Like so many of her kind, 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-fueled rages, their fragile egos and cruel whims.
McRay was one of the lucky ones. She landed an aging mogul of her own, who set her up in a mammoth 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, now happily re-married and living outside California. (She won’t say exactly where.)
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 recently, 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—the push may be hard enough to make her bruise. 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 grows increasingly alone and 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 two-acre lot,” says Dr. Susan Weitzman, author of Not to People Like Us, a book that addresses what she terms “upscale abuse.” “Most of the men really have the power to act on their threats and get away with it.”
Russian pop singer Grigorieva probably didn’t realize what she was getting into when she started an affair with a long-married Gibson back in December 2007. From the look of the early paparazzi shots, though, she was finally living an old dream: strolling the beaches of Malibu in the arms of a super-rich movie star. By the time their affair was made public in April 2009, 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 as well as emails, text messages, and videotapes, she said, “to document his threats.”
On Jan. 6, Gibson violently erupted for the first time, Grigorieva told People magazine, incensed that she'd left him to watch her son's basketball game. "Mel was screaming and yelling and spitting on my face until it was covered in saliva,” she told the magazine. “He kept screaming like a crazy man. …I thought he would kill me.”
She says he punched her twice in the head and mouth, while she was holding their baby. When she fell on a bed, she says, Gibson proceeded to choke her as she tried to cover the baby, until Grigorieva started blacking out. Then, she says, Gibson pulled a gun out of his shorts and started waving it around. In mediation last spring, Gibson’s lawyers reportedly offered her a $15 million settlement package. Grigorieva signed an 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 Radaronline.com, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched an ongoing extortion investigation reportedly targeting Grigorieva.
“No one can hear your screams on a two-acre lot,” says Dr. Susan Weitzman. “Most of the men really have the power to act on their threats and get away with it.”
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. "Making sensational allegations is not the way to resolve this," he said.
Then there’s the case of Charlie Sheen. He was arrested Christmas Day 2009 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 “misdemeanor third-degree assault” and was sentenced to 30 days at the luxurious Malibu rehab center Promises, got three months probation and 36 hours of domestic-violence treatment.
While married to Denise Richards, Sheen allegedly threatened to kill her for getting their baby daughter vaccinated. (He had grown concerned about the safety of vaccinations.)
“I was torn between protecting myself and my children,” said Richards in a 2005 court declaration when she sought a restraining order against Sheen, “and the pressure I felt from [Sheen] and those around him who wanted only to protect themselves and their own self-serving financial interests.”
In 1997, Sheen was charged with slamming then-girlfriend Brittany Ashland on to the marble floor of his Agoura Hills home, knocking her unconscious, before demanding she get rid of her bloody clothes and 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, two years probation, community service, and ordered to pay $2,800 in restitution and attend eight counseling sessions.
Despite all this, Sheen’s superstardom remains intact. He’s a feted star on CBS’ hit sit-com Two and a Half Men, who earns about $2 million per episode. When asked to comment for this article, his publicist Stan Rosenfield claimed Sheen’s relationship troubles bore no similarity to those of Grigorieva and Gibson and suggested Ashland and Richards had misled authorities about Sheen's attacks. "Anyone can claim anything," he said. “Let’s just drag old Charlie over the coals."
Celebrity litigator Gloria Allred, counselor to Ashland and Tiger Woods’ mistress Rachel Uchitel among others, says rich and powerful men aren’t typically held accountable for bad behavior. “They’re used to being surrounded by 'yes' people,” she says. And their girlfriends and wives, she says, are sometimes seen “more as a status symbol than a human being.” The women, she added, are too enamored by the celebrity lifestyle to stay out of trouble.
“They believe that these guys are in love with them, that they will live happily ever after with them,” says Allred. “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 and discreet doctors, to publicists and managers, so the abuse rarely surfaces and the police are rarely summoned, says one bodyguard whose agency earns $200 per man-hour to guard celebrity clients.
“These people who are extremely powerful or extremely affluent… are abusive on some level 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 they take a beating. It’s a sick, sick, sick world they live in.”
Sometimes the woman feels obligated to stay for the money because her abuser supports her extended family or threatens to bring in the high-powered lawyers to take custody of the children. “It’s what I call legal kidnapping,” says Weitzman.
Spousal abuse cuts across all social strata. But statistics specifically on “upscale abuse” are hard to come by. And numbers are, in any event, tricky. While poor families appear to have a higher incidence rate of domestic violence, experts suspect that reflects a problem of reporting—more-affluent women are less likely to report the abuse, they say.
“It’s a little like counting unicorns, as many people in our society still deny that it even exists [among] ‘people like us,’” says Weitzman.
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 or likelihood 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 a rich man’s impulses. She admits she sometimes misses the adrenaline rush of the lifestyle, danger and all. “It’s like every single addiction,” she says. “You have to bottom out to get out of it. Otherwise you have no life.”
Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.