Every once in a while, popular culture passes a particularly ridiculous metaphoric signpost and you think to yourself, “This is it. It can’t get any more stupid than this.”
It always gets more stupid.
You don’t have to know who Coleen Rooney or Rebekah Vardy are to understand that much. More than any current political struggle, their little drama signals the impending collapse of British society. When London’s garbage hasn’t been collected for two years and punk rock is making a comeback, historians will trace the catastrophe to this moment.
Coleen Rooney is the wife of soccer player Wayne Rooney and, by consensus, the queen of the WAGs.
The concept of WAGs (wives and girlfriends) originated at the 2006 World Cup. Victoria and David Beckham had begun combining the celebrity of pop music and sports stardom into something exponentially larger. It needed a name. The phenomenon was dumb fun and seemed to fit the times.
After Beckham left England, Wayne Rooney replaced him as the country’s obsessional soccer star, meaning his wife was elevated as well.
Victoria Beckham was notable for her extreme cool. By contrast, Coleen Rooney’s signal trait is her ability to suffer fool – as in, just one of them, her husband.
Wayne Rooney is routinely stitched up in the gutter press, usually after incidents involving a few too many pops and a lithesome stranger he’s met in the VIP section.
The routine goes like this – Wayne is photographed doing something naughty late at night; Coleen is photographed at the supermarket without her wedding ring; Wayne and Coleen are photographed on vacation together; they do a sitdown family portrait which proves love wins in the end; Wayne hears some of his buddies are down at the pub and maybe there’s a photographer there, too.
In North America, you might get away with this once. The Rooneys have been running this tabloid con for years. They’ve even taken it international. The most recent cycle kicked off in a Vancouver nightclub.
This is how Coleen Rooney turned herself into England’s Edith Bunker. She is the softie who puts up with a knucklehead, and a sort of domestic martyr.
At the last World Cup, a challenger rounded into frame – Rebekah Vardy.
Vardy is married to Jamie, who is a) currently a better England soccer player than Rooney; and b) nearly as big a knucklehead. Like their famous partners, the two women are copies of each other, if through a glass darkly.
Where the Rooneys made some attempt to mask their perverse, symbiotic relationship with the tabs, the Vardys made none. She starred on reality TV. He trademarked a catchphrase with a four-letter word. When someone used it in a song, they sued.
The Vardys were transparently trying to steal the Rooneys’ place as Britain’s most happily dysfunctional family.
(Cue the ominous brass swirl of a documentary on The History Channel.) At that point, war was inevitable.
The first shots were fired Wednesday. In a social-media post (naturally), Coleen Rooney accused a friend of feeding information to newspapers from her private Instagram account. Rooney apparently blocked all but one of her followers from seeing what she posted there. The stories still ended up in the press, including make-believe ones.
The final line of the note is the first that contains a name: “It’s ….. Rebekah Vardy’s account.”
One anonymous genius figured out the banner headline straight off: Wagatha Christie.
This spat is good news for all the Brits who’d grown tired of trying to figure out what the Irish backstop is and why it’s so hard to build. Brexit is over now. Instead, England can spend the next six months arguing about who they’d least like to have over for dinner – the Rooneys or the Vardys.
The two women have taken on new roles in respect to one another – nemeses. As their husbands’ stars dim, that’s a media winner. That will launch a thousand chat-show segments and, just maybe, a Netflix deal.
This is the obvious end point of our collective obsession with peripherally famous people. We like them precisely because they are like us – average. You or I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be Serena Williams or Tom Brady. For a start, way too many push-ups.
But it is possible to empathize with what it’s like to be around those people all the time. Would it be glamorous or hellish? Both simultaneously? Beyond the obvious carrot – money – why would anyone seek out 24/7 public scrutiny? What sort of person wants to be famous for no reason whatsoever? It’s all very new.
Until recently, sports spouses were not just invisible, but unmentionable. You could write anything you want about a player, but woe to the journalist who touches on his family life without first seeking permission. You would hear about that, and not in a nice way.
It’s a good rule. The players sign up for a certain amount of critique. Their partners, parents and children don’t.
But as we have lost touch with the importance of sports – as in, giving them far too much – we have also lost touch with the boundaries of what is considered sports. It used to be what happened on the field of play. Then it became everything that happened off it. Then it became what happened on Friday night, or what some guy said in a bar, or how he looked coming out of the bar. Social media and camera phones turned everyone into citizen muckrakers.
The English press are well ahead of us on the scuzziness factor of all this, but we’re catching up fast. No matter how many wives or boyfriends don’t want to be the story, there will always be a LaVar Ball – a family member who is dying for the attention.
Because these people need to say something inflammatory in order to be noticed, they do that. As the athletes get more scripted, the hangers-on get more unhinged. The urge to be more provocative is self-reinforcing. Eventually, no one will bother interviewing the player. They’ll go straight to his kooky brother.
Altering this trend would require a reconfiguration of the priorities of our current popular culture. We’d have to start caring less about things that don’t matter.
But with so many things that actually matter happening all at once around the world, there is something comforting about fixating on why Coleen hates Rebekah instead of our real problems.