Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra recently got engaged after two months of dating, People magazine reported Friday in a story headlined “Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra Are Engaged After 2 Months of Dating.” The headline hints at the real news, which is not that a Jonas brother and the megawatt Quantico star are betrothed but that it happened so quickly. And Jonas and Chopra are the third young celebrity couple to announce an engagement with precipitous speed this summer, which sure makes it feel like they are officially part of a trend.
In June, Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande sealed their love with a $93,000 ring after less than a month of dating (as far as the public knows). Earlier this month, Justin Bieber proposed to Hailey Baldwin in the Bahamas, solemnizing a relationship of similar brevity (though the two had known each other for a while). Chopra and Jonas have been together since May, a distant era in which Grande was still dating Mac Miller and Justin Bieber was in Canada.
But there’s an important thing to remember about celebrity engagements: They often have very little to do with marriage. Of course, the disposability of celebrity marriages has been a cliché since the prime of Elizabeth Taylor. But the turbo-speed celebrity-engagement is a relatively underexamined phenomenon. To most of us mortals, an engagement is an announcement of one’s intention to wed. After all, the vast majority of engaged couples eventually do make it down the aisle: A 2013 report found that just 13 percent of engagements do not end in marriage.
But famous people look at these customs and statistics, and they scoff. In Hollywood, an engagement has long meant a combination of “I like this person more than average,” “I’m ready to give interviews about this person,” and “I want to seem like a bona fide adult whose career should be taken seriously.” If that sounds like a cynical exaggeration, here is a very partial list of broken celebrity engagements over the past few decades: Dylan McDermott and Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland, Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson, Marilyn Manson and Rose McGowan, Rose McGowan and Robert Rodriguez, Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore, Charlie Sheen and Kelly Preston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt and Jill Schoelen, Jennifer Aniston and Tate Donovan, Tate Donovan and Sandra Bullock, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Grey and Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp and Sherilyn Fenn, Sean Penn and Charlize Theron.
Some sympathy for these missteps is warranted. Think of what it means to be a celebrity! Long and intense work days, constant travel, professional and psychological insecurity, the irregular adrenaline kick of performing, a scarcity of trust, far too much money, and a news ecosystem that rewards any kind of personal drama with publicity. These conditions do not bode well for long-term stable relationships. But they are like lighter fluid for a new romance. If you’re Ariana Grande or Nick Jonas, why not get engaged? An engagement is all the rush of getting married, before you really have to think through the pesky legal and financial entanglements that actually marrying another human entails. It’s attention and happiness and respect, and if it doesn’t work out, hardly anyone will remember. (Dylan McDermott and Julia Roberts?!)
If the pages of People magazine document a celebrity culture in which engagement is untethered from marriage, then what exactly does “engagement” mean? The tradition of engagement has long been defined by its public nature. In the Catholic tradition of “reading the banns,” a couple’s intention to marry had to be announced from the pulpit several Sundays in a row. In a more recent secular custom, the parents of an engaged woman place an announcement in the local newspaper. Today, an engagement doesn’t seem real without a declaration on social media.
In other words, engagement has always signaled that a relationship has transformed from private passion to a more formal, visible bond. And that’s especially true in young Hollywood, where engagements are not just a declaration of love—they’re a handy PR tactic, a way to engineer a narrative in a world in which narratives are increasingly tough to control. Chopra and Jonas’ betrothal became news when a “source” told People about it. Davidson and Grande hinted at it on social media, and then Davidson confirmed it on The Tonight Show. As for Bieber and Baldwin, the news broke the old-fashioned way: Their parents posted about it on Twitter and Instagram.