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Ariana Grande Getty Images 1.jpg

How to Unsuccessfully Spin Bad PR: Ariana and Spongebob Edition

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 31, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 31, 2023 |

Ariana Grande Getty Images 1.jpg

It’s been a dramatic year for the celebrity split. The mess of Scandoval broke out of the Bravo universe to become major pop culture news. Taylor Swift split from Joe Alwyn and rebounded with a sewer gremlin. Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello quietly announced plans to divorce, while Kevin Costner and Christine Baumgartner’s break-up has gotten extremely messy. After months of speculation, it was reported by TMZ that Ariana Grande had split from her husband of two years, Dalton Gomez. Very quickly after that, it was revealed that she’d started dating Ethan Slater, the Tony-nominated Broadway actor best known for playing Spongebob Squarepants on stage. The two of them are currently starring in the film adaptation of the musical Wicked, the production of which has shut down due to the SAG-AFTRA strike. This inspired a lot of curiosity given that, at the time, it seemed as though Slater was still married to his high school sweetheart Lilly Jay, with whom he has a baby son.

And then things got wild.

The coupling was sold as a hot new whirlwind romance, carefully positioned as something that definitely happened after both Grande and Slater had split from their respective spouses for reasons that were unrelated to one another. We were told that they got on incredibly well, and that Slater was just what Grande needed having long had troubles in her brief marriage. Then ‘sources’ said that Gomez, who is not a celebrity, was shocked by the split and had wanted to fight for his marriage. Other sources then said that Jay was ‘blindsided’ by the news of Slater and Grande’s romance, and that she had only been informed of the relationship days before the press. A back-and-forth of relationship PR dynamics thus began.

This has all unfolded at a rapid speed, going from TMZ reports on marriage troubles for Grande and Gomez to news of a split to updates on her new romance in the space of less than a fortnight. Honestly, I’ve struggled to keep up with the pace of it all, with the entire charade reminding me of the torrid month of the Taylor Swift/Matty Healy romance. But at least that didn’t include a baby. A lot of celebrity PR is built on strengthening pre-existing ideas about the client in question to ensure their image is left untainted. For Grande, a serial monogamist whose overlapping romances have always been called into question, it’s a stickier situation. It’s not much better for Slater, a relative newbie to celebrity who comes from a totally different sector of it and probably doesn’t have the machine in place to stop his face from being dragged through the mud.

It’s not impossible to spin infidelity in your favour. One of the first power couples of Hollywood history, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, was born from it, and at a time of intense moral scrutiny on the supposed deviance of the burgeoning film industry. It took some careful studio machinations and work with the press to repackage it as a case of true love and the ultimate Moviestar happy-ever-after, and it worked. Still, it’s tough to pull off for obvious reasons. If there’s one thing that we regular Joes can relate to in terms of celebrity drama, it’s a cheating scandal. Heartbreak is too universal to be dismissed as the behaviour of those otherworldly stars who have nothing in common with the rest of the world. Everyone knows someone who cheated or was cheated on. We’ve all experienced that messy fallout in some capacity. Even at its juiciest, it always sucks, and that’s before you add children to the equation.

The cheated partner is put into an impossible position, its trickiest paths bloated to gargantuan status in celebrity cases. You’ll always be viewed as a figure of scorn, justifiably or otherwise. Others project their own fantasies and concerns onto your blank slate, and often you’re little more than a punching bag for the cheater’s fandom to launch the usual attacks upon. Lilly Jay is already seeing this play out in especially ghoulish form with her own split. After making it clear to Page Six that she is (understandably) pissed off at Grande, the publication contextualized this among a bunch of quotes from ‘insiders’ that essentially say she’s a bitter liar. As one noted, ‘She’s rightfully upset because her marriage fell apart, but Ariana and Ethan didn’t do anything wrong. Ethan is trying to take the high road and hopes he can resolve this situation for the sake of their child.’

The audacity, right? Image rehab relies on the other party keeping its mouth shut for the most part, maintaining of that supposedly dignified silence we too often expect of others (usually women.) It’s less reliable when you have both the dumped wife and the dumped husband getting their ‘sources’ to other publications. Both Jay and Gomez are as much playing the game as the almighty PR machine of Grande and her manager Scooter Braun, and you get the sense that Taylor Swift’s nemesis has no idea how to keep up with it all right now. Everything is moving at a rapid speed, the formation of narratives solidifying far quicker than would typically be needed to repackage this new messy romance. It feels as though they’re flinging spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, but doing so under a tight time crunch, meaning all you see is the sweaty chef in a panic.

It only got worse when the narrative suddenly shifted and TMZ (again, note the pattern) said Slater, who just filed for divorce, was focused on co-parenting his child with Jay amid the split. THEN that was followed up by a piece from the same site that said Grande was giving Slater ‘space’ to work out the break-up with Jay, and really, they hadn’t seen one another in-person in weeks! It reeked of damage control, a clammy attempt to deal with the fact that neither the public nor Jay herself wished to pretend that the ‘high road’ had any part in this chaos. You can’t claim moral or ethical superiority when your own estranged wife lets everyone know how truly painful such false aggrandizing is.

We don’t know the full timeline of the Slater-Jay-Grande-Gomez drama, and those obscured details are already being latched onto as a weapon for PR spin. TMZ is working overtime to assert that Grande and Slater didn’t get together until both of their marriages were over, even as questions arise about the true timing. Such insistences are also tough to swallow when you see Grande liking Instagram posts on Slater’s page as he heaps praise upon Jay and their child mere months after he was born. Even if they were both righteously chaste while working together until they decided to mutually leave their spouses and get together, that’s not an easier narrative to sell. It still involves a man leaving his postpartum wife and newborn for a colleague. It still involves two undoubtedly troubling legal filings that could be dragged out for months and cause a lot of pain.

Grande’s image is one of girlboss vulnerability. She’s a strong independent woman with a highly youthful fashion sense. She sings about sex and her prowess with men of all kinds, sold in interviews where she makes herself seem very small. There’s a disconnect between the high ponytail and big bows and songs with titles like ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend (I’m Bored)’. Her love life might be the most scrutinized of any star in her age range, with her seeming serial monogamy playing out in various messy ways. She has a wildly dedicated fanbase too, and their ferocious protection of her makes the Swifties seem soporific by comparison. It’s not hard to see why she inspires devotion. She’s very youthful looking, has been a star since she was a child, and has dealt with a lot of horrifying trauma.

Fandom zealotry is dependent on the belief that your idol can and will do no wrong. Any mistakes they make, wilfully or otherwise, must be repositioned as either silly slip-ups made by a child or a smear from nefarious sources swirling overhead. A large portion of the most deluded defences of a celebrity rely on the abject infantilization of the subject. It’s how you end up with Johnny Depp cultists drawing a perennially drunk, rotten-toothed, accused wife-beater with a documented history of violence who looks like he smells of low tide as a Chibi doll on Twitter (look it up.) It’s how you end up with a ton of Ariana stans online insisting that Jay is being anti-feminist for making one pretty benign comment about Grande not being a girl’s girl, and that the multi-millionaire with a team of publicists and managers working to course correct proceedings is not only totally innocent but utterly unaware of what’s truly happening. It’s tough to invoke feminism in these circumstances when the PR of the Grande/Slater romance relies on implicitly positioning Jay as not only the woman scorned but a liar about her own marriage. Alas, we know that these strategies are often effective because misogyny sells (something TMZ, the favoured outlet for these stories, is an expert in) but Team Grande isn’t as vocal outside of her own die-hard fans.

Given that we’re now already at the ‘they need space’ part of the celebrity romance unveiling, it doesn’t seem likely that Grande and Slater are in it for the long haul. Love is fine and all but it’s image that matters above all in this business, and Grande can’t afford to let hers be tainted. Slater’s is possibly ruined for life, his first step into Hollywood battered for obvious reasons. Frankly, it’ll be easier for Grande to clean up the mess on her end, with a few vaguely shady songs and a softball interview about how tough her post-divorce life was but how it made her a stronger person (good luck filming the rest of Wicked after the strike, guys!)

The whole thing is a mess, and not fun in the way that so much celebrity gossip is, although it is a fascinating insight into the dirty work of damage control in the age of social media. At the end of it, there will still be a new mother and her baby who have ended up as a bartering chip for some publicists with nary a thought for their wellbeing. The most effective spin demands some sort of human sacrifice, but that does not mean the victim should be willing to walk themselves to the altar.