The kept women of Hollywood

2010-10-30 14:10

Leslie McRay came to Los Angeles for glamour and took naturally to the ­jet-setting lifestyle of a kept woman. She spent years as the leggy arm candy of rich and powerful men, weathering their ­cocaine-fuelled rages, their fragile egos and cruel whims.

McRay was one of the lucky ones. She landed an ageing mogul of her own who set her up in an ­Italianate mansion in a Southern California resort town, replete with waterfalls, tennis courts and wall-to-wall marble. But the marriage was loveless and lonely, and McRay found herself meandering the manicured grounds, plotting her escape. She walked away with nothing and, for a time, she was homeless.

“I was a bought person,” she says, speaking from the vantage point of age. She is now happily remarried and living outside California.

Kept women aren’t often so candid. They usually save the sordid details for their lawyers. But when they do open up – as Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, did to People magazine – their stories all sound the same. They’re swept off their feet with luxury getaways and the celebrity treatment. And for a while, it’s a fantasy come true.

Then the reality sets in. Something triggers his temper and the beating starts. To patch things up, he’ll send her to his private ­physician, buy her a fancy car and tip the housekeeper a little extra to keep quiet.

Then the cycle starts again, often intensifying with every new round. The woman becomes increasingly isolated, financially beholden to a man whose wealth and fame give him every advantage. If she’s bold enough to complain, she’s confronted with a familiar slur: gold-digger.

“No one can hear your screams on a 2-acre lot,” says Dr Susan Weitzman, author of Not To People Like Us, a book that addresses what she terms “upscale abuse”.

Russian pop singer Grigorieva probably didn’t realise what she was getting into when she started an affair with Gibson back in ­December 2007. From the look of the early paparazzi shots, she was finally living her dream: strolling the beaches of Malibu with a ­super-rich movie star. By the time their affair was made public in April last year, she was pregnant and Gibson’s 28-year marriage to Robyn Gibson was officially over.

But by January, Grigorieva was recording Gibson’s maniacal rants and violent threats, and stockpiling photographs of her bruised face and broken teeth.

On January 6, Gibson erupted ­violently for the first time, ­Grigorieva told People magazine, ­incensed that she’d left him to watch her son’s basketball game.

“Mel was screaming, yelling and spitting on my face until it was covered in saliva,” she told People. “He kept screaming like a crazy man. I thought he would kill me.”

She says he punched her twice while she was holding their baby. When she fell on a bed, she says, Gibson proceeded to choke her ­until she started blacking out. Then, she says, Gibson pulled out a gun and started waving it around.

In mediation last northern spring, Gibson’s lawyers reportedly offered Grigorieva a $15 million (R106 million) settlement package. She signed the agreement, but now claims she “walked away” from it because it granted Gibson partial custody of their daughter, Lucia.

After the tapes of Gibson’s maniacal tirade mysteriously turned up on, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department launched an extortion investigation reportedly targeting Grigorieva.

Gibson’s camp, meanwhile, has been relatively silent despite ­Grigorieva’s shocking accusations. In June, Gibson’s attorney, Stephen Kolodny, called Grigorieva “deceitful” and claimed she was trying to get out of the custody agreement she had signed.

Then there’s the case of Charlie Sheen. He was arrested on ­Christmas Day last year for pinning his wife, Brooke Mueller, to a bed, ­holding a knife to her throat and threatening to kill her inside their Aspen, Colorado, house when she asked for a divorce.

In August, Sheen pleaded guilty to “misdemeanour third-degree ­assault” and was sentenced to 30 days at the luxurious Malibu rehab centre, Promises. He got three months probation and 36 hours of treatment for domestic violence.

While married to Denise Richards, Sheen allegedly threatened to kill her for getting their baby daughter vaccinated. (He had irrationally grown concerned about the safety of vaccinations.)

“I was torn between protecting myself and my children,” Richards said in a 2005 court declaration when she sought a restraining ­order against Sheen, “and the ­pressure I felt from (Sheen) and those around him.”

In 1997, Sheen was charged with slamming then-girlfriend Brittany Ashland on to the marble floor of his Agoura Hills, California, home, knocking her unconscious before threatening to kill her if she told anyone what had happened.

Sheen pleaded no contest and was sentenced to a one-year ­suspended prison term, and two years probation and community service. He was ordered to pay $2 800 in restitution and attend eight counselling sessions.

Despite all of this, Sheen’s superstardom remains intact. He’s a feted star on the CBS hit sitcom Two and a Half Men, and earns $2 million an episode. When asked to comment for this article, his publicist, Stan Rosenfield, claimed that Sheen’s relationship troubles ­displayed no similarity to those of Grigorieva and Gibson. He suggested Ashland and Richards had ­misled police about Sheen’s attacks.

“Anyone can claim anything,” he said. “Let’s just drag old Charlie over the coals.”

Celebrity litigator Gloria Allred – counsellor to Ashland and to Tiger Woods’ mistress, Rachel Uchitel, among others – says rich and powerful men aren’t typically held ­accountable for bad behaviour.

“They’re used to being surrounded by ‘yes’ people,” she says.

Their girlfriends and wives, she says, are seen “more as a status symbol than a human being”.

“They believe that these guys are in love with them, that they will live happily ever after with them,” Allred says. “They don’t see any warning signs. And if they see them, they try not to give them very much weight.”

Part of the problem for women in these relationships is what Weitzman calls “the veil of silence”. Wealthy and powerful men have ­access to private security, discreet doctors, publicists and managers. The abuse rarely surfaces and the police are rarely summoned, says one bodyguard whose agency earns $200 an hour to guard celebrities.

“These people are abusive ­because they can get away with it,” he says. “You’ve got 10 witnesses in the house that work for the ­suspect, and nine times out of 10 when it comes down to testifying, they’ll say ‘no’.”

The celebrity bodyguard ­recounted several instances of ­trying to talk a woman into leaving her high-profile husband.
“Most of the time, they ignore us,” he says. “They don’t want to leave the position of power, even if it occasionally means taking a ­beating. It’s a sick, sick, sick world they live in.”

Sometimes the woman feels ­obligated to stay because her ­abuser supports her extended ­family or threatens to take custody of the children.

“It’s what I call legal kidnapping,” Weitzman says.

Spousal abuse cuts across all ­social strata. But statistics on upscale abuse are hard to come by. While poor families appear to have a higher incident rate, experts ­suspect that more affluent women are less likely to report the abuse.

One predictor of violence within the marriage, however, is a disparity between husband and wife.

“Couples with income, educational or job status disparities have a higher risk of intimate partner ­violence,” according to a 2004 article in the Journal of Trauma: Injury, ­Infection and Critical Care.

For her part, McRay sounds like a recovering addict when she ­remembers her days of living at the whim of a rich man’s impulses. She admits she sometimes misses the adrenaline rush of the lifestyle.

“It’s like every single addiction,” she says. “You have to bottom out to get out of it. Otherwise, you have no life.” – The New York Times Syndicate

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