These Jennifer Aniston Fans Weren’t Born When ‘Friends’ Aired
Whitney Bartol, 17, a high school senior in Manhattan, can recite like a catechism Jennifer Aniston’s lifetime trajectory, from her television debut as Rachel on “Friends,” to her string of failed romances and recent turn as a flinty but flappable network anchor on “The Morning Show.”
“She is a character that you sympathize with, but she is also someone you aspire to be,” she said.
Marina Bross, 17, a high school senior in Mexico City, also finds much to admire about Ms. Aniston. “She has had her entire life documented in the media — that must be hard, but she dealt with it,” Ms. Bross said. “For me she represents a woman who knows what she wants and stands her ground.”
Kate Mintz, 18, another high school senior in Manhattan, went so far as to model her hair after Ms. Aniston’s layered and highlighted signature bob in “Friends.” “Her style is not edgy, not girly,” said Ms. Mintz, who watches reruns of “Friends” with her classmates. “She is not going out of her comfort zone with weirdo shapes and textures.”
Not one of these young women was born when “Friends” had its television premiere in 1994. Yet each is part of a vocal cohort of school-age enthusiasts who idolize Ms. Aniston as a beacon of realness, relatable style and boundless resilience.
Indeed, few public figures in midcareer, or late career, have so vividly impinged on the collective psyche of an impressionable, often moderately affluent, and largely, though not exclusively, white segment of the Gen Z population. They are part of a sizable fan base for Ms. Aniston, who, at 52, has found an avid, if unlikely, new audience.
Devotees follow her personal saga chapter by chapter, commiserating with “poor Jen,” heartlessly dumped by Brad Pitt in the early 2000s, and fawning over glossy Jen, the red-carpet queen. Some may relate to bad-girl Jen, the self-avowed stoner, who has publicly touted CBD and bawdily deflected rumors of a romance with David Schwimmer (Ross, her love interest on “Friends”) on a recent Howard Stern show.
All but omnipresent in recent months, Ms. Aniston retains her impact as a cultural force, particularly among the young. Fans watched as she wept into a tissue on the “Friends Reunion” in May. They followed as she modeled a limited collection of Friends-logo hats, T-shirts and hoodies on her Instagram.
And in a promotional run-up to Season 2 of “The Morning Show,” which begins on Apple TV on Sept. 17, she appeared on the September cover of “In Style,” confiding inside the issue, “My level of anxiety has gone down by eliminating the unnecessary sort of fat in life.”
That ought to be reassuring to her most ardent admirers, who find comfort and a measure of courage in Ms. Aniston’s messy up-and-down life journey. “No one can be perfect all the time,” Ms. Bartol said. “Seeing a celebrity in the spotlight who also can’t do that makes me feel better about myself. It makes me like her more.”
‘She Is Rachel’
Her view chimes with those of an audience that reaches well beyond the United States. Fans from Turkey, Colombia and Mexico gathered in the West Village on a recent Sunday, striking poses and snapping selfies in front of the so-called Friends House, a tourist destination where many of the series’ exteriors were filmed.
Lexi Rios, 18, a recent high school graduate from Wappinger, N.Y, was one of them. “Rachel kind of reminded me of me,” she said. “I grew up getting a lot of the things I always wanted. But Rachel gave me a kind of reality check. She walked away from her wealthy family and was cut off. When my dad lost his job at the same time the show started streaming on Netflix, I related with her story.”
Ana Menendez, 15, a visitor from Mexico City, admires Rachel’s grit. “When the show had its premiere, she was a little spoiled,” Ms. Menendez said. “But with the help of her friends she learned how to become a better person.”
Among her young followers, Ms. Aniston’s apparent fallibility may well be a trump card, said Jonathan Gray, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin.
“We can’t just see women succeeding all the time,” Dr. Gray said. “A good feminist image needs to show us women struggling and sometimes making bad decisions. Jennifer Aniston often occupies that role. People connect. It’s ‘Yeah, she doesn’t know what she’s doing and neither do I.’”
To admirers Ms. Aniston’s seeming bewilderment is built on a bedrock of granite.
“Many celebrities, when they’re under pressure, break down and start making bad decisions,” said Nancy Eastman, 15, a high school sophomore in New York City. “Suddenly you hear they’re in rehab. With Jennifer Aniston that never happened. She just tried going on with her life and doing what she loved. To me she is Rachel.”
That she would conflate the actress with her character seems a given. “Fans always try to ferret out the connection between the characters actresses play and their real lives,” said Leo Braudy, a professor of literature, film history and American culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. As for Ms. Aniston, “If she is a role model, it is the role of survivor.”
To some, Ms. Aniston seems to have sedulously cultivated that cool-girl persona — tough but not hardened, cheery or tart as it suits her. Her performance, if it is one, puts one in mind of Amy Dunne, the unnervingly cunning title character of “Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller, who has styled herself, as Amy observes in what maybe the novel’s most oft-quoted passage, “as that hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping.” And, as Amy observes, never gets angry.
But if Ms. Aniston is mostly sticking to script, does it matter?
The actress herself has been quick to exploit her red-carpet appeal in a black leather minidress or sensationally clingy bias-cut gown. She seems to generate heat, yet younger male fans rarely respond with unbridled lust.
“All my friends feel the crush,” said Thomas Pendergast, 16, a high school junior in Manhattan. Yet he finds her more stylish than steamy. “The way she dresses is relatable. There is nothing too flashy. I’ve never seen her challenging any fashion standards.”
Ms. Aniston still shows skin, but more often these days seems risk averse, turning her back on the skimpy T-shirts, skinny black dresses and low-slung cargo pants she favored as Rachel, and mostly eschewing Kardashian-Hilton tinctured latex and leather for polished but tamer fare.
“Sometimes when I’m shopping for an outfit I think, ‘Oh, maybe Jen would buy this,’” said Ms. Eastman, the New York high schooler. She applied that standard to a recent purchase, a flow-y red V-neck red blouse loosely tied at the throat.
To enthusiasts, the Aniston look is part of an aesthetic swing away from the loud or crass, one best represented by Ms. Aniston and 1990s-era idols like Danielle Fishel, who plays Topanga in “Boy Meets World,” and Alicia Silverstone as Cher in “Clueless.”
“Teenagers and millennials have been dressing aggressively,” Ms. Bartol said. “But a lot of us now admire a more conservative style. We’re not fans of ripped jeans We don’t want our belly buttons out.”
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