WHAT'S IN A NAME?

‘Brangelina’ is dead, and so is the golden age of the celebrity couple name

Elena Scotti/FUSION

On Tuesday, London School of Economics lecturer and Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from her husband Brad Pitt, an Oscar-nominated actor and Oscar-winning producer also known for brandishing a hair dryer while shirtless in Thelma & Louise. For more than a decade, we’ve known them by one four-syllable, 10-letter word: “Brangelina.” Does their split signal the end of an era, the demise of the celebrity couple nickname?

The two megastars—who by then had already been named, respectively, the Sexiest Man and Sexiest Woman Alive—met on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith in 2004, while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston. Jolie and Pitt didn’t publicly confirm their relationship until she revealed that she was pregnant with their first biological child, Shiloh, in January 2006. But by then, through tabloid alchemy, a new entity had already been born: They were no longer Brad and Angelina, but Brangelina.

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Brangelina, in their former glory.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? Together, they were sexier, more famous, and altogether more enviable than they were apart, a chimera that required a household name of its own. At least, they were, and it did.

People first printed the name “Brangelina” in May 2005. A spring 2005 post on the blog Free Williamsburg credits—well, “credits” doesn’t feel like quite the right word—Access Hollywood for early use of the term:

It was bad enough having to endure the inane “Bennifer” thing. Don’t put us through six months of “Brangelina.” We never run gossip stories and could care less if Pitt and Jolie are an item. We just want the cutesy tabloid name combos to stop. If you want to give Brad and Angelina a print-friendly name, at least come up with something more interesting like Jo-Pitt, Brangenital Warts, or simply, The Pretty Fucking Stupids.

“Cutesy” though they may be, celebrity couple nicknames have a real, practical publicity purpose. Robert Thompson, the founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, weighed in for a 2006 Reuters story that reflected on “the Brangelina fever.”

“As silly as it sounds, this new tendency to make up single names for two people… is an insightful idea,” Thompson said. “‘Brangelina’ has more cultural equity than their two star parts. You get interested in this whether you want to or not.”

It was and it wasn’t a “new tendency.” Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball founded Desilu Productions in 1950, which was responsible for shows like their very own I Love Lucy as well as Star Trek and The Untouchables. They divorced after 20 years of marriage (and six seasons of TV marriage) in 1960. Outside of the world of Hollywood, the Clintons have been intermittently known as “Billary” since the early ’90s. (Google that nickname and you’ll find that it’s typically a less-than-affectionate one.) But it’s clear that these celebrity couple portmanteaus took on a unique momentum in the early 2000s.

Brangelina wasn’t even the inaugural celebrity super couple portmanteau of the new millennium. That honor—again, maybe not exactly the right word—belongs to Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. J. Lo and Matt Damon’s platonic better half were rechristened Bennifer during their relationship, which set the gossip pages aflame from 2002 to 2004.

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Bennifer.

Despite lasting only 18 months, their time together gave us six-point-one carats of Harry Winston engagement ring, one postponed wedding date, two movies (if you can call Gigli a movie), and one infamous music video—but their most enduring legacy is probably the name “Bennifer” itself, which spawned a full-on linguistic phenomenon.

And then the floodgates opened. Soon came Ashmi (Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore), 2003-2011. Then Spederline (Britney Spears and Kevin Federline), 2004-2007. Vaughniston (Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston), 2005-2006. Zanessa (Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens), 2005-2010. TomKat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes), 2005-2012. There was even Bennifer 2.0, Affleck and Jennifer Garner—alternately known as Garfleck—who split up after 10 years of marriage in 2015.

You’ll notice all these pairs have something in common, apart from being (however fleetingly) very, very famous: They’ve all broken up. Brangelina—which Zimbio once called “the biggest, most-often used celebrity portmanteau,” and possibly “the only one that’s seen steady use even after its novelty has long worn off”—was a relic from another time, when we talked, wrote, and thought about celebrities differently than we do today.

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TomKat.

What was so special about that time? A 2012 GQ profile described Affleck’s belief that his relationship with J.Lo took shape “at the exact moment that the market for celebrity-gossip magazines exploded.” Another factor in Bennifer’s apparent ubiquity—and the name which resulted from it—was that they were, as Newsweek would later write, the “first superstar couple of the Internet age.” It’s certainly worth noting that the website TMZ was founded in November 2005, permanently reshaping the landscape of celebrity journalism.

So here we are, with two feet firmly planted in the Internet age, but the next generation of Brangelinas and Bennifers appears to be missing from our magazine covers. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, a.k.a. Kimye, are by far the most famous extant example, and they got together in 2012, after most of the couples we’ve mentioned had already parted ways. (Reality TV fans will also note that Survivor‘s Boston Rob and Amber Mariano—a.k.a. Romber—and The Hills‘ Spencer and Heidi Pratt—a.k.a. Speidi—are still going strong, although their couple names have faded from the forefront of the public consciousness.) Hiddleswift (Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston) briefly captured the world’s attention this summer, but fizzled out in three months.

Is it that we’ve simply grown too cynical for celebrity couple names? Not necessarily. HollywoodLife.com editor Bonnie Fuller told the New York Times in 2005 that a driving force behind the popularity of couple portmanteaus was fans’ desire to feel closer to their favorite celebrities. “They want to have a nickname for the couples because they feel as if they are part of the stars’ extended group of family and friends,” she said.

Today, though, we have a direct line (or at least something resembling a direct line) to celebrities through social media. Tabloids are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. The Internet has also allowed for fandoms to fragment, flourish, and find new forms of intimacy outside the supermarket checkout line.

This is, in many ways, for the best. In an excellent interview with The Atlantic published today, Vanessa Diáz, assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, points out just how white and heteronormative celebrity portmanteaus—at least, the ones anointed by big-name publications—have historically been:

The magazines approach this practice of combining celebrity couples’ names to make the stars relatable to people, and it’s illuminating to see who they think people will relate to. The magazines almost always choose to promote white heterosexual couples. Where are Will and Jada’s combined name? Where is Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi’s name? The US Weekly section, “Stars—They’re Just Like Us,” always makes me ask, who is “us”? And what about the stars in that section make them like “us?”

…if you look at nontraditional media or blogs or social media, there are lots of uses of combined names for couples of color. Like with Jay Z and Beyoncé: Lots of social media [users] use the name Bey Z or Jayoncé to give the kind of validity and intimacy to these couples who are excluded in this way in mainstream media.

The grand tradition of celebrity couple names continues, but under the mainstream radar: You’re more likely to see “Aubrih,” “Shefani,” and even “Larry Stylinson” in hashtags, trending topics, and Tumblr tags than on Us Weekly covers.