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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Martha Alexander

Ex-etiquette — the big business of a dignified celebrity breakup

Two words. That was all it took for Internet sleuths and tabloids to start frantically speculating about the status of one of the world’s most famous couples.

“A beauty” is what rapper Travis Scott wrote underneath an Instagram grid shot of the mother of his two children, Kylie Jenner, smouldering in a body-con dress during a photo shoot for her new Kylash mascara line. That she is his ex and he would compliment her publicly in this way seemed so incomprehensible — they must be getting back together, right? But the duo has been on/off for years and in that time have never bad mouthed one another: whether they are back together or not, they are just one of many (former) couples who are consistently nice to each other online — and in the press.

Jenner’s sister, Khloe Kardashian could teach a masterclass in being magnanimous to errant partners. She regularly celebrates and compliments her ex Tristan Thompson, who cheated on her numerous times and even fathered a child with personal trainer Maralee Nichols behind Kardashian’s back, writing things like “Happy birthday @realtristan13. You are truly the best father, brother & uncle…” on Instagram for her millions of followers to see.

These sweet gestures exist outside the realms of past Kardashian/Jenner romances of course. Over the weekend, Liev Schreiber posted a heartfelt Instagram note after his ex girlfriend and mother of his two children Naomi Watts married to her Gypsy go-star this weekend: “Congratulations!!! Gorgeous!!!”

Zach Braff and Florence Pugh are always popping up in each other’s comments, Gwyneth Paltrow posts selfies of her and ex-husband Chris Martin with thoughtful captions such as “Happy birthday to the sweetest father and friend… We love you”. The Goop founder recently had Scarlett Johansson on her podcast, at one point drawing attention to the actress’s equally famous ex-husband: “we love a good Ryan Reynolds in our home,” Paltrow laughs, before Johansson gives her final approval rating (”he’s a good guy!”) Miranda Kerr is endlessly supportive of ex-husband Orlando Bloom’s new wife Katy Perry — the pair often have online dialogue, proving you can be friend’s not only with your ex, but with his new wife too. Taylor Swift was videoed jumping out of her seat to give ex Harry Styles a standing ovation at the Grammys when he won Album of the Year last month.

Scarlett Johansson says her ex-husband Ryan Reynold’s is a “good guy” (AFP via Getty Images)

But it’s not just a Hollywood thing. On more local turf, yesterday Strictly Come Dancing professional Katya Jones shared her ex-husband and co-star’s Instagram announcement that he was expecting his first child with new girlfriend, former Love Island contestant Chyna Mills. “So happy for these two!” Katya wrote in her Stories. “@mr_njonesoffiicial You deserve all the happiness.”

There’s so much rage and snark out there in the world that it’s comforting to see people who are no longer together being kind to each other.  Being nice to your ex speaks to confidence, emotional maturity, high self-esteem — all the coveted personality traits. Being the bigger person feels empowering, for sure, and it’s kind, yes.

But, to get cynical, it’s also a great look and, more often than not, an extremely canny PR move.

The public nature of social media, especially for famous people — literally millions of pairs of eyes guaranteed to be watching how you behave towards a former flame — means any comment or content is likely to have been carefully considered.

Also, dignity and composure is very chic (he wasn’t her ex and this didn’t happen on social media but it sure as heck is all over it now: Gwyneth Paltrow telling the optometrist who compared her to King Kong while trying to sue her for $300k in an orange Utah courtroom: “I wish you well” before she gracefully swept out is causing a viral sensation).

Neil Jones remains on good terms with ex-wife Katya (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)

Hilda Burke, integrated psychotherapist and author of the Phone Addiction Workbook, points out that many celebrities have an entire team of publicists to either manage or advise on their presence — online or otherwise. And it’s certainly true that social media is the perfect place to make statements and control one’s own image. “These can be heavily filtered and diplomatic and possibly not at all reflective of what’s going on,” says Burke. “People want to be perceived well — there is image maintenance going on.” 

Of course, people are capable of doing things unselfishly and altruistically, but when there’s an audience involved there’s always the benefit of everyone witnessing you being lovely. Two things can be true at once – you can be genuinely nice to your ex while simultaneously exploiting the power of free online publicity.

Khloe Kardashian and Tristan Thompson (Instagram/ Khloe Kardashian)

This is certainly what some people thought of Scott’s comment to Jenner, with one online commentator writing “she needed more eyes on her product launch date post…. pr be pr-ing” while another wrote “bet Kris Jenner hacked his account” — referring to the beauty mogul’s ambitious momager.

Obviously, there are plenty of examples of celebrity exes throwing shade at one another online — and it always makes for compelling viewing for gossip mongers. It is also a show of unbridled authenticity and anger that is beyond a publicist’s control — and that it strangely refreshing as well as riveting.

Gwyneth Paltrow has only good things to say about her ex Chris Martin (Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP)

Of course, it’s a matter of degree. A snarky one-liner or a well-timed meme can speak volumes: Diplo once tweeted that he couldn’t remember having sex with Katy Perry after she declared him the ‘worst’ in bed, meanwhile Rihanna once posted to Instagram the statement that “None of my exs (sic) are married or in happy relationships so it’s safe to say that I wasn’t da problem lol”.

But it all begins to curdle when wronged parties are uploading essays or teary ‘to camera’ monologues to their grids at all hours of the day and night. They delete and repeat feverishly and you just feel grimy watching someone in crisis relentlessly proffer their suffering to the guaranteed cruelty of the Internet.

This was the case with actor Alice Evans — whose husband Ioan Gruffudd filed for divorce in 2021 precipitating her to unleash a host of social media content — including texts between Gruffudd and one of their children — in which she let her heartbreak, anger and devastation rip, over and over. She received a three-year restraining order from Gruffudd and has been ordered, by law, not to make any mention of him on social media again.

Florence Pugh and Zach Braff (Dave Benett)

Hilda Burke believes that outbursts of anger are often cathartic in the moment.

“I have worked with clients who have maybe not called out an ex publicly but have written bitter messages and in the cold light of day have reflected and been regretful,” she explains. “It provides relief but when we speak to someone in an abusive or belittling tone no matter what they’ve done or if it’s ‘justified’… it’s self-sabotage. It’s not so much [about] dignity as it’s more regulating one’s own emotions. When our emotions get dysregulated like that it’s generally harmful to us.”

When armchair sleuths and gossip columnists seize on the smallest crumbs in Instagram’s vast pantry in order to build a story it must be frustrating if you’re in the public eye, but when that certainty is turned on its head, they’ve got self-generated publicity at their fingertips 24 hours a day. The question is — would they do it if no one could see?

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