Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow in January 2014. Photo: Getty
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If you’re going to gossip about the failure of a celebrity marriage, at least make it original

Now that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have split up, brace yourself for weeks of repetitive jibes at her “craziness” and his “reticence”.

Ladies and gents, it’s happened again: another celebrity marriage has gone down the shitter. Yes, the break-up – sorry, “conscious uncoupling” – of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin has been making headlines in the last 48 hours, after an announcement on Paltrow’s infamously irritating blog Goop.com caused the server to crash within minutes. “It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate,” the admittedly poignant post ran. “We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children, and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time.”

Predictably, it didn’t take long for someone to get their claws out. Anne Perkins, for instance, branded Paltrow’s whole psychological take on the break-up “deluded tosh”, reminding the couple “you have messed up other lives. It is quite likely that the only person feeling good about all this may be you. Hope that thought doesn’t mess up the inner cathedral.” Clearly, Perkins prefers the tough love approach, rather than the cosy psycho-babble offered up by two doctors quoted on Goop who suggest dealing with a break-up by changing your belief structure and embracing divorce as a spiritual progression. Including advice on how to navigate a divorce in the same breath as announcing your own is very Gwyneth Paltrow.

And yes, it’s true that including an excerpt from two alternative-thinking doctors on how divorce has “much to do with the lack of intercourse between our internal masculine and feminine energies” comes across as – for lack of a better term – wanky. But then again, who hasn’t been a colossal wanker when some seriously upsetting, life-changing event has knocked them for six? People whose lives feel like they are unravelling tend to be notoriously difficult to stomach – it’s a rare person who hasn’t had a Kristen-Wiig-in-Bridesmaids moment at some point, producing the behavioural equivalent of throwing oneself through a gigantic cookie in rage and then attempting to upset a concrete fountain while screaming, “Is this what you want? You and your delicious cookie?!” We’ve all been there. And if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin - a kale evangelist and a prominent member of one of the most boring bands in the world – it seems fitting that you would freak out via the medium of “conscious uncoupling”.

As entertaining as this may be for the rest of us, there’s no denying that the Paltrow-Martin family are most likely experiencing an expected amount of emotional fallout. “Internal masculine and feminine energies” and “divine endoskeletons” aside, all evidence points to the fact that they both remain human, and experience human feelings. So what’s about to follow, despite their pleas for privacy, is as depressing as it is predictable: paparazzi photographers hidden in bushes outside their houses, faux-sympathetic Daily Mail pieces that speculate on the damage done to their children (with accompanying creepy kiddie photos), front page covers of gossip magazines proclaiming the “woes of tragic Gwyneth”. Because, let’s face it, we know that it won’t be “tragic Chris” who adorns the pages of everything from the Mirror to Grazia. It’s Gwyneth all the way.

Perhaps it won’t even be Gwyneth, in fact, but “Gwynnie” or “Gwyn”. That’s the tack a lot of celebrity commentators take with women in the throes of a break-up: diminutive nicknames, hyperbolic sighing about how “devastated” the woman in question must be, snide remarks about how her male counterpart is probably “out partying” or “seen eyeing up” a Miley Cyrus lookalike. A month or so later, photos which might otherwise be no purported cause for alarm are suddenly sold as evidence that “Gwyn loses scary amounts of weight as divorce takes its toll,” or – if she happens to be smiling – “GP proves that you can get through a break-up and still look fabulous, as she shows off her newly toned body so Chris can see exactly what he’s missing”. The worst, however, will be if an unfortunate angle catches a small roll of stomach fat or an unflattering double chin: immediate evidence of “Gwynnie losing grip and piling on the pounds as rumours grow of Chris flirting with size six party girls at an unconfirmed sex party”. Mark our words: in the eyes of the media, Gwyneth will be “tragic”, “heartbroken”, “sad”, “losing grip”, or at the very best “brave”; Chris will be a party boy celebrating the loss of his old ball and chain, at the very worst “cold”.

The fact that female celebrities will be consistently portrayed in this way after a break-up or divorce is implicitly accepted by everyone, journalists and readers alike. We rarely stop to wonder why the woman is supposedly an emotional wreck or a binge-eating mess while her ex escapes scot-free, with the space to lose or gain weight as he pleases without fear of the long lens or the “circle of shame”. Nowhere does the stereotype about women being crazed hormonal harpies and men being restrained, logical decision-makers play out more obviously in the twenty-first century than in the gossip media. Sadly, Paltrow no doubt knows this, and is probably already concocting a strategy with her agent for when the shit hits the fan. Expect all of those claims of her “turmoil” to be followed up by interviews a few months down the line, hoping to “set the record straight” about those “turbulent few weeks without Chris by her side”. Time and time again, we see this kind of damage control come into action; without it, the gossip mill just keeps on churning in a negative direction, a crazed whirlwind fervour surrounding the woman and the woman only.

We can’t change the entire structure of gossip magazines, but we can keep loudly questioning why they operate in this way. Because you don’t have to be a regular reader of Heat to be affected by what’s written on the front of it; like Page Three, it’s a sexist institution that needs to be called to account, whether or not you consider the Sun a bastion of quality journalism or not. So we make a plea here to all the writers poised to pick over Gwyneth’s thigh muscle and armpit hair: please, don’t do another “crazy lady and reticent bloke” job on G and C’s relationship. Even if you have to be bitchy (well, you are gossip columnists), we enjoy our bitchiness with a healthy dollop of diversity. Make it seething, if you must, or make it sympathetic. But over and above both of those things, please, for the love of God, make it original.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories