There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned celebrity romance. When two famous individuals of reasonably matched stature pair up for a happy ever after - long term or otherwise - there’s something about the phenomenon that is intrinsically fascinating. It’s a dynamic of varying levels of power and one that plays out on a scale larger than any of our own romantic endeavours. Imagine if every person you dated led to the pair of you being stalked by paparazzi, having stan Twitter obsess over your every move, screeds of fanfiction fantasising about each private moment, and hot take merchants like me analysing every Instagram caption. Some celebs are made for this kind of dynamic - think of Brangelina in its prime - while others seem doomed to crumble under the pressure. Then there are those pairings that make us think of the invisible hand of the industry’s PR machine at play. It’s hard to say if we’ve gotten savvier about such fauxmances or if we’re simply a more cynical bunch these days, but the eagle eyes of the public remain more focused than ever. It takes a lot to surprise us.
Perhaps that’s why the feverishly passionate romance between musician Ariana Grande and SNL star Pete Davidson is so curious to us. Everything about the match feels as if it was engineered in a rom-com lab: The Harry Potter dress-up, the tattoos, the cutesy social media messages, and that ring. Of course, the big draw here is the speed with which it’s all come together. The most generous estimates have this relationship being a whopping six weeks old, and already there’s a rumoured engagement. Under normal circumstances, I’d be ready to deem this romance an instant fake, too lavish and public to be authentic in any manner. It would join the upper echelons of Henry Cavill and Kaley Cuoco theatrically laughing over cereal together or the tank-top to end all tank-ups in the Summer of Hiddleswift.
But here’s the thing: I think this is 100% authentic.
First of all, no public relations advisor worth their salt would greenlight something as unabashedly mad as an engagement after three weeks. We love a good romance, but such instant passion is best suited to fairytales. Besides, if Grande, one of the biggest pop stars on the planet right now, was going to be set up for a showmance, the chances are it would be with someone more famous than a featured player from SNL.
Davidson and Grande are both young and often seem younger. Grande, in particular, is an industry veteran who never seems older than a teenager due to her diminutive stature. Even though she appeared on Broadway at aged 15 and was a featured player in the Nickelodeon series Victorious from 17. While she has made a successful crossover into mainstream pop - arguably one of the best of her generation to do so - her fanbase remains primarily young girls. Even when her music is as mature and sexual as anything else on the Top 40 chart, Grande still seems so youthful, very much of her generation.
But being of her generation also makes her savvy enough to know bullshit when she sees it. She’s never had the major teething problems of others from that ‘child star turned adult celebrity force’ contingent she emerged from - she never went full bear costume twerking like Miley, she didn’t go through a public mental health struggle like Demi Lovato, she never dated Justin Bieber like Selena Gomez - although she did have slip-ups like the infamous doughnut licking. Aside from Zendaya, who hasn’t put a foot wrong, Grande feels like the star who knew why she was making every decision she made. It helps that she’s enormously talented and has the kind of voice that never goes out of fashion. Whether you go pop, R&B or adult contemporary, being that kind of dextrous soprano always pays off.
Grande has already lived through a couple of public relationships. She dated rapper Big Sean for a couple of years, as well as Mac Miller, whom she broke up with a couple of months ago. While both of these pairings were of the celeb romance vein, they weren’t covered in the same way the relationships of her A-List counterparts were. Grande and Miller never got the media attention Miley Cyrus and the other Hemsworth receive. Where Grande’s relationships did draw public focus was in how she established herself when the break-up happened.
After splitting from Big Sean, Grande penned a piece for her Instagram page that went viral, noting the double standards women face in their daily lives. She quotes Gloria Steinem, calls out slut-shaming, and condemns the ways in which our culture, particularly for someone in her position of public visibility, still struggles to see women as something other than a man’s plus one. Being a young celebrity feminist is a tough field to navigate, especially when you’re outright asked the question ‘Are you a feminist’ by a journalist looking for a quote: Either you say you are and risk having every facet of your life picked over - oh my god, how can she be a feminist when she wears a leotard to dance in on stage? - or you say you aren’t and get the bombardment of criticism for it. I personally find the question ‘Are you a feminist’ and its variations to be mundane and pointless. It doesn’t leave room for much in the way of letting women explain what feminism means to them, nor does it allow for anything in the way of offering a critical understanding of the ethos. If you’re a 21-year-old pop star who has to answer to dozens of dudes in suits every day while escaping the smothering constraints of child star life and dealing with the hardships of being a role model to girls half your age, you may be aware of what feminism is but see it as something too adult or academic to work in your life. That Grande was so sharp in her essay and contextualised feminism as it applied to her life is not necessarily a rarity, but it still demonstrated a woman who knew what work she had to do and how to do it.
Grande’s candidness about her personal life and understanding of feminism as it applied to it continued after her breakup with Miller. After the rapper was in a car accident while under the influence, a Twitter user tried to admonish Grande, writing, ‘Mac Miller totalling his G wagon and getting a DUI after Ariana Grande dumped him for another dude after he poured his heart out on a ten song album to her called the divine feminine is just the most heartbreaking thing happening in Hollywood.’ The tweeter in question wasn’t a big social media star - he had about a hundred followers when he sent that tweet - but it spiralled into viral infamy, reaching about 24k retweets in less than two days. This is the kind of issue the social media age creates for the celebrity and their personal life in 2018: The disheartening necessity of explaining every decision you make to a braying audience, who either don’t have any understanding of your pain or just don’t give a shit.
The knowledge of how public this had become and Grande’s experience in dealing with victim blaming makes her statement all the more potent. Grande condemned the tweeter for minimizing ‘female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship.’ She doesn’t reveal everything about her time with Miller - and nor should she feel obligated to do so - but she pulls the curtain back enough to show how the pressures of stardom and the celebrity couple mount, especially when what’s happening behind the scenes is more complex than the sweet picture shared with the world.
And that brings us to Pete Davidson. Their romance has been speedy, endearing and slightly infuriating. Even at my most optimistic and romantic, I can’t contain my inner voice that screams ‘You’ve been together for A MONTH!’ Davidson is the same age as Grande, although he often seems simultaneously older and younger than his 24 years suggest. As the youngest current member of the SNL team and the first cast member to be born in the 1990s, he’s carved out a successful niche on the show as the awkward but likable stoner millennial with a glorious crude streak. His life has not been easy but, like so many of the best comedians, he’s used that for great effect in his comedy. His father was a firefighter who died in service during 9/11, an event that led to immense trauma for Davidson. He also suffers from Crohn’s disease, for which he receives various treatments and uses medicinal marijuana, and he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
BPD can make it tough for sufferers to have stable relationships, and it’s been tough to avoid this point in nearly every article written about Davidson and Grande. People want to be socially conscious about an oft-misunderstood condition, but they also can’t risk dehumanising others based on their mental health. Society does that enough as it is. Davidson called out this problem on his Instagram stories around the time it was revealed he had broken up with previous girlfriend Cazzie David (daughter of Larry) and gotten together with Grande. As he noted, ‘Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean they can’t be happy and in a relationship. It also doesn’t mean that person makes the relationship toxic. I just think it’s fucked up to stigmatize people as crazy and say that they are unable to do stuff that anyone can do. It’s not their fault and it’s the wrong way for people to look at things.’
It’s so easy to look at the Davidson-Grande relationship and jump to conclusions about its origins. Oh, it must be a rebound for Ariana or Pete’s going through something right now. Even the most likely answer - the intense flush of young love - gets dismissed in favour of armchair psychology. Celebrity love is no more interesting or special than love for everyone else, but it comes with more demanding outside forces. Grande’s fans seem to love her with Davidson, and we know what happens when young fans on social media invest too much of themselves in their idols and their private lives. Half the media think their relationship is a joke while too many others try to diagnose all manner of mental health problems. A whole heap of folks just sit around and wait for you to fail.
I think their love is real, but it’s probably also a bright and intense flame that could burn out faster than planned. If they are engaged, I hope they’re happy, but we all know of a few celeb engagements that never made it up the aisle. The chances are these two haven’t even had their first real fight. Stuff like that doesn’t seem to matter when you’re so in love with love. I wish them well. The thing about this pair, but particularly Ariana Grande, is that they’re so easy to root for.
(Image from YouTube)