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The Art of the not-so-Soft Launch: Emma Chamberlain and Role Model’s Valentine’s Day Debut

Emma Chamberlain in a video for Chamberlain Coffee in 2020.
Emma Chamberlain in a video for Chamberlain Coffee in 2020. By Courtesy of John Park / Wikimedia Commons
By Kate E. Ravenscroft, Contributing Writer

Emma Chamberlain, sporting a dark shag haircut and colorful, preppy yet groovy garb, sits on the counter of a mid-century style kitchen. She is accompanied by her boyfriend Role Model, aka Tucker Pillsbury, who wears similar styles and cracks an egg into a pan from a dangerously high height.

This is how the couple appeared in GQ’s Valentine’s Day article, “This is Emma Chamberlain and Role Model’s Hard Launch.” The photos present a series of dichotomies — they are simultaneously authentically vintage and intensely modern; childishly playful and deeply mature; stylized and editorial yet candid in their display of the couple’s dynamic. They feature bright colors, a mid-century modern setting and stylistic elements of the ’60s and ’70s, yet still capture Gen Z stylistic influences with their distinct androgyny and uniquity.

This same sense of cultural relevance is echoed in the inherent discourse of the accompanying article that discusses the "soft launch” phenomenon, or the nonchalant posting of one’s significant other as a means of announcing a relationship often characterized by posts that maintain a significant other’s anonymity.

The GQ piece demands one’s attention, but what about it is so compelling?

Thanks to social media, anyone can be a public figure; cultivating a personal brand is no longer an act reserved for celebrities. Throughout the years, a variety of aesthetic social media trends have taken hold. However, nowadays the “coolest” young influencers are embodying relaxed public personas characterized by effortless beauty and understated presentations of luxury.

Although the occasional red carpet photo or magazine cover remain staples in the celebrity Instagram hand book, the posts of trend-setting young people like Olivia Rodrigo, Timothée Chalamet, and Victoria Paris largely demonstrate an aesthetic turn away from traditional “flex culture.” Influencers once promoted their lives with hyper-posed photos depicting inordinate amounts of wealth; however, the new genre of post is characterized by “low effort” glimpses into everyday life, candid photography, and snippets of art one enjoys, a genre dubbed as “casual posting.”

The soft launch is a key component of this tonal shift — an extension of this carefree attitude, applied to the romantic entanglements of Gen Z. Gen Z-exclusive terms such as “situationship,” “talking stage,” and “soft launch” were recently and accurately highlighted by Tik Toker @_asthecrowflies_ to minimize the significance of romantic relationships. The popularization of this lingo serves as a romantic accompaniment to this laissez-faire, “too-cool-to-care” presentation that many young people, ironically, work tirelessly to portray online.

The grander philosophy of this internet presence was spearheaded by Emma Chamberlain. Although Chamberlain rose to prominence on Youtube in the late 2010s, in recent years she has become known for her collaborations with major fashion brands, her start-up coffee company, and revamped vlog style. Her more recent video content romanticizes the mundane and echoes the sentiments of the carefree attitude that the soft launch epitomizes.

In a world where everyone is constantly posting about everything all the time, the idea of a popular influencer being in a secret relationship feels novel and fascinating. Over the past couple of years, Chamberlain and Pillsbury have capitalized on this fascination, holding sacred their egregiously anonymous presentations of each other to the public. Despite the calculated and purposeful effect of many of their soft launch posts, the GQ article and its accompanying photoshoot subvert the idea that their relationship was a calculated stunt.

Regardless of the editorial nature inherent to a magazine shoot, photographer Zamar Velez astutely captures the candid energy for which Chamberlain and Pillsbury are famous. The fashion showcased in these images feels unapologetically genuine to both, encapsulating their respective playful yet down-to-earth attitudes and styles. Each outfit shines in its own right, yet is complemented and enhanced by the pieces worn by their counterpart.

Writer Eileen Cartter highlights the premise of the shoot as the two “playing house” early on in the article, a theme which is clearly portrayed in the posing of the creatives. Each image feels as though the viewer were peeking into an intimately candid moment between the pair, and some of the photos are legitimate candids of the couple simply fooling around. This casual attitude should feel out of place in this editorial context; however, it serves to enhance the art by demonstrating their individuality and ingenuity.

In other images, the couple stares into the camera knowingly, confronting the existence of onlookers. Here, Chamberlain and Pillsbury actively break the fourth wall between celebrity and viewer, challenging the parasocial context in which the public exclusively perceives.

By emphasizing authenticity in their announcement photos, the pair subverts the typical celebrity-couple announcement. This subversion is thematically consistent with their subversion of their own soft launch. The couple’s rejection of the soft launch trend as it has come to be, as manifested in this “hard launch,” indicates a rejection of the pretension that the soft launch currently represents — highlighting their dedication to authenticity.

The cultural significance of this “hard launch” was not only instigated by months of private-but-not-secret posting from the pair, but also a rejection of the pressure of doing so. The symbolic nature of their announcement is enhanced by the artistic potency of its accompanying photography — a raw demonstration of the couple's cultural and artistic uniquity. It would not be surprising if the iconic effect of the announcement culminates in a new “hard launch” trend for relationships in the coming months that centers around carelessly declaring relationships as opposed to meticulously teasing them. Once again, Chamberlain and Role Model prove themselves as cultural and artistic juggernauts.

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