Julie Chen and Hollywood Power Spouses Speak Out: "Being a Trophy Wife Is an Antiquated Trope"

Hollywood Power Spouses -photo illo- H 2016
Illustration by Matt Herring

More than 65 percent of the town's better halves, both male and female, work and wield influence of their own in the entertainment industry and beyond, as evidenced by Roma Downey, Nicole Avant, Nancy Lasseter, Andrea Nevins and more.

A few years ago, several industry heavyweights gathered for a dinner party at Nora Ephron's New York apartment. Among them: Ephron and her husband, producer-writer Nicholas Pileggi; Leslie Moonves and his wife, Big Brother host Julie Chen; Bette Midler and her artist husband, Martin Von Haselberg; and power lawyer Allen Grubman and his wife, real estate broker Debbie Grubman. Allen Grubman, known for his many theories, shared one with the group: "There's only one star in each couple," he said. "She's the star," pointing to Ephron, then Midler. Then he pointed to Moonves. But Chen, also a moderator on the hit daytime show The Talk, tells THR she countered: "Not if you want a table at Denny's! That's my audience." Chen may be paired with one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, but in creating her own spotlight at CBS — before marrying the exec who now runs the network —she elevated the profile of their power marriage for the both of them.

And she's not the only one. Whether it's Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant taking turns boosting each other's career by moving between the Bahamas and L.A., or Willow Bay and Bob Iger showing up at each other's events (she in a Star Wars dress to the Oscars, he for an interview at her USC panel), one partner's power serves to amplify the other's in a town that is itself an echo chamber. What isn't written about in the entries for the THR 100 are the forces behind many of the people on the list: their high-profile and influential spouses. (Interestingly, all the male spouses of either the female or gay male players on the list declined to speak.) More than 65 percent of power spouses continue to work in their chosen professions. Some partners are at the top of their career fields, including interior design (Molly Isaksen, wife of UTA's Jay Sures; and Commune Design's Ramin Shamshiri, husband of Universal Pictures chief Donna Langley) and fashion design (Laurie Feltheimer, wife of Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer). Says Laurie: "My goal in life was not to marry a rich guy — we have a really balanced relationship."

Others choose to wield the combined might of their marriage in political or philanthropic ways, like Alan Horn's wife, Cindy, who hosted a major DNC fundraiser in April at her Bel Air home that cost as much as $66,800 a couple, or Kelly Meyer, wife of Universal Studios' Ron Meyer, who raises millions to protect the oceans with her work with the Natural Resources Defense Council, among other nonprofits. "That whole idea of being a trophy wife is, I would hope, an antiquated trope," says Andrea Nevins (wife of Showtime president David Nevins), who helmed the NFL doc Play It Forward and now is editing her own doc about Barbie. "Couples work. Of course, couples work when you're struggling to put bread on the table, but couples work even when the struggle is not as difficult." Continuing to work is an emotional need, says clinical psychologist Donna Rockwell, who specializes in celebrity mental health. "One thing about being the spouse of a high-powered person is you deal with some level of being in the shadow," she says. "Having separate areas of interest and businesses helps the couple maintain individual autonomy, which makes the relationship stronger minus all the dependency issues."

Jessica Harper was an actress when she met her husband, Sony Motion Picture Group chair Tom Rothman, and since then, she has written 11 children's books and seven children's music albums: "I always felt very strongly that I and our marriage would be mentally healthier if I had something to engage in that was creative and mine," she says. Likewise, Bay says she always knew she would continue to work as a journalist in one form or another. Her husband did help her along the way, but as a supportive spouse, not as a media mogul. Bay recalls Iger's response when CNN asked her to anchor Moneyline (she was working on two other CNN shows at the time) in 1999. "Bob said, 'You should do it, but you should make sure you're paid exactly the same as your co-anchor [Stuart Varney],' " says Bay. "I did, and I got it. It wouldn't have occurred to me without him suggesting that."

That's not to say that pulling back isn't a common thread for power spouses. Bay, the director of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism since 2014, changed course when her children were young: "There have been times when I've been able to downshift strategically, still creating a career that's meaningful but also allowing me to manage family and, honestly, support Bob in what is really an all-consuming job."

Happily, compromises can go both ways: Netflix's Sarandos and Avant spent the first two years of their marriage long distance when she served as U.S. ambassador in the Bahamas. "We support each other in a way that we're both sacrificing something," she says. "When I was working in the Bahamas, he was there whenever he could be." And when Sarandos asked her to come back early to L.A. as Netflix began its meteoric climb, she did, downshifting while fundraising for Obama's re-election, then organizing conferences in the Bahamas with speakers who inspire young women (Orange Is the New Black's Uzo Aduba will speak at the next one in November). Avant says she and Sarandos will host a political event for Hillary Clinton in the fall.

Meanwhile, "You can be sure that at [Mark Burnett's] The Voice, you'll see me somewhere at the back cheering loudly," says his wife and fellow producer Roma Downey, who executive produced hit TV miniseries The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues and produced and starred in feature film Son of God. Downey, who is also producing the upcoming Paramount film Ben-Hur, adds that when she gets her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the summer, "you can be sure my husband will be there cheering for me."

Nancy Lasseter, who met John Lasseter at a computer graphics conference in 1985, not only runs the couple's winery in Sonoma, Calif., but she also is on the board of Sonoma Academy, attended by four of their five sons. She has raised $31.4 million since November for a new building; one auction item alone — a dinner by a Michelin-star chef featuring rides on John's train on their property between courses — brought in $204,000. She notes that even in a well-balanced marriage, a power spouse's schedule can be a strain. "I remember after A Bug's Life, I said to him: 'You better be careful. Before you know it, these kids will be in college.' As a director's wife, you're a widow," she cautions. The following year, they bought an RV and traveled to 25 states in 51 days, which also helped John's career in an unexpected way: "That was the impetus of Cars," says Nancy.

But it isn't always easy for spouses who aren't in the industry. Avant says this past awards season was exhausting. "I think the only reason I'm pretty good with it is my mom was the same," says Avant, daughter of music industry veteran Clarence Avant. "I noticed how people would treat my mom, how the spouse is pushed to the side, that they're not really important. But I'd think, 'If you only knew, my dad's whole world would fall apart without her.' " And the power spouse is not always the plus-one. Says Chen: "When Leslie comes as my plus-one, we both get a kick out of it. He says: 'I'm happy to be Mr. Julie Chen tonight. I'm happy to be your coat holder.' "

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.