Why Jennifer Aniston is looking to the future with a new focus

Tuning out the noise while blazing a trail for herself and others, Jennifer Aniston is looking to the future with a renewed focus.
Jennifer Aniston

It’s already been a year of milestones for Hollywood golden girl Jennifer Aniston. First, the actress who shot to fame on ’90s sitcom Friends celebrated her 50th birthday at a star-studded bash with Amal Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow and ex-husband Brad Pitt among the guests.

Then, her most recent film, Murder Mystery, in which she stars alongside Adam Sandler, enjoyed the biggest-ever opening weekend for a Netflix original film, with more than 30 million accounts tuning in during its first three days.

Fifteen years on from her history-making run as the highest-paid actress on television (alongside Friends‘ two other female leads, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow, a position achieved thanks to Jen’s role in pushing for a group salary negotiation that saw each of the six core cast members receive the same pay throughout the show’s 10-year run), Jen remains every bit a badass – and a feminist powerhouse who continues to bat for women on and off screen.

Later this year, the star who once interviewed Gloria Steinem at a female leadership summit will take the spotlight in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show alongside friend and fellow Hollywood trailblazer Reese Witherspoon. Reese is also on a mission to bring female stories to the fore, doing so most recently with Big Little Lies, and both women are executive producers on the new series, which delves into the inherently sexist world of breakfast television.

“Through the prism of those under-slept, over-adrenalised people in front of and behind the camera, we take an honest look at the complex relationships between women and men in the workplace, and we engage in the conversations people are a little too afraid to have unless they’re behind closed doors,” said Jen at an event in March.

Jen is starring in The Morning Show alongside friend and fellow Hollywood trailblazer Reese Witherspoon. Image: Getty

Canary in the mine

If you think it all sounds very ‘Time’s Up’, you’d be right. It’s a cause close to Jen’s heart; she donated half a million dollars to the movement’s Legal Defence Fund when it was established in January 2018. By then, everyone should have seen it coming.

A full 18 months beforehand, having finally had enough of the salacious gossip that had dogged her since her marriage to Brad Pitt ended in 2005, and which marrying Justin Theroux in 2015 did nothing to cease, Jen had called time herself in an epic op-ed for online news site HuffPost.

Prompted by the latest of many ‘bump watch’ headlines, the essay addressed the dehumanising experience of being repeatedly reduced to tabloid fodder, and the “painful awkwardness” of dispelling fictional pregnancies to her friends and family on a daily basis. She called the unwanted attention “absurd and disturbing”. But her concern wasn’t for herself.

“The way I’m portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general,” she wrote, adding that the endless obsession with the state of both her ring finger and uterus “points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children”.

Watch: 3 times Jennifer Aniston handled viscous rumours like a boss. Article continues below.

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Having issued this indictment on the gossip rag industry, Jen then went for its predominantly female audience.

The idea was to make it clear that in buying – or buying into – this industry’s product, we fuel and finance its very existence. Such complicitness contributes, she said, to the continuing acceptance of cultural standards, with every dollar we spend and every link we click signifying a “subconscious agreement” to the cause.

“We are in charge of our agreement,” Jen said. “[By changing] how we react to the toxic messages buried within these seemingly harmless stories served up as truth and shaping our ideas of who we are… we get to decide what’s being served up.”

She could have smashed a car windscreen with an umbrella – and no judgement towards those who do. But instead Jen showed that the pen is mightier than the sword (or umbrella, as it were). She also proved herself an unexpected canary in the coal mine. Here, calling the US out, was America’s sweetheart.

Jen with co-producer and co-star Reese Witherspoon ahead of The Morning Show‘s preview.

Mass appeal

Born in Sherman Oaks, California to an actor father and a model mother, it would appear Jen was genetically and geographically predisposed to a successful career in Hollywood.

In fact, her upbringing wasn’t easy. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, Nancy Dow, whose criticisms contributed to Jen’s lack of self-esteem – a situation not helped by her father, John, walking out when she was nine. But she wasn’t put off acting, starting off at a performing arts school in Manhattan, then in a number of Off-Broadway productions.

Jen eventually endeared herself to the casting agents for Friends, and then to the American public, whose loyalty hasn’t wavered since. Case in point? In the aftermath of the Brangelina affair, which saw Jen dumped by Brad Pitt for his co-star Angelina Jolie, LA boutique Kitson produced a line of T-shirts inciting punters to pick a side. The ‘Team Aniston’ print outsold ‘Team Jolie’ 25-1.

Of course, there’s no greater emblem of Jen’s mass appeal than ‘the Rachel’ – a layered lob inspired by her Friends character that became the most heavily requested female haircut of the ’90s. Never mind that Rachel Green herself only wore her hair this way for the show’s first season, which aired in 1994.

With her Friends buddy Courteney Cox

Today, Jen remains a marketer’s dream. In 2018, reported on a survey by US-based consumer-engagement agency The Marketing Arm, which ranked public awareness and attitudes toward celebrities. Based on a survey of 1000 US consumers, 94 per cent were aware of Jen and 91 per cent of those found her appealing. In a database of more than 4000 public figures, this placed her third in the female category – just behind Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton.

A golden goose for corporations, Jen’s marketability has earned her huge endorsement deals with mass-market brands from Aveeno to Diet Coke – each contributing to her net worth of $300 million.

According to Forbes, the third highest paid film actress in 2018 – down from second highest in 2017 – allegedly makes $30 million a year off a Friends syndication deal alone. Incidentally, this sum is equivalent to ex-husband Justin’s entire net worth, fuelling the rumour that pre-nup negotiations were partly to blame for their three-year engagement.

‘Poor Jen’? Hardly. So why is this a label she just can’t shake?

Myth busting

Here are the facts: Jen is an ostensibly healthy, heterosexual woman of child-bearing age who has been married twice to ostensibly healthy, heterosexual men of child-rearing age. She has the resources to bring a child into the world in any way, shape, or form, and to support it thereafter.

Godmother to Courteney Cox’s daughter Coco, and an instigator of ‘Sunday Fundays’ at her house in Malibu (“My friends come over with their kids and we huddle down while they jump around in the pool”), she by all accounts loves kids. When pressed on the subject, she’s never ruled out the possibility of having her own. And make no mistake, the pressing has been relentless.

Here are some more facts: Katharine Hepburn. Helen Mirren. Oprah. Ellen. All ostensibly are (or were) capable of carrying children and are (or were) childless. So, too, are plenty of Jen’s contemporaries: Cameron Diaz. Renée Zellweger. Ashley Judd. Hilary Swank. Don’t get us started on Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I think it’s because Jen represents an archetype for us as a culture,” said a colleague in January, proffering that Jen’s not having procreated only jars so much because it’s at odds with her ‘every girl’ image.

Think of it this way. Katharine Hepburn was masculine – an intellectual. Helen Mirren is tough as nails.

“I didn’t care what people thought,” Helen once said on the subject of being childless in her 50s. “It was only boring old men [who’d ask me]. And whenever they went, ‘Better get on with it, old girl,’ I’d say, ‘No! F**k off!'”

Elsewhere, Oprah is so much of an empire she’s often viewed as less maternal, more machine. Ellen, being gay, isn’t expected to conform to heteronormative ideals. And those other actresses, famous and talented as they are, were never half of a Hollywood golden couple.

When Brad and Jen’s union crumbled, and along with it the fairytale ending, so too did our fantasy. The end of their marriage disrupted the narrative we’d built around the golden girl and her equally golden guy.

Jen posits it says more about us than her. “Maybe it has everything to do with what they’re lacking in their own life. Maybe those are women who haven’t figured out that they have the power, that they have the ability to achieve a sense of inner happiness.”

Incredibly, she’s kept a sense of humour about it – even parodying herself in an ad for Smartwater, in which she appears to be concealing triplets. It’s possible though, that this is not so much subversion as it is a case of ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’.

In a recent interview for InStyle, Jen pointed out the “recklessness” of the endless pregnancy headlines.

“No one knows what’s going on behind closed doors. No one considers how sensitive that might be for my partner and me. They don’t know what I’ve been through medically or emotionally.”

Moreover, she says, the obsession with her personal life “diminishes everything I’ve succeeded at, and that I’ve built and created”, which in addition to the juggernaut success of Friends – for which she earned Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards – includes more than 30 feature films, two production companies and extensive philanthropic ventures.

Rather than distracting her from her goals, however, the obsession incentivises her to stay productive.

“I focus even harder to tune out the noise,” she says. “I work hard and challenge myself so I can rise above the toxicity that’s out there.”

No void

Despite the said toxicity of the incessant rumours about who Jen is or isn’t dating, the actress says she doesn’t feel like something is missing in her life when she’s single.

“I don’t feel a void, I really don’t. When [my marriages] came to an end, it was because we were choosing to be happy, and happiness didn’t exist within that arrangement any more… I would not stay in a situation out of fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of not being able to survive. To stay in a marriage based on fear feels like you’re doing your one life a disservice.”

Female friendships are very important to Jen. One close friend says she’s the “social glue” of their friend group – and Jen jokingly agrees. “[Without me] they don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to go. They don’t know how to eat. They don’t know how to socialise.”

It makes sense, given Jen says her house has always been “like the clubhouse”. “I love entertaining. I always have food. I think I probably got that from my mother, who always had her girlfriends over.

I picked it up from my childhood – just always hearing girls in the house and learning how to make a good cheeseboard.”

A natural caretaker, she wants to create a safe, inviting home. “My priorities weren’t about finding a partnership and who am I gonna marry and what am I gonna wear on my wedding day. I was building houses with shoe boxes and toilet paper and felt. It was always about finding a home that felt safe.”

For Jennifer, friendships are essential, from valuing long-term friends to, well, Friends. “We joke that we raised each other,” she says of her mates. We mothered each other, we sistered each other, we’ve been kids to each other.” She doesn’t need marriage or children to feel complete – she’s made a beautiful family from her friends.

Ageing gracefully

Growing up with a model mum wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, with Jen saying Nancy was always very focused on her looks.

“It didn’t instil a lot of security in how I felt about my physical appearance, just because she was always telling me what to do and how to do it. You know, ‘Put your eyes on and don’t go to the market without…’ I was 13 years old! Do I have to put my eyes on?

Aren’t they there?” she laughs. “It’s not a criticism about her; it was just all she knew.”

Although Jen doesn’t agree with aspects of how she was raised, she understands where her mother was coming from. “My mum said all those things because she really loved me,” she says.

“It wasn’t her trying to be a bitch or knowing she would be making some deep wounds that I would then spend a lot of money trying to undo. She did it because that was what she grew up with. I think she was just holding on and doing the best she could, struggling financially and dealing with a husband who was no longer there. I’m sure being a single mum in the ’80s was pretty crappy.”

Having turned 50 in February, how does Jen feel about beauty today? “I’m comfortable in my skin,” she says. “It’s great in your 20s and 30s, but I think when I hit my 40s I was like, ‘This is right.'”

Celebrating a milestone birthday tends to make us look to the future, and Jen says although she’s never been one to have an answer to the question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’, she admits it’s been on her mind. “The world we’re in is so challenging right now – the scrutiny, the way people interact. There’s just bad behaviour around us a lot. There have been moments when I would just love to get out of Dodge and move to Switzerland or somewhere and start anew. Just have this shit behind me. Does it really matter? Are we really doing anything? What is my life’s purpose?”

It’s on her mind, but in a good way – the empowered way Jen has been quietly cultivating all along. “Every seven years I try to sum up what I’m doing and what I want to make my focus,” she says. “I’m trying to make better choices.”

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