2021 got off to a great start in terms of celebrity gossip when it was revealed that Harry Styles was dating Olivia Wilde, the actress and director with whom he is currently working on the film Don’t Worry Darling. It’s the kind of story that’s destined to grab the headlines: the hottest male pop star on the planet right now partnering up with his older, exceedingly chic colleague as she builds up her reputation as a filmmaker to watch. Twitter exploded and the memes were, of course, excellent, but the story wasn’t especially dramatic at the time. Sure, Wilde had recently split from her long-time partner, actor Jason Sudeikis, but we’d already seen months of headlines dedicated to strengthening the narrative that he and Wilde were still best friends, devoted co-parents, and utterly devoid of the bitterness one expects from a high-profile relationship ending.
That made sense, given that Wilde and Sudeikis, during the nine or so years they were together, were never exactly a tabloid favorite. They were hot and sweet and funny and as normal as Hollywood gets. They didn’t do saccharine-sweet joint interviews or plaster their love over social media with sponsored content in the comments. Really, they just seemed to get on with things. In the grand scheme of celebrity, that seems like the ideal way to live a public life when you’re a so-called power couple. The magazine coverage of their split reflected that. There were pictures of the pair embracing warmly and all the mandatory ‘sources’ focused on reminding any nosey readers that there was nothing shocking to be found here.
That’s changed, all of a sudden. Now, the stories are telling a slightly different story. People, widely regarded as the most reliable source of Hollywood news thanks to its close-knit ties to publicists and agents, claims that Sudeikis and Wilde were ‘very much together as recently as this fall.’ That contradicts earlier reports that the pair had broken up earlier in 2020, and the People story does note both sources and their opposing narratives. The article implies heavily, thanks to this new source, that Wilde split with Sudeikis solely to get with Styles. The source claims that ‘Jason feels that the timeline that Olivia and Harry would like people to believe — that she and Jason split ages ago, long before she became involved with Harry — is simply not accurate.’ A new Us Weekly piece, via an ‘insider’, claims that Style was ‘a reason’ for the split, another pushback to the amicable early-2020 split claims. The narrative has shifted: it’s gone from a mutual split on solid ground to tales of a ‘heartbroken’ and totally blindsided ditched ex, the funny man dumped in favor of the gorgeous younger guy who swept his director off her feet.
So, why the shift?
It’s notable that People cites contradicting sources in its initial piece. It drives home the idea that there are competing voices at play with very different agendas. Both narratives favor Sudeikis in some way. Either he’s the gallant ex who wants to keep his relationship with Wilde loving and cordial for the sake of their kids, or he’s the poor sad sack with a broken heart who can’t compete with one of the hottest men on the planet. The same can’t be said for Wilde. The reporting may not directly damn her, but the implications are obvious. She’s the bad guy here because women almost always are in such narratives. We know how celebrity cheating scandals unfold. Even if it’s the man breaking his vows, the woman will always suffer most under the harsh gaze of the public. It doesn’t even matter that there’s no confirmation of infidelity here. The ‘source’ encourages people to read into that, and a reliable publication positioning it as such fuels the fires even further.
Notably absent from this new dynamic is anything related to Harry Styles himself. While there are articles floating about that discuss why he was allegedly drawn to Wilde, he mostly seems like a third wheel in this current glut of the narrative. The focus is fully on Wilde and Sudeikis, with Styles positioned as some sort of interloper. The People piece doesn’t sell the image of him as some master seducer because it’s too busy pushing the implication of Wilde as the driving force of Sudeikis’s newly public unhappiness. Really, so much of this story is now a game of implication, which is certainly a change of tune from the prior months of solid and unshakable unity that we were previously offered. I imagine the gossip magazines are thrilled that things have taken a more traditionally dramatic route since there are only so many inches to be mined from people constantly telling you that all is well.
Celebrity gossip has always relied on a certain level of access, whether it’s exclusive interviews, publicists playing games of ‘exclusive sources’, or well-manicured social media feeds ready to be mined for content in any conceivable manner. As a couple, Wilde and Sudeikis weren’t big players in this competition. Why would they be? They’re both very famous, but not worldwide megastar-levels of such, and their independent careers didn’t need the heft of celeb reporting to elevate them. They worked together now and then but never in a way that relied on their celeb couple status. They’ll pose on red carpets together and post adorable pictures of their kids on Instagram, but they were never expected to be headline-hogging fame guzzlers. They were consistent, which is what makes the sudden shift in the press all the more intriguing. Are their teams releasing contradictory ‘sources’ to keep control of the narrative? What is there to be gained by this shift in direction for Sudeikis, who already had some level of sympathy from fans for being the guy left behind in the wake of Harry Styles? If these are the games that their mutual camps are playing, then what are the long-term consequences for them as a family, especially for their two young children?
It’s possible that this story will only get messier, which is rather sad given how it all started. Whatever else happens, the Wilde-Styles-Sudeikis gossip narrative is a reminder of how such stories are crafted and how damning even the mildest of implications can be when presented in a specific manner.
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