It’s a Stressful Summer in Hollywood. Lawyers Say That Could Spell Divorce.

Among the celebrities couples that have recently announced a split: Joe Manganiello and Sofía Vergara; Jeremy Allen White and Addison Timlin; and Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth. (JULIA DUARTE FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES)
Among the celebrities couples that have recently announced a split: Joe Manganiello and Sofía Vergara; Jeremy Allen White and Addison Timlin; and Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth. (JULIA DUARTE FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES)

Summary

  • Actors and writers are on strike. Couples are still feeling the Covid slump. Lawyers and publicists are bracing themselves.

Relationship headlines have started to read a bit like Mad Libs. “Sofía Vergara and Joe Manganiello Announce Divorce After Seven Years of Marriage." “Ariana Grande and Dalton Gomez Divorcing After Two Years of Marriage." “Ricky Martin and Jwan Yosef Announce Divorce After Six Years of Marriage."

Behind all those announcements is a busy summer for divorce lawyers juggling a slew of high-profile splits and a wave of anxiety from celebrity clients. Summers are always stressful. Covid continues to be stressful. Now the writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood are adding even more stress.

Laura Wasser, who represented Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears and Johnny Depp in their divorces, said the strikes could take a toll on those union members’ relationships.

“Everything has shut down, and what that means is anxiety is high. People are concerned about their finances and—maybe more importantly than anything else—they have time," said Wasser. “People who have been married unhappily for a while realize that they’re not going back to shoot the next season of whatever they were working on." That’s when they call her.

Wasser said she’s been fielding calls from worried clients over the last couple of weeks. “People say, ‘How long is this going to last?’ ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘Do we have to pull our kids out of private school?’" She said her business picks up during periods of financial precarity, such as the 2008-09 crisis.

Summer can be a busy time for divorce lawyers, said Nancy Chemtob, who represented Mary-Kate Olsen, Tory Burch and Bobby Flay in their divorces. She sees her business pick up as kids head off to camp or college, leaving their empty-nester parents to realize they’ve grown apart. Chemtob said the pandemic had a similar effect.

“People realized that they just did not like their spouse," she said.

Stephanie Lehman, who represented Marilee Fiebig in her split from former “Good Morning America" host T.J. Holmes, said she’s “absolutely" seen an uptick in divorce filings since Covid started.

“Sometimes when there’s trauma or world events [like] a pandemic, it triggers people’s emotions in different ways and they start to look at life differently. I think the perception right now just generally about marriage is it’s not necessarily forever and it’s OK that it’s not forever."

Among the summer’s other splitting couples are Kevin Costner and Christine Baumgartner; “The Bear" star Jeremy Allen White and Addison Timlin; Billy Porter and Adam Smith; former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray; and Tina Knowles and Richard Lawson.

Most of these were long partnerships. Chemtob likened a marriage like Grande and Gomez’s to a “long date."

“When somebody comes into my office and they don’t have children and they’ve been married for a short period of time, I’m like, ‘Let’s get out of this as quickly as possible,’" she said. “The whole institution of marriage, till death do us part, is a little loosey goosey in the celebrity world."

While celebrities have publicists who help strategize the timing and tone of their breakup announcements, their divorce lawyers can play a part too.

“What I want to make sure is that all of those people know that when we do file, it will immediately be picked up by the media," Wasser said. “I have some cases that I’m working on quietly so that by the time we do file, we already have all of the details worked out." If someone has a movie coming out or an Oscar campaign, it’s better to hold off on filing.

Wasser said that she’s had clients ask to file after another more famous couple makes a divorce announcement, hoping that their own news will fly under the radar.

“I won’t tell you who, but that happened to me a few years ago," said Ronn Torossian, founder of the public-relations agency 5WPR, who has worked extensively in crisis communications.

“Celebrities can and should be watching the news cycle," he added. “On the day that something humongous happens, you might get less news if you announce it the right day."

When both members of the couple are famous, Wasser will often coordinate with the other person’s lawyer to file for divorce on the same day.

“Then you don’t have two separate press cycles," she said. “The message to the public is: These people are on the same page."

“I tell people—which is obvious—that everything you do is being looked at under a microscope," said Neal Raymond Hersh, whose clients have included Pamela Anderson and Kim Basinger. “When you’re a celebrity, you don’t have to go looking for trouble. Trouble is looking for you."

He recalled a professional athlete who was working through a spousal-support issue.

“We were trying to argue that he shouldn’t be paying the highest amount of support that the other side wanted," said Hersh. “And he was just about to buy a $500,000 car, and his entertainment lawyer and I and everybody said, ‘Could you just not do this until after the court hearing?’ And he said yes, he agreed." Soon enough, the client called back: He couldn’t wait and was buying the car.

Lawyers tend to have rules of thumb for all the couples they advise. Lehman said her best advice is nothing in writing. “Don’t send those text messages," she said. “Be careful what you post on social media, guard your accounts with your life."

Wasser advises publicists to keep clients image-conscious. “Maybe not so many clubs or bikini pictures or dating pictures," she said.

When a divorcing celebrity steps out for, say, a shirtless workout session, Torossian said his abs could be sending any number of messages.

“He might want to get out and start dating again. He might want people to know that he’s in shape," the crisis publicist said. “He might be auditioning for a new movie because he might need to make money to cover his divorce."

Write to Lane Florsheim at lane.florsheim@wsj.com

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