Ross and Rachel for the TikTok age: how Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s romance captured the world

She’s just won best album at the Grammys; he may well win the Super Bowl. Is their romance a political conspiracy, money-making enterprise or just as simple as true love?

Taylor Swift Kisses Travis Kelce in New Photo

Even among modern pop armies, Taylor Swift fans stand out for their devotion to their idol. But in the past year they’ve surpassed themselves, flocking to stadiums for the Eras tour, to cinemas for the concert movie, and often both, multiple times. Now the Swifties are tuning in to the NFL, getting behind her new boyfriend Travis Kelce, the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Since their romance last summer, Swift has become a fixture of the Chiefs’ games this season, often spotted in the box with Kelce’s family, and drawing fans to the field in their droves. Now speculation over their relationship is at such fever pitch, there’s been talk of a proposal at the Super Bowl on Sunday, when the Chiefs play the San Francisco 49ers. Swift is expected to fly from Tokyo to attend.

While her previous relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn was remarkable for its privacy, Swift and Kelce’s relationship has played out in public. Attending Swift’s Kansas City show in July, Kelce tried and failed to pass his number to her backstage, joking on his podcast that he was “throwing the ball in her court”. Swift duly caught wind of it. In October, weeks after Swift’s first appearance at a Chiefs game, Kelce bought a $6m mansion in a gated community in Missouri, reportedly to give them greater privacy. A month later, he went to see Swift perform in Buenos Aires – and she amended the lyrics to Karma to shout out her “guy on the Chiefs”. She was filmed later running off the stage and into his arms.

We have seen more of Swift in the past six months with Kelce than we did in her six years with Alwyn – and she and Kelce have become one of the most famous couples in the US, if not the world.

The attention on them stretches far beyond their respective fandoms, highlighting our enduring obsession with romance and celebrity couples to pin it to. But in this age of 24/7 social-media surveillance, many have either lost their sheen or taken cover. It’s telling that companies have had to lean on past loves for their much-hyped Super Bowl commercials, with Uber reuniting Ross and Rachel from Friends.

Swift at the Kansas City Chiefs game against Miami Dolphins in January. Swift at the Kansas City Chiefs game against Miami Dolphins in January. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Like Posh and Becks, another of the last great celebrity love stories, Swift and Kelce invoke an instantly recognisable narrative – of the overachieving homecoming queen (or, as Swift prefers to style herself, the cat-loving swot on the bleachers) and the football hero with a heart of gold.

Kelce’s old tweets paint a wholesome picture of simple pleasures, among them feeding squirrels and MGMT’s Electric Feel. Swift, too, is known by fans to be a dork at heart. She must be the only honoree of Time magazine’s person of the year to respond, earnestly and unabashedly, with a reference to Harry Potter.

As a couple, Swift and Kelce are easy to root for, too: both 34 (a respectable age), at the top of their respective games, and – of course – conventionally attractive and white. With the global sports and entertainment industries aligned behind them, they seem unstoppable. It’s perhaps no surprise that some Trump supporters are claiming that the romance is political propaganda, staged to swing a win for Biden (who Swift endorsed in 2020) – something the New York Times has called “the silliest possible conspiracy theory”.

According to the gossip columnist Hunter Harris, it’s almost an unnervingly perfect union. “It feels like a glitch in the matrix, a one-in-a-trillion chance, that the woman who just won album of the year at the Grammys is dating the guy about to win the Super Bowl.”

Their fans, at least, are buying it – and quite literally. In terms of brand awareness, based on social media posts and press coverage, Swift’s presence at games is estimated to have boosted the Chiefs’ profile by a reach worth $331m (£260m), as well as driving a 20% surge in sponsorship.

Meanwhile, the number of young women following this NFL season has soared – by an estimated 2 million viewers to a single Chiefs game. Swift, the San Francisco Chronicle claims, has achieved the seemingly impossible, and “made the NFL even bigger”.

It is prime evidence of the “Taylor Swift effect”, seeing the pop star talked about in terms usually reserved for corporations, if not countries. Last November, she was credited (along with Beyoncé) with a better-than-expected 5% boost to US GDP. The Eras tour is already the biggest in history, generating $1bn in revenue with nearly a year yet to go.

Kelce is similarly ambitious, having signed with a management agency when he was still in college for a shot at being “as famous as The Rock”. You can see why, says Harris: “He’s charismatic and has the gift of the gab.” His new relationship has helped to hasten stardom along, with offers of TV appearances and film scripts. At one point Kelce was said to be gaining 124,000 new followers on X every time Swift attended one of his games.

With 95m followers to Kelce’s 1.2m, Swift Inc might not be able to get any bigger – but she’s also seen benefits from the merger. It’s erased her brief fling with Matty Healy, the controversial singer of the 1975, which left many fans feeling betrayed. And it’s cemented her standing as the most famous woman in the world, after a long period of privacy. Indeed, the unmistakable leaking to press from sources “close to Swift” alleging that Alwyn was threatened by her success suggests she too might have grown tired of keeping a low profile.

At the end of her banner year, Swift’s romance has repositioned her in the public consciousness from the all-conquering (even off-puttingly capitalist) queen of pop, to a young woman in love.

In 2022, Swift was under fire for contributing to global emissions with her frequent jaunts on her private jet. Until Tuesday, when she joined Elon Musk in threatening legal action against the college student publicising their flights, coverage centred on whether that jet would get her from Tokyo to the US in time to see her boyfriend win the Super Bowl.

Despite all the publicity, Harris doubts that the relationship is just for show. It may have started that way, but “Taylor Swift is already galactically famous without Travis Kelce”, she says. “If anything, this just seems like the quickest way for her to achieve oversaturation.”

Whatever the split between business and pleasure, “Tayvis” is an all-American romance in more ways than one: highly marketable, slightly too sweet and served in ample portions. It’s telling of a time sorely lacking in romance, let alone fairy tales, that we’re filling our plate and asking for more. As Swift sang, it’s a love story – just say yes.

Well, 2023 didn’t exactly go to plan, did it?

Here in the UK, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, had promised us a government of stability and competence – not forgetting professionalism, integrity and accountability – after the rollercoaster ride of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Remember Liz? These days she seems like a long forgotten comedy act. Instead, Sunak took us even further through the looking-glass into the Conservative psychodrama.

Elsewhere, the picture has been no better. In the US, Donald Trump is now many people’s favourite to become president again. In Ukraine, the war has dragged on with no end in sight. The danger of the rest of the world getting battle fatigue and losing interest all too apparent. Then there is the war in the Middle East and not forgetting the climate crisis …

But a new year brings new hope. There are elections in many countries, including the UK and the US. We have to believe in change. That something better is possible. The Guardian will continue to cover events from all over the world and our reporting now feels especially important. But running a news gathering organisation doesn’t come cheap.

So this year, I am asking you – if you can afford it – to give money. Well, not to me personally – though you can if you like – but to the Guardian. The average monthly support in Vietnam is around $4, however much you give, all that matters is you’re choosing to support open, independent journalism.

With your help, we can make our journalism free to everyone. You won’t ever find any of our news reports or comment pieces tucked away behind a paywall. We couldn’t do this without you. Unlike our politicians, when we say we are in this together we mean it.

Happy new year!

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