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If society is undergoing a collective reckoning about the way we all once treated rich, attractive, incredibly famous young ladies, well, Taylor Swift would like a word.
"You know, I went out on a normal amount of dates in my early 20s, and I got absolutely slaughtered for it," she explained to Vogue while posing for their May 2016 cover. At the time, she couldn't quite decipher the underlying misogynistic messaging, but some seven years later, as a woman on the precipice of turning 30, she was ready to call it what she wanted to.
"When I was 23 and people were just kind of reducing me to, like, kind of making slideshows of my dating life and putting people in there that I'd sat next to at a party once and deciding that my songwriting was like a trick rather than a skill and a craft," she explained in an October 2019 chat with Zane Lowe on Apple Music's Beats 1. "It's a way to take a woman who's doing her job and succeeding at doing her job and making things and in a way, it's figuring out how to completely minimize that skill by taking something that everyone in their darkest, darkest moments loves to do, which is just to slut-shame."
With nearly a decade of hindsight, she can so clearly see it, but as a young girl, the speculation, the jokes, the turning of her dating life into, as she put it to Rolling Stone, "a bit of a national pastime," felt like too much and she declared a two-and-a-half-year moratorium on relationships.
Then she realized it was time to stop listening to the messaging "that I'm not allowed to date for excitement, or fun, or new experiences or learning lessons," she noted to Glamour UK in 2015. The idea that she was "only allowed to date if it's for a lasting, multiple-year relationship," lest she be labeled "boy crazy" or a "serial dater," she continued, "I don't think that's fair."
Or all that productive, really.
Because if she hadn't garnered the lessons and the fun from connecting with the likes of Calvin Harris or Harry Styles or Tom Hiddleston, who knows if she would have been ready for the guy that seems primed to fulfill the love story she's been writing about since she was an idealistic Nashville-based teen with dreams of finding the Romeo to her Juliet?
Certainly Joe Alwyn has all the good-on-paper qualities: Attractive, talented, intelligent and British, which, admittedly seems like a bit of a trend. And he has none of the red flags she listed in a 2012 chat with Vogue in which she stressed the importance of being with someone who appreciates a woman with the skills and acumen to build and, at times, rebuild her own damn empire.
"If you need to put me down a lot in order to level the playing field or something?" she said. "If you are threatened by some part of what I do and want to cut me down to size in order to make it even? That won't work."
But their initial connection back in 2016 also gave Swift something she didn't seem altogether sure she'd be able to find as one of the world's most recognized pop stars—a kinda, sorta, almost normal life.
Though revered in his field (The Hollywood Reporter dubbed him the industry's "next big thing"), Royal Central School of Speech & Drama-trained Alwyn wasn't exactly a household name. Known more for his credits, notably the lead role in the Ang Lee-directed Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, than his personal life, being with him suddenly made it feel possible that Swift could place the focus back on her (many) professional accomplishments as well.
Chatting with Paul McCartney about her renewed focus on "carving out a human life within a public life," last November, the 10-time Grammy winner shared that in knowing Alwyn "and being in the relationship I am in now, I have definitely made decisions that have made my life feel more like a real life and less like just a storyline to be commented on in tabloids."
Some of those choices involve "where to live, who to hang out with, when to not take a picture," she explained in their joint Rolling Stone interview, "the idea of privacy feels so strange to try to explain, but it's really just trying to find bits of normalcy."
Of course, as with most things in Swift's life, that required a fair bit of careful, deliberate planning.
In the early months of their romance nearly five years ago, Swift and the London-based actor went into "lockdown" mode, a source told E! News, an approach that involved a series of private jets, UK customs officials willing to check her passport on the tarmac, blacked-out sedans and dates spent in private locales where, says the source, "they could really get to know each other without the pressure of being in a public relationship and people making judgment calls."
Even after The Sun revealed "Taylor's Secret Brit Love" in May of 2017, the couple maintained their cloak and dagger routine, rarely stepping out in public together and certainly never showing their faces.
She had other strategies at the ready for when Alwyn crashed at her penthouses in Nashville and New York. Both homebodies, they often skipped what would certainly be heavily photographed dinners out in favor of cooking themselves or ordering in delivery, as they did for a get together she hosted in Nashville. Should they need to venture out, the crafty pair would rely on a solid trio of burly bodyguards, sleek sedans and bulky clothing to help them slip around unnoticed.
While their methods seemed, at times, extreme, they were certainly effective. "Being low-key and staying out of the spotlight has really helped their relationship," an insider told E! News at the time. "It's made things more special and sacred."
The select few that got a chance to witness their love were left impressed.
Pal Ed Sheeran gave a firm approval during an October 2017 interview on British radio show Capital Breakfast, saying of Alwyn, "He's really nice. Really, really friendly, really good dude," while Selena Gomez, when asked about her pal's romance during an interview on SiriusXM's The Morning Mash Up, more coyly answered, "Honestly, if my friends are happy, that makes me happy."
The Favourite star also passed muster with the singer's most crucial bestie, mom Andrea Swift. With the couple often flying back and forth from her home base in Nashville to London, where his family resides, "They both know each other's families well and have spent a lot of time getting to know each other," a source told E! News.
Another insider revealed that Swift has enjoyed "many a Sunday roast" in England with Alwyn's psychotherapist mom Elizabeth, documentary-maker dad Richard and brothers Patrick and Thomas. (Not to mention a winter stroll or two.) Their families, said the source, "all seem very close and very happy."
Of course it's easy to be supportive of a couple that simply meshes so well.
Together they've made some pretty beautiful music, the English lit and drama grad assuming the pseudonym of William Bowery on Swift's recent albums, a nod, presumably, to his great-grandfather, composer William Alwyn, and New York's Bowery Hotel, where they enjoyed an early date to see the Kings of Leon.
"I say it was a surprise that we started writing together, but in a way, it wasn't because we have always bonded over music and had the same musical tastes," Swift explained to Lowe Dec. 15 of Alwyn's role in creating folklore's "exile" and "betty" and the heart-wrenching title track on December's follow-up, evermore, along with the disc's "coney island" and "champagne problems."
Plus the star of the upcoming Hulu and BBC Three's Conversations With Friends brought a certain set of skills to the table. "He's always just playing instruments," Swift continued in her December interview with Lowe of Alwyn's ability to effortless craft melodies on the piano. "He doesn't do it in a strategic, 'I'm writing a song right now' thing. He's always done that."
And yet, had the pandemic and the lockdown period that followed not happened, she's not sure they would have ever collaborated. So she's grateful for that silver lining. Noted Swift, "All I have to do is dream up some lyrics and come up with some gut-wrenching, heart-shattering story to write with him."
Because their jam, she revealed is anything that might elicit tears. "Joe and I really love sad songs," she said. "We've always bonded over music. So it was…we just really love sad songs. What can I say?"
And these days, few are minimizing the depths she's had to mine to source devastating material.
"I remember people asking me, 'What are you gonna write about if you ever get happy?'" she reflected to Elle in 2019. "There's a common misconception that artists have to be miserable in order to make good art, that art and suffering go hand in hand. I'm really grateful to have learned this isn't true. Finding happiness and inspiration at the same time has been really cool."
She's still able to pull from real life, she's realized, her well of material has just expanded. "evermore," for instance, which kicks off with a reference to a "gray November," was written "when we were coming up to the election, and I didn't know what was going to happen," Swift shared with Lowe. "So I was almost preparing for the worst to happen, and trying to see some sort of glimmer at the end of the tunnel."
A theme she deliberately shied away from in the past, Swift has proudly begun broadcasting her political views, backing democratic senate candidate Phil Bredesen in the 2018 midterms and Joe Biden in November's presidential race while speaking out in favor of LGBTQ+ rights and against "the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color."
Her formative years spent in country music, "I was always told it's better to stay out," Swift told Vanity Fair this month of her previous political stance. "The Trump presidency forced me to lean in and educate myself." Her romance with Alwyn still in its first year, "I found myself talking about government and the presidency and policy with my boyfriend, who supported me in speaking out."
Soon she was inspiring millions of her fans to register to vote and penning tracks like Miss Americana's "Only the Young"—fueled by her disappointment from the midterm elections—and, most recently, "evermore."
The track, while laying out a harrowing tale, ultimate ends on an uptick. "It's about sort of the process of finding hope again," she explained to Vanity Fair. By the last line—"This pain wouldn't be for evermore"—listeners are left feeling, "that it could get better," she continued. "So that was why I wanted to end it there."
Because Swift knows how quickly things can turn on a dime, how soon things can get better.
Just five years ago, navigating "a bunch of bad stuff," as she put it to Lowe, she was "just sort of taking it day-by-day to get through," desperate to reclaim a piece of her own narrative for herself. Now, more than four years into a relationship with Alwyn, "She's much happier without her personal life out in the open," a source shared with Us Weekly. "She credits Joe for that."
And while she's always considering what's next, looking ahead to the April 9 release of her revamped Fearless album and an eventual return to performing post-COVID ("I'm so excited to one day be in front of a crowd when they all sing, 'She would have made such a lovely bride. What a shame she's f--ked in the head,'" she said of "champagne problems"), she's absolutely done wasting energy worrying about what living her life looks like to those on the outside.
As she put it to Lowe, "I have absolutely no idea what the next decade holds." But one thing is certain: She's ready for it.
This story was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021 at 12 a.m. PT.