People are raging about the nepo baby, but nepotism doesn’t just flow from parent to child. There are many famous people who carved their careers out of a connection to someone else – we hear about nepo parents, nepo friends, nepo assistants. It’s been argued that Lana Del Rey gave her dad, Robert England Grant Jr, a leg up in his music career; that Taylor Swift is responsible for putting ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn on the up-and-up.
Perhaps the most scrutinised nepo-relationship, outside of parent-child, is the nepo-partner. We criticize people who ‘marry into fame’ – it has the capacity to anger people, because any success they enjoy afterwards doesn’t seem earned or self-made. But when it comes to this figure of the nepo-boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse, are we sometimes being harsh – forgetting about the importance of collaboration and the inspiration creators derive from their loved ones? Here’s our Take on the nepo-partner and whether they deserve the recent hate they’re attracting.
Who is the nepo partner and what do they want?
From Bella Hadid following in her sister’s (and mother’s) footsteps to Jared Kushner landing a top job in government thanks to his father-in-law, the nepo-family member is everywhere right now. But nepotism has always been prevalent in politics, academia, and especially when it comes to the arts. And that’s not always for the most cynical reasons. Creatives often use their nearest and dearest as inspiration – so that has a tendency to leak into the art they make. Martin Scorcese famously cast his parents in many of his movies. Ben Affleck had a hand in casting his brother Casey in Good Will Hunting – ( though the pair had been acting since childhood, because their mom’s friend was a casting director which sort of makes them nepo-honorary nephews?).
Nepo partners are different than many other categories, though, because rather than being born into fame or fortune, nepo-partners marry or date into it. So a lot of the time they can’t feign innocence like the nepo baby, who’s just born into their first role or contract – parents knew exactly what they were getting themselves into when they hitched their wagon to a famous person. And that’s why things can get tricky for the nepo-partner in the public eye – because many accuse them of sleeping their way to the top.
Helena Bonham Carter comes from a famous British political dynasty – there’s a lot of wealth and power in her family tree. But her biggest nepo-claim comes from her ex-husband, celebrated director Tim Burton. Though she starred in eight of his movies, she claims that he always made her audition and remarked that he only ever cast her ‘with great embarrassment.’ But they lived together and had kids together – so audiences wonder if that’s really true.
Likewise, when former Baldwin Hailey Bieber famously wore a ‘nepo baby’ t shirt she came under fire, because according to the internet, that’s the least of her nepo worries. Her real rise to fame came when her relationship with now-husband Justin Bieber became public.
Celebrity often comes with wealth, and we can often see how much easier success comes to the spouses of famous people. David Schwimmer’s ex-wife Zoe Buckman went from waitress to successful artist after she married him, while others – like Danielle Jonas – have started businesses off the back of their famous partner’s name. While these people may have a lot of talent themselves, it’s difficult to separate their privilege from their achievements – marrying into wealth and fame gives them an amplified path to success.
The nepo partner has been explored onscreen, too. Willa from Succession initially forms a relationship with rich Connor Roy as a sex worker, then gradually becomes his partner and benefits from his money in ways like getting funding to put on her (not very good) play. The nepo-partner is a lot more talented in A Star is Born, the frequently remade story of a younger, beautiful woman who gets career help from her famous older boyfriend. But what’s interesting about the very different nepo-partners in Succession and A Star is Born is that they add nuance to the figure by cracking open the veneer of the relationship and showing what’s inside. In both instances, we see that the more outwardly rich or successful side of the pairing actually needs the other person more. Often, the less established person provides something more important than the money or career cachet to kickstart the other person’s ventures – they give them support, or love, or legitimacy.
When is a nepo partner not a nepo partner? When they’re a co creator - or a muse
Sometimes, there are examples of partners working together that go way beyond the idea of one giving the other a ‘leg up’ in the industry. On the flipside, in instances where there’s clearly true love and mutual creativity, we can see examples of one partner being the other’s inspiration or co-creator.
Judd Apatow cast his wife Leslie Mann in Knocked Up and This is 40 – but the character was based on her, and she worked with him to make the films more realistic. The pair have a collaborative attitude to their movies. In these instances, it makes sense that Apatow cast his wife, because he can’t riff with anyone else in the same way. And their ability to make films together – and to dissect their relationship on screen – clearly works for them, because these films were very successful and they’ve been married for more than 25 years.
Actor Joe Alwyn’s career rocketed when he started dating ex Taylor Swift – despite the fact that neither of them publicly discussed their relationship. But one of the aspects of the pairing that fans are most interested in is their co-writing relationship. The two started writing music together in lockdown. Since then, he’s worked with Swift on multiple songs – he’s even been the brains behind some of them. This resulted in him winning a Grammy with her in 2021. It makes sense that in an intense and unusual situation, like being locked down with your partner, creative people might create together. What’s more, they chose to use a pseudonym for Alwyn.
While they might get called nepo-relationships if they happened now, some of the greatest actor-director duos of all time were married. Perhaps they didn’t always go through the casting protocol we expect, but many of the actresses in these relationships were the directors’ muses as well as their wives. One of the most famous examples is the relationship between Gena Rowlands and John Cassavettes. The pair were married, and created ten films together, many of which are considered masterpieces. Rowlands said she wasn’t originally interested in pursuing a career in film, but Cassavettes began to explore it, and brought her with him. And he often turned his attention to writing the roles that Rowlands felt were lacking for women – the roles she wanted to play, say, as a middle aged woman. These roles were written for her. Their children and parents even co-starred in their movies, too, creating an extended nepo-family. As a pair, Rowlands and Casavettes received multiple Oscar nominations. So their relationship was a collaboration that worked for both sides.
Likewise, Giulietta Masina starred in many of her husband Federico Fellini’s films; Monica Vitti worked with Michelangelo Antonioni until their relationship soured, as did Jean Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Many of the films created by these pairs are regarded as some of the best ever made. It’s important to keep in mind the often greater power of the director in many of these situations, but it’s also reductive to look at all these famous relationships only in terms of the power on one side – because there’s something about intimacy between two people that enables them to make art in a different way. A group of researchers writing in the Harvard Business Review claimed that collaboration can be difficult for artists, because many feel it impedes on their creative identity. So it makes sense that, if they’re going to collaborate, people making art might do so with those closest to them – as they already occupy another part of their identity, as a partner.
The figure of the nepo-partner is a little more nuanced than many give them credit for. They’re often not just a person who’s tagging onto a celebrity in the hope of becoming rich and famous – usually, there’s more to it than that. They might give their rich or famous partner the acceptance they’ve been longing for, or open up previously uncharted creative avenues for them. And the nepo-partner shouldn’t be confused with the muse, who is often just as influential as their art-making partner.
Yet we also have to consider the fact that, in today’s hyper-documented culture, where nothing is private, and fans’ parasocial relationships with celebrities are out of control, it’s not possible to produce anything without scrutiny. That’s why it makes sense to adopt a pseudonym, pursue a different career path from your rich and famous partner. Or, if you can’t do either, at the very least, give the performance of your career.
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Freeman, Hadley. “Helena Bonham Carter: ‘Divorce is cruel. But some parts are to be recommended.’” Guardian News & Media Limited, 31 Oct. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/31/helena-bonham-carter-divorce-is-cruel-but-some-parts-are-to-be-recommended. Accessed 12 May 2023.
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