How Jennifer Aniston Has Transcended Tabloid Drama and Become the Fearless Icon We All Love

Jennifer Aniston turned 52 on Thursday, and the years couldn't have been better to the A-list actress.

Jennifer Aniston turns 52 on Thursday, and the years couldn't have been better to the A-list actress.

While Aniston's body of work -- from her Emmy-winning role as Rachel on Friends to her SAG Award-winning role on The Morning Show -- speaks for itself, Aniston is also beloved for her brutally honest and powerful interviews over the years. The subject of endless tabloid fodder thanks to her high-profile romances, Aniston has managed to rise above it all and continuously put out empowering messages for women. 

Let's take a look back at how Aniston has proven to be one of Hollywood's most relatable and strongest role models.

Aniston was thrust into a whole new level of fame when she married Brad Pitt in July 2000, but it's how she handled their breakup that had people talking long after. The actress was remarkably open about how painful the end of her marriage was when they split in 2005 after five years of marriage.

"There are many stages of grief," she told Vanity Fair in a now iconic 2006 interview. "It's sad, something coming to an end. It cracks you open, in a way -- cracks you open to feeling. When you try to avoid the pain, it creates greater pain. I'm a human being, having a human experience in front of the world. I wish it weren't in front of the world. I try really hard to rise above it."

"Am I lonely? Yes. Am I upset? Yes. Am I confused? Yes," she added. "Do I have my days when I've thrown a little pity party for myself? Absolutely. But I'm also doing really well. I've got an unbelievable support team, and I'm a tough cookie. ... I believe in therapy; I think it's an incredible tool in educating the self on the self. I feel very strong. I'm really proud of how I've conducted myself."

Aniston also managed to be honest about the scandal that erupted amid her already difficult split from Pitt -- when he started dating his Mr. & Mrs. Smith co-star, Angelina Jolie -- without disparaging her ex-husband.

"The world was shocked, and I was shocked," she admitted of pictures that came out of Pitt and Jolie on a beach in Africa playing with Jolie's son, Maddox. "I can't say it was one of the highlights of my year. Who would deal with that and say, 'Isn't that sweet! That looks like fun!'? But sh*t happens. You joke and say, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'"

"I would be a robot if I said I didn't feel moments of anger, of hurt, of embarrassment," she added.

Throughout her career, Aniston has managed to be refreshingly candid on a level not often seen with celebrities. For example, when asked about Pitt and Jolie posing for a W magazine feature called "domestic bliss" that many saw as insensitive to Aniston at the time, she again kept it real.

"Is it odd timing? Yeah. But it's not my life," she noted. "He makes his choices. He can do -- whatever. We're divorced, and you can see why."

"Brad is not mean-spirited; he would never intentionally try to rub something in my face," she added. In hindsight, I can see him going, 'Oh -- I can see that that was inconsiderate.' But I know Brad. Brad would say, 'That's art!' ... There's a sensitivity chip that's missing."

Aniston clearly chose to take the high road throughout the scandal -- and admitted to not always having the right answers -- which has endeared her to plenty of fans to this day.

"I'm not interested in taking public potshots," she noted to Vanity Fair. "It's not my concern anymore. What happened to him after the separation -- it's his life now. I've made a conscious effort not to add to the toxicity of this situation. I haven't retaliated. I don't want to be a part of it. I don't have a halo that I'm polishing here; everyone has their personal thoughts. But I would much rather everyone move on."

"I am not defined by this relationship," she added. "I am not defined by the part they're making me play in the triangle. It's maddening to me. But I had a mom who was very angry about her divorce, and made shots, and I don't want to play that out. If people are frustrated that I don't want to do that, I'm sorry. I'm figuring this out as I go along. This is my first time at this particular picnic."

The actress also continued a narrative that she would later talk about at length during her career -- the importance of her close friendships with her girlfriends, including her BFF, Courteney Cox, and also of taking time to be alone. 

"I love being home. I have friends that come over," she shared at the time. "My girlfriends I've had for 20 years. When things happen, the tribe gathers around and lifts you up. I've had lonely moments, sure, but I'm also enjoying being alone. There's no question it takes getting used to ... It's uncharted territory, but I think it's good for me to be a solo person right now. You're forced to re-discover yourself and take it to another level. If you can find a way to see the glass half full, these are the moments when you learn the most. I've had to re-introduce myself to myself in a way that's different."

One persistent rumor Aniston has fought against is the notion that she doesn't want to have children. She addressed this during her interview with Vanity Fair, particularly, pointing out the sexist nature of rumors that Pitt and her split because he wanted children and she didn't.

"A man divorcing would never be accused of choosing career over children," she said at the time. "That really pissed me off. I've never in my life said I didn't want to have children. I did and I do and I will! The women that inspire me are the ones who have careers and children; why would I want to limit myself? I've always wanted to have children, and I would never give up that experience for a career. I want to have it all."

Pregnancy speculation would turn out to be an ever-present rumor Aniston has tirelessly fought back against. In July 2016, she created shockwaves when she penned a widely applauded op-ed for The Huffington Post after her rep debunked rumors she and her now ex-husband, Justin Theroux, were expecting. Aniston explained how hurtful the rumors were to not just her, but to women in general.

"I have grown tired of being part of this narrative, she wrote. "Yes, I may become a mother someday, and since I'm laying it all out there, if I ever do, I will be the first to let you know. But I'm not in pursuit of motherhood because I feel incomplete in some way, as our celebrity news culture would lead us all to believe. I resent being made to feel 'less than' because my body is changing and/or I had a burger for lunch and was photographed from a weird angle and therefore deemed one of two things: 'pregnant' or 'fat.'"

"The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time... but who's counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they're not married with children," she added.

Aniston continued to stress the harmful messages being given to young women especially.

"The message that girls are not pretty unless they're incredibly thin, that they're not worthy of our attention unless they look like a supermodel or an actress on the cover of a magazine is something we're all willingly buying into," she wrote. "This conditioning is something girls then carry into womanhood." 

"Here's where I come out on this topic: we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child," she continued. "We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. We get to determine our own 'happily ever after' for ourselves."

When Marie Claire later asked Aniston why she wrote the powerful op-ed, her response had women everywhere pumping their fists.

"My marital status has been shamed; my divorce status was shamed; my lack of a mate had been shamed; my nipples have been shamed," she pointed out. "It's like, 'Why are we only looking at women through this particular lens of picking us apart? Why are we listening to it?' I just thought: I have worked too hard in this life and this career to be whittled down to a sad, childless human."

In August 2018, she again fought back against the notion that women are thought of as less when they don't have children.

"There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they're deemed damaged goods," she told InStyle magazine. "Maybe my purpose on this planet isn't to procreate. Maybe I have other things I'm supposed to do?"

Aniston was still speaking out in 2019 about the timeline women are often times pressured with. In an interview with Elle, she pointed out that she hasn't ruled out being a mother, but no longer needs to be on a strict schedule to do so.

"Who knows what the future holds in terms of a child and a partnership -- how that child comes in…or doesn't?" she said. "And now with science and miracles, we can do things at different times than we used to be able to. We live in a society that messages women: By this age, you should be married; by this age, you should have children. That's a fairy tale. That's the mold we're slowly trying to break out of."

"What quantifies happiness in someone's life isn't the ideal that was created in the '50s," she continued. "It's not like you hear that narrative about any men. That's part of sexism -- it's always the woman who's scorned and heartbroken and a spinster. It's never the opposite. The unfortunate thing is, a lot of it comes from women. Maybe those are women who haven't figured out that they have the power, that they have the ability to achieve a sense of inner happiness."

Clearly, Aniston has no issue being on her own. In her first major interview following her split from Theroux in February 2018 after two years of marriage, she told InStyle that she was not pining over their breakup.                                                                                  

"It's pretty crazy. The misconceptions are 'Jen can't keep a man,' ... Or that I'm sad and heartbroken," Aniston said. "First, with all due respect, I'm not heartbroken."

"When a couple breaks up in Hollywood, it's the woman who is scorned," she added. "The woman is left sad and alone. She's the failure. F that. When was the last time you read about a divorced, childless man referred to as a spinster?"

Aniston also candidly brought up tabloid rumors that she refuses to have a baby because of her thriving career and points out how hurtful they are.

"The misconceptions are ... 'Jen refuses to have a baby because she's selfish and committed to her career,'" she noted, calling the assumption "reckless." "No one knows what's going on behind closed doors. No one considers how sensitive that might be for my partner and me. They don't know what I've been through medically or emotionally."

She noted that she was OK with not being a parent.

"There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they’re deemed damaged goods," she told the magazine. "Maybe my purpose on this planet isn't to procreate. Maybe I have other things I’m supposed to do?"

Aside from chatter about Aniston's personal life, plenty of attention has of course been focused on her famously fit body and looks. And while she's clearly aged with plenty of grace through the years and still looks incredible, she's also taken time to point out the importance of inner happiness. Aniston has long been a proponent of therapy and has repeatedly spoken out about mental health. In a Glamour Q&A with her We're the Millers co-star, Jason Sudeikis, in July 2013, she touted the benefits of therapy.

"Go to therapy. Clean up all of the sh*t," she said about what advice she'd give herself in her thirties. "Clean up all of the toxins and the noise. Understand who you are. Educate yourself on the self. ... you can undo a lot of things. If you're not happy, you can become happy. Happiness is a choice. That's the thing I really feel. Like with friends who refuse to get happy, who refuse to rise above the discomfort of where they're at."

In another Q&A with Glamour in August 2017, she talked about how she's been able to become comfortable in her own skin.

"You have to start with being in love with [who] you are, with who you've become," she said about not overly stressing about her looks. "I've been a very fortunate woman in that I have a group of girlfriends that are about as deep and conscious and mindful as they come. That to me is what beauty is. It's being as full and complete of a human being as you possibly can be. And that means going to therapy, figuring out your darker corners, and getting to work on them, so you're not passing on your negative experiences -- and trying to become a fully realized human being, so you can go out in the world and bring that to people."

Aniston has not been shy about embracing her age. In August 2011, she talked to Alicia Keys and Demi Moore in a Glamour Q&A about feeling better than ever in her forties.

"Being this side of 40 feels like what I should have felt being this side of 25: in my body, in my heart, happy with my life, and OK with whatever bumps in the road present themselves," she said.

In 2019, she talked about still feeling "incredible" at 50, while covering the October issue of InStyle that year.

"Fifty was the first time I thought, 'Well, that number,'" Aniston acknowledged. "I don't know what it is because I don't feel any different. Things aren't shutting down in any way. I feel physically incredible."

"It's weird that it's all of a sudden getting telegraphed in a way that's like, 'You look amazing for your age,'" Aniston continued. "I think we need to establish some etiquette around that dialogue and verbiage."

But Aniston has always been refreshingly accepting of embracing bumps in the road when it comes to her extraordinary life. In her Vanity Fair interview now almost 16 years ago, she talked about constantly evolving and keeping her heart open. 

"I feel pretty good about the choices I've made," she noted. " ... I wouldn't change my childhood, I wouldn't change my heartaches, I wouldn't change my successes. I wouldn't change any of it, because I really love who I am, and am continuing to become."

"Besides, it's all in the past," she added. "This doesn't kill you. You move on. You can't let the devastation of a divorce take over and win -- let it make you this bitter, closed-off, angry, skeptical person. Then you're just falling victim to it. You don't want to shut your heart down. You don't want to feel that when a marriage ends, your life is over. You can survive anything. Compared to what other people are surviving out there in the world, this is not so bad, in the grand scheme of things. Human endurance is unbelievable. Think of what mothers of soldiers have to rise above."

Clearly, Aniston has in fact moved on from both her high-profile splits. She celebrated her 50th birthday with a star-studded party at Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles in 2019, where Pitt made a surprising appearance. An eyewitness told ET that Pitt arrived with his security team around 45 minutes after his ex-wife, and seemed to be in a "good mood and happy to be there." 

But he was far from the only A-list celeb to take time out to celebrate Aniston on her milestone birthday. The actress' party guests included another of one Pitt's exes, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as George and Amal Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Reese Witherspoon, Ellen DeGeneres, Kate Hudson and more, proving just how beloved Aniston is in Hollywood.

Paltrow summed it up best when she Instagrammed photo booth pics with Aniston from inside the party, writing, "Happy birthday to #jenniferaniston our ray of sunshine, example of perpetual goodness. We love you so much."

Ahead of her 51st birthday in February 2020, Aniston said she still envisioned kids in her future during an intimate chat with her good friend, Sandra Bullock, for Interview magazine.

When Bullock asked her what she was looking forward to doing that she hasn't done yet, she replied, "It's not so much what I see myself doing, but it's more like a little screenshot in my brain, where I hear the ocean, I see the ocean, I hear laughter, I see kids running, I hear ice in a glass, I smell food being cooked. That's the joyous snapshot in my head."

Aniston's relationship with Pitt has also gone full circle. After both fans and fellow celebrities alike couldn't get enough of their picture-perfect backstage reunion at the at 2020 SAG Awards -- marking the first time in over a decade that they've been publicly photographed together -- a  source told ET that both Pitt and Aniston have definitely moved on from their complex past and that the 57-year-old actor, in particular, has "apologized" for some of the past issues in their relationship.

"Brad is completely sober now and is in such a different place than he was when they were together," the source said. "He has apologized to her for many things he felt were his issues in their relationship. He truly takes ownership for his mistakes and that has changed their relationship with each other today. They both have moved on."

For more with the birthday girl, watch the video below.