“You see that redhead?” Taylor Swift asks a red carpet photographer who has requested a photo of her at the Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour Film premiere, pointing to a woman in a plaid sheath dress and knee-high black boots. “She’ll tell me what to do.”
The most powerful artist in the world answers to one person: her flame-haired publicist, Tree Paine.
Among Swifties, Paine is a legend. Fans speculate that the PR maven is powerful enough to control the media as a whole and must approve every single mention of Swift in the press, or that she has carefully kept Swift closeted for years, or that she had Swift strategically show up to a Chiefs-Jets NFL game in October so that Google searches for “Taylor Swift Jets” would no longer be dominated with stories about her private plane emissions. Swifties would credit Paine for the weather if they could—and probably have.
Paine can usually be spotted somewhere within spitting distance of Swift, never far from the pop star’s side. And while being both an open book and giving nothing at all away has become central to Swift’s public image, Paine herself has her own conflicting public narrative—she is both known to fans in a way most celebrity publicists never are, while also being a complete enigma.
Or, as culture journalist Hunter Harris put it: “Tree Paine is everywhere and nowhere. Tree Paine is present and absent.”
Paine refuses all interview requests (and did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request to comment for this article). You can find virtually no information about her personal life online, though I was able to confirm that she is a Virgo. She has virtually no social media presence aside from an account on X (formerly Twitter) that boasts more than 240,000 followers and these days almost exclusively retweets news from official Taylor Swift accounts—except on Nov. 30 when she uncharacteristically shut down claims from the popular blind item account, Deuxmoi, setting the internet ablaze.
“Mother is mothering!” Swifties yelled all over social media. Publications scrambled to cover the clapback. To put into context just how rare it is for Paine to put out a statement of any kind that can be attributed to her directly, rather than “sources close to the singer” or something equally vague, the last time Paine had sent a tweet from her account that wasn’t a retweet of Swift-related news was back in 2020, when she tweeted at Kim Kardashian after the original phone call between Kanye West and Swift leaked.
That a publicist can have such an impact speaks to the unique role that Paine plays in the field of celebrity PR. “I suppose it makes sense that a celebrity with such a big reputation would have a publicist equally prominent in pop culture,” says Lexa, a TikTok creator and self-proclaimed “Gaylor scholar”—someone who diligently studies Swift’s art and image through a queer lens—who goes by @simpofthesapphics.
Paine has been with Swift for most of the highest-profile moments of her career, including Kissgate (more on that later), Swift’s feud with West and Kardashian, her sexual assault trial, and the dispute over her masters. And sure, she represents arguably the biggest star in the world, but Paine is a force unto herself (Can you name Lady Gaga’s publicist? Brad Pitt’s?). She has her own lore in the Swiftie fandom, there are parody accounts dedicated to impersonating her, and she has fans of her own.
“It’s unprecedented in the publicist culture to be so hyper-visible,” says the PR strategist behind the TikTok account Tori’s Intel. “Typically, the main goal of a publicist in traditional media culture is to be heard, but never to be seen or to necessarily be known.”
But the fascinating thing about Swift and Paine is how they work in tandem. Swift is known among her fans as “a mastermind”—a reputation she winked at with a song on her Midnights album, referring to herself as “cryptic and Machiavellian” in the lyrics. Fans believe that nothing Swift does is accidental, that the Easter eggs she plants in her music and her videos and her posts and her interviews are meticulously planned out years in advance. Paine has a similar reputation for being calculated and having complete control over Swift’s public narrative.
“I greatly admire Taylor Swift, not only for her talent in music and artistry and songwriting, but her mastery of marketing and strategy, how she makes her talent and her career almost a game in a very, very fun way,” Molly McPherson, a crisis PR expert known for her TikTok analysis of celebrity publicity, said on her PR Confidential podcast. “It keeps her audience and all stakeholders—the press, the public—engaged. It’s absolutely phenomenal. And I also admire Tree Paine… and how she works.”
Hired in 2014 just before Swift released 1989 and when rumors about her boyfriends were at an all-time high, Paine’s PR strategy helped Swift take her narrative back in the press and redirected the public’s attention to her art. With 1989—and with Paine directing PR—Swift attempted to reclaim her own image. She was seen in public almost exclusively with her “Girl Squad” of supermodel besties and wrote a send-up of the perception about her dating life with “Blank Space.”
Prior to working with Paine, Swift’s publicist was an industry veteran named Paula Erickson. Swift’s self-titled debut album was released in 2006, when Swift was just 16 years old. The following year, 2007, Swift hired Erickson right around the time her debut was set to hit the $1 million sales mark. Seven years later, Erickson resigned unexpectedly, giving Swift and her team a 60-day notice. In contrast to Paine, who can often be seen by Swift’s side, there seems to be only one photo available online of Swift and Erickson.
Swift hoped to bring PR in-house following Erickson’s resignation. “Taylor will have her pick of top-shelf publicists, but the challenge is finding that person you know and trust,” a high-ranking PR executive told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “Bringing PR in-house assures that person is directly involved in advising on what needs to be done and what doesn’t.”
Paine was hired in April 2014 and it was easy to frame this as a new publicist for a new phase in Swift’s career and life—not only was she transitioning into pop music from the country genre with the upcoming release of 1989, but she had moved to New York City from Nashville. Paine began her career in 1995 with a job at Interscope Records, working with artists like Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt. Immediately prior to working for Swift, Paine was the Senior Vice President of Publicity at Warner Music Nashville, overseeing the country and Christian divisions. She set up her own PR company, Premium PR, after Swift hired her.
In terms of celebrity PR, there are a few defining eras in the field. The first is, of course, the studio era, when stars were under contract with film studios and those studios worked with the press to control their public images, going so far as to arrange lavender marriages to cover up gay rumors and plant stories in the press to hide scandals about arrests or drug use. The studio system ended in the early 1950s, paving the way for a new kind of way to be a celebrity.
By the ’80s and ’90s, celebrity images were tightly controlled by bulldog publicists like Pat Kingsley, who in many ways is the blueprint for someone like Paine. Kingsley sometimes referred to her job as being a “suppress agent” rather than a press agent, and represented celebrities like Jodie Foster, Al Pacino, Goldie Hawn, Demi Moore, and Ellen DeGeneres. She began to make a name for herself in celebrity PR in the 1970s and was really one of the first prominent women in the field—something she attributes to her success.
“Women are exceptional at this business because we’re very nurturing; people feel like they can talk to women better than men,” Kingsley told NPR in 2009. “We’re better at taking care of their personal problems… And the press liked dealing with women.”
Kingsley was the longtime publicist of Tom Cruise (who famously fired her in 2004 after 14 years of working together), and the way Cruise’s image was able to be kept so clean for as long as it was can be attributed to Kingsley’s work. We know a lot about his personal life and religious beliefs now, but for years that was kept tightly under wraps. Kingsley’s philosophy was that less exposure is more, and too much exposure can be fatal.
“The people get used to you awfully fast,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “You never want them to get too much of you.”
The godmother of modern celebrity PR, Kinsgley retired right as Paine was stepping into the role of Swift’s image maker in 2014. It was the tail end of the gossip blog days of the early aughts, where overexposure was the name of the game and sites like Perez Hilton and DListed meant that the control that publicists once had was no longer possible. The rise of social media had begun, allowing celebrities to take their public images into their own hands, and giving them the ability to interact directly with their fans (or at least give fans the perception that they were). Swift herself has always been active on social media, interacting directly with fans on sites like MySpace and Tumblr.
As Swift’s publicist, Paine utilized the seeming intimacy and directness of social media right away, making the differences between Erickson’s approach to the media and Paine’s approach evident immediately. Whereas under Erickson, rumors about Swift’s personal life tended to go unaddressed, Paine tackled them head on, taking to Twitter to call stories “false” or “100% not true.”
The fury of Tree Paine became well-known. The Cut described her reputation as that of a “quiet but ferocious PR pitbull.” More than one journalist, all of whom declined to be named on the record, told me they were “scared” of Paine, which one attributed to the amount of “cultural significance” she holds due to being part of Swift’s team.
Another pop culture journalist who worked at Vanity Fair, and also declined to give their name for fear of retribution, told me that they started writing about Swift, they pretty quickly realized they were dealing with a “different breed of publicist.”
“I was writing a short news piece and she was calling me to tell me stuff on background at midnight Eastern Time,” the writer recalled. “I wasn’t even writing a major feature and she was on it.” Paine would be on the phone trying to correct the record for her client, but was always insistent that her sourcing be on background, meaning that the publication couldn’t say that the information had come from Paine or anyone on Swift’s team.
But Paine also faced challenges very quickly into her time representing Swift. On Dec. 4, 2014, Swift and then-best friend Karlie Kloss were spotted together at a The 1975 show and a video appeared to show the two kissing. The scandal, which would become known as “Kissgate,” blew up. Wendy Williams did a segment on her show and TMZ ran the headline, “Taylor Swift Totally Kissing Karlie Kloss (Maybe). Swift’s rep’s statement to Entertainment Tonight about the whole narrative? “Crap.”
Paine took a more direct approach in other ways, too. After West interrupted Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards while she was accepting her award for “Best Female Video,” Swift resisted putting out any large public statements, choosing to respond with the song “Innocent” off 2010’s Speak Now. But in 2016, when West released the song “Famous” in which he took credit for Swift’s fame, “a spokeswoman for Swift” told the media that Swift had cautioned West “about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message.”
This idea of Swift as a feminist was really harnessed under Paine’s watch. She won a sexual assault lawsuit against a DJ who groped her at an event, providing “no-bullshit testimony” on the stand. And she created a narrative around the sale of her masters to Scooter Braun in which Swift was largely seen as the victim of a male-dominated industry, and by extension, her re-recordings are a reclamation of her work and her art—of a woman’s work. Through that lens, her “Taylor’s Version” releases have been a roaring success, with each of the albums somehow outperforming their iconic original counterparts.
As Swift’s career has progressed, the PR strategy has hewn closer and closer to Kingsley’s “Dr. No” approach. “She has done fewer interviews, only speaking to the press when necessary to control a conversation,” says Lexa. “Her public appearances are pointed and controlled.” Swift’s recent TIME Person of the Year profile is the perfect example of this: It was one of Swift’s first sit-down interviews in years and managed to dedicate a whole lot of words to saying very little of substance.
Even still, journalists say Paine is the utmost professional. “When you’re in media you don’t always feel respected by publicists and I have always felt really respected by her,” the Vanity Fair journalist said. “She’s doing her job to make sure the message that’s important to her gets out there but she’s never called and screamed at me. I hang up the phone like, ‘Damn, she’s good at her job.’”
Paine’s unique style of PR has allowed fans to project their own image onto her. She is both omnipresent and nearly silent. Fans are so convinced that Paine reads every comment on every Reddit or TikTok thread that they are careful about what they say, lest they blow their chance at being selected for one of Swift’s secret sessions or special meet-and-greets for her fans.
“They know that Tree is behind the scenes pulling strings, which is interesting because fans like to think of Taylor as being so authentic,” says Dr. Georgie Carroll, a fan engagement expert who wrote her dissertation on the Swiftie fandom. “And yet they also know there’s somebody there who is agreeing to let certain stories run.”
One culture journalist at one of the biggest publications in the world called an on-the-record profile of Paine their “white whale” in terms of stories. And while it makes sense to some degree—the job of a publicist is to be largely unseen, working as a behind-the-scenes fixer—the degree to which Paine has remained quiet in the press is unprecedented.
Even notoriously hard-to-pin-down Kingsley was the subject of a Los Angeles Times profile in 1988. Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyoncé’s publicist, has been profiled by magazines like Elle and Forbes. And the four publicists behind the Lede Company, which represents clients like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Emma Stone, Penélope Cruz, Charlize Theron, Hailey Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Halle Berry, were profiled in the New York Times (while declining to talk about any of their clients in the story).
But a turning point for Paine’s image in the public sphere and the Swiftie fandom at-large was in 2019, when she appeared in a scene in Swift’s documentary, Miss Americana. There are a few brief glimpses of Paine throughout the film, but her main screen time is towards the end of the movie, sitting next to Swift on her couch and drinking white wine as the singer prepares to make her first-ever political post.
“I always have to bring up everything… that we need to expect,” Paine says to Swift. “Number one: the president could come after you.”
The scene provides a small bit of insight into the relationship between the two women, and gives the illusion of intimacy for the fanbase. Viewers see Paine as a supportive but firm guiding force in Swift’s life, and that brief interaction between the two has given rise to even more projection from Swifties about the dynamic between the pop star and her handler.
“I’m fascinated by the visibility that she has within the fan community,” says Tori Baird, who co-hosts the Forest, Trees podcast (the podcast started as “Hi, Tree,” a reference to the idea that Paine is always watching). “I think the reason why we know Tree is maybe because Tree wants to be known. The PR itself of Taylor having an amicable relationship with her powerful female publicist and that idea that the media presents—that they’re twin girl bosses taking on the world—that’s very beneficial to Taylor’s image itself.”
Fans of Swift largely see Paine in a protective, maternal role—constantly holding Swift back from saying what she really feels, or perhaps keeping Swift in check when she might want to get too out of control. Some of the most well-known examples of this perceived dynamic between two—one that Baird described as “cat and mouse”—also highlight the way different factions of Swift’s fan base attribute different actions to Paine but largely agree on the overall relationship between them.
A popular Tree Paine meme in the “Gaylor” community involves a video from backstage at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, where Kloss (who was then publicly known as Swift’s best friend) walks down a hallway and Swift runs up behind her and throws her arm around her. A few seconds later, Paine’s red hair is seen running into the frame and then chasing after the pair. This was shortly after “Kissgate” and it was suspected that the two were being kept apart publicly. In Gaylor lore, Paine is chasing after them to try to separate the two and maintain Swift’s (straight) public image.
“There are definitely some fans who are more aware of her existence than others—like, I think Gaylors definitely bring her up more often than mainstream Swifties,” says Lexa. “In general, Gaylors tend to be the subset of the fandom that’s more likely to question media narratives and compare them to narratives that Taylor writes about in her songs, so we are always hunting down Tree’s latest work to discuss its implications.”
Newer lore also involves the most recent VMAs. Following the awards show, Swift’s dancing and cheering became a bit of a meme. Some people speculated that Swift was drunk, while others just thought she was having fun (she is known for seat-dancing at even the most staid awards shows). But a clip of Paine bringing Swift a beverage quickly turned into a narrative of Paine “mothering” Swift by encouraging her to drink water because she was getting too intoxicated.
“Sometimes there’s a tendency to overstate the amount of power and influence that Tree has over Taylor’s public image and narrative,” says Lexa. “Although after what happened… when Tree pretty much eviscerated Deuxmoi in one single tweet, likely blacklisting her from Swifties permanently, it’s not hard to see why that reputation has taken off. I cannot emphasize enough how much that moment shook the entire fandom.”
The public narrative regarding the relationship between the two is ultimately beneficial for Swift, because it gives her a good deal of plausible deniability in terms of what she really thinks about any given issue. Fans can read anything they want into her silence—her attendance at a comedy show earlier this month was seen as evidence that she privately supports Palestine even though she hasn’t spoken up publicly; her lack of comment on a fan’s death at a show in Brazil last month can be attributed to her team rather than to Swift herself.
“Tree Paine’s job is to keep the image of Taylor Swift relatable to as many people as possible,” says Baird of the Forest, Trees podcast. “That’s a really rough job.”
In this way, Paine and Swift have created a sort of good cop/bad cop situation: Paine can play the bad cop so Swift remains the good one, building on the relatable and friendly public image she has cultivated for herself since the beginning of her career.
“They go hand-in-hand to me,” the Vanity Fair reporter told me. “Crossing Tree is the same thing as crossing Taylor. A lot of journalists who cover culture and entertainment know who is running the show.”
But what is the truth? Who is the real mastermind behind Taylor Swift? Swift is the best artist in the world when it comes to marketing herself and creating narratives that people fall into. Paine is the only person besides Swift who can claim any sort of credit for that public image. How much is Paine running the show and how much is she following Swift’s lead? That’s a question we may never be able to answer.
“These two”—Swift and Paine—“are at the top of their game,” McPherson said on her podcast. “And as far as publicists go, Tree Paine, I don’t know anyone better than her.”