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LIZ JONES: Why I’ve publicly shamed my former partners for over 25 years

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Revenge isn’t just best served cold. It becomes deliciously deadly when dished up in front of a global audience of 17 million open-mouthed people.

Accepting her 13th award at the Grammys earlier this month, Taylor Swift unveiled the title of her new album, due to be released in April.

It’s called The Tortured Poets Department. Her millions of fans and followers instantly grasped its meaning, and hands all over the world shot to mouths.

Because the title is a clear and very sharp stiletto puncturing the shrivelled heart of her British ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn, who is part of a WhatsApp group, alongside actors Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, titled The Tortured Man Club.

Whatever the origins of that name — Alwyn claims it’s a reflection on characters he and Mescal have played in adaptations of Sally Rooney novels — you can’t help but love Taylor’s appropriation of the word ‘tortured’, which she strips of irony and ‘poor me’ factor, and instead pokes fun at.

The newly revealed track titles also suggest this is a break-up album and Alwyn should brace himself. Track five is called So Long, London, where the couple lived; and track 11, I Can Fix Him (No Really, I Can).

Once again, Swift has mined her love life and turned it into art, neatly flipping the usual model of woman as passive muse, man as creative genius.

Alwyn, who broke up with Taylor last year, joins a long list of similarly immortalised exes, and is apparently not happy. A friend told the Daily Mail last week that he ‘has said not one word about the break-up…’ and has ‘removed himself from her narrative and is very glad he did’. He is angry she has written a ‘diss’ album.

I am here to tell you I know exactly what it is like to be Taylor Swift — minus the spangled leotard and billions in the bank, obviously.

Like her, I have always aired my dirty linen in public. In my YOU magazine column, which I’ve written for almost a quarter of a century, I have discussed the flaws and shortcomings of at least five real-life lovers, former and current.

My ex-husband and I have assassinated each other in print on many occasions for the past 15 years. I’ve become famous for my ruthless honesty — to the extent that other women gleefully pick over my life and the identity of my exes in online forums and on social media.

Also like Taylor, I’m often asked why on earth I over-expose so relentlessly. Is it cathartic to belittle and shame, to come out as the winner, to make money from misery? But isn’t it also isolating, self-destructive, humiliating and hurtful?

Wouldn’t I — and Taylor, too — have much more lovely personal lives if we stopped, and wittered on about car parks and flowers instead

Well, yes, yes, yes and yes.

I sat up straight when I read Whatshisname (I had to Google Alwyn, who, after all, is principally famous as Swift’s former arm candy) thinks Taylor has dissed him, because that very morning, in North Yorkshire not Nashville, I received a text from my most recent ex-boyfriend that read, after I tentatively reminded him about Valentine’s Day: ‘I seem to remember being dissed and rejected by you IN YOUR COLUMN.’

(He has a point. And here’s another thing about art: it needs willing idiots. I often poke the bear purely to fill column inches.)

I berated him, an elderly man, for using language only a 12-year-old wannabe gangsta rapper might use. (Though of course we know why they do it. They want to seem tough, current, young, relevant. None of which they are.)

The fact I know Alwyn only as Taylor Swift’s ex struck a chord, too. Men cannot stand it if you are more famous than them; if fans come up to your table at dinner and gush, ignoring them completely, or asking them to take a photo. And they simply detest it if you have a bigger megaphone.

When The Guardian ran a headline above an interview with my then-husband, they called him ‘Mr Jones’. Ouch. That led to him screaming down the phone at me (I paid his mobile bill) when I was on Eurostar, returning from a week at the Paris couture shows.

Liz and ¿Mr Jones¿: With her ex-husband, Nirpal Dhaliwal, in 2005
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Liz and ¿Mr Jones¿: With her ex-husband, Nirpal Dhaliwal, in 2005
‘The problem with airing dirty laundry is that even if someone promises not to read what you¿ve written, it manages to seep under a door, like sewage from a burst riverbank,’ says Liz
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‘The problem with airing dirty laundry is that even if someone promises not to read what you¿ve written, it manages to seep under a door, like sewage from a burst riverbank,’ says Liz
Another thing me and Taylor have in common: once you’re successful, people do love to take your money. Writing about a bullying sibling who once spat ‘You are going to leave all your money to a cats’ home, what about my son?’, means I’ve not heard a peep from either since October 2017.

My defence, and doubtless Taylor’s as well, has always been, well, ‘It’s my job!’ It’s what pays to jet a boyfriend to Ian Fleming’s villa in Jamaica, as I did with my future husband, as well as buying him a car, a Rolex, a wardrobe of designer clothes, and a laptop.

My talent is what makes me who I am and grants you a front row seat at Calvin Klein. If you don’t want a negative review, then how about don’t do anything bad!

But you see, men are generally so arrogant, they think, when you warn them you are a writer, they will only ever get rave reviews. That even if they do cheat, or fail to put out the recycling, you shouldn’t write about it.

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Oh, and that the reason they cheat or are lazy is because you have humiliated them in print or on record. Which isn’t true: my husband cheated secretly for a very long time while my columns about him were glowing.

My favourite Taylor Swift line is from the track All Too Well, thought to be about ex-boyfriend, actor Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest.’ Writing deeply personal stuff that really resonates doesn’t work if it’s too general and cryptic.

Besides, people love to go on a biographical treasure hunt and work it all out. (I never, ever read comments or forums about myself; that way madness lies.)

If you decide to be a writer, you really can’t spare the horses. Believe me, many columnists take the money without spilling their guts. One failed to mention her husband had left her… for another man. Another failed to mention the small detail of her husband having a drink problem.

If you want to cherry-pick, leaving out what is uncomfortable, or embarrassing, don’t take the pay cheque. Write about football, or war, or knitting.

I’m certain Taylor regrets some of the things she has written. The lyric from the song Vigilante S**t — ‘while he was doing lines and crossing all of mine/ Someone told his white collar crimes to the FBI’ — must have caused lawyers sleepless nights.

Similarly, I wrote about my ex extracting a tab of Ecstasy from his wallet at a dinner party attended by my boss, and waggling it in the air. I did, for the first time, run this revelation by him first. To his credit, he replied: ‘Publish and be damned!’

Adele, who would doubtless be working in Boots were it not for the men who have broken her heart, surely has qualms about what her child might read when he is old enough to Google his dear old dad.

In Cry Your Heart Out on her latest album, 30, for example, she writes: ‘I would rather stay home on my own, drink it all away/ Please stop callin’ me, it’s exhausting, there’s really nothin’ left to say.’

I do regret writing some of the more vicious stuff. I feel guilty at telling the world my most recent ex can barely walk five yards and wears dentures he fails to soak overnight. My disclosure that my ex-husband has a stomach that resembles buttocks has surely lost him future dates.

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Sometimes, though, it’s the lines you thought were innocuous that end up offending the most. When I wrote that I am the love of my most recent ex’s life, he complained that his ex-wife thought she was.

READ MORE: Can meeting up after 15 years finally bring closure to our toxic

I’m sure Taylor Swift — like all artists, doubtless racked with doubt, plagued by the fear of writer’s block — is thrilled the current controversy is fuelling lyrics and pre-orders.

I have just received a letter from a reader, asking me to cheer up and count my blessings. But isn’t turmoil, betrayal and revenge the stuff of life? Isn’t that what we want our writers and artists to address?

I wouldn’t have Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black on repeat if she was singing about a sunny day when all was right with the world. Would we all be so feverish to binge-watch the new version of One Day on Netflix if we didn’t know the ending would break our hearts?

The problem with airing dirty laundry is that even if someone promises not to read what you’ve written, it manages to seep under a door, like sewage from a burst riverbank.

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about the horrors of renting, convinced my landlady wouldn’t see it as she’s so busy; but it turns out a friend called her and read it down the phone.

But you have to understand where mine and Taylor’s loyalties lie. They are not with our exes. Not with our families. Not even with ourselves. They are with our female fans, who love our vulnerability and are comforted by the fact that if someone like Taylor Swift can’t keep a man, with her beauty, youth, fame and fortune, then it’s no shame on them if they can’t, either.
Of course, all the Whatshis-nameagains who are cross at Taylor for writing about them never mention the good bits. All my exes, friends, relatives have been spectacularly myopic when it comes to my columns. They never talk about the reams that aren’t about them at all. Or the compliments.

It can be frustrating. I’m sure Taylor, like me, often feels misunderstood, and finds herself in tears. Take when my sister died just before Christmas.

I received an email from my nephew, telling me she had passed away after a very bad week, during which she knew she was dying. But then he told me off for having written about her (fondly) in the past and told me I was on no account to write about her death.

Leaving aside the fact I was grieving, too, don’t my memories belong to me? Am I not allowed to voice them? What about the fact I took her on holiday, paid her electricity bill, never had a cross word? None of that counts, apparently. I wasn’t even invited to the funeral.

The fact is I am a firm believer in freedom of speech trumping others’ feelings. Without it, we would have very few novels, poems, songs, memoirs.

Yes, my most recent ex has been in tears having read my columns. A couple of paragraphs about a brief reunion over Christmas drove him back to smoking. Still, I think it’s my right to write about him.

The berating of women who bare their souls is often sexist, too. When men write about their failed relationships (and they seldom do it well — there is rarely any self reflection, or humour, merely rage) they are applauded as ‘brave’. Brilliant! Hilarious! Booker-worthy!

My ex-husband thinks nothing of writing that I’m racist, old, a borderline paedophile (he’s Indian, and 15 years younger), an OCD clean freak and a rubbish writer whose friends and family hate me.

He believes he is entitled to write about me because he is somehow oppressed, despite working at the BBC when we met. He claims it was my column — which started a few months before we met in 2000, thank you very much — that drove him into the arms of many other women. It was my column that made him drain my bank account and levels of patience.

So all my fault, apparently. If only I had played the little woman, and kept quiet.

I’m reminded of a wonderful line by Isabel Kaplan, who wrote a newspaper piece with the headline: ‘My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer’. She said: ‘In any relationship, there is an expectation of privacy. There is also an expectation of respect. Violate the latter and you relinquish your right to the former.’

The flaw in my argument, of course, is that writing so candidly does put potential lovers off. Taylor, currently in a relationship with Travis Kelce, an American footballer, certainly fares better than I do. He seems man enough to survive any brickbats.

Maybe when I find someone with all his own teeth, who will go up stepladders, I will run out of copy. But as Taylor says: ‘I have this formula for music. If I continue to write songs about my life, and my life is always changing, then my music will always be changing.’ She’s right.

Anyway, back to the new album. Forget Whatshisname who hugged his hurt when he should have held her. Taylor is a genius. As she unveiled the track listing earlier this month, she also revealed an image of hand-written lyrics which presumably feature on one of the songs. As always, they are perfectly apposite.

‘My muses, acquired like bruises,’ she writes. ‘My talismans and charms/ The tick, tick, tick of love bombs/ My veins of pitch black ink’, and she signs off: ‘All’s fair in love and poetry … Sincerely, the Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department.’

Many millions of fans cannot wait to hear it. I suspect Joe Alwyn is rather less keen.

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