Elin Nordegren, ex-wife of Tiger Woods, just did something few commencement speakers manage: She surpassed expectations, delivering a funny, gracious, and definitely memorable speech at her graduation from Rollins College in Florida.
Thanks to her nearly perfect GPA, Nordegren was awarded the Hamilton Holt Outstanding Senior Award. Describing college as a refuge during her sometimes tumultuous personal life and role as a reluctant public figure, she said: “Education has been the only consistent part of my life the last nine years. And it has offered me comfort. Education is one thing that no one can take away from you.” Making light of her unpleasant experience in the glare of the media, she added, “I was unexpectedly thrust into the media limelight. I probably should have taken more notes in that [Communication and the Media] class!”
With her speech, Nordegren not only established herself, finally, as more than a mute former trophy wife, but she also showed what spouses of the wealthy and powerful could and ideally should be but in today’s culture rarely seem to be. That is, she proved herself willing to carve out an identity distinct from that of her powerful ex-husband—and one not dependent on his star power. In this, she is miles apart from the endless parade of girlfriends and wives (and occasionally husbands) of celebrities who seem to go from red carpet escort to handbag or jewelry designer, Extra TV host, or cookbook author virtually overnight. And conveniently, their husbands, or wives, appear by their side, because everyone knows that if he or she did not, no one in the media would bother to cover their latest professional endeavor, which is likely subsidized by their spouse, either in dollars or in the brand cachet his or her name provides.
There are countless examples, from the new Mrs. Alec Baldwin going from yoga teacher to TV correspondent, to Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld writing a cookbook for kids (that others alleged had already been written), to all of George Clooney’s exes, who manage to end up as models, cast members of Dancing with the Stars, reality show hosts, or some combination of all of the above. (That’s at least partly why the media hoopla around the future Mrs. Clooney, Amal Alamuddin, has been so intense. She is one of the first women the world’s most eligible bachelor has been linked to recently who doesn’t seem to benefit professionally from his star power in the slightest, and doesn’t seem to want to. With her credentials, we may soon be referring to him as Mr. Alamuddin.)
Although Hollywood is littered with other examples, perhaps the most egregious are the stars of the horror shows known as Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop, and Hollywood Exes on VH1. Some celebrity spouses may have the decency to pretend they have a talent or career, albeit one everyone knows their spouses are bankrolling, but on these shows, all pretense is thrown out the window. Instead, the women make clear that they are strictly on the show thanks to their marriage, or more often than not, simply a sexual relationship with a powerful or famous man. And the women are more than OK with that. Basketball Wives was conceived and produced by Shaunie O’Neal, ex-wife of basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal. Did I mention the part about most of these women on these shows being exes? Not only are they riding the coattails of men, but they are no longer even with these men. Even more appalling, they clearly are not embarrassed to be doing so, and they are being rewarded for that tacky behavior, which sets the feminist movement back decades every time an episode airs.
Which is what makes Nordegren’s speech and trajectory so refreshing. A part-time model when she met Woods, she easily could have ridden the title of Mrs. Tiger Woods onto the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Instead, she shunned the limelight and focused on forging her own identity as Elin Nordegren, not as Elin Woods, professional trophy wife turned professional ex. In her speech, she told her fellow students: “When you told me stories about your full-time day jobs, about coming home to cook dinner for your families, and about making sure your children were cared for while you were attending classes, you inspired me. Whatever obstacle I was facing at the time, your stories and sharing helped me put things in perspective.” She later told People magazine, “If I can inspire even one mom to go back and get her degree with the message that it’s never too late, then I am happy.”
And if she can inspire other women to be their own women, not simply a woman known through the man in her life, then many of us will be happy, too.