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Why Paul Mescal and Phoebe Bridgers’ rumored breakup broke the internet

The actor and singer’s relationship unfolded over Twitter and Instagram, and the internet is in mourning after their alleged separation. We analyze the reasons why

Phoebe Bridgers

They are the Shakira/Piqué of the online world, the Preysler/Vargas Llosa for people who have seen Aftersun, read Ottessa Moshfegh and know what you mean by “the PDF of Lorde and Jack Antonoff.” The separation, still unconfirmed, of Normal People star Paul Mescal and singer Phoebe Bridgers has broken the hearts of those who call themselves “internet girls” – and who aren’t just girls.

Rumors of the breakup began to circulate at the end of December. As with nearly all news items from the international gossip press, the story originated on Deux Moi, the site that shares anonymous sightings of celebrities in the wild. In this case, Deux Moi’s podcast, Deux U, mentioned that Bridgers and the comedian-filmmaker Bo Burnham had been seen “making out” on a date at New York’s Connelly Theater. At the same time, Matty Healy, the singer of The 1975, posted on his account a photo showing him and Bridgers kissing, with Burnham behind them as if blessing the encounter. The theory even been backed by the singer’s lyrics. In the song that Bridgers wrote for SZA, Ghost in the Machine, she speaks of “standing on my own” and of fighting with someone in New York’s Ludlow Hotel. “You said all my friends are on my payroll/You’re not wrong, you’re an asshole/Screaming at you in the Ludlow/I was yours for free,” the lyrics continue.

Since then, Mescal has been seen drinking coffee with Angelina Jolie in London, along with Jolie’s daughter Shiloh, although they are not believed to be a couple. Jolie was congratulating Mescal after seeing his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theater.

When the news broke, social media was flooded with laments such as “I can’t continue living in a world where Paul Bridgers and Paul Mescal aren’t together.” TikTok creators made tear-jerking montages with scenes from Normal People, the TV series that made Mescal famous, and photos of the pair at the Met Gala. The hashtag #paulmescalandphoebebridgers reached 3.2 million views.

Why so much emotional investment around a couple that had only been together for a year and a half and had only a few photos together? Several factors that explain the interest. For starters, a certain corner of internet culture considers Bridgers and Mescal’s relationship something of their own creation: it was formed before their eyes. The first date between Bridgers and Mescal occurred in full view of the world, in an Instagram Live, and their first contact took place on Twitter.

It was May 2020, the peak of the first pandemic lockdown. Like everyone else, Phoebe Bridgers watched Normal People, the series based on the novel by Sally Rooney that had just premiered, and tweeted: “I just watched Normal People and now I’m sad and horny,” to which Mescal, who was apparently already a fan of the singer, replied: “I’m officially dead.” Continuing the public flirtation, which received hundreds of thousands of likes at a time when there were no events, no premieres, and no award shows to watch, Bridgers retorted: “nooo don’t die you’re so talented aha.”

Shortly after that, Wonderland magazine came up with the idea of inviting them to their now-famous Instagram date. “What’s the craic?” Mescal began (an Irish way of saying “what’s up”). “I think it’s well documented that I’m a fan of your music,” he continued. In the next few minutes, he virtually introduced her to his plant, Henry.

Confirmation that the two were seeing each other in the flesh also came on Twitter. In July 2020, the Lemon Tree café in the Irish city of Kinsale tweeted that the two had been there having breakfast. Mescal later appeared alongside Phoebe Waller Bridge in the video for Bridgers’ song Savior Complex, but it would take another year for the couple to make a public appearance together, blessed and outfitted by Gucci, at a gala at the LACMA museum in Los Angeles. By then, a segment of the population had already decided that the American singer-songwriter and Irish actor were their ideal couple, a Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz for twenty-somethings, a new version of the Alex Turner/Alexa Chung duo that continues to have a cult. It is difficult to resist such a calculated combination of attractiveness, success, talent and gifted clothing: in their most famous photo, which shows them both bundled up on a beach, the Prada logo is clearly visible on his jacket. Even their hair was aspirational and just the right point of alternative: a fashion mullet for him, the signature platinum gray dye for her.

It was the ultimate case of shipping, a term which refers to the desire by followers of a fandom for two or more people, either real-life people or fictional characters, to be in a romantic or sexual relationship. It’s what is known as “parasocial relationships.”

The expression caught on in the United States, and, well, in the Republic of the Internet, a little over a year ago on the occasion of another relatively niche celebrity divorce. The comedian John Mulaney, who had incorporated his wife, the costume designer and photographer Anne Marie Tendler into his comic routines, announced that he was separating from her, and, shortly after, that he was expecting a child with the actress Olivia Munn. Many social media users reacted as if they had experienced a cruel betrayal.

“When you have a parasocial relationship with someone, you look up to them and idealize them in some way. As a result, you really want that person to be happy and successful in every way possible. […] Your hope for their relationship to work out is a manifestation of a kind of wish fulfillment for yourself,” psychology professor Sally Theran, who specializes in investigating these types of projections, told Harper’s Bazaar. According to Theran, some extreme examples of this include the hope that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston will get back together or the collective cheer when Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck gave their relationship a second chance.

Clinical psychologist Arianna Brandolini d’Adda, who has her own YouTube channel, explained in an article in Repeller that the reason we give celebrity divorces such importance is rooted in evolutionary theory. “As humans, we are programmed to pay attention to the dominant individuals in the group, in this case celebrities. Just by observing and learning what high-status individuals do, it is more likely that you’ll become one,” she said. “Paying attention to what those at the top are doing serves a political purpose, because it will make you better equipped to work the social scene. Celebrities often represent a fantasy of what we would like to have, so it’s quite natural to get wrapped up in their lives and relationships.” This was already the case in early Hollywood, but no one watched Carole Lombard and Clark Gable’s dates live on Instagram. The seemingly unfiltered access to celebrities provided by social media intensifies that mirage of intimacy.

In the theater of relationships between celebrities, still shaped by traditional norms of monogamy, the worst role is usually reserved for “the home wrecker,” the woman who is perceived as the cause of the breakup of a well-loved heterosexual couple. So far, Bo Burnham isn’t getting the vitriol that, say, Olivia Munn did. As one tweet summed up: “This is all like Brangelina for people on Lexapro.” Those who had made an emotional investment in Bridgers and Mescal’s relationship are left to review the photos that Mescal took of the singer, and to wait for clues about the breakup in her next album.

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