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Brad and Jen
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt at the Emmy Awards on September 19,2004. (Reuters Photo)
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Stars' split is tough to tune out

Ruthie Birger, an applied mathematics major at Harvard, pays almost no attention to celebrity culture, but even she heard about the breakup of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

''Someone e-mailed me over the weekend," said Birger, who was sitting at the Harvard Coop Cafe yesterday. ''Do I care? No, but you can't get away from it."

No, you can't. Not since Britney's wedding -- the first one, that is -- has the tabloid press had such a plum story, and they couldn't be more pleased. People magazine, which was the first to break the big news Friday, hustled a special ''Why They Split" issue onto newsstands yesterday, and Us Weekly will publish a story, with exclusive photos of the couple, today.

''For us, it's the equivalent of the presidential election. Literally, our entire staff was called into work over the weekend," said Caroline Schaefer, a senior editor at Us Weekly. ''In the world of Hollywood celebrities, Brad and Jen are an iconic couple. . . . It's really heartbreaking."

Of course, not everyone is so moved by the marital problems of two movie stars who each made $25 million last year, especially with the continuing war in Iraq and South Asia struggling to cope with the unfathomable death and destruction caused by last month's tsunami.

''It's completely outrageous," said Michael Bradley, owner of Quick-Flix, a video store in Cambridge. ''Since the Bennifer thing fizzled, maybe [the media] just need something to talk about."

But attention is nothing new for Pitt and Aniston, who were married in a star-studded ceremony in Malibu in 2000. He is, or at least was, People's ''Sexiest Man Alive," and she starred for many years on ''Friends," the most popular television sitcom since ''Seinfeld." Even by Hollywood standards, the couple's marriage was well chronicled, with every step and on-screen smooch giving rise to one rumor or another. (A persistent and particularly salacious bit of scuttlebutt was that Pitt had a steamy affair last year with Angelina Jolie, his costar in the forthcoming film ''Mr. and Mrs. Smith," and Aniston found out.)

''People are interested because they're both just so huge," said Lisa DeRosa, co-owner of Mitchell John Salon on Broad Street, where the breakup is seemingly on everyone's lips. ''He's like the hottest, and she's also a star. It's the allure of, like, can they make it work?"

The split caught even the most grizzled gossipmongers by surprise. Last week's Star magazine, for example, had the presumably happy couple on the cover with the headline: ''Brad & Jen Back On! It's Baby Time!" The spread inside included photos of the two stars holding hands and cuddling over New Year's on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. (With their celebrity pals Courteney Cox and David Arquette, they stayed at the villa Exclusivity at Captains Bay.)

But during the press junket for ''Ocean's 12," Pitt, who's 41, made noises about wanting to settle down and start a family, while his wife, who's six years younger and in line for every decent female lead role in Hollywood, apparently did not have the same desire. The couple hasn't commented specifically on the cause of their separation, but in a statement issued Friday did say it's ''not the result of any of the speculation reported by the tabloid media."

In its special issue, People reports that the pair is not officially kaput, but rather taking ''a step back to see if their relationship is going to be forever or if it's not. . . . They're searching for the answer." Quoting unidentified sources close to Pitt and Aniston, the magazine also confirms that the couple is at odds over the question of children.

''Whereas Bennifer was out in their Bentley making out, Brad and Jen seemed like people you could actually be friends with," said Schaefer, explaining Us Weekly's soup-to-nuts coverage of the couple. ''They seem like the type of people you could grab a beer with."

No less an expert on tabloid journalism than Jessica Simpson's pop-singer husband, Nick Lachey, said over the weekend that he feels badly that Pitt and Aniston had to endure such intense public scrutiny. Lachey, who's allowed his own marriage to be the subject of a reality TV show, ''Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica," said much of what is reported by the media is untrue. And actress Jennifer Garner, whose budding relationship with Ben Affleck has been breathlessly covered by People and Star, said ''it's awful that people would be talking about their relationship at all."

Birger, who was trying to write a Hebrew paper while sipping coffee at the Coop Cafe , couldn't agree more. She said the attention being paid to Pitt and Aniston is ridiculous and absolutely out of proportion to their talent as actors.

''Really, they're famous because they're so good-looking, and they're a story because they're famous," she said. ''They're pretty good, but they're not Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman."

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