Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt divorce: how - and why - Jolie controlled the story from the start

So far, the actress has been winning every battle in the couple's high-profile public relations war

Tim Walker
Los Angeles
Saturday 24 September 2016 20:05
Jolie is a masterful media operator, say seasoned celebrity-watchers
Jolie is a masterful media operator, say seasoned celebrity-watchers

The Jolie-Pitt divorce was never going to be a private affair – but even so, the news blew up the Internet this week with a remarkable speed and ferocity. This was no indiscriminate tabloid carpet-bombing, say seasoned celebrity-watchers; it was a precision strike, which gave Angelina Jolie an early victory over Brad Pitt in the couple’s high-profile public relations battle.

The actress filed for divorce from Pitt, 52, in Los Angeles on Monday. The divorce papers, which are not available to view via the LA Superior Court website, nonetheless leaked online the following day, showing that Jolie cited “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for the split.

Jolie, 41, has not asked for spousal support, but she has demanded sole physical custody of the couple’s six children, with TMZ, which broke the story, reporting that she believed Pitt’s behaviour was becoming “dangerous for the children.”

It has since emerged that Pitt is under investigation for child abuse, following a heated argument involving their 15-year-old son Maddox on the family’s private plane during a flight from France to California last week. (Pitt has denied that anyone was physically harmed in the incident.)

After Pitt departed LA again for a trip to Croatia, Jolie quickly hired celebrity divorce lawyer Laura Wasser, who oversaw Johnny Depp’s divorce and has previously represented Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian and Jolie herself, during her 2003 split from Billy Bob Thornton.

Wasser has said in past interviews that, in order to maintain her clients’ discretion, she’ll often file divorce papers on Friday afternoon, when news outlets are winding down for the weekend – and in a county outside LA, where they are less likely to be leaked to the tabloids.

“Last Friday would have been the perfect day to file,” says Lainey Lui of “A lot of outlets would have been busy covering the Emmys over the weekend. That leads me to believe that they waited until the Monday to file to really get Angelina’s position out there first.”

Jolie is a masterful media operator, says Lui. “In a very short time, she shed her wild child image and became known as a loving mother, a UN ambassador, a serious director and humanitarian who writes op-eds for the New York Times. She doesn’t have a publicist – and for a celebrity of her stature to manage her public image all on her own, she has to be a very sophisticated person.”

TMZ’s first report on the divorce was published on Tuesday, complete with a full explanation from “sources connected with the couple,” who told the site: “Angelina’s decision to file has to do with the way Brad was parenting the children… she was extremely upset with his methods.”

Angelina, TMZ’s sources added, was “fed up” with her husband’s “consumption of weed and possibly alcohol” and believed he had “an anger problem”. Her entertainment lawyer Robert Offer spoke on the record, telling the site she was divorcing Pitt “for the health of the family.”

Top LA attorney Lisa Bloom has tackled many celebrity cases herself, including representing Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva in a domestic violence case against the actor. “For a high-profile divorce to be kept private, both parties have to want it to be private,” Bloom says. “In this case, perhaps one party wanted it to be private, but the other – Angelina Jolie – did not.”

“She is contending that [Pitt] was abusive to the kids. I defend a lot of abused kids and their parents, and if those are the facts, I salute her: you can’t wait around if you think your children are in an abusive environment. You have to take action. Clearly it’s not in her interest to have her dirty laundry aired in public. But it appears to me that she’s prioritising her children.”

After the New York Post’s Page Six reported that a jealous Jolie had hired a private detective to investigate rumours of an on-set romance between Pitt and his Allied co-star Marion Cotillard, Jolie’s people smartly helped to shut down allegations of an affair – thus maintaining the focus on the issue of Pitt’s behaviour at home.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard Allied trailer released

The timing of the filing also made it tough for Pitt to take control of the narrative. As Page Six pointed out, all the major US tabloid magazines go to press on Monday evenings, meaning the actor, who is said to have been “blind-sided” by the divorce proceedings, will be unable to respond via the pages of People or Us Weekly until 28 September – and will remain on the back foot thereafter.

Pitt has now hired his own divorce lawyer, Lance Spiegel, who has represented the likes of Charlie Sheen, Eva Longoria and Michael Jackson. But his PR operation has been spotty, with somewhat conflicting statements filtering out through various sources over the past few days.

On its website, People quoted a source as saying the plane incident “was a parent-child argument which… escalated more than it should have.” Pro-Pitt sources told TMZ that the actor was “a loving and devoted father” and the claims of abuse were “a malicious lie.”

A MailOnline source was more conciliatory, saying: “Brad still cares for Angelina very much and respects her as the mother of his children, [but] after the rhetoric that has been put out over the past 24 hours… he is hoping to be able to turn the volume down.”

If a court believes the abuse claims, Bloom explains, Pitt may be able to see his children only under supervision until he completes parenting and anger management courses.

Jolie has already rented a separate house in LA and holed up there with the children, while moving trucks were seen coming and going from the family’s compound in Los Feliz earlier this week.

Lui suggests Jolie may have taken a shock and awe approach to the divorce because public opinion is not a level playing field for men and women – and because some people still see Jolie through the lens of her controversial youth.

“Society tends to hold grudges against women a lot longer than men,” Lui says. “Just because Angelina is an outstanding media strategist, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have good intentions. You can control your public image brilliantly and still have the best intentions for your family."

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