They’re the ones that got away – the seemingly perfect pairings that give us pangs of ‘what if?’ Kat Brown reminisces about the celebrity power couples we still care about years after they split.
We all have that one relationship that we’ll never quite get over. You grieve, you take the necessary time, but just when you think you’ve healed, a reminder pops up and that old wound reopens. It’s just that – whisper it – the relationship I’m mourning isn’t mine. It’s Hollywood actors Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum’s, who split in April after nearly nine years of marriage. I probably care more about past celebrity relationships than my own romantic history.
When you break up in real life, you try to leave it behind and move on. But I can count my years in celebrity love stories: aged five, I remember falling for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain, and that was a dream sequence in a film, for heaven’s sake.
The first real romances to lure me in played out in 1990s magazines like a breathless commentary on teenage life. Here were the gorgeous people I was supposed to evolve into when I hit that inscrutable target called being ‘grown-up’. They showed me how to dress, how to be a girlfriend and how to go on dates – mystical American creations that promised a level of sophistication far beyond the realms of my Hampshire town.
Never mind that these stars were all several years older than me, they were my idols – my instructors in the ways of love. And, crucially, they all looked as though they knew exactly what they were doing. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake in their double denim had the exact sort of ‘together forever’ vibe that is catnip to the heartsick teen with too much Forever Friends stationery.
Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and their cool girlfriends were the pinnacles of hip romance. And years before Brangelina you had Bennifer: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, whose whirlwind affair originated the idea of the portmanteau couple. And then came Alex and Alexa: Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys and the model Alexa Chung, who for years were pin-ups for a certain generation who couldn’t quite get on board with Kate Moss and Pete Doherty.
I’ve recently been sent down a rabbit hole by a blog called Old Loves, which runs photos of celebrity couples, largely from the 80s and 90s, but going further back, too. It’s a very specific sort of nostalgia that goes hand in hand with a hugely popular forum on the Reddit website called Old School Cool, where people share photographs of celebs, and often of their grandparents as well, all looking terrific in their heyday.
And that’s the key thing: you look back at these pictures and you’re catching people largely in their early to mid-20s, in the full grip of stardom, when everything is going perfectly. For the time being, they are immortal – and they’re taking you with them in their slipstream. So why do we care so much about celebrity couples who have long since parted ways?
Daisy Buchanan, author of How To Be A Grown Up, thinks that it’s similar to the nostalgia we feel for our own teenage relationships. ‘In the way that having an adolescent crush on a celebrity is a means to experience all the feelings of being in love, I think we have “couple crushes” and we dream about our ideal relationships based on what we imagine the couples are like together. Also, it’s nostalgia for a particular era – I miss Jude and Sienna, but what I really miss is the summer I spent misbehaving in floaty boho skirts and big brown belts.’
This would certainly go some way to explaining why, 25 years on, I’m still pining for the love triangle between the Britpop musicians Damon Albarn (Blur), Justine Frischmann (Elastica) and Brett Anderson (Suede). It’s not that I want them to be together now, rather that their relationships remind me of when I fell in love with indie music and felt as though finally I’d found something that was just for me. And don’t even get me started on Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley.
‘There is something deeply comforting about reminiscing,’ says Buchanan. ‘The world felt much less scary when Hugh and Liz were an item – and on some level maybe we feel that we wouldn’t be on the brink of nuclear war if they reunited and stopped with the serious acting and organic jam.’
While looking down memory lane is fun, there are moments when I do feel happy that hings have changed. As much as the likes of Dawn French and Lenny Henry were part of my upbringing, I’m thrilled that they found renewed happiness with later partners. Similarly, as much as I think fondly of the celeb couples I grew up with, I’ve moved on, too.