Last fall Meryl Streep announced that she and her husband Don Gummer were separated—and, unbeknownst to all but their inner circle, had been for more than six years. This news came amid Jada Pinkett Smith’s book tour, during which she revealed that—passionate public displays of loyalty aside—she and husband Will Smith had been living separate lives since 2016. The biggest revelation of all: That it’s still possible to keep a secret.
In an age when it seems as though everyone from A-listers to middle schoolers is constantly baring their souls on social media, the idea that people—even those smack in the public eye—are able to keep aspects of their lives private is something of a relief. At the same time, is discretion really still within our control, especially for those among us with public profiles, or are its now rare occurrences the result of pure luck? Long gone are the days when FDR was able to keep the fact that he used a wheelchair hidden from the public. But conversations with behind-the-scenes imagemakers (publicists, journalists, and all manner of social observers) reveal that there are actually more strategies than ever to keep a secret hiding in plain sight. Welcome to the privacy playbook.
Consider Jennifer Aniston. When was the last time you heard a rumor about her? Her public appearances are carefully orchestrated; access to her is tightly controlled. Last winter, when she revealed in an interview that she had spent her late thirties and forties trying to have a child, it was news to her legions of fans, who may have speculated on such matters but never had a shred of information until she decided to give it. “I think it’s hilarious when someone complains that they just want to be left alone. Okay, Greta Garbo!” says former Page Six reporter Paula Froelich, now an on-air correspondent for NewsNation. “If you want to stay under the radar, you absolutely can.”
First, a warning: It is difficult for someone who puts a lot out there to switch gears and suddenly retreat into privacy when it suits him. “If you want to be private, you gotta be private from the beginning,” says one A-list Hollywood publicist. That means distancing yourself from social media, or even shutting it down entirely. For boldfaced names, it means avoiding places where paparazzi are known to linger, like Giorgio Baldi or the Ivy in Los Angeles, or Via Carota in New York, and having the expensive layer of protection that comes with employing a personal publicist.
Indeed, former New York Daily News gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe says, “the more powerful a name you are, the more the role of personal publicist becomes that of a gatekeeper—keeping you out of the public eye. Most civilians think a publicist’s job is to publicize their client and get their name everywhere, but once you’ve achieved a certain level of success, a publicist is making the name a more exclusive commodity, putting it in fewer places, adding a mystique, and keeping a client’s secrets.”
The truth is that there are now more things than ever that famous people—unknown to the rest of us—are keeping under wraps. There are still age old secrets like cheating and drug abuse, but also topping the list these days are plastic surgeries and related appearance enhancers—Ozempic use chief among them. “There are very specific hotels that people go to for plastic surgery and upkeep, and times that they go, and carefully orchestrated lengths of stays,” says the A-list publicist.
Pregnancy secrets have been all the rage lately—witness Paris Hilton debuting one child, then a second less than a year later, to the surprise of even her family (which, of course, has made for wonderful television). Kylie Jenner famously never confirmed a report about her first pregnancy until after she had given birth to her daughter Stormi; Mindy Kaling announced she had had a second child seven weeks after he was born and has never said who the biological father of the children is. (In 2000 Melissa Etheridge memorably revealed that the sperm donor for her two children with partner Julie Cypher had been David Crosby, saying, “We just got so tired of this secret.”)
Just as PR people have long planted rumors for the purposes of promotion (Widdicombe recalls that when As Good as It Gets came out, publicists “put out the rumor that Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton were having an affair on set, which was not true as far as I could tell”), they are also masters of misdirection. If a client has a story she doesn’t want to come out, a good publicist knows that the public can be distracted with something else—although, says one publicist, “gone are the days when you could horse-trade” (i.e., offer a specific gossip item to the press in exchange for not printing something else). Instead, “a lot of it is about messaging and a different narrative. Sometimes you can be like, ‘Squirrel! Look over here!’ ”
As an example, this publicist says, “We recently had two very famous people who were having an affair who were stuck in a hotel, and we had two other very famous people go out the front door, and the illicit couple went out the back.” Says Froelich, “Every single major place has a back entrance. So for people who are ‘accidentally’ caught coming out of the Sunset Tower, the San Vicente Bungalows—it’s baloney.”
The publicist adds that “there’s plenty of throwing out red herrings on other things or other clients. I have planted fake and not-fake stuff in DeuxMoi,” just to get it out there, because then more journalistic outfits, like People, will then call for comment.
Having a trusted inner circle is also crucial for people who don’t want their laundry, dirty or otherwise, aired. “There were always those famous people who were never gossiped about, and there are several reasons for that,” Froelich says. “One is that they treat their staff and others very nicely.” Princess Diana was so beloved by her staff that they helped her sneak not only the kids out of the palace (to go to McDonald’s) but also her lover Hasnat Khan in—reportedly bringing him to Princess Margaret’s door, because she had refused to allow CCTV cameras installed there, and then into the palace. (Charles’s staff was another story.)
Those who don’t treat their staff well often find that their secrets are just one lawsuit away from being revealed. Mariah Carey, Victoria Principal, Chris Brown, and LeAnn Rimes have all been sued by former housekeepers. Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis, the late Lisa Marie Presley, Usher, Halsey, Alanis Morissette, and, yes, Mariah Carey have been sued by their nannies, some of them (ahem, Mariah) multiple times. And that’s not even counting those whose staff has ratted them out to the press.
Contrast that with people like Aniston, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé, and Cate Blanchett, whose names appear in gossip columns only very strategically. When you see their names, it’s for a reason—which usually has to do with something they’re promoting. These types, Froelich says, generally “aren’t trying to goose the PR pot.”
The inner circle also extends to friends. Take DiCaprio, whose decades-long list of (often much younger) girlfriends would seem to beg to have more dirt about him revealed. And yet gossip about him is practically nonexistent. “He has good friends he’s grown up with his whole life,” says writer and digital strategist Wynter Mitchell. It’s those close-knit relationships, says Mitchell, that help keep people’s lives private. “I have a very good friend who is very famous, and it’s incumbent upon me to give her a level of protection as a friend,” she says. Mitchell adds that when she advises this person about revealing secrets, “I make a mental list in my mind of who did she tell? So if it does come out, we can trace it back to how it came out.”
The good news is that if keeping secrets is possible for even the most famous among us, it’s indeed attainable for anyone. And for the average person who wants to keep his or her life on the down low, the formula seems simple: Keep your mouth shut, your feed discreet, your friends close, and your housekeeper happy.
This story appears in the February 2024 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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