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Jennifer Aniston, from rock to hard place

In the shadow of Pitt and Jolie, she struggles to refurbish her image

It's hip to be sick of Jennifer Aniston.

Not only is celebrity gossip not an especially esteemed pursuit, but "Friends" has taken such a short time to come to stand for "comedy not ironic enough to laugh at" that it's remarkable it lasted so long, given that apparently, no one liked it. Just like no one cares about Jennifer Aniston.

And yet, there she is. She's on the cover of GQ, she's in the paper settling her divorce, she's on The Smoking Gun suing a photographer for taking nude pictures of her sunbathing at home, and she's commenting frequently on the apparent farce that her personal life has become.

It didn't used to be like this. Aniston and Brad Pitt were such a pretty couple. He had been seen for so long with Gwyneth Paltrow that it was a relief to see him with Aniston, who looked a little warmer — less regal, more amusing.

Jennifer Aniston

Slideshow  49 photos

Jennifer Aniston

The former “Friends” star rises from sitcom sweetheart to tabloid fixture and big screen star.

When their marriage ended, it was a sad Hollywood breakup of the kind that occur maybe five times a year and fall into the category of "major." Publicists issue statements. Best wishes are usually exchanged. Readers of People and Us say, "Huh. They always seemed happy."

It was not the breakup that turned Aniston's life into theater of the absurd — it was Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Jolie was already a glamorously strange icon, known for her unconventional marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, her stormy relationship with father Jon Voigt and her zealous affection for her brother. She's also probably the last person you would want to see enter your ex's personal life: You know drama will follow.

Image rehabFor months, Pitt and Jolie either didn't talk about their relationship or outright denied it. Aniston, meanwhile, began to regroup and prepared to mount one of the most ambitious image-rehabilitation campaigns in history.

The message began to thrum across the wires from the Aniston camp: Jennifer, subjected to the craziness surrounding her husband's interest in Angelina, threatened by the media typhoon they created, was only trying to get through her divorce with dignity. No bitterness (except the occasional remark about Pitt's hair), no grudges, just moving on with her life. It must be true: She told it to Oprah.

Things became more complicated when Pitt and Jolie began to be photographed together with the young children she had adopted during her international humanitarian travels. It had always been part of the Pitt/Aniston breakup lore, dating back to long before they actually broke up, that he wanted kids and she either couldn't get pregnant or didn't want to.

It is around this part of the story that a sane person begins to wonder how any of us could have believed that this was any of our business.

Then there was Vince Vaughn. First there were rumblings, then there were rumors, then there were pictures from their visit to his hometown. Then, finally, there was acknowledgment. Aniston had a new boyfriend, and she had chosen someone almost as odd as Angelina Jolie.

The way things have settled out, Aniston and Vaughn are certainly followed by the paparazzi, but they are nothing compared to the Jolie-Pitt spectacle. The latter couple did the former several favors in taking the heat off.

First, it was announced that Pitt would adopt Jolie's children. This came less than a year after the announcement of the end of Pitt and Aniston's marriage, and only a month or two after the divorce was final. Then Jolie turned up pregnant, driving the relevant publicists to announce for the first time that indeed, the couple was a couple, and this would be their child together.

Aniston's problem, of course, is whatever she says about this, people will talk. Maybe she and Pitt fought about everything else, but never about having children. Maybe it is a coincidence that he became involved with a woman who already had children of her own.

But no matter what, people will say, "She should have had a baby," or "He shouldn't have left her just because she wouldn't have a baby," or "I guess he really wanted kids." Because she is famous, people will discuss whether she has fertility problems. Because she is an actress, newspapers will write about whether she chose her career over having children.

Just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a celebrity breakup is just a couple of very busy people wrapped up in a culture that doesn't support marriage very well. But it's hard not to see a couple of unpleasant dynamics at work here. Aniston faced questions about having children for years, right up until her ex-husband appeared with his round-bellied girlfriend in public. At 37, she may be GQ's Woman Of The Year, photographed topless and with great reverence, but her ex-husband is now with someone seven years younger than she is, twelve years younger than he is, who is joyfully pregnant. Maybe it's irrelevant, but people will talk.

Equally curious, but working to Aniston's likely advantage, is the fact that while she and Pitt are both divorced and they are both in new relationships, she is still viewed as the one recovering, to the point where her relationship with Vaughn, while it has attracted plenty of attention, hasn't become nearly the atom bomb of gossip Pitt and Jolie have created. It is still probably easier for women to find refuge and sympathy in the pages of Vanity Fair than it is for men.

But wait, she's said too much ...The irony is that Aniston has saved herself from being publicly savaged by engaging with the press to talk about her personal life -- specifically, to talk about how much she no longer believes she should have ever talked about her personal life. She has given interviews in which she has embraced the philosophy espoused by Paltrow, who had said in the past that Aniston and Pitt were too open about their relationship. Aniston now agrees.

She should have kept it private. And she'll tell you so in print.

It is a no-win situation. Keeping mum means that there will be wild speculation -- she's kept relatively quiet about the relationship with Vaughn, and the rumors have exploded about proposals and fights. No matter how little she says, people will reach their own conclusions, because they already have enough ammunition. When she does talk, however, it unavoidably seems maudlin and unnecessary. Why is she telling us this? Because the blanks will be filled in for her if she doesn't? Is that a good enough reason?

Caught between the rock of endless speculation and the hard place of seeming like she's talking out of school, Aniston has gone on an offensive of ostentatious maturity. So far, she seems to have been rewarded with slightly kinder treatment about Pitt, whom she does talk about. When it comes to Vaughn, whom she doesn't talk about, the insanity is as powerful as ever.

Damned if she does; damned if she doesn't. It has to be unsettling.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn., and frequent contributor to