In Slate’s weekly column Who?, the hosts of acclaimed podcast Who? Weekly explore the world of near-fame.
On the morning of Aug. 15, not long after breaking the news that Joey McIntyre was “thrilled” to be returning to Broadway, Us Weekly published a story with the headline “Justin Timberlake Parts Ways With Longtime Publicist Sonia Muckle.” Though it focused on an A-lister, the headline felt out of place for Us—a destination for dating rumors, tweet roundups, and questionable glimpses inside the bags of famous women. Decidedly uncompelling and gossip-free, this item about Timberlake and his publicist felt like it belonged in a trade magazine like Variety or the Hollywood Reporter. But there it was, sandwiched between an item about a second-tier romance on a third-tier Bravo show and reality show commentary from President Trump. It felt like the first act of a bigger, more proper bit of celebrity gossip—like the secret keepers at Us were preparing us for something to come. But what?
There is, of course, a straightforward answer: A high-profile split of any kind, romantic or professional, still qualifies as celebrity news. Earlier this summer, the Kardashians made headlines over a decision to stop working with Joyce Bonelli, their longtime makeup artist. Just this month, Real Housewife of New York Luann de Lesseps apparently stunned Us Weekly by splitting from her agent, Richard Super. But each of those stories had quite a bit more going on below the fold: Bonelli is a minor reality star, thanks to frequent guest appearances on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a series known for mining drama out of even the most tenuous of interpersonal relationships. She was even unfollowed by the famous sisters. (Unfollowing, in case you weren’t aware, is an act of aggression in the celebrity news landscape.) And while de Lesseps and Super did, in fact, split, they are still agent and client; it’s the ending of their reported romantic relationship that Us found “news”-worthy. (He was already married, apparently!)
The story about Timberlake and Muckle may not have contained that kind of explicit drama, but read between the lines and there’s more to it than an amicable, professional split. Us Weekly cited not one but two anonymous sources, both of whom provided quotes dark with ominous language. The first claimed Timberlake “wasn’t happy” with Muckle, his publicist of 20 years, after the tepid response to his most recent album Man of the Woods as well as his “safe” and “forgettable” performance at Super Bowl LII back in February. The second described Muckle as “obviously hurt.” What’s interesting here isn’t what’s being said, but where it’s being reported. In this situation, who looks good? Timberlake? Muckle? Or does Us know something about this split they’re not telling us?
News about celebrities and their various professional handlers tends to keep itself inside the comforts of trade publications unless it falls into at least one of the following three categories: 1) the celebrity did something unforgivable enough to cause the agent/publicist/manager to quit; 2) the agent/publicist/manager did something embarrassing enough to cause the celebrity to fire them; or 3) the celebrity is preparing for a major professional and/or personal transformation.
The first category is typically predicated on public scandal, and we’ve seen plenty of these since the fall of 2017. After being accused of assault by actor Anthony Rapp, Kevin Spacey was dropped by both his talent agency (industry monolith CAA) and his publicist (Staci Wolfe). Harvey Weinstein, the man whose outing as a predator sparked the entire #MeToo movement, was dumped in April of this year by the very crisis PR team he had hired to help rehabilitate his image. (A satisfying twist!) And then there’s James Woods, who was dropped by his agent over Fourth of July weekend not over harassment allegations from actresses Amber Tamblyn or Elizabeth Perkins, but because Woods is a Trump supporter. “I’m feeling patriotic,” the agent, Ken Kaplan, wrote in an email shared by Woods on Twitter. “I don’t want to represent you anymore.”
The second category is a little more common and (typically) less dark. A celebrity fires their agent or publicist over behavior they find either disrespectful or potentially ruinous to their career. In 2016, actress and model Zendaya suggested that she fired her publicist after she made a racially insensitive remark. “I didn’t like my hair and makeup one time on a photo shoot, and my publicist told me, ‘You should just be happy with it—they haven’t had a black girl on the cover since forever,’ ” Zendaya told Cosmopolitan. “She’s no longer my publicist.” This sort of private story becomes a brand booster when made public, as the celebrity in question gains publicity for being inspirational and progressive. (Zendaya’s tale about her now former publicist was aggregated repeatedly.)
Speaking of disrespect, Jessica Simpson once fired her publicist for telling People and Us Weekly that she was not only dating but “in love” with John Mayer, which is, based on his reputation, precisely the sort of rumor you don’t want floating around. But perhaps the most legendary example of a celebrity firing their publicist over personal grievances occurred some 11 years ago, when Paris Hilton kicked Elliott Mintz to the curb for “not explaining the terms of her driver’s license”—an oversight that led to some dire consequences. “Paris claimed that it was [her publicist] who had mistakenly assured her she was able to drive, even though she had a suspended license,” wrote ABC News in 2007. “The judge, however, didn’t buy her claim.” Paris was sentenced to 45 days in jail. There is such a thing as bad publicity!
But the story of Timberlake and Muckle doesn’t appear to fit in either of those categories, as neither party has found themselves in the middle of a personal crisis or accused the other of wrongdoing. But Timberlake has had a rocky year—at least, critically. So let’s discuss the third possibility: an impending professional rebrand or, more scandalous, a major personal change that may or may not involve his very famous spouse.
Is Timberlake really firing Muckle because critics found his Super Bowl performance lackluster and accompanying album rollout boring? So say these sources. Yet isn’t an artist’s output the result of their own work, creative partnerships (like Chris Stapleton, a major influence on Man of the Woods), and the foresight of a manager who knows their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else does? If anything, it’s a testament to Muckle’s own professional prowess that she was able to generate the sort of buzz Man of the Woods received leading up to its release, not to mention the work she did in landing Timberlake one of the most high-profile gigs in the world on the heels of an album no one ended up liking all that much. Based on what we know, Muckle is practically an alchemist. (Don’t forget this is the woman who helped Timberlake transition from teenybopper idol to “SexyBack” hunk. She’s been with him a long time.)
So what does Us Weekly know that we seemingly don’t? Or—more accurately, given the nature of their business—what do they suspect? Sure, it could be something as obvious as an overhaul of his career—perhaps a return to the more or less abandoned effort to make him a movie star? (Nicole Kidman did something similar following her mid-aughts slump by firing Catherine Olim for Wendy Day, who helped turn her career around nearly a decade ago.) But maybe it’s more personal, and maybe even a little scandalous, as it was when Tom Cruise dumped his publicist just before jumping on Oprah’s couch and proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes, or when Mariah Carey fired longtime publicist Cindi Berger just after her split from Nick Cannon.
Indeed, the harder you look at this innocuous 300-word post on an ugly celebrity website, the more turmoil it seems to foretell. To us, Us covering this story suggests not a canny rebrand but the kind of stormy fall that makes aficionados of celebrity hot messes prick up their ears. Sure, Timberlake’s new publicists at Sunshine Sachs also represent Janet Jackson, someone with whom Timberlake has a fraught history. But that’s a detail for Variety. Us surely knows, as do we, that Sunshine Sachs also represents Ben Affleck, whose divorce has been an ongoing mess for nearly two years.
Which brings us to one final detail. Three weeks before the Timberlake/Muckle news broke, Us Weekly published a seemingly random and peg-free piece about the singer and his wife with the headline, “Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s Marriage Is ‘So Strong’: They’re ‘Really in Love’ ”? The piece begins with an exclamation: “Better than ever!” Us writes. “Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s romance is on a high, a source reveals exclusively to Us Weekly.” Not once does it explain why we would have a reason to think otherwise, or why a source would bother reaching out for such a banal exclusive. It’s impossible for us mortals to know whether or not a famous couple is on the verge of announcing a split, but tabloids have their tells. So even if Justin and Jessica are as happy as this anonymous source claims, someone whose business it is to know better appears to suspect the opposite.