Stand by Your Man
Actress Jennifer Siebel steps into her biggest role yet—first lady of San Francisco.
Imagine the prototypical politician’s wife, and someone very much like Jennifer Siebel will come to mind. The 33-year-old actress—who became engaged to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in December—is blond, beautiful and brainy, with two degrees from Stanford and a long history of do-gooding. She’s so poised that she sometimes sounds like a Miss America contestant trying to win over the judges, especially when she’s going on about her desire to “make a difference and give back.”
But San Francisco is not a typical city, nor is Newsom a typical mayor. After making a name for himself nationally by legalizing gay marriage, he became a media darling, drawing more than a few snickers when, in 2004, he posed for a fashion magazine dressed in a tuxedo and splayed out on the floor of the Getty mansion with his wife at the time, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Roughly five months later, he and Guilfoyle announced that they were divorcing, and in February 2007 the news broke that while the couple were separated, Newsom had had an affair with his former appointments secretary, Ruby Rippey-Tourk—who was also the wife of his campaign manager. The mayor admitted to the relationship and to a drinking problem, and entered rehab.
Siebel’s reaction to the situation made clear that, for all her pageant-worthy poise, she’s not cut from the same cloth as Jackie and Hillary, willing to let sex scandals blow over in stalwart silence. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Siebel, who was not involved with Newsom at the time of his affair with Rippey-Tourk, proclaimed, “There are two sides to every story…the woman is the culprit.” Later, she posted a rant on San Francisco blog SFist.com that included the line, “Everyone near to her has stories and says she is bad news.”
The remarks set the San Francisco social world buzzing. Some believed Siebel was exploiting Newsom’s troubles in order to promote her career. “I think she was very intent on getting press in any way she could at that time for her film [The Trouble With Romance, which was then on the festival circuit],” says one local society journalist. “She understands the value of public relations.”
But Newsom’s close friends maintain, at least publicly, that Siebel had only her boyfriend’s best interests in mind. “Amongst the people who know Gavin, it was a woman standing by her man,” says Beach Blanket Babylon producer Jo Schuman Silver, who has known the Newsom family for years. “She came across as a supportive girlfriend.”
Today, ensconced in an overstuffed couch in the quiet lobby of San Francisco’s Four Seasons hotel, dressed in a chic black dress, Siebel seems eager to put the whole mess behind her. “I choose not to talk about the past,” she says. “I was just trying to be protective. I’m in a wonderful relationship, and that’s all that matters.”
The couple met in October 2006 on a blind date, set up by local socialite Kathy Wilsey, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Artists’ Ball. (Prior to the date, Siebel says, the mayor’s office perused her personal Web site in lieu of a full-on background check.) Sparks flew immediately. “As soon as I saw them interact I thought, This is it,” says party planner Stanlee Gatti, a longtime friend of Newsom’s.
Siebel, who grew up in the Bay Area but has lived in Los Angeles since 2003, insists that at the time she was clueless about the details of the mayor’s divorce and the string of women he’d been linked to in its wake, including a Scientologist and a 20-year-old restaurant hostess (Newsom is 40). “I didn’t know anything about it,” Siebel says. “All I knew was that my parents had admired him from afar.” Within three months, Siebel and Newsom were jetting off to Hawaii for Christmas, and it was there that he proposed this past December. “I’ve found my soulmate in this man,” Siebel says.
The feeling seems to be mutual. “She has a calmness, serenity and sense of decency that’s beyond anything else,” the mayor says of his betrothed.
Newsom’s gushing may sound over-the-top, but even Siebel’s critics admit that she’s not your average arm candy. The second of five sisters (the eldest died in a childhood accident), Siebel grew up volunteering around the globe; her father, Ken Siebel, an investment manager, is a founding board member of the environmental nonprofit Conservation International. At Stanford she studied third world development and conservation policy and did a little acting on the side. After graduation she told her family she wanted to give Hollywood a try. “My dad teased me that he would disown me,” she recalls. “I took it very seriously. I never wanted to disappoint my father.”
So instead, she took a job with Conservation International, working in Botswana and Peru. After a year, she went back to Stanford for an M.B.A., but through it all, her movie-star dream never died. Five years ago, she finally defected to Hollywood to pursue a film career.
Since then, the Hitchcockian blond has landed bit parts on television and in movies such as Something’s Gotta Give and In the Valley of Elah. Siebel also founded a production company, Girls’ Club Entertainment, and sold her first film, The Trouble With Romance, in which she stars, to Genius Films last year for a DVD and possible TV release. Currently, she’s producing a documentary on female sexuality and power. “My hope is that it inspires young girls to look beyond the tabloids, and to show that there is room for all of us to shine in healthy ways,” she says.
Siebel’s main production these days is, of course, her wedding to Newsom. It will be attended by just family and take place “somewhere in nature” this summer. Newsom’s family and friends seem to approve of the union. Gatti, who was Newsom’s best man at his first wedding and will help to plan his second, says Siebel has been a good influence. “I knew Gavin long before he was a politician, and I saw the changes that set in,” he says. “Now, I see him being really honest again.”