Rachel Simon From 'Friends to 'The Morning Show,' how Jennifer Aniston has remained America's sweetheart

Even as other well-loved celebrities du jour rise up in the ranks, it’s impossible to imagine anyone actually taking Aniston's crown. If anything, her allure is growing.
Image: Jennifer Aniston comes off as a friendlier, wiser, and realer than any other celebrity around.
Jennifer Aniston has stolen America's hearts for close to 25 years. Such popularity is rare in any industry, but in Hollywood it's downright remarkable.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By Rachel Simon

Picture this: Jennifer Aniston is the star of a much talked-about TV show. Her love life is constantly being dissected in the tabloids, with headlines perennially concerned about whether she’s really as happy as she seems. Her fashion is the stuff of envy, her hair is flawless and her funny, vulnerable interviews make it feel like she could be your best friend, too.

It’s 2019 — but it also could be 2009, or 1999. The star of Apple TV’s “The Morning Show” has filled the role of our most beloved celebrity for nearly two and a half decades now, and there are no signs of her being replaced anytime soon.

The star of Apple TV’s “The Morning Show” has filled the role of our most beloved celebrity for nearly two and a half decades now, and there are no signs of her being replaced anytime soon.

Although several other stars have been crowned “America’s Sweetheart” before, arguably none have kept the title as long as Aniston. Back in the ‘70s, there was Mary Tyler Moore, but she was given the label more for her loveable TV persona than her actual life. In the ‘90s, movie stars like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan claimed the spot, but both actors saw public interest wane as they stepped back from the spotlight.

At the start of the millennium, Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock both took the mantle, but their on-screen roles typically garnered more attention than their personalities or love lives (with a few notable exceptions, including Bullock’s divorce and Withespoon’s arrest). Most recently, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone and Anne Hathaway have all risen up as “it girls” for a year or two, but none of them are so universally adored that women use them to inspire everything from their haircuts to fertility choices, like they do with Aniston.

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Aniston, clearly, is different. Ever since she gained fame on “Friends” in 1994, she’s been an anomaly — a superstar whose status is tied not to her career, but to her humanity. That’s not to say she’s a bad actor; her roles in “Office Space,” “Dumplin,’” and, of course, “Friends” have demonstrated her comedic chops, and her work in dramas like “Cake” and “The Good Girl” have shown her impressive, if often underrated, depth as a performer.

To survive this long in Hollywood, you need real talent. And even in the most forgettable of films, Aniston remains a supremely watchable presence. It helps that the 50-year-old has rarely been typecast as a mother figure, a fate that’s befallen so many of her peers; she’s claimed lead or meaty supporting roles in nearly all of her recent projects.

To survive this long in Hollywood, you need real talent. And even in the most forgettable of films, Aniston remains a supremely watchable presence.

Yet Aniston’s talent is just one element of her success. Even when she phones in a performance or one of her films bombs at the box office, our commitment to her doesn’t waver. In fact, the failures just make her seem more human. On-screen and off, on magazines covers and red carpet interviews, Aniston comes off as friendlier, wiser and most importantly, realer than any other massively wealthy, absurdly famous celebrity around.

That authenticity means it’s easier to root for her — and relate to her. When she married Brad Pitt in 2000, we shared her joy; later, after their split and its messy aftermath, we loyally pronounced our support for “Team Aniston.” When she moved on with men like John Mayer and Vince Vaughn, we hoped she wouldn’t settle for anything less than she deserved. In 2012, when she got engaged to the effortlessly cool Justin Theroux, we dared to dream that she’d finally found her equal — only to once again wallow in heartbreak when they broke up six years later. And when she made it clear in interviews and essays that she was totally OK with being single and childless and didn’t need our pity, we celebrated her confidence and scolded ourselves for our old-fashioned attitudes.

Caring about a celebrity’s life isn’t unique, of course. But giving that star our love, support and attention over three decades certainly is, especially when we’re not getting much in return. Aniston is honest in her interviews, but not too honest; she lets us in on what she wants us to know, and nothing more. It’s an unusual move, and a smart one. In the age of social media, many stars have used their platforms to open up about their personalities and interests, but accessibility is different than vulnerability — and without the latter, being “candid” can backfire.

Take famous personalities like Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian, who have worked hard to present curated views of their lives only to come off as too fake or too calculated. On the opposite end, there are people like Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence, whose relatable “I’m just like you” personas quickly grated on audiences and resulted in the stars taking necessary breaks from Hollywood.

Aniston faces just as much scrutiny as her peers, but she rarely bothers to address rumors or acknowledge her enormous following. Hell, she didn’t even join Instagram until October — and even that was mainly to promote “The Morning Show.” Somehow, she has found a near-perfect balance of living in the public eye while not seeming overly concerned with how we perceive her.

That includes the most difficult stage of all, politics; while Aniston has shared her support for Democratic candidates in the past, she’s rarely outspoken on issues and as a result, hasn’t seemed to seriously alienate conservative fans. In an age where it’s more crucial than ever for public figures to use their platforms, this isn’t all commendable; many of her fans would likely love if Aniston took on activism in a more obvious way. Still, there’s no denying that the star’s relatively apolitical character has helped her stay so loved and kept her out of Swift-like controversy.

That doesn’t mean being America’s Everlasting Sweetheart is a fun job, of course; when asked in 2005 if she hoped the label would get debunked, she said, “God, I hope so.” But, she added, she wasn’t actively trying to shake it. And it’s unlikely she ever will. Even as other well-loved celebrities du jour like Chrissy Teigen or Selena Gomez rise up in the ranks, it’s impossible to imagine anyone actually taking her spot, or Aniston’s allure fading. If anything, it’s only growing.

In a recent interview, Aniston noted that she’s entering “one of the most creatively fulfilling periods” of her life. Those new projects, combined with the still-enormous popularity of “Friends" and her record-breaking Instagrams, mean that she’ll undoubtedly be on our radar for years to come. And her fans couldn’t be any happier.