There’s been a frenzied quality to the celebrity-gossip space in the last few weeks, no? At this very moment, we could be coming down from any number of dramas or all of them at once: the Funny Girl–Lea Michele stuff, Leonardo DiCaprio and Camila Morrone’s breakup (and his subsequent linkage to model Gigi Hadid), the Don’t Worry Darling press-tour chaos, and the perceived tension between the Fab Four—three royal Brits and an American—during a very somber time. We are currently in the throes of an Adam Levine DM’ing scandal, and subsequent celebrity commentary around it. And these are just the major story lines that have given us something to talk and talk about in recent weeks.
The most fun kind of gossip—gossip I’ll define as high-caliber individuals in high-tension situations with low-stakes consequences—is apparently back. The best recent example of such a thing is also when Beanie Feldstein debuted on Broadway in a Funny Girl reprisal and then left before her contract was up, a contract that had already been ended six months sooner than originally planned. Michele, who wanted the role with a kind of keen earnestness that’s easy to deride, shared that she’d be replacing Feldstein. This was something of a shock. First because rarely do people who really, really want something and have been denied it already then get their way. And second because she already had to address allegations of racist behavior and being a general terror on set from cast members of Glee. (She apologized for her actions back then, and has since debuted to multiple standing ovations, got COVID, and is now back on stage, where she’s getting more standing ovations.)
At first, I assumed this kind of gossip was back because in-person events are back. Seems logical. Gossip turned personal over the pandemic years. Provincial dramas gained purchase in media more intimate than a tabloid, like podcasts and newsletters. But now, the usual schedule of awards and premieres and festivals that long determined Hollywood’s rhythm, and so the gossip cycle’s rhythm, are back and they’re overlapping, jamming up the tracks. Just this month, we’ve already endured the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, New York Fashion Week, and the Emmys. It’s just a numbers game, I thought.
But more events can’t totally explain the tenor of all these narratives converging and the sheer level of obsession that some have inspired online. Then something happened in Venice that I think clarified what’s going on: that spit video.
To briefly recap, a video surfaced from the Venice premiere of Don’t Worry Darling in which it was suggested that Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine’s lap. These actors are both in the movie, and the film had already experienced a days-long drama bender. The evidence: In the short clip, Styles leans over Pine to push the theater seat down and sit. Pine is already seated as this happens, and just as Styles begins to sit down Pine looks in his lap and smiles in a way that communicates, “You’ve gotta be shitting me.” (The counter theory is deeply plausible in its mundanity: Pine briefly lost his sunglasses and discovered them, as you and I and everyone we know has done before, in his seat.)
The noise got so loud, Pine’s team was forced to issue a full-throated denial: “This is a ridiculous story—a complete fabrication and the result of an odd online illusion that is clearly deceiving and allows for foolish speculation. Just to be clear, Harry Styles did not spit on Chris Pine. There is nothing but respect between these two men and any suggestion otherwise is a blatant attempt to create drama that simply does not exist.”
The spit obviously didn’t exist, but that didn’t matter: It was a fun day to be on the internet. Now, good drama is marked by really fervent days online, when folks on TikTok, Twitter, and the other forums are firing together for a shared purpose. Everyone seems to contribute to an overarching goal of pulling apart what is happening right before our eyes, and get their jokes off. The more boring the better, almost. We can watch things that are, on their face, as unremarkable as it gets—a man sitting down, for example—over and over again until we see absolute chaos.
I wonder how much the events of the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard libel trial have paved the way for the Darling press tour’s mess. The brand of internet analysis at work during that courthouse drama earlier this summer sure looks a lot like interpretations of whatever happened in Venice. During the trial, the bunk science of body language analysis, which has long been so popular on YouTube and Facebook migrated over to other mediums, namely TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. There was one clip in particular that presaged how the spit video played out: Anti-Heard viewers argued she snorted cocaine while giving testimony about Depp’s alleged abuse during their marriage. Some people merely suggesting it encouraged more and more people to see it as fact, even if a basic level of mental reasoning is required to refute such a claim. In both the spit and the snort, viewers were simply seeing things that are not there.
The alleged spit is the most obvious sign that some sort of collective confirmation bias is at work, as if our desire to witness a little interpersonal grist between two adult men produced the phantom saliva. Most of the people I saw posting about it on Twitter were doing so in total jest, like as a commentary on the messiness that seemed to envelope the press rollout of Darling. But it is notable that Pine’s camp would be the one to issue the extensive statement. “Sources close to Styles” said simply, “This is not true.” Styles must be so used to this sort of Zapruder-like analysis, so much so that his team didn’t bother putting its back into commenting on fans inventing things not there in videos of the star.
The performer, formerly a member of One Direction, has for years been plagued by what was once a joyful fan theory claiming he was in a secret relationship with his former bandmate Louis Tomlinson. The theory, known as “Larry Stylinson,” a portmanteau of their names, curdled into something more malevolent and paranoid as fans began attacking those who expressed disbelief in the theory as well as the mother of Tomlinson’s child. As Kaitlyn Tiffany, author of Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, wrote in The Atlantic around the Depp trial, Larry Stylinson and the anti-Heard movement are just two examples among so many where fan culture has turned vicious about things they simply can’t know.
Look no further than Meghan Markle and Prince Harry doing…anything at all. Body language “experts” are having their day in the sun as the couple makes their way back to England for events surrounding the queen’s funeral. The fact that Meghan Markle held Prince Harry’s hand at a family procession after his grandmother died means everything about their attitudes, their marriage, their intent, instead of what holding hands actually means: basically nothing.
So the general chaos of Harry and Meghan doing anything public or the Darling press tour or Lea Michele’s masterful Funny Girl ascendance may be less the product of a more public glitterati and more so a sign of where we all are in our journey together online. What exactly went wrong with Funny Girl and Darling and even with DiCaprio and Morrone is as good as one can theorize. And into that vacuum goes a so-far endless amount of speculation.
For the most part, thankfully, these various brouhahas still feel lighthearted. In the case of Darling and Funny Girl, at least, at the heart of the jokes is whether or not a few famous people didn’t enjoy working together at their jobs and have behaved in a childish manner toward each other. It’s mild in comparison to what we witnessed even earlier this summer. What is unavoidably true, though, is that we are hungry for this stuff, and as long as celebs give us crumbs, we’ll eat—and eat, and eat.