Growing Up Getty
A fabled family finds their showbiz portrayals “demonizing,” “disgusting” and unrepresentative of their super-L.G.B.T.Q. values.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The Getty family is known for many things. A welcome to prying eyes is not one of them.
Invite a reporter to run a tape recorder in the living room? Are you insane? Like other journalists over the decades, he will delight in dredging up their darkest stuff — the drug addictions, the Shakespearean dysfunction, the tragic kidnapping and ransom drama that they’ve spent 45 years trying to forget.
Yet there I was, sitting across from Ariadne Getty, 55, at her dining room table as she took careful sips of chicken noodle soup. She was flanked by her son, August, a budding fashion designer with a substantial spray tan, and by her daughter, Nats, a tattooed, terrifyingly no-nonsense artist and street wear entrepreneur.
Also seated at the table on this spring day were two publicists, a brown Chihuahua named Bandit and Sarah Kate Ellis, the chief executive of Glaad, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group.
“I’m a super-shy introvert — this is not my comfort zone,” Ms. Getty said in a light Italian accent when I mentioned that she seemed nervous. (Why all the reinforcements?) She took a deep breath as Auggie, as she called him, gave her a back rub.
“But I do want to change the narrative of what’s out there about us,” she said. “Our family has been under attack.”
Ms. Getty’s grandfather, the infamous oilman and art collector J. Paul Getty, built the family dynasty in the 1950s. Her brother, J. Paul Getty III, was the one held for ransom. In 1973, when Ms. Getty was 11 years old, he was abducted by a crime syndicate and chained to a stake in a cave.
He was eventually released (his grandfather begrudgingly agreed to pay a reduced ransom), although not before having one of his ears sliced off and mailed to an Italian newspaper. He died in 2011.
Over the last six months, that tragic episode has twice been repackaged and sold as entertainment. First came Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” a film marketed with the snarky tagline “Everyone Wants a Cut” and starring Christopher Plummer, who was nominated for an Oscar. (He stepped in at the last minute, replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey.) Then FX rolled out “Trust,” a series starring Donald Sutherland as Grandpa Getty, complete with pet tiger, and depicting the family as greedy schemers.
“It’s demonizing,” August, 24, said.
“It’s disgusting,” added Nats, 25, almost in a hiss.
Ms. Getty pressed her hands to her forehead like it was all too much. “It doesn’t represent our values,” she said of the FX series in particular, noting that she had hired Hollywood’s foremost legal pit bull, Marty Singer, to battle the network, which is weighing a second season. (FX did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ms. Getty and her children — it’s just the three of them, after Ms. Getty’s divorce from Justin Williams, an actor, more than 15 years ago — also feel under attack in a political sense.
August and Nats are gay. Loudly and proudly. And they are none too happy about efforts by the Trump administration to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people. Neither is their mother, who has quietly become a major financial supporter of gay-rights organizations like Glaad — sort of a modern-day Judith Peabody, who hailed from an old-money family and who went all-in for gay causes in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“I’m terrified by the hate that has been unleashed by this administration,” Ms. Getty said. “People who have hated in the shadows but who now feel that they can be more public — there has been a big increase in L.G.B.T.Q. discrimination. I’m so upset about it that I can’t sleep at night.”
In addition to donating millions of dollars to organizations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center in recent years, Ms. Getty pledged $15 million to Glaad in February as part of a campaign by Ms. Ellis to raise $100 million.
Ms. Getty’s gift will go to the newly created Glaad Institute, which trains volunteers across the country to use the media (social media in particular) to push for equality and battle homophobia.
“She’s building us an army,” Ms. Ellis said.
Ms. Getty’s eyes welled up.
“I don’t think that I have many people that I would be able to call a friend,” Ms. Getty said. “But with Sarah Kate she’s proven to me time and again that friendship comes first, which is a great feeling. I haven’t had that in a long time.”
Meet ‘Mama G’
Although she eventually loosened up, Ms. Getty proved maddeningly adept at avoiding certain topics. If you want to know what her childhood was like, you will not find the answer here.
But she lived up to her offer — to open her door a crack, offering a glimpse of the Gettys as you have never seen them.
Ms. Getty’s primary residence these days is a 6,000-square-foot, $24.5 million apartment atop the Montage Beverly Hills, a luxury hotel with a Spanish Colonial design. On the March day when I first visited, a powerfully built security guard greeted me in the hallway.
Bags from designer boutiques like Maxfield cluttered the foyer. There was a photo of Ms. Getty and Ms. Ellis at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where they presented Glaad research showing that social acceptance of homosexuality is declining.
The living room exuded a fun eccentricity. A pair of teacup Jeff Koons balloon dogs in silver and copper frolicked on a monumental coffee table. Positioned in a corner of the room was a white flocked Christmas tree with ribbons cascading from its tip. Three stuffed polar bears (a mother and her cubs) stood next to the tree on a dark antique rug.
“It’s not still up because I’m depressed,” Ms. Getty said. “Auggie did the tree as a present, and it’s just too cute to take down.”
Ms. Getty, who has a longtime life partner, Louie Rubio, a successful music producer and songwriter, is extraordinarily close to August and Nats, whose names are tattooed on her body. In addition to her philanthropic work, Ms. Getty is the chief executive of August’s fashion business, August Getty Atelier, and serves in the same role for Strike Oil, a street wear line with a philanthropic twist that Nats will introduce in the fall.
“All of our friends call her Mama G,” August said. “It’s not uncommon for one of us to walk into the living room and see one of our friends who we haven’t seen in a solid three months, and they’re just watching TV with my mom.”
Nats said, “Once, I came out at, like, midnight, and there were six drag queens. They were like, ‘We’re here to see your mom. Go back to bed.’” (Nats and August have their own homes in Los Angeles but often sleep over.)
The extra-close connection between Ms. Getty and her children did not strike me as weird. It must be difficult to find people who understand what it means to live as a Getty. Not only do they breathe rarefied air, they also must contend with “the curse” — the stubborn tabloid narrative that wealth has forever doomed the family to tragedy and scandal. Ms. Getty clearly feels pressure to avoid adding proof points.
“Any parent could take a lesson from Ari in raising children — her love, her compassion,” said Caitlyn Jenner, whose work for transgender rights has brought her into Ms. Getty’s orbit. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but her kids are remarkable. Unapologetically themselves.”
It’s a little hard to miss.
Nats has an unmistakable energy, kind of a magnetic force, that makes her seem exciting and a bit dangerous: Come too close and you might get zapped, for better or worse. Tattoos on her arms read, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned” and “Things turned out so evil.” She is engaged to Gigi Gorgeous, who became a YouTube star by documenting her gender transition.
August, who is single, has compared himself to a unicorn, “halfway between fantasy and reality,” as he told Los Angeles Confidential magazine in early 2015, not long after unveiling his first collection at New York Fashion Week. (He has since dressed celebrities including Katy Perry, Miranda Kerr and Rachel McAdams.) Like his sister, whom he calls his muse, August has a brooding intensity. But I found him more eager to please.
“Growing up, I was swinging from trees and skateboarding and, like, busting my teeth the day before school pictures,” Nats said. “And August would be inside making these incredible, whimsical fantasies for his Barbies. He’s my best friend, my father figure, my mentor.”
August and Nats, which is short for Natalia, let it all hang out. He readily shared his coming-out story with me. (He was 15, and it involved a room-service waiter at the Sunset Tower Hotel.) She displays an affinity for pasties and cigarettes on Instagram, where she has 130,000 followers.
Their mother is more of an enigma.
At times, details would pour out of Ms. Getty, as when she told a story about living with Cher in the 1980s. They met through a mutual friend. “She said, ‘Mi casa es su casa,’ and I took it literally and moved in,” Ms. Getty said.
“But there was one catch that I learned the hard way. You couldn’t so much as say the F-word. I’m talking about ‘food.’ The refrigerator had to be bare. I finally moved out because I was starving.”
Born in Rome, Ms. Getty spent much of her time as a child outside Siena. She attended Bennington College in Vermont and initially pursued a career as an artist, exhibiting hand-colored photographs at a SoHo gallery in 1988.
But Ms. Getty, who has none of the arrogance so often oozed by the ultrarich, was not willing to talk about her childhood. Nor about her ex-husband. Nor about the rest of the Getty clan, including her nephew, Balthazar, the actor, or her brother Mark, a founder of Getty Images. (Ms. Getty has a close relationship with all of her relatives, according to a spokeswoman.)
Every once in a while, a revealing tidbit would slip through.
When I asked her why she had become so involved with Glaad — a member of the board, she will soon host a series of fund-raising dinners around the world — Ms. Getty spoke about the need to bring down some of her own walls. “I have said ‘no’ so many times in my life,” she said. “It left me isolated. Lonely.”
And there was this tiny comment, given as she talked about encouraging August and Nats to embrace their authentic selves: “When you are raised in a family like this one, who you are as a person … you can be overshadowed.”
At the Atelier
Ms. Getty and her brood use a converted warehouse in Culver City, not far from where “Gone With the Wind” was filmed, for their offices. You will know that you’re in the right place if you see racks of red-carpet gowns and a pink, blue and red neon sign on the wall: AUGUST GETTY ATELIER.
The rear of the sun-filled building serves as Nats’s studio. There are cans of spray paint, markers and a printer that looks big enough to spit out an entire billboard. This is also home to Strike Oil, an incipient street wear line overseen by Nats and featuring her artwork. Items will range from trucker hats ($48) to hand-painted clothing “priced upon request.”
After I begged to see Ms. Getty in motion, she invited me to sit in on a Strike Oil meeting in April. Another session, one dedicated to her philanthropic work, would follow.
When I arrived, the first meeting was already underway. Nats slouched at one end of a glass table scrutinizing photos of planned merchandise. William Anzevino, the chief brand director, was there, as were four more employees. Instead of attending in person, Ms. Getty appeared over video feed from the Montage. (August was sitting behind his computer across the room, drinking water from a goblet.)
My ears perked up when Ms. Getty started grilling the group about expected costs. “Just so you know,” she told Nats, “I’m not going to give any wiggle room.”
Then came a long discussion about how to make Strike Oil “synonymous with inclusion and social change,” as Nats put it. (Something of a brand tagline appears on the Strike Oil website: “It’s not just a lifestyle. It’s a thought process.”) They agreed that a portion of sales would go to charity, but they decided to postpone selecting one.
“I feel good about this,” Ms. Getty said at the conclusion.
Nats also deemed the meeting a success. “Gangster,” she said, grinning and decamping for a smoke.
I drove to the Montage, 15 minutes away, for the second session. I arrived to find Ms. Getty and Leigh Vales, the vice president of the Ariadne Getty Foundation, camped on sofas in the back of the hotel’s Garden Bar, where they were discussing logistics for the series of Glaad fund-raising dinners.
“Another Bellini for you, Ms. Getty?” a server asked. She declined. The platter of cubed salami could stay, though.
I blurted out a comment about the eye-popping Boucheron ring Ms. Getty was wearing. It was in the shape of a polar bear, with white diamonds as fur.
“Mama protecting her cubs,” Ms. Getty said with a smile.
The Getty family is well known for its philanthropy. Ms. Getty’s father, for instance, gave hundreds of millions of dollars to British art institutions. Ms. Getty delved into charitable work after his 2003 death.
Her first foundation, Fuserna, gave small amounts of money to a wide range of organizations. (One was Big Apple Greeter, a nonprofit that offers tours of New York neighborhoods to tourists.) She retrenched in 2016, renaming the foundation and focusing on bigger gifts to a smaller number of causes. Glaad has been the primary beneficiary.
Ms. Getty plans to host the Glaad dinners in seven cities around the world this year, expanding to 14 next year. “One should be in China,” she said, as Ms. Vales took notes. “About 15 people at each. We don’t want the intimacy to be lost.”
Ariadne Getty, center, speaks on a GLAAD panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, alongside Serge Dumont, left, the vice chairman of Omnicom Group, and Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft.CreditTom Oswald/GLAAD
The conversation wandered to Ms. Getty’s work with the Better World Fund, which supports United Nations causes like refugees and gender inequality. She joined the Better World board in 2016 and has traveled to refugee camps in countries including Uganda, where she financed the purchase of 280 generators called “solar suitcases” that medical workers use — in particular to deliver babies — in areas with no electricity.
But enough of that talk. Ms. Getty wanted to return to the topic of Glaad. The Glaad Media Awards, a major fund-raising moment for the organization, were set to take place in a few days. Would I attend as Ms. Getty’s guest?
I politely declined. She kept pushing. “What if we make you up as a drag queen?” she said. “My son is great with wigs. How big do you want it?”
I told Mama G that I would think it over.
She gave me a bear hug.
In the end, I attended the banquet and Ms. Getty did not. She fell ill, her publicist told me after I arrived.
But the Gettys still made a splash. Nats and Gigi glided back and forth between their center ballroom table and the smoking patio, accompanied by a bodyguard. August was a fervent participant in the auction, gleefully bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars on items like a trip to Australia and a session with a jewelry designer.
And Ms. Ellis, the Glaad chief executive, singled out Ms. Getty during an emotional speech asking for help in battling homophobia, including “sinister strikes, like when Trump said businesses can hang signs that read, ‘We don’t serve gay people.’”
“You know who stepped up?” Ms. Ellis said. “Ari Getty.”
Correction: June 25, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated Mark Getty's role in the founding of Getty Images. He was a co-founder, with Jonathan Klein; he was not the sole founder.
Brooks Barnes is a media and entertainment reporter, covering all things Hollywood. He joined The Times in 2007 as a business reporter focused primarily on The Walt Disney Company. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal. @brooksbarnesNYT