It is hard to figure out which news story garnered more internet inches last week. Was it the pinch-yourself-its-actually-true raid on Capitol Hill, “the 9/11 of social media” in the words of Politico, featuring a bear-skinned posterboy of fascism in low-slung cotton drawstring trousers, or the supposed, alleged, apparent, rumoured, imminent divorce of Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West? These italicised qualifiers are important, because nobody wants to get sued and more or less importantly, because neither celebrity has actually confirmed their intent to divorce.
And yet the Hollywood gossip mill - which is less of a mill and more of a rubber factory during a fire - is already belching out great black clouds of hearsay about the impending dissolution of a celebrity couple worth over $2 billion. Kanye is moving to London (he wants to establish his Sunday Service choir over here). Kim is introducing cushions to the ‘museum’ of a house she built with Kanye (which she never liked anyway). Kim has hired “disso queen” (short for ‘marriage dissolution’) Lauren Wasser, who represented Johnny Depp in his divorce from Amber Heard, to represent her. Wait...Kanye is actually moving to Atlanta. Hold the scatter cushions! Kim is actually selling the house. And on and on it goes.
This tangled cats-cradle of rumours has come to define the legacy brand that is the extended Kardashian clan. Rumours swirled about Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy for months before she confirmed the birth of Stormi on Instagram. Kendall was rumoured to be gay (before the mystery around a revelation was revealed to merely be a paid partneship with skincare brand Proactiv.) Bruce was rumoured to be trans, long before he became Caitlin. Kourtney and Scott were rumoured to be breaking up for years, before they actually did.
And so Kimye are supposedly, allegedly, apparently, rumouredly, imminently getting divorced. But the internet doesn’t care if it's true or not. I have attempted to cultivate a looser relationship with said internet over the last year, for my own sanity and time management. But news about the Kardashians has a way of making its way to you, like a sort of invasive osmosis. Celebrity gossip has, if it is possible, become even more craven during the pandemic. The pandemic has made us appraise what is important to us, was the sage proclamation last spring. Small things just don’t matter anymore. The response to the Spanish-accented Hilaria Baldwin being unmasked as Hilary Baldwin from Massachussettes with a second home in Marbella - a vast, undulating, furious response that rolled over Christmas and into the new year - is surely evidence to the contrary. Stories like this are a distraction. They distract us from the painful reality of coronavirus, from our polarised politics, from climate change and impending economic collapse. But are the rumours around Kimye’s marriage a distraction or - even as we crawl through the embers of the world we once knew - the main event?
“I care more about some celebrity breakups than I do my own”, my editor said to me, when she commissioned this piece. I asked Twitter which celebrity breakups they were most sad about and was deluged with over 450 replies, my most replied-to thread of all time, some of which made me laugh out loud, some of which I didn’t even know, and all of which kept me at my desk long into the night, after I fell down a Google Image and PopBitch nostalgia hole. Kermit and Miss Piggy. Barbie and Ken (OK, when did THEY break up?). Britney and Justin came up a lot. The estrangement of two Canadian tuxedoed blond popstrels was a bummer for the millennial’s hopeful teenage heart. Dawn French and Lenny Henry (iconic). Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum. (God Bless, Step Up - which I watched most days at university.) The Redknapps. Cheryl and Liam. Michelle and Heath. Katie Price and Peter Andre (that was sad. Something felt very unresolved about it.) Love Island’s Dani Dyer and Jack Fincham. And, of course, the twosome who were then lacerated for introducing the term ‘unconscious coupling’ to our lexicon: Gwyneth and Chris. Many announced themselves as still in mourning for couples that had ceased to exist over a decade ago, even as the celebrities themselves appear to be extremely fine about it and have moved on to other relationships and had a football team of children. By far the most replies came for Jen and Brad - a break-up that became a whole pop-culture moment, particularly when Angelina Jolie came onto the scene, with Paris and Nicky Hilton donning TEAM ANISTON and TEAM JOLIE baseball T-shirts for an epic early noughties paparazzi shoot. Like all basic bitches, I really wanted a Team Aniston T-shirt. Alas, eBay had run dry.
“Celebrities are our highest-paid peers - they have all the visibility and prestige we associate with status, based on qualities like attractiveness and excessive wealth. Of course we want to watch them” writes the psychologist Mitch Prinstgein in his book, Popular. “Our obsession with status is biologically programmed, and if it seems juvenile to be concerned with such topics, or to consume celebrity-themed media, it is because they remind us of the time in our lives when our unrestrained cravings for social rewards first blossomed.” In other words, following the relationships of celebrities from afar (very afar, I remind you, despite the false proximity social media offers) is a bit like watching the cool kids at school. We subconsciously hope that by observing status, we might accumulate some of our own.
“We’re enthralled by the private lives of public couples (it’s part of the reason sex tapes were instrumental in taking careers supersonic)” says Vogue columnist and Instagram hoot, Raven Smith. “We’re collectively interested in the things we can’t see.” It’s also nothing new - in the 1920s people were scandalised and drawn to Charlie Chaplin’s series of teenage brides, and in the 1950s, the world lost its mind following the on/off relationship of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which begun as an affair when Elizabeth - a woman defined in the public eye by the fact that she married seven times - was just 18 years-old. Social media has, of course, transformed that relationship from one of benign distance, to one of furious intimacy. In his book, Celebrity, Sean Remond goes as far to suggest that the fan and the celebrity have merged into one hybrid beast, which is a rather nauseating visual.
There has long been the idea that celebrity behaviour is a mirrored and amplified version of our own. There is the feeling of, if they can’t do it, no-one can. “If miley and liam actually broke up?? love is dead?? there’s no hope for any of us?? please let it not be true I’m personally affected by this” read a tweet in August 2019, after Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth broke up. This investment is exacerbated in three instances. Firstly, when the celebrity coupling is seen to have overcome adversity - Cyrus and Hemsworth for example, broke up and got back together. Secondly, and there’s no way to write this without sounding a little cynical, the marriage is a core part of the business plan. Thirdly, when the marriage has had fairytale-style HELLO! beginnings. Kim and Kanye had all three. They got married in Versailles. Fricking Versailles! Kanye spent four days of his honeymoon editing a single photo of their wedding. Which perhaps, in hindsight, clang a warning gong or three.
But do celebrities really function as a mirror to our lives? I’d argue that they offer more of a disorientating refraction - what our lives could look like if they were distorted by immense scrutiny, surveillance, money and acclaim. Were the odds stacked against Kimye? If it is easy for celebrities to lead lives of technicolour glory and privilege, perhaps it is harder for them to lead normal ones too. Kim and Kanye are nothing like us. But that doesn’t mean a lot of people won’t feel hurt if they divorce. It’s Kanye we should worry about, says Raven. “Kim’s personal brand is stronger than her marriage. She can be single and still prosper.” So, we wait.