: Instagram) 

The messy fallout from this relationship breakdown has had a visceral effect on many of us. Even if you don’t like either Kardashian or West, the almost daily updates are pretty brutal to read. The breakdown is further complicated by the fact that West lives with bipolar disorder, which may explain some of his erratic behaviour. There is no easy casting of the “villain” in this scenario. For all their wealth and excess, these are simply two people going through serious emotional turmoil - with the whole world watching from the sidelines.

So just why can’t we stop watching? Why are we so obsessed with celebrity divorce, particularly the ones where dirty laundry is hung out to dry?

Perhaps it's because the very first stories we’re ever told are fairytales. Once upon a time, there’s a beautiful peasant girl who is treated cruelly, often by her stepmother. She meets a dashing prince who rides a white horse. The star-crossed pair overcome adversity and get married, and the peasant girl is thus transformed into a princess. The genetically blessed couple kiss - in an entirely PG-rated way, of course; there are kids present! - as they ride off into the sunset.

They live happily ever after.

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We’re told that story, time and again, throughout our lives. First, in children’s books. Then in cartoons. Then in movies, TV shows, and literature. Fiction bleeds into non fiction as we watch our favourite actors, singers, models, entertainers and presenters find their perfect partners - who are often fellow celebrities - and settle down. Their images are splashed across magazine covers and on the internet. Their interviews profess their undying love for each other.

They live happily ever after... until they don’t.

Aside from Kardashian and West, there’s the acrimonious split between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whose divorce proceedings are still in court despite ending their relationship in 2016. And who could forget Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s marriage breakdown in 2005? It has been 17 years since that infamous walk on the beach where they were captured by paparazzi in deep conversation and a long hug - before announcing the very next day that they were divorcing. Before we'd had time to blink, Pitt had been photographed out with Angelia Jolie, who he'd met on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith, while he was still with Aniston. Very tellingly, Aniston would say later that Pitt lacked a "sensitivity chip" during that time.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 2015. (Image: Getty) 

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt in 2004. (Image: Getty) 

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The same goes for the public divorce proceedings of other celebrity couples like Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, Alice Evans and Ioan Gruffudd, Kelly Clarkson and Brandon Blackstock, Heather Mills and Paul McCartney, Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen, to name just a few. In each of these divorce cases, there has been a public slanging match between the pair.

Sure, there are "nice divorces" like the conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, who have both moved on with other famous people - Brad Falchuk and Dakota Johnson respectively - and continue to harmoniously co-parent their children. There’s also Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom, and Jennifer Lopez and Marc Antony. Some breakups are messier than others but nevertheless, we’re obsessed.

Before Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin consciously uncoupled, they were just... coupled. Also, does anyone remember when Paltrow dated Pitt? It's like six degrees of separation. (Image: Getty) 

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Part of our obsession is human nature. Having worked in news and media for over 12 years, I’ve heard readers say: "Why can’t you give us nice stories? Wholesome stories? Good stories?" The answer is simple: No-one reads nice, wholesome, good stories. Ok sure, you’ll read one or two, but you’ll gravitate more towards more controversial headlines. In other words, you want those fairytales you read as a kid to be true, but as an adult, you know they aren’t. There is definitely an element of schadenfreude when we see the “perfect” celebrity romance fall apart. 

Someone who would know all about this is Mamamia's Head of Content Holly Wainwright, who was a magazine editor for a number of years. "The biggest celebrity divorce in gossip magazine history was Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's. That story had everything - a golden couple, infidelity, secrets and intrigue and a big reveal. Sometimes, amongst all that, it's easy to lose sight of the fact we're talking about real people, with feelings and lives," she says. "The coverage from that split went on for years and years - it's still going on today, with an update, Brad and Ange's divorce. There are some relationships that feel almost intimate to us, like we know them and we're almost as invested as if we were family. It's a strange, problematic phenomenon, but a real one, nonetheless."

We look for the blemishes in the stories around us to make us feel better about our own lives. That doesn’t make you a bad person - it makes you human.

As Mamamia’s Pop Culture Editor Keryn Donnelly says, "We’re used to only seeing [celebrities’] very carefully cultivated personas, the sides of them that they want us to see. You rarely hear a celebrity actually talk about the stuff that makes us human, like being rejected or insecure or jealous or petty. So when their divorce plays out publicly it's like we're seeing the worst parts of ourselves through them and it makes us feel a bit better about our own stuff. Like if they have everything they have and they can still get in such a state that they're firing off a petty tweet then things aren't so bad for us."

In a world where religion can be a dirty word, celebrity worship is on the rise. The more they share their inner lives with us, the more we feel like we know them. And the more they give, the more we feel we are owed. "Celebrities often take the public who are in their external world into their internal world, and often without boundaries," says clinical psychotherapist and psychologist Noosha Anzab. "Are they all narcissists and have personality disorders, are they crying out for help, or are they just doing it for fame? I definitely don’t think it’s that simple. Celebrities who are often addressing private stuff publicly usually do it to gain support and to connect to members of their fandom. When we know so much about someone’s lives, we feel better connected to them."

Clinical psychologist Jo Lamble believes there is also an element of trying to control the narrative. "They want to be seen in the best possible light – often portraying themselves as the victim in the equation. I don’t think they necessarily want to get more publicity, but they are trying to make sure that any publicity they get is favourable. And if a person with narcissistic tendencies gets rejected, they will often do all they can to publicly humiliate and denigrate their ex because they cannot tolerate the fact that they have been criticised or rejected."

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Social media plays a big role in this equation. It’s quick, easy, and more often than not, straight from the horse’s mouth. As evidenced by West’s recent posts (which he has since deleted), this can sometimes do more harm than good. Divorce playing out on social media, which is normally such a private affair between two people, can become a beacon for those of us who only ever get to see the "polite" side of it. "Social media allows us to see what they're feeling in the heat of the moment before they've had a chance to sit back and really think about what they want to put out there," says Donnelly. "So we're seeing a glimpse into their lives that they never intended us to see."

Giving attention to the lives of celebrities also distracts us from the worries of our own relatively normal lives - and let’s face it, this pandemic has given us a lot to worry about. Faced with border closures, work burnout, and a general feeling of unease and exhaustion, it's no wonder we're trying to find ways to keep us entertained. "A peek into the private life of anyone else, especially a celebrity, can feel like a guilty pleasure," Lamble agrees. "At the same time we can dream that they are living a perfect life and be pleased when we see that they are human."

And let’s not forget our propensity for gossip. "People love gossip - even though it’s definitely not a positive thing to gravitate towards. Gossiping helps us feel as though we possess secret information about another person, making us feel powerful in our connection to them, even if we don’t actually know them personally," Anzab says. "Research shows that the reward centre of our brain gets activated when we hear, see or read celebrity gossip that is negative – so the more we check in with the stories, the more we follow the posts, the more rewarded we feel. In our daily lives, when we are feeling bogged down, tired and flat, spending time on social media to trawl through gossip makes us feel better."

So now that we know why we’re so invested in celebrity divorce, the next question is: Is there anything wrong with it?

According to Lamble, it’s only a problem if it interferes with your life. "If you are not functioning at your usual level because you are scrolling through celebrities’ profiles too much, then it’s unhealthy," she says. "If you are negatively comparing yourself to a celebrity or basing your own decision-making on what you think is going on for a celebrity, then it’s unhealthy."

"There’s one other element to celebrity relationship watch, and that’s the anxiety that can arise when a celebrity is dumped," Lamble continues. "I remember years ago when Tom Cruise ended his marriage to Nicole Kidman. I heard so many people say: 'If it could happen to Nicole, who appears to have it all, it could happen to me.' When we presume that others are living a perfect life, it can be unsettling to learn that they too can be hurt. This is clearly an unhealthy way of thinking and we need to do everything we can to remind ourselves that no one’s life is perfect and we all have our struggles."

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Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in 1991. (Image: Getty) 

Both Lamble and Anzab agree that the best way to prevent fascination from turning into "something more sinister" is to limit our time on social media and remind ourselves we’re only getting a singular version of the story. "Curate your social media to be informative and meaningful," says Anzab. "Making it a point to mindfully consume content is a really important way to rein it in."

"Remind yourself of all the things you’re grateful for in your life and stay true to your values," adds Lamble. "What’s amazing to me is that we often can use celebrities as role models just because they’re celebrities. We need to choose our role models based on our values, not on what others seemingly have."

It's also important for us to realise that just because celebrities invite us into their lives, it doesn't mean we get to stay there permanently. Kardashian may have built her career by sharing the most intimate details of her life on her reality TV show, but she owes us nothing - not the receipts of her divorce nor how she feels about what's playing out in public.

Sadly, it seems West isn't giving her much choice, and maybe that - the violation of her privacy by someone who claims to love her - should make us all reflect on our choice to keep watching.

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