The Vicarious Heartache of Teen Star Breakups


Despite the claim that puppy love might muck up our ability to form happy relationships later on, there’s something intoxicating about that first teenage dip into the dating pool. But the shelf life for romantic love — and in particular limerence, the near-obsessive intense period of attraction that’s marked by behavioral components like “awkwardness, stuttering [and] shyness,” i.e., that two-week stretch before prom — is brief. Maybe that’s why we stare so hard at, and project so furiously onto, the relationships of teenage celebrities.

If our real-world first crushes set “unrealistic benchmarks” that subsequently ruin our adult love lives, then what is the fallout of watching our celebrity crushes fall in and out their first loves? (Click image for a gallery of teen stars in love.) Miss Havisham spent decades in a decaying wedding dress; limerence-nostalgic adults today just open a tabloid magazine and feast on the young love lives of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.

Jelena’s breakup caused ripples of distress across the tween social-media sea, ranging from tweets about Bieber’s well-being (@BiebsAmazed chastised, “You’re happy that Selena and Justin broke up? I’m ashamed of you. Have you seen Justin’s photos lately? He looks hurt and sad. Happy now?”) to full-on conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, People Magazine, which has a median age demographic of 38, continued its coverage of the breakup by wondering if Bieber’s cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” was a message to Selena. Many of the commenters wondered why People would cover a breakup between an 18- and a 21-year-old, but a few admit to an emotional investment in the couple — albeit with little self-hatred thrown in: “I’m truly disheartened that I actually clicked on this story about two teenagers breaking up. This is what I’ve become.”

Likewise, a portion of Taylor Swift’s appeal stems from her seeming permanent state of limerence. If fan fiction can be used as the measure of how invested we are in a young couple, then her first public relationship — with Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner, i.e., Taylor Squared — was an issue of very serious national concern. (Here they are conceiving an imaginary baby.) And then there was that painfully familiar B plot straight out of every teen girl’s awkward love life: rumors and fake People Magazine covers) claiming that the object of Swift’s affection was gay. Scientists say it takes less than a second to fall in love, and Taylor seems to float in that second forever, stoked by casual arm drapes and Camelot.

Justin Timberlake’s three-year romance with Britney Spears also captured aspects of the teenage tabloid fairy tale: the “instant chemistry” stemming from a childhood spent together behind the scenes of the New Mickey Mouse Club, her vow to remain abstinent until marriage, their overwhelming blondness, and complementary pop-star careers. When they abruptly broke up in 2002 amid reports of her cheating, Timberlake dropped a black fly into the Chardonnay of Britney’s image, reportedly telling an airplane passenger that she was most certainly not a virgin — and, to twist the knife, “I should know.” Of course, the adrenaline and euphoric rush that accompany young relationships should be followed by a commensurately loud boom when they combust. Reputation management is something learned after a person has emerged from adolescence, if ever, and Britney wasn’t the first teenage girl to feel the sting of being slut-shamed by a jealous ex.

Speaking of that potent strain of high-school jealousy, consider the destruction wrought by the love triangle consisting of Aaron Carter, Hilary Duff, and Lindsay Lohan, with Lindsay as the unstable hypotenuse: former girlfriends pitted against each other by a party-throwing kid wearing a chain. The spectacle has been colored by our 2012-tinted glasses. (Not just the obvious Lohan disaster casserole, either. Remember when Carter was found with weed in his car in 2008?) But back in 2001, the casual callousness of Carter cheating on Duff with her best friend was enough to make a million high-schoolers squirm. In 2005, on the Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, Carter went on record with the kind of sound bite that is, well, just straight icky: “I started dating Hilary on my 13th birthday. I was dating her for like a year and a half, and then I just got a little bored, so I went and I started getting to know Lindsay, dating Lindsay … Then I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I got back with Hilary. And then I ended up cheating on Hilary with her best friend. That’s nothing to smile about. She wasn’t even that good-looking either.” It felt like a definitively high-school moment: a loss of Lizzie McGuire innocence for all of us. In hindsight, like so many teenage relationships, there’s also the element of “Why did anybody fight over Aaron Carter?” Every sophomore boy with rakishly floppy bangs descends the attraction parabola at warp-speed after graduation.

For the literal-minded, there’s also the tale of perpetual high-schoolers Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. The prose accompanying their relationship is hauntingly exuberant. Hollywood Life’s Kristin Benson muses, “First of all, they were each other’s first loves, which is a special connection that lasts the test of time … No one understands exactly what they went through during their formative teen years better than the two of them. You can’t tell me that’s not special.”

As the hope that Zudgens’s flames will be rekindled now that they’re older and more mature burns bright, I wonder what exactly is being sold here. Is it hope for limerence rekindled? A story we tell ourselves to remain optimistic when confronted with doomsday scientific studies detailing the impermanence of romance and the damages we sustain from our first forays into love? Or maybe it’s displaced nostalgia, a less painful way for us to go “back to December” without indulging our own cringe-worthy adolescences. The onus of proving that true (first) love can last is better shouldered by someone else, a celebrity with better hair, fancy sneakers, and no zits. Never say never.

The Vicarious Heartache of Teen Star Breakups