2021 Is Already Doing More for Celebrity Gossip Than 2020 Ever Did

According to ReelFeel time gauges, January 2021 has been the longest on record. It started well enough. The first Monday of a new year, after an objectively difficult one, there was a spate of news. Surprising news of the celebrity sort. You’d be forgiven for feeling a touch of hope, especially when a white hot streak of new gossip made it seem like the world could finally begin folding in some glitz and low-stakes drama to the doom and gloom again. It didn’t last; that kind of thinking never does, really. But as we enter the second half of the month, and as the Biden era gets properly underway with a return to easily spotted symbolism in D.C. fashion and a scandal about…Joe’s Peloton bike, the celebrity gossip is still making a good show of it. It’s a signal that we might, maybe, start to redistribute our personal-attention economies.

So to recap, on January 4, tabloids confirmed Zoë Kravitz filed for divorce from her husband, Karl Glusman. It was a total surprise. Then Harry Styles was holding hands with Olivia Wilde at his agent’s wedding. And finally, not even a week into the new year, multiple sources confirmed to Page Six on January 5 that Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West are divorcing after more than six years of marriage—though TMZ countered with tales of marriage counseling. There was the Armie Hammer cannibal discourse, which was either a sign of the impending apocalypse or a wild thing to watch unfold that was totally immaterial to one’s life, depending on how you look at it. It felt, at least, like some kind of pre-pandemic return to form on tabloid pages that had otherwise been scraping all they could out of Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’s Dunkin’ runs. And then, well, the cardboard cutout that Affleck’s kids were playing with mere months ago was going in the trash. The paparazzi caught that too. They had broken up, sources said

Alongside the pandemic’s more serious consequences, the COVID crisis made for a strange year in gossip. At its start, around March, there was a backlash against the rich and famous for putting their position in the world on display in any way, especially when they made attempts at solidarity with those who might be hurting from it (or not). As the COVID era dragged on, the world of celebrity gossip constricted along with so much else—fewer (public) parties; near-zero red carpets; and paparazzi, film, and television crews—another whole industry—hurting for work.

There were plenty of breaking stories that involved A-listers, but they skewed awful. Johnny Depp’s legal vendettas against his ex-wife opened up grisly details of their life together. More recently, FKA Twigs told the New York Times the extraordinary story of her own lawsuit against ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf. The college admissions scandal bumbled along, ending with the brief imprisonment of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli that anyone could have seen coming (Giannulli will be released this spring, if his petition to finish his sentence at his $9.5 million home in the Hidden Hills doesn’t go through). Kardashian West shocked and awed with a big island blowout for her 40th birthday mid-pandemic, which, as Lainey Gossip recently pointed out, seemed pulled from some kind of reality television playbook on how to shock and awe when other storylines have run dry. 

Even when there were bright moments, we held on to them desperately like a ship captain would cling to lights on a foggy horizon: Affleck and de Armas’s constant papping was a salve. There was a big question mark around whether Brad Pitt was dating Alia Shawkat or just being her friend. There were still more question marks around Pitt having a fling with a woman in an open marriage. The most uplifting and exciting thing he did all year was sit on the bed of a truck and smoke a cigarette, and we in all seriousness thank him for that. He looked great. But the joy and/or intrigue that these stories provided could not be understood without considering the hell we’re in.

The celebrity news that broke in the first days of 2021—that is, before the awful and earth-shattering news that came next—was what Lainey Gossip’s Lainey Lui, who remains the reigning queen of reading the celebrity tea leaves, calls a return to classic Hollywood storylines.

Zoë, Kim and Kanye, Olivia and Harry—to Lui, “There are such classic elements of celebrity gossip in definitely all three.” There’s the successful child of two famous people and the end of her short marriage. There’s an infamous and well-heeled couple reportedly ending their longer one, with many millions on the line. And there’s a couple of A-list stars falling for each other, probably on set no less.

Lui, who also hosts two CTV shows, places that the shift in the ecosystem happened in the latter half of 2016, just as with some other major things in American life: Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt. After nearly a decade of tabloid dominance, with their globe-trotting and their six children, the breakup left a void that was filled, for a while, by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, whose relationship first went public that same month.

“But that quickly went south too,” Lui said, “with the racism and the disgusting headlines and the British tabloids showing their asses. And so you couldn’t just celebrate and enjoy the Harry-Meghan relationship in a typical way—like, are they doing this or this? Are they going to have babies, and whatever?—without talking about very serious issues about class and race and the monarchy.”

Celebrity gossip downshifted. A-listers kept marrying their niche Art Boys instead of their costars, and reality stars or influencers of every kind kept edging into the conversation. Much was made of the the “Whos” and the “Z-list,” which have been interesting in their own way, but there have been precious few tales of huge names falling for each other or megawatt divorces; the soap opera, for the most part, moved east.

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