Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 1, we’re breaking down the rise, fall, and return of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s highly publicized romance.
When Bennifer started, Jennifer Lopez had a bit of a tough reputation in the industry. Here’s what Michael Apted, her director from the 2002 movie Enough, said about working with her: “From the beginning it was a little intimidating. You know you heard all the legends about Jennifer, how difficult it is and it’s going to be hard for you to get through it and all this kind of stuff.”
Magazines played up this reputation—“diva” got slung around a lot. And yes, it’s every bit as sexist as you think. And Ben Affleck had noticed. He took out a full-page ad in Variety in 2002, before their romance went public, complimenting her on her work ethic.
He’s since been a little more explicit about why he did things like that: Affleck said recently on an episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast that a lot of the coverage of Lopez was racist.
“She had just come off of a very high-profile romance with Puff Daddy, who seemed to be more her speed in terms of the party lifestyle and just jetting around the Hamptons,” Mara Reinstein, who worked at Us Weekly from 2002 to 2017, said. “That seemed to fit more than Ben Affleck, who had dated Gwyneth Paltrow. I don’t think people see Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez the same way. Just like they don’t see Ben Affleck and Puff Daddy the same way. So, those are big transitions on both their parts.”
This is the fascination with the Bennifer relationship, that opposites-attract trope. And there are a couple of ways to read it. One is that it’s a good old-fashioned rom-com come to life. The other, since this is America, has to do with race and class.
Let’s do the rom-com read on their relationship first.
This was a fun one for magazines because Jennifer Lopez was actually starring in rom-coms like The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan.
Most readers of celebrity magazines are women, and this idea of the rom-com is something we’re conditioned to love, love, love at an early age. Two mismatched people find they love each other and overcome pretty solvable obstacles.
In the end, they have a blowout wedding for which the woman has reached her goal weight. That’s the celebrity magazine fairy-tale ending. There’s a lot of ring, dress, and guest list content the publication can get out of it in the lead-up.
So, yeah, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were a rom-com come to life. That was sort of fun and enthralling for readers to keep track of. And it sold a hell of a lot of magazines.
But let’s talk about that other way to read the opposites-attract fascination with Bennifer.
Here’s how Diane Sawyer starts off a 2002 ABC prime-time special with Lopez: “She, the racy, impetuous pop star with that flashy ex-boyfriend, not to mention two marriages. He, the towering actor who romanced the uptown goddess. The brainy guy who grew up in the working-class part of Boston.”
The flashy ex is Puff Daddy, of course. The uptown goddess is Gwyneth Paltrow. Diane doesn’t say it outright, but we all know what she’s getting at. Before Bennifer, Ben Affleck was dating another prestige white actor and Jennifer Lopez was dating another person of color in the music industry. Those pairings made sense to America, or at least to Diane Sawyer’s imagined audience. They had some internal race and class logic.
Lopez’s relationship with Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Sean Combs—he’s had a lot of names over the years—had tied her to the world of hip-hop and, eventually, her boyfriend’s legal troubles. There was a whole thing about a gun at a nightclub. Despite the fact that she was a teetotaler and a workaholic—she drank milk at clubs—Lopez seemed to conjure up some air of danger to the white people that mostly made up the celebrity magazine’s target audience. Affleck—schlubby, white, and charming—did not.
So when magazines were writing about how Ben Affleck was changing while he was with Jennifer Lopez—and let me assure you, the glow-up was quite real—there were a couple of ways I think readers were absorbing it.
One, he was glamming it up to match J.Lo’s high-wattage red carpet looks. Or two, this nice white kid from working-class Boston was losing where he came from because he was dating outside his race. Reinstein said people were even calling him “B. Diddy.”
There was also an amazing amount of commentary on her butt. Like, it’s really hard to convey to you how much coverage there was unless you lived through it. And it had a certain exoticizing, gawking quality to it.
“We used to talk about that at Latina like, ‘Really? Does Jennifer’s butt have to have a life of its own?’” Sylvia Martinez, the former editor-in-chief of Latina magazine, said. “But I think being Latina played into that. Because she didn’t have the typical Hollywood body.”
But here’s the thing, we really need to state for the record: For all the tough press they got, Lopez and Affleck courted attention.
While they didn’t necessarily drop the dime on themselves to the press, people told me, Bennifer always ended up at spots where they could be photographed, and eventually, the paps knew to just sit on Lopez’s house. That she would give them a good shot.
When Lopez and Affleck got engaged she confirmed it on that Diane Sawyer prime-time special after calling Affleck off-camera to discuss.
“At the end of the interview, she went over to me and she said, ‘Would you mind if I have your Us Weekly? I haven’t read it yet,’” Reinstein said of interviewing Lopez after her engagement announcement. “And she took my Us Weekly and left the room, and she read it, and that was it. I mean, she was the smartest of all. And it’s not a surprise that we’re still talking about Jennifer Lopez almost 20 years later, because she knew how the game was played and she was part of it.”
Lopez knew just what the readers of magazines like Us Weekly wanted: beautiful pictures. She more intuitively understood that life is a costume drama, particularly in Hollywood.
“Jennifer knew how to step out of a car or an apartment or house and create a photograph,” Rob Shuter, her former publicist, said. “She also knew, too, that nothing she could say would be as interesting as the way she looked. She knew her talent, she leaned into it.”
In the beginning, all was rosy and light and Lopez and Affleck didn’t mind the press, but as the relationship grew fraught, so did the media attention. And after allowing so much access, it was hard to turn off the press spigot when things got tough.