Still not over them.
Celebrity love matches — and the often messy breakups to follow — captivated many of us from a young age. You didn’t have to actively follow the drama; watching TV, you’d surf past E! breaking news headlines shouting out the latest high-profile star affair. Wandering the aisles at the drugstore or standing in the checkout line at the grocery, you’d find the tabloids right at your eye level, covers of People and US Weekly dishing all the hot gossip on which famous celebrity couple was recently spotted together or which twosome was headed for Splitsville.
Amidst all the paparazzi noise, you’d land on a celeb union or two that stood out as special to you: a favorite couple that you were rooting for. Maybe they epitomized glamour to you or fairy tale love; maybe you saw yourself in one of them, while crushing on the other.
That might have to do with a concept in psychology called “social anchoring,” according to Dr. Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and host of the podcast Reimagining Love. “The way that we come to know ourselves is in relation to other people,” she explains. By comparing ourselves to celebrities and their relationships, one can learn more about who they are (or aren’t), and who they aspire to be.
Relating to a celeb, or a celeb couple, can be validating for your sense of self — normalizing and permission-giving, Solomon explains. “Rather than purely putting them on a pedestal, celebrity couples give us a chance to reflect on why,” she says. “Why am I drawn to them? What is it about their life or their story that either reflects me or who I want to be, or who I want my partner and I to be?”
As adults, we can still recall the A-list pairs that had us starry-eyed, and in some ways, those early fixations shaped our concept of what love and relationships could or should look like. We asked five BDG writers and editors to reveal the celeb couples that made a mark on them and how their influence still lingers as they navigate their own love lives today.
Michelle & Barack Obama
Annie Blay, associate beauty news editor for TZR, was 9 years old when President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. The now 22-year-old remembers how watching Michelle and Barack in the White House “felt like seeing your parents on TV — because they were obviously very famous, but in a way seemed normal.” Because Blay didn’t grow up in a two-parent household, the president and first lady served as her model for what a traditional nuclear family looked like.
The Obamas’ ability to match career success with familial tenderness left a lingering impression on the young Blay. “They had a playfulness to them and I thought that was really cute: that they were serious but also could be playful with each other,” Blay recalls. And the seeming equality of their relationship stuck with her as well: “I admired how they were both really successful in their respective careers, their both being lawyers and having gone through law school. And that Michelle didn’t dim herself,” she says.
Observing them, Blay pictured having her own relationship in which she and a partner could “both achieve at the highest level of our respective careers.”
Dating today, the associate beauty news editor finds herself actively seeking out a partner who “has that balance of being a hard worker, ambitious, and goal-oriented, but also family-oriented” that she saw demonstrated in President Obama. “Barack was still really close to his mom and his grandfather. I felt like that’s a good quality to have — someone who doesn’t forget where they came from.” So far, no one has quite reached the bar, Blay says: “I don’t think I’ve found it, but I’m definitely looking for it.”
Angelina Jolie & Billy Bob Thornton
“I've always loved over-the-top romantic gestures, especially ones that border on the morbid and macabre,” says Marie Lodi, a beauty, fashion, and pop culture writer for BDG. As a “baby goth,” Lodi says she was obsessed with Angelina Jolie and her dramatic public declarations of affection with her partners — both with Hackers co-star Johnny Lee Miller (wearing a white shirt with his name written in blood on their wedding day) and later with Billy Bob Thornton (wearing vials of each other’s blood around their necks).
“I think it’s the idea of not caring what anyone else thinks about your idea of romance and dedication to someone,” says the now 41-year-old, reflecting on why the Jolie-Thornton dynamic resonated with her as a teenager, and today. With their brashness as a model, Lodi says she was inspired to find partners “equal in freakiness,” who were “unafraid to express their love in a very unique, weird way that makes sense to you personally.”
Lodi has been married for five years, and while she and her spouse don’t wear each other’s blood vials, they did go on gravestone-rubbing outings and visited local “murder mansions” on their early dates, so it’s not so far off. “Maybe a blood-filled vial will be his Christmas present,” she jokes.
Justin Timberlake & Britney Spears
The heavily paparazzied “It” couples of the early 2000s did some real damage on impressionable young romantics. Following Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s relationship as a middle schooler formed TZR executive editor Angela Melero’s whole concept of what love and romance should look like — and these beliefs held, from the awkward years into her adult dating life.
“I thought Britney and Justin were this magical couple,” the 36-year-old recalls. “That’s what I thought real love was about: you met at work in this easy, meet-cute kind of way. Traipsing around town with your significant other in matching outfits, doing cute things like getting coffee, going to really fancy dinners, and living happily ever after.”
Melero’s impression that a relationship needed to be “idyllic and seemingly perfect” and “fairy tale-like” made real-life dating challenging. The editor says she was shy and insecure and didn’t date in high school. Then in college, she found herself easily disappointed and heartbroken by the casual dating scene “because I had this idea that everything needed to be this be-all, end-all relationship.” Finally, in her 20s, Melero started to realize the picture-perfect fantasy in her head was just that, a fantasy. Relationships are complicated and messy and include conflict and vulnerability in addition to the occasional sweet gesture and romantic outing.
Today, Melero says “authenticity and honesty” is what she looks for in a romantic match, and she has her guard up for big romantic gestures and love bombing (and avoids matching ensembles at all costs). Looking back at Timberlake and Spears today, she’s able to better see the reality of the high-profile couple: the all-too-common relationship issues that happened behind the scenes, how villainized Spears was during the eventual breakup, and how complex and painful it must have been to go through that negative media spectacle while navigating a real partnership.
She also recognizes the effect of how, in the early 2000s, the media constantly marketed celebs as perpetually coupled up. “I wish I could have seen more happily single [celeb] women back then, and not on this constant mission to find somebody,” she says. “I’m perpetually single now and I love it.”
Jennifer Lopez & Marc Anthony
Jonathan Borge, senior entertainment editor for Elite Daily, describes Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s relationship as “the hill that I will die on.” Growing up Latinx in Miami, the 30-year-old says J.Lo and Anthony were an iconic couple that helped his family bond. “While some families were watching Friends together, we were watching J.Lo and Marc Anthony doing their thing,” Borge recalls.
Borge was around 10 when Anthony and Lopez first got together. ”They were the prime example of what a relationship should look like” before he came to terms with his own sexuality as a gay man, he says. “Grossly, it was their sex appeal,” says the editor about the couple’s appeal. “They were both Latin and I related and it was just fun. They felt so glamorous to me. Growing up in a poor environment, they were super aspirational.”
The “inexplicable chemistry” between Lopez and Anthony and the optics of their dynamic influenced what Borge sought in his early romantic relationships — being concerned with “aesthetics and seeming like you were the perfect couple,” which he admits is quite surface-level.
In his current relationship, which he’s been in for eight years, the connection goes deeper than that. But he wagers that he and his partner, who are the same age, were similarly affected by being preteens during the early 2000s. “We both enjoy dressing up and being ridiculous on Instagram and being really gay and jokingly emulating that era when celebrity culture and tabloid culture was at its heights,” he says.
To this day, Borge hasn’t recovered from the Lopez and Anthony breakup. “Considering that they have kids I was just really sad and heartbroken,” he remembers. “Ever since then, when J.Lo has dated somebody I refuse to accept it.”
Leighton Meester & Adam Brody
When it comes to her personal life, Layla Halabian, culture editor at Nylon, says she prefers to keep things private. “I don’t want to be one of those people who everyone knows who you’re dating,” says the 31-year-old. “It’s a special thing and I don’t want to invite other people’s opinions... I don’t want to invite that bad energy.”
For Halabian, Leighton Meester and Adam Brody epitomize a discrete couple who knows how to keep the important things close to the vest. “I personally really value privacy within romantic relationships and I really like seeing celebrities who have all of this access and fame still being like, ‘No, this is my life,’” she says. The culture editor says she didn’t even know Brody and Meester were dating, much less married, when she found out they had a kid together. She was impressed by their commitment to slipping out of the public eye, and it stuck with her.
Halabian has been dating her boyfriend for three years, but you won’t catch her “boyfriend girling” over her on Twitter or Instagram (social media, you could argue, being an everyday-Joe’s analogue to the tabloids). Instead, she keeps the chill vibes of real-life Seth Cohen and Blair Waldorf in mind: “With Adam and Leighton, I love how they are so low-key. You sometimes see them together and you can tell they have a real relationship because it’s not used for publicity fodder,” she says. “It really resonates with who I am as a person.”