The Post-Truth World of Influencer Romances

By August 29, 2019 No Comments
The Post-Truth World of Influencer Romances

Emma Grey Ellis

Here are some new ways to describe your upcoming nuptials, courtesy of Tana Mongeau, one half of YouTube’s most controversial power couple. You are invited to: “a lighthearted thing we’re obviously doing for fun and content,” that’s “one of the biggest days of my career,” and marks the start of “a 72-day Kim Kardashian marriage,” a union in “Holy Cloutrimony” that you can watch live for just $50.

Mongeau and her not-quite-husband Jake Paul are the internet version of the celebrity romance so highly publicized it seems staged. They are both scandal-hungry YouTubers in their early twenties who together command a corps of fans almost 25 million strong. The relationship started suddenly, with a Snapchat video of Mongeau in a bed fans recognized as Paul’s. After two months of the internet speculating that the relationship was fake, Paul announced their wedding to crowd at Vidcon via R-rated poem. (It begins “The day I met Tana, she ate my banana.”) The wedding, which included an Oprah Winfrey impersonator and a staged fist fight, wasn’t legally binding. Mongeau didn’t attend their honeymoon, and a month later, fan sleuths feel she is hinting at a breakup by singing Ariana Grande’s “thank you, next” on Snapchat and appearing on the VMAs red carpet this week with a live snake. Every moment seems calibrated for maximum media reaction, maximum fan speculation, maximum attention—influencer currencies, all.

Paul and Mongeau’s relationship, fake or genuine, painted a pre-existing elephant in the room neon yellow. Most dabbling in celebrity romance do not openly discuss how much they hope to boost each other’s clout, but faux relationships for the sake of appearance or publicity are a longstanding practice among social media influencers and more traditional celebrities. Now that these scripted relationships happen online regularly and observably, it’s turned some influencer fans into legions of cynical, screen-bound paparazzi.

Of course, YouTubers did not create the fauxmance. Invented relationships date back to the days of old Hollywood, when they were sometimes used to disguise the queerness of one or both participants. (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were allegedly each other’s beards.) The Hollywood faux romance was a formalized, professional paparazzi-reliant affair. With pre-internet privacy, you’d never know the relationships were faked unless you lived inside a celebrity’s house, and for the most part, people had no reason to think they were being lied to. Star couples still enjoy a culture of credulity around their relationships, though people (sometimes rightly) still doubt relationships that seem to spring up around publicity tours, or after high-profile flops or scandals. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s Twilight-era coupledom struck some as suspect, as did Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston’s very brief, but weirdly public relationship.

The change the internet has brought to faux couple choreography is the presence of an active, invested, and investigative audience, which for fauxmances are both risk and boon.

Post-social-media boom, people are assumed liars until proven truthful. All couples are fake; people who say they’re not dating are probably married. It’s like the whole world’s transformed into the WWE. The WWE loves scripted relationship storylines and the company encourages its performers to maintain the illusion outside the ring, a practice called “kayfabe.” Trouble is, according to Benjamin Litherland, a media studies lecturer at the University of Huddersfield in England, kayfabe has become easier and easier to break since the 1980s. As fanzines and then the internet gave fans more and more access to wrestlers’ actual lives, an endless series of what Litherland calls “skirmishes” between the WWE and its fanbase erupted: Self-proclaimed “smart fans” make a game of puzzling out the WWE’s manipulations, while the WWE works to come up with ever-wilder stories to thrill them. This environment of intrigue and suspicion is where influencers, coupled or single, live—and they’re learning how to use it.

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