Women in the World

11.09.12

A Modern Family Drama: Behind the Ariel Winter Abuse Allegations

Did Ariel Winter’s mom abuse her, as the teen actress’s older sister claims—or is there another family dynamic at work? Christine Pelisek and Maria Elena Fernandez investigate.

The opportunistic, abusive stage parent is a common Hollywood theme: think Mama Rose in Gypsy, Judy Garland’s mom pimping her out to MGM, McCauley Culkin’s family stealing his money. Now come allegations that the mom of ABC’s Modern Family star Ariel Winter is physically and emotionally abusing her.

Last month, a Los Angeles judge granted temporary guardianship of Winter to her older sister Shanelle Gray. Gray alleged in court documents that the 14-year-old actress, who is best known for her role as brainy nerd Alex Dunphy, the middle child of Claire and Phil Dunphy (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell) on the three-time Emmy-winning comedy, was the victim of ongoing physical and emotional abuse by her 54-year-old mother, Chrisoula Workman.

According to a petition for appointment of guardianship, Winter was allegedly subjected to slapping, hitting, and pushing by Workman, as well as “vile name-calling, personal insults about minor and minor’s weight, attempts to ‘sexualize’ minor, [and] deprivation of food” for an extended period of time.

Winter has been living with her sister since the October 3 hearing. In addition, the judge ordered Workman, who runs a talent management business called Chrysalis Entertainment Management, to keep away from her daughter until a hearing on November 20.

In her petition, Gray—who like her sister is an actress and has guest starred on such shows as One Life to Live, The Bold & the Beautiful, Cory in the House, and Rizzoli & Isles, and runs an acting school in the San Fernando Valley called Gray Studios LA with her actor husband David—claimed that Winter’s father, Glenn Workman, is “estranged and incapable of properly caring for minor.”

According to the court papers, the guardianship was necessary to protect Winter “and prevent further physical and emotional abuse.” Lawyers for Gray also requested in the documents that Workman be directed to not make any withdrawals from Winter’s accounts, and that “all checks be delivered to the guardian for deposit in the blocked account to be established at Bank of America.”

A friend and neighbor of Workman’s who didn’t want to be identified told the Daily Beast that she doesn’t believe Workman abused her daughter. “The allegations are not true and that is the bottom line,” she said. “It is very involved why [Ariel] is saying that. I have never seen abuse. Chris and Ariel have always been happy-go-lucky. I think it is wrong these allegations are being made against Chris. It is a teenager who is angry with her mother right now. Ariel is mad at her mom and this is what happened.”

However, a source who knows Workman and has watched her at casting calls said she is known as the quintessential neurotic stage mother.  “She is one of the worst stage moms I have ever seen,” said the source, who didn’t want to be identified. “She’s neurotic and high-maintenance. She’s always the one who has to have everything her way. She’s very intense and very driven, to the point of being odd. You see that on reality television but you don’t see it in real life. It is like Dance Moms behavior.”

Winter’s story is as old as Hollywood. The overbearing stage mother is the stuff of legend. One of the most infamous stage moms was Rose Hovick, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. In the 1959 musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Hovick was portrayed as a domineering stage mother who would stop at nothing to further the show biz careers of her two daughters.

Movie legend Judy Garland alleged that her stage mother, Ethel Marion, made her take amphetamines at the age of 11 to help her keep up with hectic production schedules and auditions.  Garland, who became estranged from her mother, described her as “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.” She also accused her of stealing and mismanaging her money at the beginning of her career.

Drew Barrymore’s tales of club-hopping with her mom since she was 10 are well-known. After a 1989 rehab stint when she was 15, the actress filed for emancipation and won. In 1987, ‘80s star Corey Feldman of Stand by Me won emancipation at the age of 15 from his parents because, as he told ABC News in 2011, “I knew how to read a contract by 10 years old, but I didn’t know what it meant for somebody to come in and tell me they loved me and kiss me goodnight. That’s a problem.” 

Courtney Love also gained legal emancipation from her parents after a rough childhood in which she jumped from foster home to foster home for the better part of a decade, before she discovered a trust set up by her grandparents. In 1981, Love petitioned for emancipation in order to protect the money and won when she was 17 years old. 

“She is one of the worst stage moms I have ever seen,” says a source who knows Workman and has watched her at casting calls. “She’s neurotic and high maintenance. She’s always the one who has to have everything her way.”

Macaulay Culkin’s infamous court battle with his parents ended with one of the most successful child actors of all time being emancipated so that he could gain control of his earnings. A judge ruled the family’s accountant would take control of Culkin’s money until he was 18.

The late Diff’rent Strokes actor Gary Coleman was entangled in an ugly legal battle with his parents, claiming they mismanaged his money and left him destitute. His parents were found guilty of ripping off the star, and he was awarded $1.3 million.

Winter, who has been working since the age of 6 and has appeared alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and was nominated for a Young Artists Award for her role in The Chaperone, reportedly makes $70,000 per episode on Modern Family.

“Ariel has worked hard her whole life,” said Anne Henry of BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting families of children in the entertainment industry. “This little girl has worked her butt off. She has been working since she was six. She has a long résumé under her belt. She is not a flash in the pan. She has a successful career as an actor. I hope things work out for her. I don’t want this to be an ugly ending.”