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Current affairs: celebrity infidelity as news

On the nature of celebrity scandals, relationships and why we care.

Celebrity news often sneaks up on me. I’ll be scrolling through Instagram or Twitter and see a joke about a famous name, not think much of it, and then see another with the same punchline. At that point, I know that something has happened. If I care enough, I’ll Google it. Often, I don’t. Sometimes, however, the news is inescapable. I found out about Adam Levine’s alleged infidelity this way: through seeing countless memes of the screenshots shared from his alleged messages with Sumner Stroh. The same is true of accusations against Ned Fulmer from YouTube group ‘The Try Guys’ and his alleged affair. The celebrity gossip mill is likely always going to turn, so in a way, I’m not surprised that these stories have gathered attention.

But, taking a step back, there’s something surreal about our fixation with celebrity relationships — the sweet and the sour —  that almost seems malicious. Why do we care so much about who is having sex with whom? And is it okay to make light of it, especially when it could lead to personal harm or the dissolution of a marriage?

Let’s start with why people care. There has always been an appetite for news about celebrities, often presented in a succinct or sensationalised  way. Tabloid journalism goes back to the start of the twentieth century, where the term “tabloid” meant something like “tablet”; news that was delivered in a concise, bite-sized format. In 1903, Alfred Harmsworth founded The Daily Mirror, which populated its pages with tabloid news that appealed to the masses: stories about sports, crimes, human interest, and celebrities. This proved incredibly popular, selling a million copies per day within 6 years of its advent.

I can think of three reasons why people find themselves invested in the lives of celebrities. Firstly, humans are social and empathetic; we create connections with people that we see often. We form parasocial relationships — one-sided relationships with public figures — when we find a celebrity relatable, when they inspire us, or when we are invested in their career because we like what they produce. This isn’t inherently good or bad; fandoms can lead to a sense of belonging and foster mutual relationships with other fans, or they can be obsessive and condone a sense of entitlement to celebrities’ personal lives. We like hearing about celebrities because we feel like, to an extent, we know them. Hearing about something Adam Levine did is like hearing about something an old classmate did, except everyone knows him.

Secondly, even if you aren’t interested in parasocial relationships, celebrities are. Their brand is their personality, and they want brand loyalty. We see this when actors go on press tours for movies, when artists go live on Instagram, and, most apparently, when YouTubers and influencers generate rapport with fans by cultivating a relatable and accessible persona. Celebrities want you to care about them — that’s how they get their money. 

Finally, celebrity news is just a bit of fun. It’s not as heavy or upsetting as news about conflict, not as inaccessible as something like the economy, and not as background heavy as politics. It’s engaging without being taxing; a form of escapism 

All of these things are true in regards to relationship drama, but there’s another facet of celebrity news that applies to situations like Levine’s and Fulmer’s specifically. Although much of celebrity remains inaccessible and unimaginable to the average person — I have no idea what it would be like to fly a private jet, attend lavish parties, or go on an international tour — interpersonal relationships are inherently relatable. We see celebrity relationships and can understand them. We label people like Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas #goals because they appear to be the idyll of married life. We play Lemonade at full volume and sing along with Beyoncé because we know how painful being cheated on is. I don’t know what it takes to negotiate a film contract, but I do know how it feels to be in love. This makes celebrities more human, and it also gives us grounds to judge them. Going through a divorce is painful, and to see a celebrity experience one elicits sympathy from us. Cheating on someone is awful, and a celebrity who does that presents the world with an opportunity to condemn them. After all, if their persona is a brand, then consumers have a right to boycott or support them as they see fit. 

Or do they? After all, celebrities aren’t just brands. They’re human beings. Although we can, to an extent, separate their creations, image, and persona from who they are as a human, their relationships — including romantic relationships — are, arguably, inextricable from their error-prone, vulnerable, human core. I don’t mean this to say that we should have more empathy for unfaithful celebrities; being mistake-prone does not absolve you of wrongdoing, especially when those mistakes have painful consequences for the ones that love you.

If Levine had an affair with Stroh, people are entitled to critique him for that. They may even be entitled to make fun of him for it. My empathy lies instead with his wife. He and Behati Prinsloo have been married for a little under a decade; they have two children together. To her, he is not just a persona, a voice on a song, a low resolution screenshot of cringeworthy flirting. He is someone who is meant to stick by her, in sickness and in health. Who pledged to love her and her alone.

Infidelity is an awful thing to go through for anyone, let alone someone that the world is watching. Whatever process she goes through next — grieving, forgiveness, or healing — will be scrutinised by a horde of strangers who see her as a character; or worse still, an addendum to her husband’s brand. The same reason that people find comfort in closeness to celebrities underpins why it is important that we maintain a distance: empathy. 

Parasocial relationships, I’d argue, aren’t as one-sided as we think. A celebrity may not know that you, as an individual, exist, and may not hold you in the same esteem you hold them, but the forces that pry into, scrutinise, and joke about their lives are driven by you. This isn’t always a bad thing. If people can boycott and criticise celebrities and creators, we can hold some of the most powerful and otherwise untouchable people in our society accountable. It also means, however, that upsetting and even traumatic events are amplified for celebrities by how extensively their trauma is played out in the public sphere. Note how Vanessa Bryant learned about her husband and child’s death from TMZ, how Taylor Swift was lambasted for having multiple ex-boyfriends, how Ariana Grande faced blame for the deaths from a terrorist attack at her Manchester concert. This isn’t to say that what Prinsloo or Ariel Fulmer are going through is necessarily more painful than any other person whose spouse has been unfaithful, but it is playing out in a unique context that comes with unique pressures.

Does this mean that we can’t laugh at Adam Levine’s poor flirting? I’m not sure. The most moral path, in my opinion, is simply to do what Prinsloo and Ariel Fulmer ask. Give them space if they want. Grieve with them if they want. Support them if they want to express their pain through art like Lemonade. Make jokes if you want, but recognise that the longer the issue remains in the public eye, especially if it remains there uncritically, the longer the victims at the core of these stories have to suffer.