There was a time when 25-year-old Chelsea Rickling thought stars were just like us. That coupled celebrities clutching hands in magazines were simply glossier versions of our anonymous selves. That Hollywood’s brightest stars, too, yearned for — and often achieved — fairytale romances that rivaled their own on-screen love stories.
But then, in 2002, pop power couple Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake broke up, leading to a storm of toxic he said/she said headlines and singles that eventually culminated in a reported dance battle. And then, in 2005, tabloid sweethearts Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt transformed into tabloid heartbreakers when their seven-year relationship went sour thanks to an on-screen spy marriage. By the time Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes parted ways this summer — and Kristen Stewart publicly released a loving monologue fit for a one-act play following her cheating scandal — Rickling was all but convinced Hollywood was just as make-believe as its big-screen releases. “I wanted Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt to be together forever,” the New York-based Rickling says. “But when people like them break up, [fans] are like, ‘You know what? I don’t know if I’m going to believe in this anymore.’”
The non-believers extend beyond Rickling. Pop culture aficionados and casual fans alike have spent the past few months voicing, tweeting, and posting on Facebook their skepticism surrounding some of Hollywood’s most notable couples. News of Cruise and Holmes’ divorce was met with declarations of “I knew it!” by naysayers who thought the mere break-up proved conspiracy theories surrounding a marriage contract or secret sexual orientation. Stewart’s aforementioned declaration of love to boyfriend and Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson following her affair with director Rupert Sanders only led fans and media outlets (including this one) to point to the fact that Snow White and the Huntsman Blu-ray details were released the very same day. And the endless stream of photographs picturing Kanye West hand-in-hand with marriage enthusiast Kim Kardashian? Fans are responding en masse: Fool us once, shame on you. “I just don’t believe it 100 percent,” says 31-year-old Carmela Cipriano of New York. “[Relationship publicity] surrounds when somebody’s new movie is coming out, when somebody’s releasing an album, or if a movie isn’t doing so well, or if a TV show is going to be airing.”
The concept sounds ludicrous: A-list celebrities arrange faux relationships, staging affectionate photographs and candlelit dates for years while we normal citizens can barely bear to pretend we like that guy from OkCupid? Yet even the most rational of pop culture fans (even celebrities themselves) still insist contracts exchange hands behind closed doors in Hollywood. So what explains the belief that we know the truth is out there, even if the closest we’ve been to Hollywood is the People magazine stand at our local grocery stores? “We’ve been given so many examples as to why we should be cynical,” says Max Dawson, assistant professor of radio, television, and film at Northwestern University. “We have a good 100 years of precedent behind us that, if we’ve been paying enough attention, tells us that most relationships between celebrities don’t really last. Whether it’s the serial marriages of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, or the sham marriages or beard relationships of people like Rock Hudson. Even when we really want to believe, it’s just so hard to.”
Still, even with knowledge of Hollywood’s sketchy relationship history, pop culture lovers spent decades feeling so attached to their favorite celebrity couples, they might as well have tattooed “Winona (and Johnny) Forever” on their right shoulders. But as our dependence on the Internet and social media increased over the past five years, so did our suspicious nature. Especially when the World Wide Web came complete with enough paranoia to fill the hole in Twihards’ hearts. The PR-friendly People — which depicted Hollywood as a glitzy utopia — suddenly found competition in the Perez Hiltons and TMZs of the Internet, which offered access via compromising photographs instead of fluffy baby photos. For some, the lure of the lurid was simply too tantalizing to pass up.
And, apparently, too juicy to dismiss. Despite the fact that a study conducted by Harris Interactive in July found 98 percent of Americans distrust information they find on the Internet, celebrity gossip seems immune. Pop culture fans continue to devour, and pass on, stories of possible sham marriages and other paltry tales. (Of course, that study was found on the Internet, so perhaps we shouldn’t trust it.) Receive enough "inside" information from the likes of Perez, and suddenly, he becomes a reliable source, despite how much genitalia he scribbles on stars’ faces. "People are simply bombarded by this information," says Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children For a Media-Fueled World and blogger on pop culture. "Basically, a simple fact of human beings is we base our judgment of the world based upon the information we get from the world. So [even] if most of that information is manufactured, then it’s natural that we’re going to at some level believe it."
Of course, it's difficult to view Hollywood as a victim, especially when the industry often perpetrates many of the untruths circulated around the Web and in tabloids. In fact, Dawson says we can thank the industry itself for a trend towards transparency. After all, not only have celebrities arranged photo ops with paparazzi and tweeted us photos from their sets, but the movie industry has also invited pop culture fans to pull back the curtain via behind-the-scenes photographs and documentaries. "Everything has some sort of inside gossip attached to it where the audiences is being encouraged to feel as if we're insiders," Dawson says. "As if we're not on the other side of the screen, but we have privileged access to understand how pop culture gets made. And whether that's through Entertainment Tonight, through blogs, [or] through things like DVD special features, we're being encouraged to feel as if we have a sort of privileged viewpoint. We're in on things."
And that includes feeling in on elaborate PR plans that feed into conspiracy theories. As former believer Rickling says, "We have so much access to publicity that maybe we're getting a little bit smarter. Based on Twitter, all the paparazzi photos… maybe we have too much information almost."
It makes sense that celebrities' on-camera, couch-jumping blitzes would encourage authenticity conversations — actors are good at acting. But what about the skepticism surrounding Twilight stars Stewart and Pattinson, who actively avoided talking about their relationship until the actress' cheating scandal? Turns out, it's lose-lose for celebrity couples (even if it's win-win for Hollywood when it comes to fueling buzz). "The more secretive [the relationship] is, the more we as individuals can participate, in a way, because we can create our own reality of the situation," Taylor says. "The less we know, the more we can create our own narrative about them."
After all, we've learned how to create reality from Hollywood itself. Though reality TV has existed since 1973, when PBS aired the groundbreaking An American Family, and became an institution thanks to MTV's seemingly unstoppable Real World, its modern-day format started with the early 2000s reality TV boom, which was launched by the likes of Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire, Survivor, and The Bachelor. Suddenly, "reality TV" didn't represent passive, documentary-style, fly-on-the-wall viewing — Hollywood realized it could manipulate the material and create its own desired narrative. It didn't take long until cast members shifted from deer-in-the-headlights folk like Darva Conger to active participants like Kardashian. And it didn't take long for viewers to wise up to the fact that perhaps Ed Swiderski and Jillian Harris weren't as in love as they let on. "[With] The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, at first you're like, ‘Oh my gosh, it's true love, it's true romance, and this is how it goes, what a Disney experience,'" Cipriano says. "That's definitely changed more with the newer realities and the explosion of more reality TV that's come about."
It's part of the reason pop culture fans are skeptical of the industry — if Hollywood could convince us that Ed and Jillian, Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi, and Flavor Flav and Hoopz belonged together, why couldn't they do the same with A-list stars? In fact, our increasing jaded view towards the medium has changed our perception of "reality" as a whole. "At this point, it's no longer necessary for anyone I think outside of maybe conversations with 3-year-olds or 93-year-olds to qualify a discussion of reality TV that reality TV isn't real," Dawson says. "Everybody knows that reality TV isn't real. The fact that we still use that, ‘reality TV,' isn't it wonderful? The very fact that we've been comfortable with allowing the term ‘reality' within the context of reality TV to be applied so liberally is indicative of the fact that I don't think that people are necessarily that attached to the idea that there's any one single truth, that there's any one reality that could even be captured on TV. It's a sort of relativism — an acknowledgment that everyone is going to observe things from a different perspective. There's no real one true essential way of defining anything anymore."
Yet, despite our knowledge of reality TV's manipulation of the truth, we're still tuning in — a total of 8.9 million viewers watched Emily Maynard's Bachelorette finale. And despite our tendency to doubt celebrity relationships, we're still consuming stories about stars en masse via magazines and blogs. If we don't buy Hollywood's stories, why do we continue to literally buy into them? Dawson says that exact blurred line of reality and fiction has only made us more fascinated in celebrity, pointing to Kardashian's short-lived marriage to Kris Humphries. "Obviously, there was all that around the wedding and the fact that nobody believed it, [but] it really didn't prevent anyone from buying the issue of US Weekly, or watching the coverage of it on E!," he says. "It actually made it more interesting. If Kim Kardashian actually found true love with a dentist from Encino and really decided that this was going to be a turning point in her life, it would kind of be boring. The unreality of her reality is why we like her."
And there's also consumers' love of Schadenfreude. "People also like to see celebrities fall," says Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in California and expert on mindfulness, media, and celebrity culture. "We love to hate our celebrities. We idolize them and then we want to bring them down because it shows that our lives aren't so bad. It's better to be us… We have more moral foundation. We have more inside. We have more genuineness."
Erica Daniels, a 25-year-old from Pottstown, Penn., says pop culture fans who are eager to expose fake celebrity relationships simply want to see the mighty fall. "It's like how in high school you always wanted the top blonde cheerleader [to] get busted for a DUI and get expelled," she says. "Nobody wants to see anybody more attractive and wealthier than them also be happily in love. Nobody wants to see that. I think that's the ridiculous part of humanity."
Daniels is, after all, one of the few who actually does believe the Hollywood hype, and has even argued with her own mother about whether Kardashian and West's relationship is for the cameras. "Hollywood is full of such attractive gorgeous talented people that are also going to be attracted to gorgeous talented attractive people with the same style," she says. "There's so much in our lives right now that could bring us to have this skeptical outlook all the time. There are so many opportunities for you to develop this sense of distrust in the world … Maybe it's just [me] being blissfully ignorant, but I'm going to choose to believe there's something real in there."
There have indeed been many opportunities for our modern society to develop a sense of distrust — in our post-Iraq War existence, our leaders have given us reason to doubt everything from their fidelity to the existence of dangerous weaponry overseas. The result has been a more skeptical society eager to uncover truths not dictated by authority figures. Even if those figures exist in movie houses instead of the White House. "There's definitely been this turn to cynicism," Dawson says. "And the thing that makes it really complicated, makes it hard to understand, is that on the one hand, it seems to be a really good thing … Look at the fact that we questioned what used to be common sense assumptions about gay rights or equality for women or racial discrimination, stuff like that. I think they're all part of the same trend that leads us to question our idols as well."
Despite her distrust, Rickling, for one, says she "would like to believe that we still like our fairy tales" and hopes our cynicism only runs deep when it comes to the shallow Tinsel Town. But perhaps it's misguided to be nostalgic for the days when the masses ate what Hollywood fed them. As Dawson says, "The question is: Who is better off? Are we better off, or are people who thought Liberace was straight and he just couldn't find the right girl?" We'd mull that over, but we just heard Taylor Swift has a new boyfriend.
Follow Kate on Twitter @HWKateWard
[Photo Credit: WENN (3); ABC; E!]