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Suzanne Ely Headshot

Will the Real Jennifer Aniston Please Stand Up?

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The news of Jennifer Aniston's August 10 engagement came, for many of her fans, followers and media creators, with a big sigh of relief. Finally, a happy turn in her narrative. No more ill-chosen boyfriends, painful breakups, delayed baby dreams and wistful memories of that guy called Brad.

Following the ups and downs of the life and times of "Jenny" or "Jen," as she's known faux-intimately, should come with a warning: "Tracking Jennifer Aniston's life in celebrity media may induce mental and emotional whiplash." I know because I've been writing stories about her for celebrity weeklies since the mid-1990s, right about the same time her public persona was born. And if I've gleaned any special insight through the years (no, it's not that she secretly keeps a voodoo doll of Angelina Jolie by her bedside), it's that the public and private Jennifer long ago merged to form a third entity -- the tabloid emblem of the 21st century everywoman.

Frequently, people curiously ask me, presuming I'm a knowledgeable authority: "Does she really want Brad back?" "Is she really that pathetic?" Or just, "What's Jen really like?"

Curiously, despite the endless stream of paper, film and bandwidth expended on the actual Jennifer, and the hours I've spent researching and reporting on her private life, I don't truly know. Because we all have come to believe in a sort of Madam Tussaud wax figure facsimile of that human.

The honest-to-God "real" Jennifer, the one interviewers, celebrity magazine editors and their consumers attempt to disseminate, has been swallowed up by expectation. We've all fallen for something else, a gloaming between fantasy and reality. Despite having what seems to be unprecedented access to stars nowadays, through spontaneous tweets, a flourishing paparazzi trade that tracks their every move and blogs that speculate, postulate and ruminate over every detail of their off-camera moments, we apparently aren't really seeking absolute truth. We're seeking comfort. Celebrity media is simply mirroring regular human life, and then bedazzling it with sequined spectacle.

Jennifer, the template we follow, is pretty, but not in a threatening, dragon-lady way like, say, Angelina Jolie. She's relatable. And just like so many modern day females, she has experienced rejection and humiliation, has longed for everlasting love and domestic bliss, has vexed over whether or not to have children, has wondered if she's spent too many hours sacrificing for career advancement, all the while slogging through countless hours of yoga and Pilates to achieve physical perfection and metaphysical peace.

Even though Jen has maintained an active love life, she still makes time for her best girlfriends, with whom she enjoys hearty laughs, appreciates a good bottle of Chardonnay and, allegedly, the occasional toke of marijuana. This 21st century gal seems familiar because she is. She's a cross between the unvarnished us we are, and the burnished us we dream of crystalizing into. We look into our celebrity mirror and, for many adult women -- myself included -- Jen is usually who's staring back.

Jennifer is simply our familiar plug-in personality, someone we've known for decades, with whom we can identify, even if she's removed from us by an eight-figure salary, Beverly Hills mansions, fabulous clothes, luxury vacations and movie premieres. Her riches are proof that unbridled success can be ours too. By following Jen, the media image configuration, we are, quite simply, following an outline of the story of ourselves.

After years, now nearly two decades of getting paid to professionally obsess over celebrities, the funny thing is I'm not sure I know them any more intimately than the consumer or reader. They are at once unknowable and intimate; familiar and far away. Who is Jennifer Aniston? She's the actress hired to play you.