Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.
If you follow celebrity gossip at all, you may have read sometime over the last year or so that a Harvard student is dating a fellow Harvard student. One of them is a British young man who played rugby in high school. The other one is Malia Obama.
The fact that Malia had some sort of paramour was first uncovered last November by TMZ, which acquired a brief video clip of the couple snogging outside a Harvard-Yale football game. (Around the same time, another video clip of Malia blowing some impressive smoke rings circulated online.) Rory Farquharson was identified only as a “mystery guy.” In short order, the Daily Mail identified him in a story that focused on his reputation at his British “public” (that is to say, private) high school, and featured no fewer than seven photos of the couple kissing at the football game. Revelations about Farquharson’s high-school career included his membership in a chemistry club called the Blue Bunsen Society, and a report that “the girls all thought him ‘quite a catch.’ ”
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to watch a president’s child enter the public eye. When Alice Roosevelt, the rebellious oldest daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, was a teenager in the White House, the press reported on her personal travels, society luncheons in her honor, the details of her “coming-out” ball, her trip to Ohio to visit her future husband’s family, and her eventual White House wedding. When Vice President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, got engaged to David Eisenhower in 1968, the New York Times called them “America’s newest celebrity sweethearts.” His other daughter, Tricia, had her wedding in the Rose Garden in 1971, an event that made the cover of Life magazine and the front page of the New York Times (on the same day as the paper’s first story about the Pentagon Papers).*
The ’90s marked a turning point for press coverage of presidential heirs. Chelsea Clinton was 12 when she moved into the White House, and her regular-girl awkwardness was initially treated as a punchline. Rush Limbaugh notoriously compared her to a dog, but mainstream media types were awful to her, too. In a 1993 New York Times article pegged to her 13th birthday, Frank Rich called her “a girl whose gawkiness, frizzy hair and orthodontically transitional smile stand in repeated contrast to the Aryan perfection of Sarah and Kristin Gore.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton insisted that the press leave Chelsea alone, and ultimately they were so successful that many mainstream reporters were still handling the first daughter with kid gloves more than two decades later when she stumped for her mother’s presidential campaign. Since the Clinton era, most major media outlets have largely kept their distance from children of the commander in chief (who are not working in his administration). George W. Bush’s twin teenage daughters’ briefly entered the news cycle when they were busted for underage drinking in 2001, but were generally left pretty much alone. Barron Trump—as the one Trump scion still, at least some of the time, living with his dad—is barely mentioned in the press.
The broad agreement on a hands-off reportorial policy is clear when a child is underage and living in the White House. (The celebrity press still rarely covers Malia’s 17-year-old sister Sasha.) But the “rules” seem to get muddier when a child reaches 18—or especially, when her father leaves office. And obviously, certain presidential kids command more gossipy interest than others. The New York Post splashed Chelsea Clinton’s rumored college breakup on its cover in 1998. When Clinton left office two years later, she was 20, and her dating life became fair game: Vanity Fair reported on her dance moves, and her relationship with Ian Klaus—an American she met at Oxford University—was covered openly by celebrity magazines. Which brings us to 19-year-old Malia Obama.
Compared to the coverage of her predecessors’ romantic liaisons, the coverage of Malia and Rory feels at once more breathless and more respectful. It’s both relentlessly detailed—Rory’s height! Malia’s Doc Martens!—and upbeat, with the only sustained negativity coming in the form of some pro forma tut-tutting over Malia’s smoking habit. The overall tone is admiring, even starry-eyed. The British tabloid press, always aggressive, has dutifully probed into Farquharson’s past but has come up with nothing much more than the fact that he’s a good student from a wealthy family.
How should a responsible gossip consumer feel about being interested in the private life of Obama’s elder daughter? Some of her fellow members in the small club of ex-first kids have argued that the coverage of her remains out of bounds. Ivanka Trump tweeted that she should be “OFF limits” last year when the smoke-ring video was making the rounds. Chelsea Clinton, who has become the media’s go-to authority on the privacy of presidential children, concurred. They’re surely right. Malia has made no detectible effort to become a public figure, and neither has Farquharson. She doesn’t owe us information or photographs or interviews.
And yet I will confess: I can’t stop reading this stuff. I read the whole Daily Mail article about Malia’s beau, including the sidebar on where to purchase her cool oversize yellow puffer jacket. Then I found another “story” (collection of paparazzi photos) from a few weeks ago, in which the two strolled around London together. Farquharson’s second cousin, I learned, was the queen’s assistant master of the household at Buckingham Palace. Vanity Fair has called him a “Hugh Grant type” and praised his taste in sunglasses.
It makes sense that there would be a voracious appetite for romanticized coverage of Malia’s romances. Malia entered the White House at age 10 and left at age 18, which means the American public “met” her right on the later cusp of childhood and witnessed her entire adolescence. Of course we’re invested in the milestone of her first known relationship. In the photos, she looks confident, glamorous, independent; it’s striking to witness her finally sprung from the more formal, dad-adjacent contexts we’ve so often seen her in over the past decade. And this relationship is surfacing just as her parents, who always seemed to have a storybook marriage, have almost disappeared from public view. Mythologized but suddenly invisible, they’re reportedly hanging out with friends and traveling the world together. We hardly ever hear from them anymore. A new family has settled into their old home. And through it all, it’s hard not to devour, however guiltily, these dispatches from Malia’s new life.
Correction, Sept. 10, 2018: This post originally misstated which of Richard Nixon’s daughters married David Eisenhower. It was Julie, not Tricia.