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News / Life / Entertainment

Celebrity heartbreak 2023: The 15 most shocking, messy splits of the year

By Martha Ross, The Mercury News
Published: December 16, 2023, 4:10pm

Ava Gardner knew a thing or two about the agony of a celebrity divorce. With one of her divorces — maybe from Frank Sinatra? — the thrice-married actress rented a house in Palm Springs and “sat there and suffered for a couple of weeks.” She said: “When you have to face up to the fact that marriage to the man you love is really over, that’s very tough, sheer agony.”

Alas, there were a number of celebrity couples who presumably went through “sheer agony” in 2023. And, maybe one of the partners retreated to a glamorous resort destination to “suffer for a couple weeks.”

Were there more celebrity break-ups in 2023 than in years past? It sure seems like it, given that a number of these splits felt genuinely shocking and dominated headlines for days, weeks, even months. Some involved A-list stars in seemingly happy unions. Others were particularly messy and litigious. In two notable cases, the shock came from the world learning that these long-term couples had separated years earlier but had yet to divorce.

Here’s a roundup of some of the painful celebrity uncouplings.

Hugh Jackman & Deborra-Lee Furness

Rumors always swirled around this amiable Australian duo: Jackman was younger than Furness by 13 years and so very handsome, charming and into musical theater.

Furness often laughed off the rumors that Jackman was gay, and the couple stuck it out for 27 years, long enough to lead many to conclude that theirs couldn’t be a marriage of convenience. They also had two children and always appeared to be loving and in synch when they appeared together in public.

So, news of their separation came as a genuine shock. They continued to show their love by describing their separation as the result of two people who simply grew apart. One could say that their breakup was a textbook “gray divorce.”

“Our journey now is shifting,” Jackson and Furness said in a statement. “We undertake this next chapter with gratitude, love, and kindness.”

Joe Jonas & Sophie Turner

Joe Jonas, or his people, learned the hard way that you don’t try to bad-mouth the Queen of the North, especially when she has a powerful friend like Taylor Swift.

Stunning news came in early September that the singer and the “Game of Thrones” star were headed for divorce after just four years of marriage. Things quickly turned ugly as Jonas filed for divorce in Miami, while Turner was in her native U.K. working on a TV series. People in Jonas’ orbit apparently leaked the idea that she was hard-partying 27-year-old and absentee mother who had left the doting father to take care of their young daughters while he and his brothers were on tour.

Turner hit back, filing a federal lawsuit, stating that she was the girls’ primary caregiver and alleging that her estranged American husband was “wrongfully” keeping their two young daughters in the United States.

By early October, temperatures had cooled, with the spouses reaching a temporary agreement to share equal time with the girls through the end of the year. Turner notably would be allowed to have the girls with her in England for the holidays. In a joint statement, the estranged couple said they looked “forward to being great co-parents.”

We’ll probably never know what prompted Jonas, especially, to back down. But perhaps Taylor Swift, whom he once briefly dated, had something to do with it. The most famous woman on the planet swooped in and anointed Turner her new BFF, let her stay at her New York townhouse and invited her to publicized power dinners with other famous women. Swifties were only too happy to rally for Turner and try to bury Jonas’ reputation on social media, reminding him that he probably was the inspiration for Swift’s lacerating song about a “casually cruel” boyfriend called “Mr. Perfectly Fine.”

Taylor Swift & Joe Alwyn

Not a whole lot to say that hasn’t already been said, but Swift surprisingly ditched her very English boyfriend Alwyn after six years of dating, and, after a dalliance with another skinny Brit — singer Matty Healy — propelled herself into the arms of Travis Kelce, a robust, 6-foot-5-inch American football hero. With the two-time Super Bowl winner, the billionaire pop mega-star and Time Person of the Year is poised to conquer new territory: the world of the celebrity super couple.

Kevin Costner & Christine Baumgartner

When Christine Baumgartner, the “Yellowstone” star’s wife of nearly 19 years, filed for divorce in May, no one could have predicted that their divorce would get so messy, costly and embarrassing.

During the nearly six-month court battle, Costner, Baumgartner and their high-priced attorneys battled over property, child support, legal fees, a prenuptial agreement and her avowed need to keep their three, teenage children in a lifestyle “to which they had become accustomed” — which included private-jet travel and resort vacations.

In the beginning of the mess, Costner had to get a judge to order Baumgartner to leave their $145 million Pacific Ocean-front estate near Santa Barbara, citing the prenuptial they signed before the 2004 wedding. She re-located to a $40,000-per-month rental home in Montecito, with a pool, jacuzzi and manicured gardens. But it still didn’t quite meet her specifications, as she revealed in court. She tearfully testified that her children wouldn’t be able to live on the water and enjoy Costner’s beach-club estate when they stayed with her in Montecito.

When she initially demanded $248,000 a month in child support, Costner’s team hit back with accusations that she’d use some of that money for a personal trainer and cosmetic surgery. Baumgartner at one point also asked for Costner to cover her $855,000 in legal fees and revealed he had a net worth of $400 million. Things got especially petty when the estranged spouses squabbled over exactly which pots, pans and other items she could remove from the house.

In mid-September, Costner and Baumgartner reached a settlement under terms which were not disclosed. But it’s understood that she’ll get around on $63,000 a month in child support — far less than she was asking — but more than the $1 million settlement outlined in the prenup.

Britney Spears & Sam Asghari

When Britney Spears and Sam Asghari announced they were separating after one year of marriage, the tabloids went into overdrive looking for dirt, hoping to confirm that their doomed relationship represented yet another sad and upsetting chapter in the singer’s sad and upsetting life.

Spears and Asghari didn’t exactly have the healthiest start. They began dating under under the specter of her 13-year conservatorship, which was imposed after she suffered a mental breakdown. Spears’ father, Jamie, controlled pretty much all aspects of her personal and professional life. Asghari proposed when the conservatorship was still in force, though they were able to wed in June 2022, seven months after it was dissolved.

Some speculated that Spears had suffered trauma during the conservatorship and was perhaps worse off without its oversight, Vox reported. The media wrote that her behavior was growing increasingly erratic, even as Asghari was portrayed as her “rock.” But soon, reports spread that Spears and Asghari were getting into frequent screaming fights and that she frequently “got physical” with him.

When TMZ broke the news in August that Spears and Asghari were separating, the outlet also reported that he thought the singer was cheating on him. Page Six claimed that Asghari threatened “to go public with extraordinarily embarrassing information about Britney,” unless she agreed to renegotiate the terms of their prenuptial agreement so that he would get more more money.

Since then, Asghari hasn’t been moved to spill secrets. On the contrary, the exes seem to be on OK terms. In Spears’ memoir, “The Woman in Me,” she portrayed him as “a gift from God” who took care of her and helped her find the courage to fight her conservatorship. Asghari told TMZ in October that he was really moved and “freaking proud” that she wrote her best-seller. “I hope she takes over the world,” he said.

Cardi B & Offset

Every few months, something flares up in the roller-coaster marriage of Cardi B and Offset, which began in secret in 2017 and which has seen its share of cheating rumors, breakups and reconciliations.

The latest flare-up? The hip-hop couple recently unfollowed each other on Instagram, People reported. And you know what that means in celebrity world. The “Say My Grace” rapper also posted some cryptic messages on Instagram stories, including, “You know when you just out grow relationships.” She also said, “I’m of protecting peoples feelings…I GOTTA PUT MYSELF FIRST!”

And then over the weekend, the “Up” rapper confirmed on social media that she has “been single for a minute.” Her marriage was ending.

Ariana Grande & Dalton Gomez

It wasn’t that earth-shaking when Ariana Grande and her husband, Dalton Gomez, announced in July that they had separated after two years of marriage. Grande, after all, is known for cycling through relationships, and her marriage to the Los Angeles-based realtor carried that whiff of pandemic romance.

The shock came when rumors began to circulate that she had gotten herself into some kind of entanglement with Ethan Slater, a Broadway actor who is her co-star in the film version of “Wicked.” Reports said that Grande and Slater met on the set and began dating — even though Slater was married to Lilly Jay, the mother of his 1-year-old son. “It was obvious on the set from early on … they were very sweet to each other,” a source told People.

Insiders close to Grande insisted that she and Slater only got romantic after they had separated from their respective spouses. But after Slater filed for divorce, his estranged wife gave an angry interview to Page Six, in which she implied she was blindsided by the affair. She said, “My family is just collateral damage.” She reportedly said she later regretted making those remarks.

In September, sources said that the new couple were trying to quietly and “respectfully” navigate their relationship with each other and with “all parties involved.” In October, Us Weekly reported that Grande and Slater were living together in New York City. People also reported that Grande, who got her first break on Broadway, attended opening night for Slater’s new show, a revival of “Spamalot.” A People source offered a reason that Grande could find Slater alluring: “She’s a theater kid at her core, so you see she really feels at peace being around Broadway.”

Jada Pinkett Smith & Will Smith

Jada Pinkett Smith made headlines and probably sold more copies of her memoir, “Worthy,” when she made the bombshell announcement in October that she and her megastar husband had been secretly separated for seven years.

That means that she and Will Smith were leading separate lives all those times they made a public show of being an emotionally evolved couple who had triumphed over challenges in their much-gossiped-about marriage — and when the actor plunged his career and family into turmoil by walking up on stage at the Academy Awards in 2022 and slapping Chris Rock. Jada Pinkett Smith added to people’s curiosity about her marital dynamic when she revealed they had no plans to divorce. “We love each other,” she told the Associated Press. “There’s no, ‘we’re going to get divorced.’ I’m not giving up on that dude. And he’s not giving up on me.”

Meryl Streep & Don Gummer

A short time later, Meryl Streep confirmed that she, too, was in a similar, long-term separation arrangement from Don Gummer, her husband of 45 years. People reported that they had ended “the romantic nature” of their relationship six years earlier.

Streep’s personal life never generated much speculation, as it was assumed that the three-time Oscar winner was happily married to Gummer, a sculptor and the father of her four children. But as with the Smiths, people soon became curious about Streep’s marital dynamic. Her representative mysteriously shared with the media: “While they will always care for each other, they have chosen lives apart.”

Reese Witherspoon & Jim Toth

Reese Witherspoon reportedly never saw herself getting another divorce. But in March, she and second husband, former Hollywood agent Jim Toth, announced that they were divorcing after nearly 12 years together.

A narrative, which some observers called “nefarious,” soon emerged in the celebrity press: The marriage couldn’t accommodate Witherspoon’s overachieving ways. As the actor, producer and entrepreneur’s career took off in exciting and lucrative new directions in the 2010s, Toth’s “remained flat,” reports said. “She’s become so much more powerful than she was when they married and has expanded her areas of interest in so many ways,” a source told Page Six. Other reports pointed to a difference in temperaments: “Reese is headstrong and focused” while Toth “is more laidback.”

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“The Morning Show” star may have married Toth in 2011 because he seemed like a “solid, dependable and stable guy,” offering a contrast to the turbulence she experienced in her marriage to Ryan Phillipe, Page Six said. But over time, the “spark” between Witherspoon and Toth faded. Meanwhile, friends insisted that there was “no drama” between them. In a statement, Witherspoon and Toth said: “We have enjoyed so many wonderful years together and are moving forward with deep love, kindness and mutual respect for everything we have created together.”

Joshua Jackson & Jodie Turner-Smith

When Jodie Turner-Smith filed for divorce on Oct. 2 after four years of marriage, Joshua Jackson was “caught off guard” and left “baffled,” Us Weekly reported.

The “Dawson’s Creek” star knew they had their “issues,” but he didn’t think things had gotten “bad” enough to split. But to Turner-Smith, the relationship had become “unhealthy” and “she decided that she is done,” People reported.

As much as Jackson reportedly wasn’t ready to end his marriage, he seemed to move on pretty quickly. Some two weeks after Turner-Smith filed the paperwork, he was spotted at Janelle Monáe’s concert in Los Angeles, “standing close to” Lupita Nyong’o. The Oscar winner had just shared that she, too, was newly single. On Instagram, she said she was suffering “a season of heartbreak” after some kind of “deception” led to her split from TV host Selema Masekela, BuzzFeed News said. Turner-Smith also had some things to say on Instagram, sharing a cryptic message about how a “healed” person understands that the “actions of others have nothing do to with them.”

Fast-forward to this week. Jackson and Nyong’o were spotted grocery shopping Monday in Los Angeles but tried to hide the fact that they were together and a couple, TMZ said. But the next day in Joshua Tree, the two either were unaware the paparazzi were following, or they didn’t care. Photos shared by TMZ show the new lovebirds, holding hands and smiling while on a stroll through the desert town.

Sofia Vergara & Joe Manganiello

No one expected that the surprise divorce announcement by Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello in July would get messy. But there was one issue over which tears might be shed: Who would get custody of Bubbles?

The 10-year-old dog, a Chihuahua/Pomeranian mix, initially was supposed to be Vergara’s pet. The “Modern Family” star brought Bubbles home shortly after their 2015 wedding. But Vergara herself admitted that Bubbles took an instant liking to Manganiello and always preferred his company. She described Bubbles as Manganiello’s “little daughter.” In turn, the “Magic Mike: XXL” star showered Bubbles with affection and often featured her in his social media posts.

Fortunately, the estranged spouses kept things friendly, and Vergara reportedly decided to let Manganiello have Bubbles. A source told Page Six: “Neither one of them is bitter or out for revenge, and Sofía loves Bubbles and wants her to be happy, which is precisely why she’s letting Joe have custody.”

Bijou Phillips & Danny Masterson

News that Bijou Phillips filed for divorce from Danny Masterson in September came as a shock to many, even though he had just been sentenced to 30 years to life in prison after he was convicted of two counts of rape. Still, Phillips publicly stood by her husband through his arrest on multiple rape charges, attended every day of his two trials and let out an anguished sob when a jury in the second trial found him guilty of rape.

Some legal experts speculated that the divorce filing was less a statement about Phillips’ feelings for the father of her 9-year-old daughter and more about the couple’s need to protect their assets in any civil court actions.

But a Daily Mail report in October cited a former member of the Church of Scientology, who said that Phillips’ decision may have been influenced by the Church of Scientology, of which she and Masterson were prominent long-time members. The Daily Mail said Masterson reportedly was expelled from the church after his sentencing and labeled a “suppressive person,” which means that other Scientolologists, including Phillips, need to cut ties with him.

Keke Palmer & Darius Jackson

The first sign that Keke Palmer was in an unhealthy relationship with Darius Jackson was in July, after her boyfriend of two years publicly shamed her for wearing an outfit that he thought was too revealing for the mother of his son.

Jackson, who has an unspecified career in fitness and entertainment, made the comments after the “Nope” actor wore a black bodysuit to an Usher concert in Las Vegas. He doubled-down after social media backlash, writing: “This is my family & my representation! have standards & morals to what I believe.”

For the next four months, Palmer wouldn’t respond to reporters’ questions about the status of their relationship. But in November, she revealed the torment she said she had been living under. In a court filing, seeking a restraining order and full custody of their 10-month-old son, Leo, Palmer accused Jackson of abusing her multiple times during their relationship.

In the “many instances of physical violence,” Palmer said Jackson destroyed her personal property, including her diaries and eyeglasses, and took her car keys to prevent her from driving away. She also said he hit her in front of their son, spewed profanities about her to their baby and threatened to kill himself with a gun if she left him.

“It is because of our son, Leo, that I was finally able to end my relationship with Darius once and for all and escape the abuse,” Palmer wrote in court documents, Page Six reported. “He needs and deserves to be safe and grow up in an environment free from violence.”

Shannen Doherty & Kurt Iswarienko

The “Beverly Hills, 90210” alum and cancer advocate recently revealed that she learned her husband of 11 years had been cheating on her — just before she had to undergo surgery in January to remove a tumor from her brain.

“I went into that surgery early in the morning, and I went in after I found out that my marriage was essentially over, that my husband had been carrying on an affair for two years,” Doherty said this week in an episode of her new podcast. She said Iswarienko wanted to be at the hospital with her, but she told him no. “I couldn’t go into that surgery with him there. I felt so betrayed.”

After Doherty’s surgery, she and the photographer separated. Four months later, Doherty filed for divorce. This would be her third divorce, and the blow comes as she continues to receive treatment for cancer. Doherty was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, then revealed in 2020 that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She has subsequently said that the cancer has spread to her brain and to her bones.

Even with her cancer struggles, Doherty said: “I don’t think I’m going to be single forever I have to love myself and reckon with the past, really, before I can move forward, and now I’m pretty sure I’ll meet somebody — hopefully soon.”