Is Taylor Swift a WAG?

It was a story too captivating to ignore: one of the world’s biggest pop stars at the height of her powers, falling in love with the strapping athlete at the peak of his game. It is both odd and thrilling to see her as a spectator, but because wherever she is becomes center stage, the cameras are trained on her, all the same.

Her stardom has brought new attention and interest to his sport, a notion that makes some of the most ardent, old-school fans and figureheads wring their hands. All of it — the media frenzy, the surge of new fans and especially the beautiful, famous woman sitting behind the tinted glass in the luxury box — is ruining the game, they say. That, too, is a narrative that is hard to resist.

The woman in this particular tale is Victoria Beckham (nee Adams), former Spice Girl, now an accomplished fashion designer and longtime partner of English soccer great David Beckham, who at the turn of the 21st century helped usher in a new kind of celebrity archetype: the WAG.

WAG stands for “wives and girlfriends,” and though the term is a tabloid invention from a specific time (the early aughts) and place (England), we (Americans) are in the throes of a WAG renaissance — or even, a new WAG order.

At the forefront, of course, are Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, whose every Trader Joe’s ice cream run and private jet flight over the past few months has been chronicled and dissected by the media and Swift’s legions of fans. But even before Swift began publicly dating Kelce in September, WAGs had been taking center stage in new, notable ways.

Savannah James, LeBron’s wife, landed on the cover of the Cut, New York Magazine’s women’s publication, in 2023, after years spent avoiding the limelight. Simone Biles, who married Green Bay Packer Jonathan Owens last year, became a fixture at home games, hugging her hubby on the sidelines and posting group hangs with other Green Bay WAGs on social media. Ayesha Curry, wife of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, expanded her Sweet July lifestyle empire with a new skin care line. Following Swift’s first appearance in Kansas City, WAG retrospectives and explainers landed everywhere from the “Today” show to Vogue Australia.

On its face, the trend seems retrograde. While the WAG lifestyle may be aspirational, as a label it has been frequently applied in demeaning and sexist ways. But a new generation of WAGs is complicating the power dynamics that used to rule these relationships — and even redefining its meaning. After all, if the WAG is merely the sexualized plus-one, doesn’t that make Kelce the WAG in this relationship?

The spouses of famous athletes have long been a subject of fascination and gossip — especially when they, too, are famous, such as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. But the term “WAG” can be traced back to a 2002 article in the Telegraph newspaper that chronicled a Dubai holiday for English soccer players and their partners. The nickname was credited to the Jumeirah Beach Club, whose employees reportedly referred to the women that way among themselves.

The WAGmother, of course, was Victoria Beckham, whose relationship with David was both glamorized and vilified by the British tabloids from the start. The interest spread, however, to her WAG contemporaries — the beautiful, “rags to riches” new-money jet set, whose outfits, nights out and mannerisms made rich fodder for Britain’s redtop publications. The tone was at once that of fascination and disdain. This was never more clear than at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where the WAG exploits off the pitch — dancing drunk on tables, five-figure shopping sprees — outshone their partners’ lackluster performance in the tournament. (The WAGs were subsequently banned from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.)

This fervor didn’t translate to the United States at the time. Compared to their British peers, American media outlets were far less bullish in probing the private lives of star athletes (TMZ Sports didn’t debut until 2013). Sports celebrity was also far more concentrated in Britain, where soccer players commanded the lion’s share of national passion, consternation — and money.

While less intense than their British counterparts, American WAGs netted their fair share of recognition and, at times, scorn. In 2007, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady began dating, as did Jessica Simpson and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. (During the course of their relationship — and afterward — Simpson was blamed for Romo’s spotty on-the-field performance.) Several years later, the Real Housewives-esque reality TV show “Basketball Wives” premiered (201o), and Kim Kardashian married basketball player Kris Humphries (2011).

The surface glamour of the WAG lifestyle has always been part of its appeal, said Jenna Lemoncelli, a reporter for the New York Post who covers the intersection of sports and entertainment. But it’s also a life that demands an intense level of sacrifice and responsibility, she said: Everything revolves around the sport and ensuring that their partner can continue to play it at the highest levels.

“It is kind of putting yourself on the back burner a little bit,” said Lemoncelli. And it takes “really thick skin.”

Weddings and pregnancies are planned around the season. Travel and moving are constants, making it difficult to establish roots in one place or build one’s career. When the season is underway, these spouses essentially operate as one-parent households — taking charge of oil changes, home repairs, child care, pet care and schooling. Supplementing their partner’s nutritional, physical and emotional needs is a mammoth task, as is becoming their caretaker when they get injured.

On a recent episode of her podcast, Kelly Stafford, wife of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, noted how the pressures of her husband’s job affected her: “I was so nervous that Super Bowl year for Matthew, every game, I couldn’t hold anything down. I was miserable,” Stafford said.

“I think I weighed 90 pounds,” she added.

When WAGs landed in the spotlight, it was because they had run afoul of the unwritten rules of WAGdom: Be pretty, show up at the games and don’t take up too much space.

Take Ayesha Curry, who drew backlash in 2016 for her tweets during the NBA Finals. Curry had already become a polarizing figure online for sharing a few choice opinions. (“Everyone’s into barely wearing clothes these days huh? Not my style,” she tweeted months earlier.) When she complained during the Finals about the referees’ calls — and how her family was treated — the backlash was swift and furious.

In response, sports commentator Stephen A. Smith chastised her as “classless” and for stepping “out of line.” Smith then drew a comparison between Curry’s demeanor and Savannah James’s.

“[Savannah] sits there, doesn’t bring any attention to herself. She never tweets and goes out there and calls out the league and stuff like that,” Smith said.

Alleged cattiness and infighting had come to define media portrayals of the WAGs, culminating in the 2019 “Wagatha Christie” scandal, in which Coleen Rooney, wife of former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, publicly accused fellow WAG Rebekah Vardy of leaking stories about her to the tabloids. (The drama concluded in a libel suit that Vardy lost in 2022.)

In truth, the friendships WAGs form with each other are crucial in maintaining stability and a sense of sanity, Lemoncelli said.

“It is a special club that you can’t talk to anybody about what it’s like except for each other,” she said. “They all do lean on each other, and they are all pretty friendly and champion each other.”

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They’re also proud of their WAG status. The WAGs of the Philadelphia Eagles — the so-called “EaGals” — even threw a branded soiree this holiday season.

According to Lemoncelli, interest in WAGs has surged recently. She first pitched her beat (with its specific interest in WAGs) in 2019, making the New York Post one of the few outlets that was regularly covering — and talking to — WAGs as people of interest in their own right: chronicling their controversies, business deals and group hangs. Now, she’s competing with the likes of Us Weekly, People Magazine and “Entertainment Tonight.”

“Last year, it started to pick up speed and momentum like I have never seen,” she said.

Swift’s relationship with Kelce comes at a time when athletes, increasingly, are building brands off the field and, unlike the David Beckham of yore, are being celebrated for it. And with their deals, businesses, podcasts and curated social media feeds comes increasing ownership over their image and narrative.

The same holds true for their partners. While no one can rival Swift’s global fame, many WAGs are building their own businesses and followings; in more and more cases, they are entering these relationships with as much money and influence — sometimes even more — than their athlete partner.

A WAG doesn’t have to be Taylor Swift or Gabrielle Union to do that, noted Madeline Hill, who has run the sports gossip newsletter “Impersonal Foul” since 2020 (its tagline: “If Bravo and ESPN had a baby”). Social media entrepreneurs such as Alix Earle and Olivia Culpo have introduced their audiences to the likes of Braxton Berrios and Christian McCaffrey, and helped showcase an endearing new side of their partners to the world. On the HBO show “Hard Knocks,” Miami Dolphins receiver Berrios recounted how Earle tweezed his eyebrows on her TikTok, prompting tears and a follow-up conversation about personal grooming during practice.

Like Swift (but on a much smaller scale), the new WAG has helped endear her athlete partner to new audiences, said Hill: people who are less enamored with the front-office gossip that drives “serious” sports conversation (talk of “blue-chip” recruits and draft prospects) than they are the people at the center of it all. Sports fans who feel as comfortable talking about an athlete’s personal style as they are about trade deadlines. The new WAG may even defy heterosexual norms, rather than reinforce them — what athlete couple has matched the star power and swagger of Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe?

Though the toxicity of the WAG label still lingers — it didn’t take long for Chiefs fans to blame Swift for the team’s lackluster performance midseason — the new WAG can no longer be dismissed as just a pretty accessory.

“Swift is having such an impact on the way people think about sports, think about how women engage and consume sports content,” Hill said. She’s interested in seeing how other WAGs might step into the spotlight; how Swift’s shine may create more opportunities for women such as Brittany Mahomes and Kristin Juszczyk (pronounced yooz-chick) who are now in her orbit.

“We’re just at the top of the roller coaster.”

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