Rag Time is a bi-weekly media investigation of a celebrity story that's vastly more in-depth than you ever thought you needed. This week: the context for Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse's confusing break-up.
Last week, Us Weekly exclusively reported that teen soap sensations Lili Reinhart, 22, and Cole Sprouse, 26, had broken up. “The Riverdale costars were spotted keeping their distance from each other at the Entertainment Weekly Comic-Con party in San Diego on Saturday, July 21,” the tabloid noted. “They both mingled with Riverdale castmates at different times, but were rarely seen together.”
Sprouse and Reinhart, who have a combined 36 million followers on Instagram, have been in a relationship on-screen (as Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper, respectively) and off since 2017, appearing on each other’s Instagram accounts and at the Met Gala last year, much to the delight of Riverdale’s obsessive fan base. But now—if the tabloids are correct that they have, indeed, split—they will have to navigate the time-honored teen soap tradition of breaking up while continuing to make out on-screen.
And, of course, while continuing to do press for their show. Just three days after Us Weekly reported on their breakup, W released a joint cover story featuring the couple, which was reportedly shot in May. Reinhart shared the image on Instagram with the caption, “BREAKING: A reliable source has confirmed that none of you know shit.” Sprouse responded similarly, writing, "UNPRECEDENTED: Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart consume the flesh of ‘reliable sources’ to fuel their bacchanalian sex cult." Neither tagged the other in that initial photo. And in the cover story, the author noted that the actors requested to be interviewed separately—a confusing PR strategy that seemed to further obfuscate the nature of their relationship, even for their co-workers. Were they breaking up? Or just really private?
Tabloids like Us Weekly and People have insisted that the couple is, in fact, no more. But Riverdale, like so many teen soaps before it, is a wildly popular show on The CW, and it will likely run for several more seasons. That means Reinhart and Sprouse will continue to work together and deal with constant speculation about their relationship status in the tabloids and on social media, where they already share much of their lives. (Unless one of their characters gets written off the show, a la Mischa Barton on The O.C.)
How should Reinhart and Sprouse deal with this uniquely stressful situation? Lucky for them, they need only look to the teen soaps of the mid-2000s to find examples of on-screen couples who navigated their own romances off-screen. Like Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush on One Tree Hill, Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody on The O.C., and everyone on Gossip Girl—most notably, Blake Lively and Penn Badgley. All of these couples, like Reinhart and Sprouse, appeared on shows with diehard fans desperate to know more about their favorite stars. And to varying degrees, the producers of these shows and their networks used the interest in the off-screen relationships to promote the shows. In 2017, Lively told Vanity Fair, “At the time, I was wearing the same clothes and doing fashion shoots, and dating the same person that my character was dating...and because of that, what people were projecting onto me was that I was Serena . . . We look the same, and we acted the same as far as they could tell, because I wasn’t doing anything but that show. If [Badgley and I] were photographed walking down the street, they didn’t know if it was a paparazzi shot or if it was a shot from the show.”
But each couple played the media a little bit differently. Murray and Bush put it all out there—including pretty much every detail of their five-month marriage—while Bilson and Brody let their “candid” paparazzi photos do the talking. Which road will Reinhart and Sprouse take? They already have one advantage; though fandom has evolved and become possibly even more rabid with social media, they can at least harness that power too, and craft their own narratives; when Gossip Girl premiered, we were all still living in a MySpace world. Let’s take a look back at the wild world of teen soap relationships.
The Head-Over-Heels In Love Couple: Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush, One Tree Hill
Perhaps the most dramatic teen soap pairing happened on the set of One Tree Hill, a mid-2000s high-school drama that was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 2003, one-time heartthrob Chad Michael Murray and one-time It-girl Sophia Bush began dating on-screen and off, gaining widespread attention from the tabloids and fans who congregated on OTH message boards. When Murray, then 22, proposed to Bush, also 22, in 2004, People had all the details. He reportedly popped the question in Australia, where he was shooting House of Wax with Paris Hilton, by creating a romantic scene on a tennis court.
“I couldn’t bring her home until the sun went down because I had 500 candles and 20 bouquets of roses set up,” he said. “Then I had this big light strand on a tennis court with a message (spelled out) to her that you could see looking down from the balcony of our 18th-floor penthouse… It’s a really, really important moment for a woman, so I wanted to do what I could do to make it special.”
Later, Bush gave the tabloid all the details about her wedding plans. (“Two words: Vera Wang,” she said.) In April of 2005, the couple wed in front of 200 guests at the Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica.
The marriage dissolved as quickly as it started, however: Murray and Bush announced their split five months later. Amid rumors that Murray had cheated on her with Hilton, Bush told People, “there are things I won’t forgive.” (The interview took place at the very 2005 charity auction “It Bags Against Breast Cancer.”)
Bush and Murray continued to work together on OTH for three more years. A year after they broke up, in the midst of what must have been a deeply upsetting time for Bush, Murray proposed to an 18-year-old high school senior, Kenzie Dalton, who appeared on the show as an extra. (They never married and broke off their engagement in 2013.) Bush and Murray finalized their divorce in 2006, after Bush’s petition for an annulment was denied.
All of the interest in the couple’s whirlwind relationship helped to boost the success of the show, and Bush has recently accused producers and network execs of exploiting her personal life to juice ratings. In an interview on Dax Shephard’s podcast last year, Bush claimed The CW ran ads about her divorce to promote OTH, and in an interview with Andy Cohen, she said that she did not really want to get married to Murray, and that her bosses pressured her into it. Murray responded by tweeting about reading the bible with his current wife.
Perhaps the takeaway for Reinhart and Sprouse here is to avoid getting married.
The Low-Key But Constantly Papped Couple: Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody, The O.C.
Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody met on the set of the delightful mid-2000s Fox dramedy The O.C.—he played Seth Cohen and she played his girlfriend, Summer Roberts. Bilson was a “street style” star at the time, so the paparazzi followed them everywhere; even now, you can find many photos of them online going to Starbucks, walking their pit bull Penny Lane, and talking on silver Motorola Razrs. At the height of O.C. pandemonium, Bilson and Brody posed together for the cover of the now-defunct Teen People with their co-stars. “We always have a lot to talk about, and we tell each other everything," Bilson told the magazine, of her relationship with Brody. "I feel like I have everything now—the dog, the house, the job and him. I can’t ask for anything more!” (Both were in their early twenties at the time.)
Sadly, Brody and Bilson broke up as the fourth and final season of The O.C. aired, which saw their characters walk down the aisle together (good timing!). A source told People at the time, “It was a typical romance and they just grew apart. They’ve been on and off for awhile now.” The tabloid noted that “during Brody’s gig with his band Big Japan at Hollywood’s Viper Room on Dec. 2, Bilson—normally a fixture at his performances—was noticeably absent.”
Brody went on to marry Leighton Meester, star of another teen soap, Gossip Girl. (Both shows were created by Josh Schwartz, who, incidentally, married Bilson’s best friend Jill Stonerock.) According to the amazing resource GoodPitBulls.com, Brody and Bilson shared custody of Penny Lane after their breakup. Overall, Bilson and Brody seemed to have a clean break and have avoided talking about each other on social media, providing kind, if vague responses when asked about one another in interviews—a solid strategy that Reinhart and Sprouse could choose to employ (once they're done with their exceedingly confusing responses, that is).
The Fan-Favorite Couple: Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, Gossip Girl
By the time Gossip Girl premiered in 2007, The CW on-screen/off-screen romance trope was well-established. Multiple couples formed during the show’s run: Meester dated Sebastian Stan, Ed Westwick dated Jessica Szohr, and there were even rumors that Kelly Rutherford and Matthew Settle, who played parents, were involved. But the pairing that got the most attention was that of Blake Lively, who played Serena van der Woodsen, and Penn Badgley, who played Dan Humphries a.k.a. the Gossip Girl.
Lively and Badgley's characters were a couple on the show, and in real life, the pair started dating almost immediately, going public with their relationship in 2008. But by October 2010, Serena and Dan had broken up on the show, and People reported that the real-life couple was over, too. The tabloid noted that Lively and Badgley did not pose for photos together at the Toronto International Film Festival the previous month—Badgley was there to promote Easy A with Emma Stone, and Lively was there for The Town with Ben Affleck.
The couple never commented on the reason for the split, but E! News reported at the time that Lively went on a date with Ryan Gosling to Disneyland in early October. (You can still see some fan photos of that curious outing here.)
In 2015, Badgley told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live! that his best on-screen kiss was with Lively, when they were together, and his worst was Lively, after they had broken up. Gossip Girl ran until 2012, during which time Lively dated Leo DiCaprio and met and married Ryan Reynolds.
In the aforementioned Vanity Fair story, Lively revealed that she was hesitant at first to start dating Badgley. “I remember there was one point where we were just afraid of how our personal lives overlapping our work life could be perceived by our bosses,” she said. “[But then] we were like, ‘Oh no, that’s exactly what they want.’ They wanted us all to date. They wanted us all to wear the same clothes that we’re wearing on the show. They wanted that, because then it fed their whole narrative. People could buy into this world.”
Reinhart and Sprouse are probably in for at least another Riverdale season of this kind of “narrative.” But if they tire of the show altogether, The CW will be just fine: There is already another Riverdale couple with a combined 26 million Instagram followers. Godspeed to Cami Mendes and Charles Melton.
Got a tip about this or any other celebrity mysteries? Email Allie at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact her on Twitter .
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