Celebrity power couples usually put out a bland joint statement when they divorce. But when the Brangelina breakup shook the world on Tuesday, there was no such show of solidarity. The news broke on TMZ in the morning; that afternoon Brad Pitt gave a statement to People magazine and Angelina Jolie's manager gave one to E! news. All the while, rumors flew about cheating, substance abuse, and parenting disputes.
To sort all of this out, we turned to Rob Shuter, who knows a thing or two about the behind-the-scenes workings of A-list splits. He was the publicist for Jessica Simpson when she broke it off with Nick Lachey and for Jennifer Lopez during the Ben Affleck breakup. We asked Shuter, today the editor of a celebrity website, to give us the scoop on just how carefully orchestrated big-name breakups can be and to help us read the signs.
Marie Claire: What do you think about the timing of the Pitt and Jolie divorce announcement?
Rob Shuter: It is fascinating to me that her team leaked it to the media on a Tuesday when all the weeklies [like People, Us Weekly, Life&Style] had gone to bed. So, the weeklies close on Monday night. She has a long history of working with People. So the fact that this was leaked to TMZ tells me it came from her legal team, because her legal team are much more likely to work with TMZ than they are with People.
MC: Is there any chance that TMZ just found the paperwork when it was filed? Or do you think someone tipped them off?
RS: Harvey [Levin, the founder of TMZ] knows the legal system. He's a lawyer and he knows lawyers. It's very possible that they stumbled upon it. In my experience as a publicist and a columnist, you don't stumble. Someone aims you in the right direction. This is speculation, so I don't know. But in my experience, someone will say, "You might want to check out a filing on this date." And then you find it yourself. For TMZ to find it and to do it on a Tuesday after all the weeklies had closed, that feels to me like her team is somewhat involved.
Plus, not only did TMZ break it, in celebrity public relations, whoever gets the story out first wins. So not only did they break it first, it was clearly pro-Angie. There's a bad father narrative, there's weed, and alcohol. That, to me, feels like it's got an agenda. That doesn't feel to me like someone who just found it, that feels to me like someone is helping tell that story who is very pro-Angie. And now his people are pushing back hard.
MC: What do you think it says that Pitt gave his statement to People?
RS: It's the perfect place to go. People is a safe celebrity place you go if you want to feel comforted and know that they aren't going to twist your words. And People magazine wants that sit-down interview with Angie, so the next few weeks they're going to tip-toe around this. They're certainly going to cover it, but it's going to be very soft, because if they upset them, she ain't sitting down to tell her side of the story. That will be the headline: "Her side of the story."
MC: At what point are agents looped in? Are there actual team meetings before a divorce or separation is announced?
RS: Normally the celebrity has to decide. It's their decision. And then, whoever is the most proactive of the couple will let their people know and there will be some sort of conference call between his team and her team, and they'll usually come up with some sort of joint statement, which is always boilerplate. What's so fascinating about [Pitt and Jolie] is that they apparently did not coordinate this.
It seems to me that his team was clearly behind the times because they let the narrative of him being a bad dad fester for hours. [The original TMZ report read: Sources connected with the couple tell us...Angelina's decision to file has to do with the way Brad was parenting the children...she was extremely upset with his methods ... Indeed, Angelina's entertainment attorney Robert Offer says she made the decision "for the health of the family."] This is like war room, this is like politics, this is like Hillary [Clinton] and Donald [Trump]. They both now have their camps and an emergency team to react immediately to the narrative being pushed. And for him to sit on a narrative of him being a bad dad—not good.
"This is like war room, this is like politics, this is like Hillary and Donald."
MC: Tell me about how you worked out the timing of releasing the news of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's divorce.
RS: This was a long time ago before sites like TMZ had blown up. We released it on a holiday weekend because we wanted to avoid the weeklies. At that time, Us Weekly ruled the world so Us Weekly broke the story. I think it's fair to assume they were helped to find that story…
MC: I've also read Jolie doesn't have a publicist. Do you know about that and about her relationship with the press?
RS: She never really has [had a publicist]. Angelina Jolie works the media better than anybody. Very savvy. She's the publicist, so she makes the decisions and then she hires people to execute them.
MC: Pitt and Jennifer Aniston gave a joint statement to People when they divorced—what does that say, in contrast?
RS: Of course they did, that's the way every couple does it. In a weird way, [Jolie] could have a major impact on celebrity journalism because when couples break up and it's ugly, they can say, "I'm not giving a joint statement, Angelina didn't."
MC: Let's talk about the timing of this new Pitt movie and the Marion Cotillard rumors. The trailer for their movie Allied was released this week, so the timing of the rumors seems suspicious.
RS: Historically, celebrity couples on-screen do not translate to a hit. They're very, very cautious about leaking these types of stories. I think the movie studio is probably not thrilled because I don't necessarily want to go see Brad on screen with the one he's rumored to have cheated with. I think Mr. and Mrs. Smith is probably the exception. But for every one that works, one backfires, and movie companies spend millions and millions, and my experience is they are really cautious. They would rather no attention than bad. They'll sometimes leak gossipy stuff about people having dinner, but they don't play the Kardashian game.
MC: Both camps seem to be insisting there's no third party involved. Does that mean anything?
RS: Nothing, absolutely nothing. I was a publicist for a long time—publicists don't always tell the truth.