Not long ago, without our telling anyone, my spouse and I appeared on a tabloid news show. Judging from a near dearth of phone calls and e-mails, absolutely no one we know saw the segment. Not only was this lack of exposure fine with us, it was a huge relief.
We are no strangers to being asked to exploit ourselves. Around six years ago MTV asked if we’d consider being the subjects of a reality series. We turned it down instantly and never told the kids about it. We have five kids. At the time MTV first contacted us the kids were all little and cute and running around our yard and kitchen laughing, fighting, shouting, tumbling (you can just imagine the footage, no?). And my spouse and I are both women. Oh, and my spouse has famous parents. So when MTV asked to enter our home with cameras, we knew exactly why, and of course said no.
We’re not merely private, we are also filmmakers. I know intimately that a story needs to be fully explored for an artistic piece to reach its potential. I don’t subject our family to public exposure, not because I don’t trust TV producers, camerapeople, or fellow filmmakers, but because I know that they often probe beyond a subject’s comfort zone in order to do their jobs effectively.
Which is perhaps why, when we produced our first feature documentary three years ago, we had the talent sign waivers before we rolled cameras (this means they agreed in advance to let us use whatever they were about to say and do). We do not do exploitive work, and did not do an exploitive film. But the stuff that happens on camera is not always the stuff someone would plan to have their parents or ministers hear them say.
Right after we were filmed for the tabloid news show, we told our parents about it. I called my mother in Palm Beach, who checked her program guide and couldn’t find the airing of it, but asked with no small concern how my hair had looked. My spouse texted her parents, who are the most tech-savvy septuagenarians on earth. They DVR’d it, watched it later, and were very positive about the segment (though they never mentioned how my hair looked).
Six years ago, around the same time we were not allowing MTV crews into our home, our life was intense. Not only did we have that batch of kids, we had recently made the brave decision to blend families and move in together. (I came to the party with one son, my spouse-to-be had three daughters and a son.)
Deciding to move into a house built in the 1820s added a huge layer of stress in the form of leaks, drafts, rotting wood, and black mold. To pay for the endless stream of house repairs and child distractions (do you know that a seven-person trip to Club Med takes exactly the same amount of time, and money, as the installation of an entirely new septic system?) we upped our commercial work to hyperdrive.
Those early years together were filled with little sleep and utter bedlam. But it was creative bedlam, whether we were pre-wiring the kids’ four separate school systems about “different” families or shooting big-budget commercials or glue-gunning costumes.
As filmmakers, we couldn’t ignore the creatively fertile environment we were living in. We didn’t want a network to record our family, but we couldn’t resist doing it ourselves. Since we didn’t want to expose the kids on camera, we wrote a fictitious account of our lives. Titled “Out in the Hamptons,” it is the story of (as our synopsis offered) “two women who work together, play together, have great sex together — and happen to have five kids together.”
We wrote a pilot and sent it to the best agent in L.A. (courtesy of an introduction from my spouse’s father), who believed in it, believed in us as writers, and tried to sell it. It was too risqué for network, so she showed it to the big cable networks. HBO didn’t like it. Showtime very much liked it, but said they already had a lesbian show. There weren’t many other places to take it at the time, but the best agent in L.A. assured us that “you never know, things are always changing,” and we had no reason to doubt her.
We took the show ourselves to LOGO (the cable network of L.G.B.T. content). LOGO didn’t have enough money to produce our show — they were looking entirely (like many other networks at the time) for reality TV shows. They wondered if we’d be willing to be the subjects of one. No, we explained — that’s why we created the series. So LOGO asked us to come up with a reality show based on our series. They actually asked us to find a family that was a real version of the fictitious one we’d created, which was based on our real one. . . .
It took about two months to find a family. It had two male heads of household and 10 kids. It was the reality show version of us, sort of. It was better — they had twice as many kids, all African-American, ranging from an adorable infant to a star of the high school football team. They had zero trepidations about cameras or exploitation, and the dads were articulate and interesting.
Then LOGO lost its funding and bagged the idea. We are now working on other projects: We are trying to distribute our feature film, we have written a screenplay we hope to direct next year, and, on optimistic days, we still think that someone might like to produce our scripted series.
Then, Meredith Baxter, the 62-year-old actress most famous for the “Family Ties” series, announced on national television that she’s a lesbian. That night, while we were cooking three different dinners for four kids (the fifth was away at boarding school), my spouse took a call from an unknown number. It was a news magazine show wanting to film (the next day) our reaction to Meredith Baxter’s late-in-life coming out. They promised to hype our film (titled “Out Late”) if we agreed. Uncharacteristically for us, we did.
The next day we got the kids off to school and welcomed a reporter, a cameraman, a producer, and a sound guy into our home. They were lovely and respectful. At one point, for B roll (the images you see while someone is speaking over them — like us making coffee and checking our mail), they asked us to kiss. I refused, saying I don’t kiss on cue (I made a joke about needing a little red wine and some Billy Joel music for that), and they seemed to be fine without the kiss. They also asked for a picture of my spouse with her famous father, and we said no (I said she’d need a little red wine and some Billy Joel music for that).
The piece ran that evening, mentioning our film and showing clips from it. Except for a horrifying still of us that introduced the piece (with the headline “Late in Life Lesbians,” which upset my spouse because she didn’t consider her 48-year-old self “late in life”), they made us look and sound good. They didn’t get to show our kids, or the bedlam, or any dirt. They did get a picture of my spouse with her famous father, but not from us.
Since coming out, Meredith Baxter published a memoir that is now number 10 on The New York Times’s best-seller list. Portia de Rossi’s memoir is climbing that same list. Ricky Martin, after years of deflecting public speculation, not long ago announced on every major talk show that he’s “a fortunate gay man”(who’s also plugging a new book and a new single). Sean Hayes (the star from “Will and Grace” who was neither Will nor Grace) came out a couple of years after his hit sitcom ended and right before his smash Broadway debut in “Promises, Promises.”
Ellen DeGeneres, a true groundbreaker in 1997, came out during the run of her TV show. Immediately afterward, her ratings soared. Her current talk show enjoys consistently huge ratings and she has reached mega-celebrity status. Conversely (or sort of conversely, in an inverted kind of way), DeGeneres’s onetime partner Anne Heche experienced a significant jolt of fame when she “came out” as a lesbian, while her career suffered the direct inverse as soon as she later “came out” as straight.
This is not to say that coming out necessarily helps if you’re in the public eye (although, ratings-wise, it arguably has done nothing to hurt the careers of Rosie O’Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Lane, or Jodie Foster). I’m merely pointing out that while coming out can, tragically, still be a career-breaker for teachers, politicians, clergy, and a host of other ordinary citizens worldwide . . . in the entertainment industry it mysteriously provides often positive leverage. My partner and I are not even remotely celebrities, but it seems we are somehow close enough to be of minor interest from time to time.
And this is how we came to be exploited. On our own terms, and by our own choosing. We were willing to do it because it didn’t include the kids, and did include our feature film. We gave up a measured piece of ourselves in order to promote our careers. I think I’m learning that exploitation can be okay, when it goes both ways. Or, perhaps, when no one you know actually sees it.
Jennifer Brooke is a writer and filmmaker who lives year round in Sag Harbor with her partner in film and in life, Beatrice Alda, and their children.