The 4th of July is a time of celebration and contemplation for my American brethren. Booze shall be drunk, fireworks shall be shot into the sky, and talk of freedom shall continue even as the world sinks into hell. For this British gossip hound, the date carries a new tradition. On this shining day, only two years ago, a pale English thespian of impeccable stock frolicked in the Atlantic Ocean with an assortment of fresh-faced starlets, leaping into the arms of one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. The sun was shining, and the paparazzi were perfectly located to capture this organic and spontaneous moment, as they had done for weeks leading up to the day. On his chest, he wore a cheap tank-top. Across it, printed at a dollar store shop, was the slogan, ‘I <3 TS’. To top it all off, there was a matching temporary tattoo on his arm. In that moment, a meme was born, and even the most naïve of celebrity watchers had to admit that something fishy was going on in the Kingdom of Hiddleswift.
By the most generous estimations, the romance between actor Tom Hiddleston and musician Taylor Swift lasted about 4 or 5 months. In that time, we were the eager and baffled spectators to an entire relationship cycle. They snuggled on the beach, he partied with her very famous and perfectly organized group of friends, she met his family in England, she started dressing like a Sloane Ranger, and the news cycle spewed headline after headline. 2016 was a dark year, and it was Hiddleswift that united us all in a moment of shared hilarity. Really, we should be thankful for such glories. But amid our laughter and absolute confusion over this public spectacle, we received some of our best training in what happens when celebrity PR goes so very wrong.
On the day that The Sun published exclusive photographs of Hiddleston and Swift canoodling on the beach together, Kim Kardashian’s GQ profile was released. In that piece, which is arguably the best and savviest piece written on the divisive reality T.V. star, she called out Swift for lying about her approval of some controversial lyrics in the Kanye West song Famous, and also revealed that she had proof of her lies. This came after Swift had previously denied such claims and made a typically Swiftian dig at the ‘people along the way who will try to undercut your success’ during her Grammy acceptance speech. Kardashian is a woman who, if nothing else, can match Swift beat for beat in creating her desired media narratives (although that’s changing nowadays). There had been talk leading up to the publication of the GQ profile of Kardashian’s claims to have damning proof against Swift, so it made sense for Swift to fight back. What better way to fight power couple fire than with more power couple fire? The only problem was that her break-up with DJ and producer Calvin Harris was still raw. She needed to move on quickly, and she found a willing partner in her Met Gala dance buddy, Tom Hiddleston.
Tom Hiddleston is the kind of earnest male star that has begun to gain popularity over the past several years. Bad boys will endure and there’s always room for a joker, but it’s in the super sweet beta masculinity of the earnest man that audiences, particularly women, are finding respite. This kind of leading man doesn’t need to be muscled like a Chris, although I would also argue that such earnestness transcends body form (Ragnarok era Chris Hemsworth fits this mould, for example). They’re gentle and unabashedly giddy and as much a fanboy as anyone who squees over them. They’re eager to please and don’t mind showing how much they want everyone to like them. They’re always on.
One’s patience for such earnestness is subjective. I’m partial to a public figure who genuinely gives a fuck and doesn’t try to cloak themselves in faux apathy. Hiddleston has avid fans, in large part thanks to his work as Loki in the Marvel universe, but his persona is a tough one to maintain in highly visible terms. It’s also not helped to elevate him to the upper echelons of Hollywood talent. Unlike his posh English contemporaries, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston has never gotten into those leagues of plummy roles and endless awards. He’s put in great work - and I think he’s a much better actor than Redmayne could ever be - but those opportunities haven’t come calling in the way one had predicted for him. The flashy biopic - as country singer Hank Williams - didn’t take off, and his indie efforts, while fascinating and often brilliant, didn’t make the jump into the mainstream. For many, he’s never found a way to move beyond Loki. He was easily the best Marvel villain for several films, but as the franchise rolled on and evolved into something more sophisticated, Hiddleston fell by the wayside. He needed something to take him to that new level of fame beyond Tumblr adoration.
I just remembered Hiddleswift and I can't stop laughing. Truly was the best movie I've ever watched. pic.twitter.com/BBBvkIM7tY— Taylor Swift Updates (@iknowplacesmp3) June 6, 2018
I did an informal Twitter poll on Hiddleswift and its authenticity. The vast majority of people who responded to my question of whether the relationship was real or not said they thought it was to a certain extent, yet they firmly believed their mutual milking of it for publicity was a turn-off. I don’t think Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston were madly in love and just had to let the world know as soon as possible. I buy that more from Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande than this pair. But I do believe they, at the very least, liked one another a lot and had some good times together. I don’t think their publicists met for a working lunch and decided to hack out a deal. This was a relationship, in my opinion, rooted in something true, but that doesn’t negate how both parties clearly saw it as an opportunity for a publicity boost. Sandra Bernhard once said of her old pal Madonna and her odd relationship with the much older Warren Beatty that their romance was more of a mutually beneficial demographic expansion than anything purely passionate. That was Hiddleswift to me.
Tom Hiddleston got a beautiful American songstress girlfriend. Taylor Swift got a prestigious thespian boyfriend with an upper-class background and roots in the London elite. He got a plus one ticket to the A-List. She got Hollywood cred and a handy distraction from a messy break-up and bubbling PR disaster at the hands of a Kardashian. Well, for a short time.
Nowadays, I think gossip readers are more cynical than ever. That comes in part from how much better educated we all are about this curious ecosystem and its sordid history. It would have been terribly scandalous for fans to know about fake relationships, calling up the paparazzi, and planting stories only a few years ago. Now, it’s just how things work. The downside to that increased knowledge is that fans are more prone than ever to dismissing everything as PR. So, in that environment, Hiddleswift had a lot riding against it, and that matter wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the involved parties had a history of using their private life as media fodder.
Swift has always made games out of her songs and public persona as it pertains to the men she is connected to. While she decries the way that the tabloids use this to vilify her, it would be foolish of us to pretend that she is a passive player in this game. Writing songs with loud clues about famous men is nothing new - Carly Simon says hi - but the way Swift does it has always left a bad taste in many mouths: It’s the virgin-whore complex coupled with an acute sense of self-victimization and the contradictory nature of demanding attention while decrying those who give it to you. Swift had spent a solid couple of years in a stable relationship with another famous man - Calvin Harris - and worked to give it the appropriate level of media coverage. There were the cute Instagram photos of the pair, for example, as well as the way Swift adopted a more ’90s rock & roll image with her fashion during that period. She didn’t have those paparazzi photos of practiced casualness like she did with Jake Gyllenhaal, but the effect was the same. They seemed like a good match. When they broke up, it made a gossip impact. That she got together with Hiddleston so quickly afterwards only heightened the cynicism of an already weary public.
Nothing about the timing or aesthetic of Hiddleswift made sense. Didn’t she just break up with Calvin Harris? Wasn’t she hanging with Hiddleston at the Met Gala while she was still dating Calvin? How the hell are they already at the ‘meeting the family’ stage? How are those paparazzi photos so weird and fake looking? Why is she suddenly dressing like she’s got a country manor and a shelf full of Jilly Cooper novels? From the get-go, everything about it seemed too darn convenient. Swift is a star who runs a tight ship, but this was a relationship where it felt like someone was barking orders at them both. Look cute! Casually hold arms with his mother! Get the fucking tank top on!
And, of course, that brings us to that tank-top.
It has been one year since the gossip majesty of Hiddleswift. What's your favourite memory? The tank-top? The casual walks? Ryan Reynolds? pic.twitter.com/6JEjpgfCDJ— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) July 4, 2017
There is a lot going on in those images of Hiddleston and Swift at her now-famous annual 4th of July party. These have always been an opportunity for her to show off her flashy life and the flashy people who fill it, and this was no exception. There were lots of exceptionally beautiful women waving American flags and living that red, white, and blue life. It all highlighted how out of place Hiddleston seemed. He wasn’t much older than the ensemble, but he wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who seemed comfortable in this situation. Hiddleston is no Leo. He was pale, a little sunburnt on his face, and wearing that I <3 TS tank-top.
His official story on that event is that he had injured his back and didn’t want to swim in the salty sea uncovered, so a Swift friend gave him the tank-top they’d had made as an inside joke. Putting aside the impracticality of anyone going into the ocean with an injury, the mere act of that sartorial strangeness seemed to spotlight a dynamic between the pair that’s not especially common in celeb circles. He was the one wearing a tank-top proclaiming his love for her. Hiddleston was the accessory here. He was the trophy boyfriend.
Perhaps it was an inside joke. Maybe they didn’t know the paparazzi were watching every move, somehow having gained access to private land. It may very well be the case that they all went inside afterwards and the rest of the party pulled out their matching tank-tops to continue the inside joke. One can do nothing but speculate. But Swift is smarter than this naïve game of maybe. So is Hiddleston, although he later seemed eager to play the role of wide-eyed ex. Their relationship had been extensively documented up to that point - all three or so weeks of it - and Swift’s annual parties attracted similar attention regardless of her plus one. At the very best, they could have misjudged the strength of that photographer’s telescopic lens. At worst, they thought that tank-top looked cute. I know which scenario is more logical to me. And to everyone else.
The relationship continued after that, but once Kim Kardashian produced the receipts on Swift’s lies about her approval of the Famous lyrics, it became clear that this romance wasn’t going to last. Nobody had been distracted by it, except for sheer entertainment value, and it couldn’t hold up the Swiftian image of her perpetual victimhood when there was audio of her saying what she claimed she never did. She tried to exclude herself from the narrative, but some harsh lessons were learned. First, never go up against a lawyer’s kid, especially when she’s spent years crafting a celebrity persona based on A-class media manipulation. Second, you can’t force public opinion on matters as fluffy and low-stakes as celeb romances. Younger fans may invest more heavily, and that is the demographic Swift skews to best, but we all have way too much access to media and its studies to be naïve about this stuff.
Hiddleswift was over by awards season. The aftermath of the romance drove home its weirdness and the constant tug-of-war of media control. I saw a lot of people defending Hiddleston throughout the Summer of Swoki by claiming he was merely a passive guest in Swift’s machinations. Sexism of such claims aside, this never gave Hiddleston the credit he deserved. He gunned hard for this romance and its public narrative. He was the one who got his family - including his mother - in those well-photographed casual walks with Swift. Nobody dragged him into the tank-top. What had once been his prime selling point - his Labrador-like eagerness - now seemed horribly calculating, a point only driven home further when he won a Golden Globe and gave a speech I can charitably refer to as embarrassing.
Hiddleston’s Golden Globe speech was the wrong speech at the wrong time. It was clearly well-meaning but that only made it seem worse somehow. He called it ‘inelegant’. We called it thirst. There’s nothing wrong with thirst if you admit to it - hello, have you read any post I’ve written about a celebrity I find hot? - but the false modesty of Hiddleston’s speech reminded us all of how empty such gestures feel when your sales pitch doesn’t work. After a Summer of watching him try to sell the romance of the century, the about-turn back to humble British thespian fell flat.
Most people seemed to think Hiddleston would never publicly comment on the romance. That would be too gauche for someone like him. Perhaps that’s why the following year’s GQ profile, written by the wonderful Taffy Brodesser-Akner, became such a big deal. Instead of turning down the earnestness, he amped it up to near unbearable levels, flattening doubters into submission through sheer force of puppy-dog-eyed glumness. If you haven’t read the profile, I urge you to stop where you are and read it now. It makes it easy to understand why some would position Hiddleston as a quaint creature outside of the typical Hollywood media business. He wishes to exclude himself from this narrative, thank you very much, but not before he lets you know that he was 100% in love with Swift and the tank-top was a joke, honestly! At one point, Taffy even tells him he doesn’t have to explain himself, but he keeps going. Later, he calls her at a ridiculous hour to ask if he can see her face to face to explain himself even more, and he’s there at a worrying speed. I know many people were charmed by the profile, so in that sense, it did its job, but for me, it stands as a fascinating example of controlling one’s own narrative. Nobody buys Hiddleston as a Machiavellian manipulator, at least not without that black wig, so he continues to play an earnest game.
And Swift? Well, look what we made her do.
Swift has finally decided to lean into her image as a Lannister of the basic set. Actually, she hasn’t in the slightest, because even as she eagerly plays up her image changes and media perceptions, she is still desperate to show how she is a victim of cruel press and circumstance. She pretends not to care what everyone says about her while doing everything in her power to remain a scrappy underdog who fought against the odds. How can you exclude yourself from the narrative when you’ve built the stage, hired the dancers, and written the script? The Reputation era is a mess for Swift, both musically and in terms of her persona, but her fans are ardent in their loyalty to what she’s built, so it almost doesn’t matter. Smartly, she has kept her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn as private as she can manage. The fact that we seldom see the pair together stands in stark contrast to the endless images of her with Hiddleston in a much shorter amount of time. The thing most celebrities don’t tell you about fame is that it’s easier to escape press attention if you don’t court it.
The world is a different place, two years after Hiddleswift, not just with the general state of the planet but in celeb-land. Brangelina are over, Jennifer Aniston split from Justin Theroux, Tessa Thompson and Janelle Monáe have played a savvy game of visible privacy, and SNL of all places has become a hotbed of bachelors for the A-list actresses of Hollywood. Swift is touring and still bragging about her big sales. Hiddleston has kept a quiet life, aside from his Loki duties. The tank-top has been packed away and the memes retired, but in an age of celebrity savvy and narratives of fame, it’s always worth remembering that it takes two to tango.
(Header photograph of Hiddleswift and Ryan Reynolds’s ‘hello darkness my old friend’ moment from Instagram)