Inside Julie Chen's Complicated World as Les Moonves' Wife and Host of 2 CBS ShowsSeptember 11, 2018
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That might very well be frost you’re seeing on the windows of the Chen-Moonves estate.
She was referring to what happened the one time her husband, Leslie Moonves, overstepped during an argument.
Asked what the secret was to their enduring marriage, Chen recalled, “Very early on my husband said to me, ‘Let’s never say something to the other person where—just know anything you say, you can’t take it back.’ So never hit below the belt, no matter how emotional you’re feeling, or vulnerable, or hurt, or angry. And we really don’t fight. We don’t fight.
“I’m a very easygoing person,” she continued. “I wake up happy. And my husband, he has learned how to count to 10 backwards in his head. He says, ‘you have no idea how many times I bite my tongue.’ Because the one time he didn’t—he doesn’t respond well to ice cold. I will shut off and shut down.”
Rarely does the sound of silence echo so loudly.
The Talk returned for its ninth season on Monday, but Chen stayed away.
Not surprisingly she decided to skip the season premiere, since the first topic of conversation on the CBS daytime show (as it was on many shows) was the resignation of CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves after new allegations of sexual assault and harassment against him came out over the weekend in the second New Yorker exposé about Moonves in two months.
As they people (mainly comedians) are saying, there’s been no scarier sentence for showbiz’s most powerful men this past year than “Ronan Farrow is calling.” (“It’s never a good sign when you’re the subject of a Ronan Farrow double dip,” Stephen Colbert quipped on CBS’ The Late Show last night.)
After Farrow’s first story about Moonves was published in late July, detailing allegations of sexual misconduct and intimidation from six women going back to the 1980s, Chen stood by her husband of more than 13 years.
“I have known my husband, Leslie Moonves, since the late ’90s, and I’ve been married to him for almost 14 years,” Chen said in a statement tweeted Friday, July 27. “Leslie is a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader. He has always been a kind, decent and moral human being. I fully support my husband and stand behind him and his statement.” The couple are parents of an 8-year-old son, while Moonves has three adult children with his first wife, Nancy.
The following Monday on The Talk, Chen said she stood by her statement “today, tomorrow, forever.”
CBS Corp. stood by Moonves too, at least to the extent that they were awaiting results of an internal investigation before taking action and he was reportedly negotiating a massive severance package before Farrow’s second report—in which six more women came forward with allegations—was published on Sunday. He resigned, with no agreed-upon compensation, several hours later.
“The appalling accusations in this article are untrue,” Moonves stated in response to Sunday’s New Yorker story. “What is true is that I had consensual relations with three of the women some 25 years ago before I came to CBS. And I have never used my position to hinder the advancement or careers of women,” Moonves responded. “In my 40 years of work, I have never before heard of such disturbing accusations. I can only surmise they are surfacing now for the first time, decades later, as part of a concerted effort by others to destroy my name, my reputation, and my career.”
After the July New Yorker story, Moonves also categorized any past unwanted advances as regrettable mistakes and apologized for making anyone feel uncomfortable.
“But I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no,'” he added, “and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career. This is a time when we all are appropriately focused on how we help improve our society, and we at CBS are committed to being part of the solution.”
Vanity Fair then published a story Sunday in which a source identified Moonves as the previously unidentified “VIP patient” who twice grabbed and tried to kiss Dr. Anne L. Peters, who detailed the alleged encounter in May in Annals of Internal Medicine, during a routine exam in 1999. Moonves told Vanity Fair: “The appalling allegations about my conduct toward a female physician some 20 years ago are untrue. What is true, and what I deeply regret, is that I tried to kiss the doctor. Nothing more happened.”
CBS’ board, meanwhile, has been embroiled for the past year in a power struggle with CBS vice-chair Shari Redstone, the daughter of 95-year-old Sumner Redstone, who remains chairman of CBS and Viacom Inc. parent National Amusements. Shari has wanted to re-merge CBS and Viacom (owner of MTV, Comedy Central, BET and others)—which previously were one corporation before splitting in 2006, a move she didn’t approve of at the time—and now it appears she’s another step closer to making that happen. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that Shari was also instrumental in installing six new board members in the wake of the news about Moonves, and now the 13-member board includes six women (up from three).
The network, which previously that no complaints had been filed about Moonves during his tenure there, announced it will donate $20 million (out of any severance that might still go to Moonves, whose compensation as CEO in 2017 was $69.3 million) to organizations that support the #MeToo movement and gender equality in the workplace.
Calling it a “bittersweet” day on The Talk, Sharon Osbourne said Monday that she’d never been nervous in her life but she was nervous right then. They first flashed to how other morning shows were covering the story, including on CBS This Morning (the second time the show had to report on the ouster of one of their own), ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today, which weathered the firing of co-anchor Matt Lauerafter 20 years on the job last November.
“First of all, I want to say that whatever times of hardship I’ve had over the last eight years, Julie has always been there for me,” Osbourne said. “She’s been a friend, she’s somebody who I admire and respect greatly, and it’s very embarrassing and upsetting to have to talk about her husband, but we do. We feel it’s right. I personally knew Les Moonves in a superficial way. It was ‘Hello, how are you?’ Nothing more, I know nothing about the man other than he’s Julie’s husband and was head of the biggest network in the world, and the most powerful man in TV.
“I was asked a couple of months ago to make a statement supporting Leslie, which I felt I was as diplomatic as could be with the statement that I made,” Osbourne continued. “But now, after seven more women have come out, these stories are so similar, the pattern is so similar, that for them, it’s—he’s not been convicted of any crime, but obviously the man has a problem.”
More than anything, no matter what happened to The Talk once new management settled in, Osbourne said that she was concerned for the fate of the workers among them who weren’t wealthy and famous.
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Gayle King, who had to report in real time on the firing of her co-host Charlie Rose last year, was absent from CBS This Morning yesterday but was back Tuesday and took the network to task after it was reported that CBS wouldn’t be releasing the results of its investigation into the allegations against Moonves.
Acknowledging that Moonves had denied assaulting or harassing anyone, King added, “It’s been my experience that women don’t come out and speak this way for no reason. They just don’t. They just don’t do it. And so I don’t know how we move forward if we don’t—we at CBS—don’t have full transparency about what we find…In our own house we must have full transparency.”
“I feel for Julie Chen today,” King also said. “She’s in a very difficult position. And Les Moonves has done wonderful things for this company, and we can’t forget that either. So, it’s just a bad situation all the way around.”
While the other powerful woman whose fortunes were tied to her husband’s who immediately comes to mind is Georgina Chapman—who announced she was leaving Harvey Weinsteinon Oct. 10, five days after the New York Times detailed decades of alleged misconduct and just hours after Farrow’s New Yorker story detailing allegations of rape and other disturbing behavior was published—Chen doesn’t seem to be in as horrifying of a place. (Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to criminal sexual assault charges in New York, as well as denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.)
Not that saying “at least Les didn’t…” means anything at all, particularly to the women who say he assaulted or otherwise mistreated them, but when you get down to timing (the reported allegations against Moonves all occurred before 2004, when he married Chen), it could make a difference to the couple personally.
Chen’s first professional brush with CBS came in 1990 when the New York native was an intern—along with Andy Cohen—on CBS Morning News. “She was a little bit of a wallflower, and I barely remember her because I was the star intern,” Cohen joked on The Talk in 2011. “And then she blew up into this glamour bomb and she’s like, the Chenbot all of a sudden.”
“Chenbot” being the nickname she has from her other major role at CBS as host since 2000 of Big Brother, on which she primarily appears to the housemates as a face on a screen, beamed in from the outside world into their sequestered enclave. When she first started, she was a bit on the stiff, robotic side, but has long since eased into the role—and her seriousness is part of the fun.
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She anchored CBS Morning News and was the news reader on The Early Show (now CBS This Morning) from 1999 until 2002. Network boss Les Moonves was still married—albeit separated, according to the official narrative—when they started dating. Nancy Moonves filed for divorce in 2003 after almost 25 years of marriage, citing irreconcilable differences and seeking 50 percent of his assets, a week after he signed his five-year deal to become CEO and chairman of CBS.
“Neither I nor our children have watched it in years,” Nancy told the New York Daily News in June 2004. “I don’t want to see [Chen]. It’s not healthy for me or my kids.” She continued, “I knew our marriage would end eventually. But the way it happened was not correct, it was not moral.”
From the beginning, Chen—who went on to co-anchor The Early Show until 2010—and the network had to brush aside speculation that her rise at CBS had anything to do with her personal relationship with Moonves.
Chen told Larry King that she didn’t know Moonves yet when she was offered the Big Brother gig by the head of CBS News—and she initially refused, because it would end her dream of continuing on in news and one day joining 60 Minutes. Meanwhile, she recalled, the guy offering her the job said that “technically” they could assign her Big Brother and to refuse would be considered “insubordination.”
“I was 29 years old, I had just started [at] the network, I didn’t know what to do,” Chen said. “So I had to take the job and it changed my whole life. When I talk about marriages come out of [the show], I got married afterwards too.” And 17 years later, she and Moonves still watched Big Brother together. “He gives me notes sometimes,” Chen said.
Lest you feel as alarmed for her thwarted aspirations as that story might suggest, she assured King that she didn’t regret leaving hard news.
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Chen and Moonves married on Dec. 23, 2004, in a private ceremony in Acapulco, Mexico, in front of only 30 guests—13 days after his divorce was finalized. The bride wore Reem Acra and the newlyweds then reportedly honeymooned at Las Ventanas resort in Cabo San Lucas.
He was “the first person in my life who doesn’t annoy me,” Chen quipped, according to TVGuide.com, at the Television Critics Association press tour in July 2010 while promoting the upcoming premiere of The Talk, CBS’ answer to The View.
Moonves, despite his wealth and position of utmost power as head of the most-watched television network, was the more private of the two, rarely bothering to personally address petty gossip and sticking to corporate business in interviews. He maintained a playful presence on The Late Show With David Letterman, where he was occasionally heard on speaker phone talking to Dave, and when The Talk premiered in October 2010 he was one of the hosts’ respective loved ones who recorded a message for the show’s debut.
“There are two reasons why I want this show to work,” Moonves said. “The first is that I love my wife so much, and the second is that if it doesn’t work, I’ll cancel you. See you at home dear.”
A 2005 New York Times profile noted that a feng shui expert had consulted on his New York office decor. “My wife believes in feng shui, and I can use all the luck I can get,” Moonves said. “Even with all the changes at this company, creating a schedule with hit shows is still the center of my job.”
On another rare personal note, he told Newsweek in 2011 that a rumor that Chen was pulling the my-husband-will-fire-you card to hold sway over her co-hosts on The Talk was ridiculous.
“Anybody that knows my wife knows she would never say that,” he said.
After the initial New Yorker report about Moonves came out, The Daily Beast reported that Chen’s professional behavior was again under the microscope as speculation grew that her husband may be close to stepping down.
“I never saw any behavior that was disrespectful,” a former colleague told the site. “Could she be stern? Did she know what she wanted? You bet. Did she feel emboldened? Maybe… Julie suffered no fools gladly.” At the same time, the source added, “I completely buy that there are people who’ve been waiting for this moment for either or both of them. I can’t tell you how many people think she got the projects she got because of Leslie… There’s no doubt her marriage to him was the elephant in the room.”
Just last week, talking about the first New Yorker report, Sharon Osbourne—who along with Chen and executive producer Sara Gilbertis the only co-host who’s been on The Talk since the beginning—said on The Howard Stern Show that while she adored Julie and socialized with her, she barely knew Les. Her husband, Ozzy Osbourne, didn’t know Les at all, Sharon added.
On the show together in 2015, Chen and Osbourne said that both of their husbands had pleaded with them not to discuss their personal lives—or at least not their sex lives.
“In many ways, Ozzy and Leslie are very similar,” Chen surmised. “They’re the same age…” Howard then interrupted with other questions, and ultimately Chen divulged that her husband went to bed at around midnight and a vodka on the rocks was his preferred aid for winding down.
Asked what Les’ worst habit was, Chen deadpanned, “Everything he does is perfect.”
“I’ll tell you how they’re similar,” she pressed on. “Sharon and I go out years ago [to the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel] and two people who shall remain nameless came up to us and they were like, ‘hey, hey, hey.’ And as soon as these two guys walked away, I said to Sharon, ‘We better get home, because our husbands are going to be very jealous,’ even though Sharon’s been married 30-plus years, me over 10 years. I said, ‘I bet you we’re going to get crap when we get home.'”
Not that Ozzy (whom Sharon has left multiple times and almost left for good a couple years ago over his chronic philandering before ultimately renewing her vows with him instead) or Les really thought they were going to cheat, Chen explained.
Rather, “the women and guys out there, you know it. Us women, we don’t do anything…just being polite—you get in trouble for being polite.”
Asked if Moonves was ever the type to make breakfast for his wife, Chen cracked, “He doesn’t know where the kitchen is.”
Les was too busy, she added, running CBS.
Talking to Larry King, Chen said that Moonves would joke to her about having to figure out their summer vacation around her Big Brother schedule. They had just been renewed for another two summers, through season 20, airing now. (Chen said on Monday that, despite stepping away momentarily from The Talk, she would be on Big Brother as usual on Thursday.)
“I said, ‘yes,'” Chen added, “‘but you are the one dictating my work schedule.'”
“Doesn’t he renew it?” King asked.
“Yes!” Chen said, smiling. “It’s like a blessing and a curse. Look, one day it’ll end. And until then, as long as people still want it I’m happy to do it.”