The Slate Gist

Celebrity Dating

Are Demi and Ashton for real? And everything else you need to know about Hollywood mating rituals.

Kutcher and Moore: Who’s pulling the strings?

Nothing Demi Moore has done in her long career has delighted Americans—at least those of us who read Us magazine—as much as her alleged romance with MTV icon Ashton Kutcher. The red-carpet spectacle of Demi (40 going on 22) canoodling with Ashton (25 going 16) has been delicious fodder for the tabloids and unbeatable publicity for the couple. Demi, assisted by the best 40-year-old body money can buy and her comeback role in Charlie’s Angels, has re-established herself as a sex symbol. Ashton, meanwhile, has widened his narrowcast teen cool into mass appeal (This week he did the impossible, edging out Prince William to win People magazine’s Sexiest Bachelor contest.) Is Demi-Ashton all a sham—a Punk’d practical joke on the celebrity-worshipping American public? Is it true love? Or something in between?

Only Ashton and Demi (and their publicists, and agents, and bodyguards, and personal trainers …) know the whole truth, but the relationship does offer a useful entree into the elaborate rituals of celebrity coupling. America’s obsession with celebrity romance dates to the beginning of the film industry. Hollywood manufactured our first true national stars and the publicity machine designed to promote them. Early on, studio bosses and gossip columnists recognized the value of a great real-life love story, understanding that fans lived vicariously through their movie idols. So from the ‘20s until the studio system disintegrated in the ‘60s, the bosses—who exercised absolute authority over their actors—fabricated fake dalliances and exploited real ones for two purposes: first, to create new stars by attaching them to established ones, and second, to cover up the homosexuality or potentially tarnishing behavior of a star.

The studios developed crude but effective techniques for selling an affair to the media and public. Studio heads ordered starlets to appear with more established actors at Hollywood nightspots. Young celebrities were instructed to ditch pre-fame boyfriends and girlfriends. Publicists dropped hints to gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper about supposed on-set romances between ingénues and their co-stars: Such affairs increased box-office take and boosted the actresses’ careers. (In some cases, of course, the liaisons were real, which just made the story an easier sell.)

False romances concocted to hide a star’s homosexuality were known as“twilight tandems” and“lavender marriages.” Such bearding had its heyday in the 1950s, as the studios sought to keep gossip columnists and the magazine Confidential from spreading rumors about their stars: Rock Hudson was the most famous case. He successfully masked his homosexuality by briefly marrying his agent’s secretary. Here are more amazing examples of cover-ups.

With the breakup of the studio system, actors and other celebrities have become free agents. Today, no boss can order Demi and Ashton to do his bidding. But celebrity romance has not changed radically, because celebrities have become so savvy about their own images that they do what the bosses used to. “Movie stars have unconsciously become their own publicists. It is an instinctive skill. They don’t need publicists to tell them what boyfriends and girlfriends are good for their career,” says Paramount producer Lynda Obst.

For example, while bearding has decreased, it has not disappeared, because gay stars understand the PR value of seeming straight. “It has yet to be proved that an openly gay leading man can be a sex symbol,” says MSNBC gossip columnist Jeannette Walls. Several incredibly famous male stars we don’t dare name are rumored to be gay and hiding behind gorgeous women. (In some cases, gay stars are believed to have had children to prove their straight bona fides.)

Harrison and Flockhart: Strategic distraction

Straight celebrities frequently use relationships to burnish their own careers. Actors understand that the public likes to see celebrities together, and that dating acivilian“has no Hollywood cachet. When a less famous actress dates a leading man, his fame rubs off on her. (“Dating up,” that’s called.) One critical side benefit of dating up: The less famous celeb may get access to the famous one’s more powerful agent and manager. A common phenomenon is the May-December celebrity coupling, which benefits both parties. Calista Flockhart’s youth, for example, distracts fans from the fact that Harrison Ford is a senior citizen, while his fame may boost her movie career (since goodness knows her talent won’t).

Affleck and J. Lo: A win-win proposition

Dating famously is a particularly important career move for actresses, says former Premiere editor Chris Connelly: “It really helps an actress for an audience to have a personal stake in her happiness.” (This may start to explain why Julia Roberts, with her endless dating travails, has always been such a draw.) Jennifer Lopez is a stellar example of a female celebrity who is exploiting a tumultuous personal life to seduce audiences. Until recently, J. Lo was tarting around with the sleazy P. Diddy. By hooking up with Captain America Ben Affleck, and endlessly milking their relationship for publicity by co-starring in movies, posing for magazines, and discussing wedding plans, J. Lo has sweetened herself. She is a darling again. (What does Ben get out of it? He gets to sleep with J. Lo.)

What kind of dating helps a celebrity most? MSNBC’s Scoop Columnist Jeannette Walls has constructed a dating hierarchy: At the top are “major royalty” (that is, Prince William). Next are movie stars, then TV stars, then minor royalty. At the bottom: rock stars. (Rock stars, after all, will date anyone. Rock stars date porn stars.)

This is not to say that all celebrity romances are fake, only that there is an element of calculation to them. In fact, most Hollywood insiders suspect these relationships are fundamentally genuine. (Of Ashton and Demi, for example, Washington Post Reliable Source columnist Lloyd Grove says, “I have to believe that at a minimum they are having very satisfying sex.”) Why would celebrities end up together? For starters, it’s convenient. Most celebrities spend most of their time with either hangers-on or other celebrities, so it’s no surprise they end up smooching with the people they know best. Also, it takes a celebrity to understand a celebrity. Most civilians don’t understand or want to endure the endless attention and prying that celebrities take for granted: A celebrity boyfriend tolerates and even welcomes that attention. And celebrities are infatuated with other celebrities: “If they can hook up with another famous person, they are ecstatic,” says one Hollywood cynic.

How do you create and then exploit your celebrity romance? (First advice: Imitate everything that Demi and J. Lo do.) If you haven’t found your celebrity love, arrange it: Jennifer Aniston had her publicist call Brad Pitt’s publicist to ask for a date. Once it’s started, promoting it is very simple. You should appear together at semi-private places—in a back room at the Los Angeles’ Ivy restaurant, or at the New York club Bungalow 8 *, or anywhere that Tobey Maguire is. When you’re photographed there, feign annoyance and express surprise that anyone would see you. A joint appearance at a Lakers or Knicks game (depending on your coast) is useful fodder for the tabs. Start engaging in very public canoodling—in your car, in clubs, at restaurants. “You should hold hands and gaze lovingly no matter what the situation,” says Walls. When quizzed about the relationship, issue an ostentatious denial through your publicist: “They are just close friends.” If public interest flags, have a friend drop a leak to Us or the tabloids: “They couldn’t keep their hands off each other on the set. …”

Finally, when you’re really ready to be a public couple, says entertainment reporter Elizabeth Snead, “you appear on a red carpet together. That is the Hollywood equivalent of walking down the aisle. Then you have to start answering questions, start dressing the same, and so on.”

Some celebrities do strive to keep their private lives private. They don’t appear together much in public, and they save their groping for hotel rooms. A few brave souls insist on dating civilians, much to the annoyance of the gossip hounds (and, presumably, their own agents). George Clooney is Exhibit A of a star the tabs would love to couple with a hot actress, but who dates coat-check girls instead.

Douglas and Zeta-Jones: What price glory?

It is generally considered a bad career move to allow celebrity dating to progress to marriage. When a sexy actor marries, it dims his hot image. When a sexy actress marries, it’s even worse. The story gets boring for the public: The tantalizing fear and doubt and curiosity about whether the couple will survive dissipates. Both members seem suddenly duller. There are a few notable exceptions: When Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas married, she ascended from B-movie actress to Hollywood royalty, he from wrinkly old man to stud. The marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward gave him depth and her glamour.

There is one corner of the entertainment industry where celebrity romances are still manufactured the old-fashioned way: reality TV. As Obst points out, reality TV shows—in which the players are indentured by rigid contracts—are ruthlessly controlled by producers and publicists. They insist on a romantic storyline, regardless of truth. Since Joe Millionaire wrapped, Evan Marriott has complained that the producers pushed him together with winning companion Zora Andrich, even though he wasn’t interested, in order to create a better story. It is a delightful irony of the American entertainment industry that Demi and Ashton may be less fake than the stars of reality TV.

[Correction, July 7, 2003: The original version of this piece mentioned the club Bungalow 61. This conflated two ultratrendy New York bars owned by the same person, Bungalow 8 and Lot 61.]

Return to the corrected sentence.