How Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt defined the 21st-century fame machine

Their old-school Hollywood glamour and high-minded campaigning made them the biggest and glitziest celebrity couple of them all. But now Jolie and Pitts divorce is destroying the celebrity game they played to perfection

To create the perfect celebrity couple, all of the following ingredients must be included:

Two unbelievably gorgeous people who are each globally famous in their own right;

Children with unusual names who are regularly photographed;

Frequent attendance of glitzy events;

Occasional photos of them doing normal people things (such as taking the kids out for pizza, jogging in Malibu);

Some kind of scandal in the background they have overcome;

A constant buzz of tabloid rumours about them;

Publicly released wedding and new baby photos.

Most of all, they must represent something to the public that is far greater than the sum of their parts.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, followed, to a lesser extent, by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, were perfect celebrity couples. Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow certainly ticked most of the boxes. At a stretch, Madonna and Guy Ritchie filled that brief in their time. But Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were the biggest and glitziest of all, with their supersized family and affected normality (photos of them eating fast food with his inlaws in Missouri! Her lack of a publicist!) contrasted with their actually unimaginable inner lives. They were the rare celebrity couple who seemed genuinely into each other; after all, such was their initial attraction that it led to a divorce that has now been discussed longer than the marriages that both preceded and followed it. There was an air of old Hollywood glamour coupled with high-minded cerebralism about them that is hard to imagine any other celebrity couple pulling off now. Kim Kardashian, for example, tweets photos of her breasts for giggles; Jolie wrote a New York Times article about her preventative double mastectomy.

Pitt and Jolie arrive at the Oscars, 2009. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The truth is, Jolies personal life has long been a lot more memorable than her acting (her last truly seminal film was
Girl, Interrupted, and that was made so long ago she was second billing to Winona Ryder, for heavens sake). But the reason they as a couple seemed so interesting, and why the announcement of their divorce this week got so much attention it knocked everything else off the news agenda, was because they werent just the perfect celebrity couple. Their relationship helped to define the 21st-century fame machine. In this sense, it felt absolutely right that the announcement of its end should come, not via a conventional press release, but through a leak on, precisely the kind of sensationalist tabloid blog that didnt exist when Pitt and Jolie first got together but has thrived in the sunshine of their ongoing soap opera.

For all their affected privacy, theirs was a relationship played out entirely in the shifting media landscape. When they were first photographed on a beach in 2005 playing with Jolies adopted son Maddox (12 pages of new pics that prove the romance is real! screamed the cover of a US tabloid), celebrity gossip blogs were in the ascendence while tabloid magazines, especially Hello! and OK! in the UK, and Us Weekly and People in the US, were expensively battling one another and the web to get the most sensationalist photos first. Few were more sought after than anything to do with the Jennifer AnistonBrad PittAngelina Jolie love triangle, such as pictures of Aniston doing yoga on the beach on her own (Poor Jen!) and Pitt and Jolie on (presumably) a different beach looking in one anothers eyes.

Serious about the planet Jolie and Pitt at the World Economic Forum, 2006. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Between 2004 and 2005 the number of paparazzi in the US almost doubled because the nature of celebrity gossip was changing. Instead of knowing-but-cosy articles written by columnists from Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper in the 1930s to Nigel Dempster in the 70s and 80s gossip shifted from being about words to being entirely about photos, and no one encouraged this shift more than the Brangelina behemoth. They rarely spoke about their family life except in the blandest of terms: tell-all exposs would have been seen as far too tacky and self-exploitative for them. They were also too risky for Jolie, whose iron-clad image control became public knowledge when her stipulations about what journalists could and couldnt ask her were leaked online (Interviewer will not ask Ms Jolie any questions regarding her personal life … This interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging to Ms Jolie …).

Instead, from the beginning, she and Pitt preferred to make their points through carefully controlled photo shoots and notably flattering paparazzi shots. Just three months after Aniston filed for divorce from Pitt in March 2005, he and Jolie ostensibly confirmed the increasingly hysterical rumours about their relationship when they posed for a 60-page fashion shoot depicting them in domestic bliss while flanked by five little boys who bore a striking resemblance to Pitt. The shoot was nominally pegged to the release of their film Mr and Mrs Smith, but, as Pitt and Jolie knew perfectly well, it was the frisson of the are-they-yes-they-totally-are rumours that made a glossy magazine hand them 60 pages. They happily exploited the public interest while still maintaining a semblance of the moral high ground by not actually saying anything. After all, next to Tom Cruises sofa-jumping, which happened that same summer, a 60-page (did I mention it was 60 pages?) fashion shoot looked downright self-restrained.

In classic Brangelina style, they didnt confirm they were in a relationship until the following year when Jolie was pregnant, and this made them seem loftily above the overexposed antics of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and the rest of the celebrity landscape back then. (Not everyone was wowed by the Jolie-Pitts decision to communicate by glamorous photo semiotics as opposed to boring press conferences: Aniston later said that the fashion shoot proved to her that her ex-husband lacked a sensitivity chip.)

The truth is, of course, few exploited the world of modern fame more thoroughly than the Jolie-Pitts. When Jolie decided to give birth to their daughter, Shiloh, in Namibia in 2006, the Namibian government, in a move straight out of Team America, enforced a no-fly zone over the coast where the family was staying. Pitt and Jolie invariably arrived last at red carpet events, such as the Oscars, thus ensuring maximum photo op, and, of course, there was the fascination with their multicultural children, which, again, the Jolie-Pitts did little to quell, with their strictly managed magazine shoots that sold for record-breaking millions. (If you think the Jolie-Pitts didnt use their family in their publicity, that they were merely compromising with the publics curiosity, ask yourself how many of their six children you can name. Three at least, probably. Now, how many of, say, Matt Damons four children can you name? Even I had to Google that, and I write about this stuff for a living. This does not happen by accident.)

Pitt and Jolie with two of their adopted children, Maddox and Pax. Photograph: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

This double game affecting to maintain privacy while actually being entirely in the public eye but only under their own terms is what made them the perfect celebrity couple. They conjured up a form of intimacy at a distance, a term coined by Donald Horton and R Richard Wohl in their famous 1956 paper, Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction. Most of all, they pulled it off by understanding the world of modern media better than the media understood itself. When the two of them needed to get the public back on side after Pitts divorce from Aniston, and Team Aniston sweatshirts were outselling Team Jolie ones from LA boutiques by three to one, they didnt do it via the traditional means of fawning press interviews. As usual, they opted for photos. The two of them were pictured touring various developing world countries, with Pitt hugging children in orphanages and Jolie meeting victims of the 2002 civil war in Sierra Leone. Suddenly, they werent the sex temptress and helpless hunk who broke the heart of Americas sweetheart: they were the high-minded celebrity couple who were using their fame for good and, gosh, who has time for yoga and me-time on the beach when youre busy saving the world?

Jolie, in particular, carved her own narrative for female celebrities in the 21st century: as opposed to being the lonely singleton followed by dated frump, which is the trajectory still accorded to every other famous woman, she was the sexual adventuress followed by idealised but still sexy mother figure and world saviour. Not even Madonna could pull off that combination successfully. It was genuinely interesting to watch her determinedly overturn the cliches, and while Pitt may have had the more successful career, Jolie was always the more interesting one, the brightly coloured bird of prey to his blond mouseburger. Until, that is, news broke this week that her family was about to endure the biggest Hollywood cliche of all.

Redefining female celebrity Jolie talking at a Syrian refugee camp, September 2016. Photograph: Ahmad Alameen/AP

Celebrities get divorced all the time, but only a few celebrity divorces can be described as seminal. The BBC was not sending out alerts about Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefanis divorce last year. This is because, like the perfect celebrity couple, the perfect celebrity divorce has to represent something bigger to the public, either through a media-constructed narrative or through the scale of celebrities cultural significance. There was Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds divorce back in 1959, when the housewives favourite left Americas darling for Elizabeth Taylor, the temptress of her era. (As Carrie Fisher, Reynolds and Fishers daughter, has rightly pointed out since, her parents were the original Aniston and Pitt, with Taylor as Jolies antecedent.) Taylor then left Fisher for Burton, which led to the next big celebrity divorce times two, as they married and divorced twice, while a fascinated public watched two highly public figures drive each other mad through their mutual sexual attraction and self-destruction. The next one was Cruise and Kidman, followed by Cruise and Holmes, both of which were only interesting, really, because of Cruises weirdness, which became more apparent with each divorce. Some might include Paltrow and Martin in this list, with their all too memorable conscious uncoupling. But, really, next to the brightness of Taylor and Burton and even Jolie and Pitt (well, Jolie, mainly), they are too basic and beige in my eyes to make the cut.

The narrative on Jolie-Pitts split has yet to be decided, although Jolie is already showing her characteristically firm hand on that. Just as adopting a child on her own helped to change her image from and Im paraphrasing here kinky vampiric crazy lady to benevolent world saviour, so she is at least partly relying on her children to control the story. When news of the divorce broke this week, her attorney, presumably under Jolies instruction, said that she had filed for divorce for the health of the family. Her manager later reiterated the point, telling the media: Angelina will always do whats in the best interest of taking care of her family. The inference being, of course, that Pitts presence was somehow detrimental to their children. If being a perfect celebrity couple requires superhuman self-control, coming through a perfect celebrity divorce demands an unimaginable amount of personal drive.

Rumours about the reasons for their divorce will run for decades, continuing to fuel the celebrity machine that they helped to shape and endure. Of course, the public will never know the full story, but that is always besides the point when it comes to celebrity gossip, where story matters more than truth and a persons symbolism is more significant than the actual person. Jolie and Pitt represented to the public, first, a passionate, forbidden love story, followed by a heightened version of an intimate, idealised family. In other words, theirs were stories more generally played behind closed doors, which is why so many people felt so personally invested in them. The end of their relationship clearly doesnt represent the death of love, as many of their fans have claimed online. But it does suggest the end of a kind of celebrity that managed to be conducted wholly on its own terms, with its own sort of dignity, which is already being destroyed in the divorce. The end of Brangelina is news in the way that the end of Burton and Taylor was news, not because of what they meant to themselves, but what they meant to the public. They knew how to play us better, it turned out, than they knew how to play themselves. That, perhaps, is the real definition of the perfect celebrity couple, and its also why so many of them end up as the perfect celebrity divorce.

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