The celebrities and pop culture events we’re thankful for in 2021: Reunions, bombshells and more

In a year packed with difficult news, there were still numerous moments the entertainment industry supplied immeasurable joy. Whether it was red carpet returns, rekindled loves or Hollywood shakeups, there was plenty to celebrate. Join as we run through some of the celebrities and pop culture events from the last year that we’re thankful for… starting with our six favorite television amigos getting together for the first time in more than a decade. “Friends: The Reunion” brought stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer to the same table for a streaming special that fans were waiting for since the classic sitcom wrapped in 2004. The heartfelt occasion saw the cast revisiting the sets of the original show, meeting with many of the series’ beloved guest stars, doing table reads and re-enactments of fan favorite episodes and sharing behind-the-scenes secrets. The stars could barely hold back the tears while taking part in the reunion, and the same went for fans who tuned in.

Keep reading for more of our favorite pop culture moments from 2021 that have us giving thanks…

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Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan faced insurmountable scrutiny when they made the decision to step down as senior members of Britain’s royal family and move to the former actress’s native Southern California in early 2020. The couple finally addressed the public in a March interview with Oprah Winfrey on CBS and proceeded to drop bombshell after bombshell during the two-hour special, making it the biggest piece of must-see television of 2021. Meghan, who’s of mixed race, alleged that there’s racism in the royal family, indicating that at least one of Harry’s relatives was openly concerned about how dark their son Archie’s skin would be. (Although she and Harry both refused to identify the family member who made the comment, Harry told Oprah it was not Queen Elizabeth II or the late Prince Philip.) Further, Meghan and Harry both said the family didn’t protect them from falsehoods in the press. The explosive interview touched on a slew of headline-making issues including Meghan’s suicidal thoughts during her first pregnancy and allegations the palace refused to help; claims that son Archie wouldn’t get palace protection; a clarification that Duchess Kate made her cry before her 2018 wedding, not the other way around as had been reported; Harry’s strained relationship with brother Prince William and dad Prince Charles, who Harry said stopped taking his calls as he and Meghan were contemplating new roles early last year. Harry also said the royal family lives in a “toxic environment.” Just three months after the program aired, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made headlines again when they welcomed their second child, daughter Lilibet “Lili” Diana Mountbatten-Windsor.

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After spending more than 13 years living under a conservatorship, 2021 saw Britney Spears regain both her freedom and her voice. In February, the pop star got a huge boost of public support following the release of a documentary made The New York Times and FX, “Framing Britney Spears,” which took a closer look at the intense media scrutiny the pop star faced in her 20s as well as her fraught relationship with her father and conservator, Jamie Spears. But an even larger swell of support came in June after Britney — during a public conservatorship hearing — unloaded on her father, her family, others involved in the conservatorships over her person and her finances, a former doctor, her management team and more. She dropped bombshell after bombshell about her alleged treatment, especially in recent years, and indicated to the judge that she was desperate to end the arrangement. “I just want my life back,” she said during an emotional, powerful 23-minute address to the court. In July, the singer was granted permission to hire a new attorney, who filed for her father’s removal as conservator of her estate. Despite initially opposing the move, Jamie eventually agreed and was suspended from the conservatorship in September with an accountant replacing him on a temporary basis until the entire arrangement was permanently terminated in November.

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One of the most high-profile couples of all time made a massive comeback in 2021: Bennifer! At the start of the year, Ben Affleck was still dating actress Ana de Armas and Jennifer Lopez was planning a wedding with Alex Rodriguez. But Ben and Ana broke up a few months later, followed by J.Lo and A-Rod. Weeks after both stars officially became single, Bennifer was back on 17 years after they called it quits and ended an engagement. In late April, reports revealed Ben had been spending time at J.Lo’s Los Angeles home, and photos of them in Miami and Montana confirmed that they were giving things another go. The romance, it seems, can be attributed to the power of the pen (electronically speaking): TMZ reported on May 11 that Ben began emailing Jennifer in the spring while she was in the Dominican Republic filming “Shotgun Wedding.” The actor was “loving and longing for Jen” in the messages, TMZ claimed. The pair debuted their rekindled love on the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival in September to support Ben’s film “The Last Duel.” It wasn’t long before they also rocked the Met Gala and another premiere as a couple, refusing to keep anything about their love a secret.

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It was the end of a reality television era when “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” came to a close in 2021 after 20 seasons and 14 years on E! Despite singing a deal with the network worth $150 million in 2017, America’s most famous TV family bid farewell in a highly emotional finale in June, followed by a celebratory two-part reunion special hosted by Andy Cohen. They announced it was a family decision to leave the show, and one episode on the last season showed them breaking down in tears as they told the show’s crew that the series was ending. “It’s been a really excruciating decision to make. This journey’s been the most incredible thing that we’ve ever done and we can’t even express the appreciation that we have for you along the way,” momager Kris Jenner said. Kourtney Kardashian called the ending “bittersweet,” adding, “With the crew and production, we’ve been so close and in each other’s lives every day for 13 years. I have learned so much and I don’t have any regrets, so I just hope that everyone understands our decision.” Fans of the Kardashians won’t be in need for long as the wealthy clan inked a new deal with streaming platform Hulu to develop new reality television content.

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The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most major Hollywood events in 2020, leading to a series of remote and virtual award shows that lacked the same pomp and circumstance with which the industry’s biggest fêtes have become synonymous. But 2021 saw the return of the red carpet as we once knew it, with celebrities mingling, nabbing trophies and donning their best designer duds — in person, albeit a little delayed. The Grammys brought a ton of incredible performances to its mostly outdoor event, while the Oscars went for a more intimate party vibe with the Academy’s ceremony inside Los Angeles’s historic Union Station. It felt odd to celebrate a year of filmmaking — filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” racked up many of the trophies — when so many people couldn’t go to a theater, but it was a nice reminder of why we love movies in the first place. Watching this year’s Emmys, you’d be hard-pressed to see any sign of the odd outside world as unmasked stars enjoyed the close proximity of a tented L.A. Live event deck downtown. These celebrations provided a welcome distraction from an onslaught of tragic news as well as a reminder of better times ahead.

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A fresh new voice kept us belting at the top of our lungs this year: Olivia Rodrigo. Who would have guessed that when the young singer-actress released “drivers license” in early January that she would quickly catapult from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” actress to one of the world’s biggest pop stars? The atmospheric power ballad provided the perfect introduction to the singer-songwriter, who released her acclaimed debut album, “sour,”a few months later. The 11-track project is packed with the sort of angst-filled pop punk tunes that can get any teen — or teen at heart — rocking out in their bedrooms. It covers the melancholy and heartache that so often coincides with adolescence in a way that harks back to the beloved female songwriters so many of us, Olivia included, grew up with. She also headlined a second season of her popular musical series for streaming platform Disney+ — and in November, the 18-year-old earned seven Grammy nominations — including for best new artist, album of the year, record of the year and song of the year. Olivia took a devastating heartbreak and found the ultimate revenge by turning it into massive success.

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In January, HBO Max announced the return of our favorite Big Apple fashionistas with December’s “Sex and the City” revival show “…And Just Like That.” The 10-episode series features Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis reprising their beloved roles of Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte as well the return of supporting players like Chris Noth as Mr. Big, David Eigenberg as Steve and the late Willie Garson as Stanford. The cast spent the summer and fall shooting the limited series, with fans and paparazzi keeping an eye out for any cast — or fashion — sightings in hopes of picking up any morsels about the program’s top-secret storylines. The stakes are high for the show after original star Kim Cattrall declined to participate, and with the poor reception of 2010’s “Sex and the City 2” film. We’ll finally get to see what the women are up to when “…And Just Like That” premieres on Dec. 9.

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JoJo Siwa kicked off the year by coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a groundbreaking move for a young Nickelodeon star who also happens to be one of the world’s biggest internet sensations. Not long after sharing her news on social media, the “Dance Moms” alum introduced girlfriend Kylie Prew to her millions of followers, calling her love “the most loving, supportive, happiest, protective, and just the most beautiful perfect person in the world. And I get to call her mine!” The social media star — who split from Kylie in October — also broke boundaries when she was paired with a female partner, Jenna Johnson, on season 30 of “Dancing with the Stars” — and then the duo placed second on the November finale!

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No one does a comeback like Adele. In early October, projections and billboards of the number “30” appeared on significant landmarks and buildings around the world, fueling speculation that the British singer was responsible, and that the number would be the title of her fourth album. In a matter of weeks, she revealed the rumors were correct and that the new collection would be led by first single “Easy On Me.” Soon after, she appeared on the covers of both Vogue and British Vogue magazines, becoming the first person to simultaneously cover both publications at the same time. “Easy On Me” broke both Spotify and Amazon Music’s records for most streams for a song in a day. The power ballad also reached the top spot of the singles charts on both sides of the pond. Then the album arrived in November alongside a stunning CBS concert special and within three days became the top-selling album of 2021. The beloved artist finalized her divorce from Simon Konecki in March and fans couldn’t have been more eager to hear all about it from the queen of heartbreak anthems.

James Bond finally made his return to the box office, and an onslaught of movie fans made their long-awaited return to the theater to see him. Daniel Craig had his fifth and final outing as the fictional British MI6 agent in “No Time To Die,” which arrived to open arms in October. The film came nearly two years after its initial scheduled release date following numerous delays due to both a director switch as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Many were hesitant to return to theaters amid changing safety concerns, but the latest film in the 007 franchise served as the perfect comeback for those who missed the big screen. The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that the opening weekend gross was the biggest in the U.K. since the pandemic began, and that the movie had one of the best opening weekends of the entire franchise in the U.S. It went on to become the highest grossing film of 2021 in Europe, the Middle East and Africa so far this year, proving that Bond’s still got it.

One tension-filled South Korean series had everyone talking in 2021: “Squid Game.” The Netflix drama revolves around a contest where 456 players in deep financial debt put their lives at risk to play a series of children’s games in hopes of winning a substantial monetary prize. The series debuted in September and strong word of mouth helped it quickly gain traction thanks to the show’s unflinching brutality, sharp social commentary and surprisingly tender core. It garnered worldwide buzz, dominating social media with endless reactions and memes, many centered around the first episode’s popular creepy doll. During its first four weeks on Netflix, it amassed views from more than 142 million member households and became the streaming platform’s most watched series to date. The appointment television had viewers peeking through their hands due to its graphic violence, but it proved both the value and appeal of international programming on U.S. content providers.

The year wouldn’t be complete without a release from Taylor Swift, and 2021 gave us a double shot with the first two re-recorded albums from her catalog: “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Red (Taylor’s Version).” The singer-songwriter had announced she would be re-recording all of her earlier albums to gain ownership of their masters after her previous record label, Big Machine, was acquired by talent manager Scooter Braun in 2019. And boy, did she deliver. Taylor infused these new renditions with her more mature vocals and crisper production, retaining the songs’ original magic while mixing in a few touches of life experience to give them a more full-bodied listening experience. What fans didn’t expect was the assortment of previously unreleased tracks “from the vault” that were added to each album. Keith Urban, Maren Morris, Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Stapleton and Ed Sheeran were the surprise guests who appeared on the re-releases, breathing new life into the beloved collections and helping them find their places among the year’s bestselling music releases.

The year’s biggest red carpet event — the Met Gala — took a break in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but vaccinations and testing made it possible for fashion’s biggest night to make a triumphant return in 2021. Couture designs were everywhere, as were A-list celebrities like Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian West, who arrived in an all-black fetish-inspired outfit with her face fully covered. It’s unclear how the Balenciaga garment fit into the “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” theme for the annual fundraising event for the Costume Institute exhibit hosted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it did exemplify the sort of over-the-top fashions that the Met Gala is famous for. The event served as the perfect display of luxury and escapism in a year full of depressing moments, and while some felt the opulence struck a note of tone-deaf elitism, it also gave us all a night to focus on — and sometimes laugh at — ridiculous sartorial choices.

The most acclaimed series of 2021 became the little TV show that could as “Ted Lasso” slowly won over audiences everywhere. The Apple TV+ comedy follows an American college football coach who’s hired to run an English soccer team in an attempt by its owner to spite her ex-husband. Instead, the lovable titular character charms his boss, colleagues and the audience with his folksy, optimistic demeanor while dealing with his inexperience in the sport and other mounting issues. Critics fell head over soccer balls for the program when it debuted in 2020, but the masses started taking notice as it scooped up trophies at every major award show. It nabbed both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild Award before receiving a record 20 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, making it the most nominated freshman comedy in Emmys history. It went on to win seven accolades at the September ceremony, including outstanding comedy series and outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for star, co-writer and co-creator Jason Sudeikis. A second season premiered in July to another round of rave reviews that gushed about the show’s brand of humor and heart.

Tony Bennett made headlines in February when his family revealed in an AARP profile that he has quietly been living with Alzheimer’s disease. The 95-year-old singer was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease in 2016, his wife, Susan Benedetto, shared. Tony was still capable of recognizing his family and friends and didn’t have some of the worst symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s at the time. Despite the struggles with his health, the music legend took to the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in August and released a second duets album with Lady Gaga the following month, “Love For Sale.” It was advertised as Tony’s final album and nabbed a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 album chart. The crooner’s son and manager Danny Bennett then announced the star’s retirement from concerts due to concerns about his physical safety. Then in November, Tony and Gaga earned five Grammy nominations — including one for album of the year. Needless to say, if 2021 marks the end of Tony’s musical career, there’s no denying he went out on a major high.

The 25th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” made history when it introduced viewers to a brand new superhero in September. Simu Liu stars as the titular character in the action flick, which helped expand the scope of the MCU while also breaking ground for Asian representation on a blockbuster scale. Featuring an ensemble that includes Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, the high-budget film was a blockbuster at the box office. It set a Labor Day record as the holiday’s highest grossing debut and became one of the year’s biggest theatrical money makers by raking in more than $400 million. Simu discussed the film’s significance with Entertainment Weekly, calling it “a celebration of our culture” while also pointing out that this is just one step in the battle for visibility in media. “Just because there’s one Asian American superhero in the MCU, it does not by any means imply that our fight is finished right there,” he told the outlet. “When we don’t have to celebrate every single win, I think we’ll be a little bit closer to our goal, but until then, there’s just so much left to do. I’m ready to be in a position where I can effect real change, amplify voices and put people in positions to get stories told that wouldn’t ordinarily get that opportunity.”

Bachelor Nation faced an assortment of controversies during 2021 that led to some much-needed changes for the long-running reality television franchise. Matt James, the first Black lead of “The Bachelor,” picked Rachael Kirkconnell at the end of season 25, but the finale was overshadowed by the winner’s past racist actions, which included some disappointing photo posts that resurfaced on social media as the season was airing. On the “After The Final Rose” special, Matt said he and Rachael were no longer together and acknowledged that her past behavior was the reason. Although their split didn’t last long — they rekindled their romance just a few weeks after the finale aired — the controversy sparked important conversations amid a real-life racial reckoning that aimed to hold people accountable. It also led to the ouster of long-time host Chris Harrison, who left the franchise after 19 years at the helm after defending Rachael for her past controversies: He landed in hot water when he publicly downplayed the situation with Rachael and then took a leave of absence from the franchise that ultimately became permanent. Page Six reported that Chris demanded a $25 million buyout; Variety later reported that he scored a $9 million exit deal. In response to these incidents, the franchise not only introduced a far more diverse cross-section of contestants on the following two seasons of “The Bachelorette” — as well as a third Black “The Bachelorette” star in fan favorite Michelle Young — but they also welcomed two younger female hosts to guide the latest suitresses: former “The Bachelorette” stars Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe. The moves are a welcome start to a new era for the franchise, which shows no signs of slowing down.

The biggest name going into the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo was American gymnast Simone Biles, who many consider to be the greatest athlete in the sport’s history. However, during the team finals, Simone balked during the vault event, briefly left the competition floor and withdrew from the rest of the team competition. She cited mental health issues for the shocking decision, saying during the post-competition press conference that she puts “mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” She cheered on her teammates as they secured a silver medal finish and made the difficult choice to withdraw from subsequent events. Simone did take part in the beam final, winning the bronze medal and tying the record for most Olympic medals by an American female gymnast with seven total. She called her bronze beam medal her most meaningful one, as she felt it symbolized her focus on mental health and her perseverance. Her decision to prioritize her mental health was generally widely praised and credited with starting a wider conversation about the role of mental health in sports.

Scarlett Johansson not only had a massive box office hit in 2021 with “Black Widow,” but the Oscar-nominated actress also spent the year taking on the alleged corporate greed of the major studio system after being less than pleased with the film’s simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming platform Disney+. The actress sued Disney in July, saying in a lawsuit that the unique release plan broke her contract and would result in her losing upwards of $50 million. The disagreement got nasty in the public eye, as Scarlett’s lawyers and Disney’s representatives traded multiple strongly worded statements knocking the other party’s claims. In September, the argument came to a close as a settlement between the star and the studio was reached. Details have not been disclosed, but sources told Deadline the deal will run to more than $40 million for the “Avengers” headliner. “I am happy to have resolved our differences with Disney,” Scarlett told the outlet in a statement. “I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done together over the years and have greatly enjoyed my creative relationship with the team. I look forward to continuing our collaboration in years to come.”

The “Real Housewives” franchises are renowned for supplying an endless assortment of delicious drama, but “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” took things to a shocking new level thanks to the arrest of star Jen Shah. The reality television personality was arraigned in April following her arrest on federal wire fraud and money laundering charges in connection with a telemarketing scheme that allegedly targeted hundreds of elderly people nationwide. Jen’s assistant, Stuart Smith, was also arrested — and in November, he changed his plea to guilty. Jen’s scandal unfolded as cameras were rolling on season 2 of her hit Bravo series — and fans got to see it all play out when the show aired in the fall.

Jean Smart has long-been considered one of television’s greatest talents thanks to iconic performances on hit shows like “Designing Women,” “Frasier,” “Samantha Who?,” “24,” “Fargo” and “Watchmen.” Despite all of her previous success, 2021 still felt like defining year for the beloved actress thanks to her appearance on the HBO limited crime drama “Mare of Easttown.” She plays the mother of star Kate Winslet’s titular grizzled detective and earned critical acclaim, with Variety writing, “It’s one of those essential truths of TV that if you need a tough-as-nails broad, you hire Jean Smart. Smart has the voice and the timing to play a stern matriarch, and whenever she’s onscreen in ‘Mare of Easttown,’ she wrenches away the spotlight like she’s grabbing a juice box.” She also scored the lead part on the HBO Max dark comedy “Hacks” as a legendary Las Vegas comedy diva looking to appeal to a younger audience. NPR praised her performance in its review, writing, “I don’t know if the role of Deborah Vance was written for Smart, but she certainly makes it seem like it was.” When the Primetime Emmy Award nominations rolled out in July, Jean scored one for each show, ultimately winning the best actress in a comedy series trophy in September for her work on “Hacks.”

The most anticipated television return of 2021 came in the form of a familiar voice-over drenched in puns and sarcasm. That’s right, Kristen Bell reprised her role as the voice of “Gossip Girl,” an anonymous and omniscient blogger on HBO Max’s rebooted series, which premiered in July. Hoards of fans were curious how the update of the popular teen drama would work in a world where teens consume most of their content on social media instead of on television. Set nearly a decade after the conclusion of the original series, it follows a new cast of Manhattan private schoolers trapped under the watchful eye of an Instagram-bound Gossip Girl. The move from The CW to a streaming platform made it possible to splatter the typical high school scandals with higher production value and more adult content (it’s rated TV-MA). The showrunners also made the smart choice to update the original’s almost entirely white cast with a more diverse lineup featuring non-white leads as well as queer characters. The stakes were high, but the series quickly became appointment guilty pleasure viewing for a new audience as well as those who were young during the first show’s run from 2007-2012. While technology is ever-evolving, the fascination with over-the-top teen dramas is timeless.

Heather Gay, Mary Cosby, Jen Shah, Lisa Barlow, Whitney Rose, Meredith Marks, Jennie Nguyen, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City – Season 2

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