In the end it wasn’t at all like how she once imagined it in verse.
Taylor Swift‘s romance with Joe Alwyn didn’t involve warring families, a disapproving father or a love that was particularly difficult (though it was very much re-eal).
Still the fact that this particular love story came at a time when the singer absolutely didn’t expect it—while she was shouldering some of the worst headlines of her career—makes it as close to a fairytale as you’re likely to come across in real life.
At this point, the avowed lover of romance has come to expect the unexpected. Take 2020, for instance. “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening,” she shared in a Thursday morning post, “but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen.”
Enter: Folklore, her eighth studio album, a follow-up to 2019’s Lover, written entirely in quarantine. And, amongst the 16 tracks is the notable “Invisible String” that has Swift marveling about the machinations at work to tie her to a boy who once worked at a yogurt shop.
In case y’all were curious about Alwyn’s high school job.
Earlier this year, the 10-time Grammy winner marked three years with the actor, the type of guy she was likely imagining back in 2011 as she told InStyle, “When I picture the person I want to end up with, I don’t think about what their career is, or what they look like. I picture the feeling I get when I’m with them.”
Or, at least, it’s been three years since we’ve known about their coupling, the singer, arguably one of the world’s most famous pop stars, managing to carry on a romance with the British period film specialist for at least a few months before The Sun caught on.
Having tired of the public making sport out of her dating life, she was ready for a shift when she first connected with the classically trained actor. Sensing theirs could be a romance with some longevity, she went to great lengths to protect what was hers, employing all of the private jets, bodyguards, secret apartments, loyal friends and oversized hoodies at her disposal.
Several years on, and more than a few yet-to-be-verified engagement rumors later, the gamble has clearly paid off. And while they’ve lifted the veil ever so slightly on their romance, that just means the 29-year-old was comfortable giving his Instagram followers a glimpse at Swift’s kitten Benjamin Buttons, proving they’re currently quarantining in the same spot.
After all, it’s their place, they make the rules.
And the parameters they’ve chosen have been working for them from the beginning. Following months of overexposure in 2016, “I figured I had to reset everything,” the singer shared in her January Netflix documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana. “I also was falling in love with someone who had a really wonderfully normal, balanced, grounded life.”
Her words were a rare insight into a romance with her Lover.
Because as happy as they may be, the 30-year-old is done putting on a show with her personal life. In her twenties, as she explored couplings with the likes of Harry Styles, Jake Gyllenhaal or Joe Jonas, which is absolutely what most anyone would do if they were young, famous and in demand, she was labeled boy crazy, a serial dater.
Then, when she spent time on her own, the script was flipped, the singer painted as someone so unlucky in love she couldn’t make a relationship stick. Never mind that neither extreme was true. However cliché, the speculation was still grating.
“I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime, and I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I don’t like giving comedians the opportunity to make jokes about me at awards shows. I don’t like it when headlines read ‘Careful, Bro, She’ll Write a Song About You,’ because it trivializes my work. And most of all, I don’t like how all these factors add up to build the pressure so high in a new relationship that it gets snuffed out before it even has a chance to start.”
She even went so far as to declare a moratorium on dating, so sure was she that she’d never be able to shatter the links that tied her personal life to her professional career.
“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. “And it took a lot of hard work and altering my decision-making. I didn’t date for two and a half years. Should I have had to do that? No.”
The self-imposed drought ended in February of 2015 when Ellie Goulding decided to introduce her pal to frequent collaborator Calvin Harris. “Calvin is a really great mate and he’s so fantastic, and Taylor is such a cool person who I love. I thought, ‘They’re both really awesome and both really tall, they’ll be brilliant together,'” she told British paper The Sun.
Her thoughtfulness gave a happy spin to Swift’s tale of dating woes. Yes, she’d been put through the wringer—”I’ve had people say really hurtful things about me, and so I’ve kind of learned how to gauge it: ‘This is, like, low-to-medium-level hurtful,'” she told the fashion mag—and, no, it wasn’t at all cool. But celebrating more than one year beside the attractive Scot with an ambition and success record to match her own had helped to dull the aggravation. As she put it to Vogue, “I’m in a magical relationship right now.”
But the issue was barely off newsstands before the duo confirmed the fairy dust had worn off.
“They were just not very compatible in different areas in their relationship,” an insider told E! News of the June 2016 split, adding, “The touring and traveling didn’t help. It seemed like they were more friends than lovers.”
The chemistry was apparent in her next dalliance, cameras catching Swift and British actor Tom Hiddleston kissing their way through a very successful first date in Rhode Island weeks later. But then the photographers remained trained on the pair as they tried to go about the business of forming a successful union. Well-versed in what it was like to suss out potential in a partner while being trailed by, as she once put it, “20 men with cameras,” Swift reportedly suggested trying a more under-the-radar approach.
After all, she had already heard One Direction standout Styles gripe that having their early dates captured on film “was a learning experience for sure,” and Harris also gave his take about the heavy attention they endured after their split. “It’s very difficult when something I consider so personal plays out very publicly,” he told Billboard.
And, as she once put it to Vanity Fair of her relationship style, “I usually don’t make the same mistake twice. I make new ones, but I don’t usually repeat my old ones.”
So perhaps, she thought, a bit of privacy was in order.
But then, there Hiddleston was donning an “I ♥ T.S.” tank (worn, jokingly, he later clarified, to protect a wound on his back from the sun) at her annual Fourth of July bash and gushing to The Hollywood Reporter about how they were “together and we’re very happy.” And it all became a bit too much for Swift.
By September, their 12-week dalliance had flamed out. “Taylor felt he wanted to take the relationship to be too public,” a source told E! News of their amicable split, “and she was not happy about it.”
Desperate to finally keep her personal activities shrouded in a bit of mystery, she knew she had to try a different tack when she was introduced to the man The Hollywood Reporter had hailed as the next big thing. At 6-foot-1, dashing and trained at London’s Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, Alwyn checked off many of her “ideal guy” boxes, a source once telling Us Weekly she favors men of the hot, smart, talented and British variety.
So she decided to treat their burgeoning romance as carefully as she would digital files for an upcoming album. (According to pal Ed Sheeran, he once received a single track on an iPad, hand delivered in a locked briefcase.)
“It was her goal to keep it a secret,” an insider told E! News, adding that the “You Need to Calm Down” singer “barely told any of her friends.”
In the early months, 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. “It’s made things more special and sacred.”
The select few that got a chance to witness their love were left impressed.
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 more coyly answered, “Honestly, if my friends are happy, that makes me happy,” when asked about her pal’s romance during an interview on SiriusXM’s The Morning Mash Up.
The Mary Queen of Scots star also passed muster with the singer’s most crucial bestie, mom Andrea Swift.”Her parents love Joe,” a source told Us Weekly, adding his family “adores her” as well. An 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.
And as the votes of confidence rolled in, suddenly it didn’t seem all that important to hide.
They’re not going so far as to share the story of how they met (unless the lyrics of “Gorgeous,” “Lover” and “Paper Rings” are meant to be taken as gospel) or even posing on a red carpet together. But they’ve settled into a happy medium that involves taking part in each other’s biggest moments—read: attending award shows and movie premieres—without, you know, talking about how in love they are. (Unless you count Tay telling Vogue that her seventh disc, the appropriately named Lover, “is really a love letter to love, in all of its maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory,” a descriptor so perfect it could only come from someone in the throes of it all.)
“I think we have been successfully very private and that has now sunk in for people,” Alwyn told British Vogue in 2018, “but I really prefer to talk about work.”
So save for complimenting her decision to take her political beliefs public (“I think it’s great, I think it’s important,” Alwyn told a reporter at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival) and commenting on her semi-biographical songwriting (no, he doesn’t mind “London Boy” and other tributes “at all,” he told The Sunday Times, “It’s flattering,”) he’s not getting into the nitty-gritty about just why he fell for the international pop star.
“I think there’s a very clear line as to what somebody should share, or feel like they have to share, and what they don’t want to and shouldn’t have to,” he noted in Esquire‘s Winter 2019 issue.
But with their romance long since outed, they see no reason not to go about their daily lives like any other normal couple. Except that their existences involve packed arenas, movie premieres, Christmas-themed birthday celebrations with the likes of Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and Gigi Hadid (hers) or champagne-fueled London dinners with Sheeran and wife Cherry Seaborn (his).
Plus fantastical trips to Turks & Caicos, Paris and the Maldives. But while private New Year’s Eve serenades are nice, they’re happiest at home, whether that be a Cornelia Street rental or, much more likely of late, a London flat.
That’s where the couple spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and many a quiet weekend in between, filling their time with the occasional walk or trip to the pub with his mates. More often than not, though, says a source, they’re hanging out at home with loved ones: “There’s nothing really exciting or big happening,” says the source. “They just like the simplicity of life in London and visiting with family and friends.”
Exceptions have been made for her big Cats premiere in NYC and this year’s Golden Globes (where her track from the film, “Beautiful Ghosts,” was up for Best Original Song). Walking the red carpet separately, they met up inside the ceremony, settling into their table at The Beverly Hilton, and even grasped hands as they hit up one after-party.
Giving each other shout-outs in acceptance speeches and the pages of Vogue it’s not. But the fact that they’re even willing to be seen in public together represents a clear departure from their earlier days when they’d opt for dinner at home to avoid the possibility that a photographer might be able to capture them in one frame. Whether hitting up an eatery near her Tribeca penthouse or toasting over a dinner of steak and spinach in London, they’ve adopted a pretty standard dating routine.
They’re just not talking about it, okay?
“I’ve learned that if I do [talk about it], people think it’s up for discussion, and our relationship isn’t up for discussion,” she explained to UK’s The Guardian last August.
A lesson courtesy of Professor Alwyn.
“Someone’s private life is by definition private,” he explained to British Vogue of his stance. “No one is obliged to share their personal life.” And after a decade of having every detail of hers thoroughly dissected, Swift is enjoying this new approach. “She’s much happier without her personal life out in the open,” a source shared with Us Weekly. “She credits Joe for that and realizes how much better off she is.”
With more than three years of partnership under their belts, Swift can be confident in her choice. And finding that this level of security has only provided a boon to her career, well, that’s the icing on the cake.
“I remember people asking me, ‘What are you gonna write about if you ever get happy?’ 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,” she shared with Elle last year, an article penned to pass along the wisdom she’d gained during her 30 years on earth. “I’m really grateful to have learned this isn’t true. Finding happiness and inspiration at the same time has been really cool.”
(Originally published May 16, 2020, at 3 a.m. PT)