Sorry, We Only Have Eyes for You, Penn Badgley: Inside His Marriage, Faith and Struggle With Fame

The 29 year-old Gossip Girl alum has become an unwilling Internet boyfriend thanks to his show's second life on Netflix

By Tierney Bricker Jan 18, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Is Penn Badgley's "You" Character Just Dan From "Gossip Girl?"

Before a Beautiful Boy, there was Lonely Boy.

More than a decade prior to Timothee Chalamet's chiseled cheekbones inspiring a thousand memes on Tumblr, it was Penn Badgley's equally as defined bone structure that young fans were fawning over, thanks to his star-making turn as Dan Humphrey on The CW's Gossip Girl.

Debuting in 2007, GG was one of the first true viral hits of the millennial generation; while never a ratings juggernaut, it was the undoubtedly the most talked about show, influencing fashion trends and launching the careers of its young and beautiful cast, including Blake Lively and Leighton Meester.

Now, those teens who OMG-ed over Lonely Boy all those years ago are young women OMFG-ing over Joe Goldberg on You, thanks to its recent premiere on January, breathing a second life into Lifetime's stalker drama.

We Ranked All the Gossip Girl Couples

For longtime fans of the 32-year-old actor, the parallels between Dan and Joe are undeniable: They are articulate. They love books. They love Brooklyn. They worship tall, gorgeous blondes. They love to stalk, which hey, at least Joe was upfront about, in stark contrast to Gossip Girl's 11th hour rand still-just-as-absurd reveal that (Almost 8-year-old spoiler warning!) than Dan was in fact (and improbably) Gossip Girl. 


"There are parallels, not the least of which is that I'm playing both of them. I'd say in the first scene of the first episode, by every measure, Joe might appear to be Dan, and then he diverges," Badgley told reporters at the TCA Press Tour. "And also, as time goes on, [I'm] probably less interested and more accepting of the fact that there's no way to control people's perception of what it is they're watching. If people want to see the similarities and focus on them, that's fine, because they're there. But trust me, the parallels and comparisons are not lost on me. I can only imagine, like, the worst version of an ad, like, 'If you like Gossip Girl, this one's gonna be a killer.'"

In simpler terms, as he joked to E! News, "In some ways, he's just Dan with a knife."

But seriously, he'd really prefer it if you didn't swoon over his characters. Just look at his sarcastic responses to recent You viewers romanticizing Joe, because what's a little murder when his hair falls just so, right? (In Badgley's own words, he views the show as a "litmus test to see the mental gymnastics that we're still willing to perform on a cultural level, to love an evil white man.") 

Please enjoy this brief rundown of how Badgley has spent his 2019, at least on Twitter, so far.

And after he reached one million followers on Instagram, Badgley took his new fans to task.

"I wake up to find, I'd never thought I'd see the day, but I wake up to find I have a million followers," he started off the video, overcome with fake emotion. "I don't know what to say because all it took was for me to start murdering people. Y'all, get the f—k out of here!"

Consider yourself toast because you just got burned.


And he wants to make it clear—then and especially now—he is nothing like his holier-than-thou anti-heroic characters, even if you can't help but swoon over them.

But Badgley can be just as brooding as his characters—just when it comes to the social commentary You is providing (and ironically proving). 

"I personally was troubled..." he told E! News of taking on the role, knowing .GIFs romanticizing Joe's behavior would likely take over Tumblr. "I understood the appeal, but I was really ambivalent. I was really troubled, and that was also what [executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble] said was appropriate about me playing him. I remain ambivalent. I'm really questioning why people like Joe so much."

In fact, ahead of the premiere, he imagined the response from fans trying to justify their attraction to the serial killer. 

"'Yeah, but he loves her, but he's sweet, but it's a love story!'"  he theorized to E! News. "In what world?! I don't believe that's love. I don't think that love equals this, so I think we have to question, what is love, and if we think this is love, where are we mistaken?"


But before you think it's just Joe that Badgley has no sympathy for, let's not forget he once described Dan Humphrey as a judgmental douchebag," and his contempt for Gossip Girl as it was airing was transparent. (I covered the show extensively for almost its entire six-year run. The number of times I was able to interview Badgley? Zero.) 

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"It's not that I don't like my character. It's just, after a while, you're known as somebody that you're just not, and this is somebody who I so am not. He's not real," he told Vulture. "He's a tool on a show with soap-operatic arcs and he needs to be a judgmental douche bag sometimes. I get that. I don't hate anybody for that. But it sucks when people call me 'Dan' and think that I'm him."

Translation: he definitely hated Dan, so we're sure this observation from Gossip Girl showrunner Joshua Safran in Vanity Fair's 10th anniversary tribute to the show went over well with Badgley. 

"Penn didn't like being on Gossip Girl, but...he was Dan," Safran said. "He may not have liked it, but [his character] was the closest to who he was." 

Reflecting on his attitude toward the show at the end of its run, Badgley admitted to Vulture, "I think there was a phase where I was really upset. I was 23 years old and wanting to be an artist, and I was on a f--king TV show. Going to fashion parties and stuff. I was like, 'What the f--k am I doing?'"

Despite being on one of TV's hottest shows for six years and one-half of young Hollywood's biggest power couples with co-star Blake Lively (Heard of her?), Badgley never felt quite comfortable in the spotlight.

"It really does feel like we're living the show sometimes," he told New York Magazine way back in 2008. "The psychology of celebrity is such a weird and new thing. I think the last time people treated anybody else like this was demigods like in the time of ancient Greece."

And that's how he was feeling just as the show was taking off. 


And it's something he still struggles with now, even if he's learned to cope with the cameras and interest in his personal life better after he began stuffing the Bahá'í faith following his final XOXO sign-off as Gossip Girl.

"I'm really grateful for [the notoriety], but also, you struggle with things," he admitted to People. "The phenomenon of fame is literally invisible, but it influences and dominates your life if you aren't careful. Learning how to accept it and accept that lots of people think they know me is ultimately what led me to seek out such a spiritual perspective."

Originating in Iran and the Middle East in the 1860s, Bahá'í focused on three principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humanity. Around 5-8 million people practice the teachings worldwide.

And it was through his newfound faith that he found "divine love" with Domino Kirke, whom he married in a small Brooklyn courthouse ceremony in February 2017, becoming a step-father to her son, Cassius Riley.

"I don't think I could truly value human love until I developed divine love," Penn revealed to People. "[Domino and I] very much had a romantic beginning, and I think that you discover in marriage that what sustains a marriage for decades—there are less and less people who can tell us this—but I think it has something to do with [divine] love."

Prior to marrying Kirke, a musician, doula and sister to Girls star Jemima Kirke (a millennial triple threat if we've ever heard of one), Badgley's love life was constantly making headlines, despite his continued efforts to keep his relationships under wraps. 

Seth Browarnik/

Of course, that's a little hard to do when Lonely Boy and Serena freakin' Van Der Woodsen, Gossip Girl's central couple, start dating in real-life, blurring the already fine line between fiction and reality for shippers. 

Badgley and Lively would date for the first four years of Gossip Girl, but continued to date on-screen even after their real-life split in 2010. Awkward? Sure, but not as uncomfortable as you'd expect it to be. 

Looking back, Badgley said on Watch What Happens Live that the co-stars were "actually consummately professional, to be honest," following their split. "I think we should both pat ourselves on the back for getting through it—because, you know, anything is complicated in that way, and we handled it."


And after Lively, Badgley entered another high-profile romance with Zoe Kravitz, with the two becoming Brooklyn's unofficial golden couple, with the effortlessly cool Big Little Lies star giving Badgley some needed street cred after starring on a CW show for six years.  

But in a 2013 interview with Movieline, the Greetings from Tim Buckley actor credited Gossip Girl for their romance, explaining, "It gave me the opportunity to live in New York and to be in a position to get this role. It also put me in New York City so I could meet Zoe."

Badgley and Kravitz's romance wasn't a casual fling, it was "love, real, true, earth-shattering love," he said in the interview.

But their two-year romance came to an end later that year, with Badgley's love life seemingly quieting down as he withdrew from the spotlight.

This made the news of his courthouse wedding with Kirke all the more surprising, as the couple had seemingly kept their romance under wraps since they began dating in 2014. 

In the beginning of their relationship, marriage was far from Kirke's mind.

"I was sort of getting used to being a single mom, maybe a little too used to it. A couple of years ago, I was sad and a little scared that that was going to be it for me, but I was good at it," she opened up to  Hey Mama. "I had a really good thing with my kid and we were like this little team. Penn and I were dating, but it wasn't nearly as serious as it is now, of course. I didn't think marriage was in the cards for us." 



And in an interview with Elle in 2013, Badgley reflected on how his parents' divorce had impacted his views on marriage. 

"I think every person's parents teach them a lot and also mess them up royally. I think their separation probably split me down the middle, 50/50. For a while I didn't believe in marriage," he said. "But I think I do believe in having a love. I'm not saying only one love ever, but in having a good, solid relationship. I think that's possible."

And ultimately, "I want the ceremony. I want the bond," he said.


And he got the ceremony—two in fact, as he and Kirke had a second wedding in Upstate New York in June 2017, with celebs such as Mariska Hargitay, Debra Messing and designer Zac Posen in attendance. 

"My first wedding was more of a civil ceremony with about 40 people that was able to join us in a pinch," Kirke explained. "The second one was more planned. 200 people came from all over the world. It just felt necessary to have both." 

While Badgley's views on marriage may not have changed much over the years, his thoughts on another topic definitely have.

In 2013, Badgley definitively declared, "I have been working in television for 13 years now, and you know, I'm just done with it. I have nothing against television, but I'm done."

Fast-forward five years and he's now the Internet's unwilling boyfriend again, thanks to You

So what changed? 


"I definitely took a break," Badgley told The Daily Beast of his hesitant return to TV before You's premiere. "I definitely had to question if I wanted to keep doing what I've been doing. But I'm excited—I think."

He continued, "When it comes to the fame side of things, I don't think anybody, whether they're famous or not, could claim to understand that phenomenon or have any sort of power over it. So I'm just cautious and careful."

And sure, Badgley was excited about the conversation You could potentially provoke and the dialogue it was encouraging its audience to have, there was the whole possibility of becoming very famous again to consider. Was the artist former known as Lonely Boy ready to handle it this time?


"If I'm gonna be 'more famous' or whatever, if that comes along with it then…sure," he said. "I mean, it's not one thing! With it comes blessings, and with it comes burdens, and that's life, right? So I just suppose we'll see."

One million Instagram followers and countless .GIFS later, he has his answer. 

You is available to stream on Netflix, and will return for a second season.