Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart never broke up. Indeed, their split was merely a distraction for the press that would guarantee the former Twilight stars privacy. In the interim period, where Pattinson got engaged to FKA Twigs and Stewart dated a series of women, including St. Vincent, the pair were actually living in wedded bliss. Their PR game was so effective that it helped to hide no fewer than two pregnancies for Stewart. Now, the Pattinson-Stewart family are happy together, laughing at the ignorance of the press and public who believe they broke up years ago and moved onto fulfilling and happy relationships with other people.
Of all the weird celebrity conspiracies that pollute the internet, the Robsten fandom may be my favourite one. It has everything: Press conspiracies, outlandish theories that would put Moon landing truthers to shame, the inability to tell reality from fiction, and of course, bad photoshops. Every now and then, when I see Pattinson and Stewart in the headlines, I go and visit the tin-hatters’ sites for that potent combination of entertainment and fear for my life. It’s astounding that they’re still keeping up this façade. As time passes, I wonder more and more if they truly believe it or if they’re going full My Immortal with the scam. It’s too outlandish to be real, yet the emotions behind it clearly are.
Sadly, this is nothing new for the world of shippers, nor is it limited to the breeding pair of Twilight. Name a prominent pop culture property and the chances are there are hardcore shippers whose interest goes beyond a fizzy hobby. Some fans truly believe that Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are a real couple, which is hysterical because their chemistry levels in the Fifty Shades series are sub-zero. The stars of Outlander face the same shippers. Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss are secret lesbian lovers, according to a subset of their fandom. Cate Blanchett will eventually leave her husband and children for Carol co-star Rooney Mara, thus freeing her from an exploitative bearding relationship with Joaquin Phoenix. The Larry fandom have yet to admit defeat, even as both Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson admit the fan delusions over their supposed secret romance hurt their real-life friendship. The Supernatural guys may never shake those conspiracies.
It isn’t all romance related either. Spare a thought for poor Benedict Cumberbatch, whose already overzealous fan-base includes a portion of people who think he was trapped into marriage and fatherhood by his wife, who they paint as the modern-day iteration of Medea. They don’t even think his kids are real. Apparently, one of them is clearly a doll.
I could go on, listing the many other fandoms I’ve come across with these near identical conspiracies of secret relationships, hidden children, public relations bullying, and so on. From Scandal to Orange is the New Black to The Hunger Games, it’s as big a part of fandom as cosplay and dirty fanfiction. A lot of the time, the celebrities being obsessed over don’t even know it’s happening. If they call it out, as Robert Pattinson did, or mock it, like Armie Hammer recently did on Instagram after someone DM-d him to claim he should be gay like his character in Call Me By Your Name, then they write that off as simply proving their point. The majority of fans deride and condemn this behaviour, partly because it reflects badly on everyone else but mostly because it’s blatant bullshit that should be treated as such. What is most striking about these myriad conspiracies is how eerily similar they all are in terms of tone and content.
The basic set-up for a tin-hatter shipping conspiracy is thus: The pair are in love, the pair are in a serious relationship, but they have to hide it from the world because of ‘evil PR’. The nature of this shadowy public relations organization is never made clear. It’s mostly rooted in conjecture and a hazy understanding of how the entertainment industry has worked over the decades. Historically, publicists and studios have operated with a certain degree of shadiness. In the Golden Era of Hollywood, where studios reigned supreme, a star’s image could be kept on a tight leash and their indiscretions hidden from the public. Fixers like Eddie Mannix (made famous in the Coen Brothers’ movie Hail, Caesar!) could clear up all manner of problems if the occasion called for it. Pregnancies could be hidden, illegal abortions procured, marriages annulled or concealed, and even the occasional murder dealt with (allegedly). We know this stuff happened, and we know that today, publicists do a lot of work to keep their clients happy. That probably doesn’t extend so far as to covering up marriages and multiple pregnancies and fake babies.
The psychologies behind these tin-hatter conspiracies tend to be remarkably similar too. There’s always massive amounts of paranoia at the heart of their delusions. Arrogance is key as well. You need infallible ego to maintain repeatedly debunked fantasies. They talk of their conspiracies as if they’re the most obvious truths in the world, deriding the ‘ignorant masses’ who refuse to see the reality in front of them, which they’ve kindly circled in MS Paint. The mentality is frequently rooted in a strong brand of self-victimization: They tie their theories to social issues like homophobia and claim anyone who opposes their belief that the One Direction guys are in love are clearly bigots. Even when the people in question call out this nonsense, they’re written off as poor closeted prisoners of invincible publicists. The game of tin-hating shippers is designed so that they never lose.
That’s the sad part of this all. They won’t be proven wrong simply because they’ve invested too much of themselves into this fantasy. They run around in circles, desperately claiming everything is against them and only they are smart enough to know the truth. If Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan insist they’re just friends, it’s only to throw everyone off the scent. When Tony Goldwyn talks of his love for his wife, it’s just to distract everyone from his romance with Kerry Washington. If Robert Pattinson is smiling in public, it’s because he’s thinking of Kristen; if he’s looking a bit down, it’s because he’s thinking of Kristen.
When the fantasy does begin to crumble, the tin-hatters get violent in their rhetoric. Taylor Schilling’s rumoured boyfriend briefly deleted his social media after receiving harassment from her fans who think she’s with Laura Prepon (who just had a baby with Ben Foster). Rooney Mara’s so-called fans called her a disgrace for dating a man and claimed she was letting down LGBTQ+ kids everywhere because of it. Robert Pattinson’s then-girlfriend FKA Twigs faced all manner of horrific racist and sexist abuse for simply existing. It can be easy to laugh people like this off, but we’ve also seen what happens to celebrities when their obsessive fans decide to invade their lives. A 19-year-old fan of Lana Del Rey drove cross-country to her house, broke into her garage and tweeted about it. An obsessive fan of Paula Abdul committed suicide outside her house. Rebecca Schaeffer’s stalker shot her on her own doorstep.
Real person shipping (or RPF) doesn’t bother me in theory. If you just treat it like any other fandom hobby - safe, private, clearly fiction - then go for it. There’s a major difference between liking two actors and writing silly fanfiction about them and going to extremes to prove they’re actually married. The people who cross that line are a minority, but they’re a loud and insidious minority who shouldn’t be written off as mere ‘crazies’. This phenomenon is undoubtedly fascinating and reveals a lot about various intersections of celebrity, media, the internet, fandom, and so on. It’s worth keeping an eye on, if only to ensure nobody gets hurt, because it’s not unique to internet culture. This stuff breeds, and that should concern us all.
Now, when do I get my shadowy PR conspiracy cheque?