Meet Laura Wasser, the celebrity divorce lawyer with clients in Kim Kardashian, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie

Laura Wasser, also the inspiration for Nora Fanshaw, Laura Dern’s character in Marriage Story, talks about the tricky waters of celebrity marriages and public divorces.

The New York Times April 02, 2021 11:36:58 IST
Meet Laura Wasser, the celebrity divorce lawyer with clients in Kim Kardashian, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie

Laura Wasser at her home in Los Angeles. Photo by Rosie Marks c.2021 The New York Times Company

Among Laura Wasser’s singular gifts is her talent for spinning a tale. One of Hollywood’s premier divorce lawyers, she has catalogued her clients’ foibles, anxieties, and misapprehensions in a book and on her social media platforms.

There was the wife of a Hollywood producer who imagined that she would still be entitled, post-split, to fly on the private jet of the movie studio. Not a chance, Wasser told her crisply. “You are no longer Mrs Producer.”

And the rock star who phoned to discuss his divorce, an audible slur in his voice and faint gurgling in the background. “Listen,” she chided, “You cannot take a bong hit when you are on the phone with your divorce attorney.”

Or the middle-aged client who had entirely subsidised his younger husband’s extravagant lifestyle, only to find that once the marriage was over, he would have to keep up payments. Why should he? her charge whined. After all, his ex had contributed nothing throughout their years together. “You married him, darling,” came the retort.

But for the most part, Wasser tends to be mum about her A-list clients, including Stevie Wonder; Britney Spears in her 2007 divorce from Kevin Federline; and among her most acrimonious cases, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in 2016; as well as Angelina Jolie when she filed for divorce from Brad Pitt in 2016. In 2018 she mediated the divorce of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.

She is as relentlessly tight-lipped about her latest high-profile proceeding: Last month, Wasser filed divorce papers for Kim Kardashian West in her split from Kanye West. “I never discuss a case,” Wasser said with an unbreachable finality.

Meet Laura Wasser the celebrity divorce lawyer with clients in Kim Kardashian Johnny Depp Angelina Jolie

Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West

Not much else was off-limits, though, in a rambling conversation over Zoom last month. “Talking about myself is my favourite thing,” Wasser said jovially. She is aware that she is known in the trade as much for glamour and media slickness as for pit-bull tactics. But at 52, she has learned to take such descriptors with a mix of dark humour, bluntness, and easy relatability.

“When I was in my 20s and 30s, there weren’t many other people practicing family law that you could send a drummer from an alternative band to,” she said. When one did arrive, Wasser recalled, she hustled into action, removing his piercings and whisking him to Bloomingdale’s to buy a suit that would cover his tattoos. “I understood him,” she said. “I too had to cover up a tattoo, and take out some piercings.”

‘We do fairy tale very well here'

In those days, business managers, entertainment lawyers, and agents began shunting similarly raffish clients her way, reasoning, as she explained, “She will call them ‘dude,’ and they will tell her their problems. She won’t judge them, and she will work it out.”

Her own history is relatively tame, the particulars likely familiar to readers of the newsstand glossies or TMZ. Wasser grew up in Los Angeles, in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement. Her father is Dennis Wasser, a high-powered Hollywood divorce lawyer; her mother, Bunny, who died in 2019, was also a lawyer. Her younger brother, Andrew, became a psychotherapist. Laura graduated from Beverly Hills High School, earned her law degree from Loyola Law School in 1994, and worked briefly as a disability rights lawyer before joining Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles, her father’s firm.

Today, she is a managing partner, charging $950 an hour to advise a gaggle of artists, athletes, musicians, actors, and reality show stars. (Her association with Kardashian West dates from 2011 when she managed the reality star’s divorce from Kris Humphries.)

She tends to steer them toward a settlement rather than financially and emotionally draining court proceedings. “She has a talent for fostering empathy rather than enmity,” Affleck said in an interview. He added, appreciatively, “Once you get into a fight, I suspect everyone loses. She made that clear from the start.”

To complement It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way, her popular divorce primer published in 2013, she has developed an app, “It’s Over Easy,” a five-step program for people who want a do-it-yourself legal split, and All’s Fair, a podcast about — what else? — divorce.

At the time his daughter joined his firm, which specialises in family law, Dennis Wasser recalled, “There weren’t a lot of women trying cases. There was a stigma attached. If they did what they did, they were referred to with the b-word.”

Meet Laura Wasser the celebrity divorce lawyer with clients in Kim Kardashian Johnny Depp Angelina Jolie

Laura Wasser at her home in Los Angeles. Photo by Rosie Marks c.2021 The New York Times Company

Laura Wasser persisted, representing herself in her own 1994 divorce from a man she has described in the past only as “a Spanish guy.” She speaks more or less freely about the two sons, 13 and 11, she had with different fathers, each of whom shares in the boys’ support.

She never remarried. “I just never thought of a great reason,” she said. “I had already been married once. I had gorgeous wedding photos from when I was 25. I was never going to look better than I looked in those, so I just never really pushed the issue.” Weddings are costly, she added. “Maybe I didn’t want to pay.” Or maybe, as she likes to joke, “I’m just an old hippie procreating with anyone who comes along.”

She showed little trace of latent bohemianism the other day, dressing with an artfully calibrated understatement, her long hair pulled back, her lanky frame sheathed in jeans, her concession to femininity a flowy Prada blouse she has owned for a decade. Her earlobes twinkled with a pair of diamond studded safety pink earrings by Anita Ko, the designer and a friend.

Is Wasser’s vaunted fashion sense a professional asset? “I don’t think it hurts,” she said. But she dresses primarily to please herself. “If I want to buy nice clothing, or beautiful shoes or a bag, that’s one of the perks of the trade,” she said.

Widely profiled in fashion magazines, Wasser acknowledged having been the inspiration for Nora Fanshaw, Laura Dern’s character in Marriage Story, a counselor who closes in on clients with an aggressive faux familiarity, reassuring, “Part of what we’re going to do together is telling your story.”

Wasser chafes a bit at Dern’s interpretation. “Nora is predatory, and a little more touchy-feely than I am,” she said. “She’s sexier, maybe, than I’m comfortable with, wearing those tight dresses and showing her arms. But she has a fantastic body, so God bless her.”

On the screen, Nora greets visitors in a blush-tone office conceived to soothe the most jittery clients. Wasser’s own office is a low-key medley of greens, she said, a colour that is also dominant in the living room of her 1920s Mediterranean villa tucked between Sunset Boulevard and the Hollywood Hills.

It is, of course, the colour of money.

The lofted space above her, furnished with bookcases, a desk, and computer, has been her makeshift office since lockdown. A cabinet is arrayed with vintage photographs, including one of Mia Farrow dragging on a cigarette, and another of Farrow with the Beatles on their India tour, all wreathed in bright flowers. “I won’t opine on the whole Allen v Farrow thing,” Wasser said, referring to the former couple’s troubles, recently documented on HBO. “I just really love those images — they’re so cool.”

From her perch, Wasser can serenely observe the rites of coupling and uncoupling in her wedge of the world. “We do fairy tale really well here in Southern California,” she said.

She is operating, she knows, in a celebrity culture that can be romantic to a fault. “We’re seeing people preparing for what we’ve always known is supposed to be the best day of your life. The problem is, once it’s all done, you’re married. It was a great day and a great party, and now you turn to look next to you at this guy who has not got the greatest breath in the world in the morning when you wake up next to him, and that’s the rest of your life.”

Selling the Dream

The pomp surrounding Hollywood nuptials is partly an outgrowth of viewers’ absorption with reality TV and shows like The Bachelor, or flamboyant covers on People magazine, Wasser said. Sure, weddings and the attendant festivities can be motivated by greed. “You can hook onto the stories of people selling their wedding photos, videos, and the like,” she said.

Lavishly publicised unions carry twin advantages. They “can make a C-lister’s lifestyle seem aspirational,” Allie Jones noted in Vice. “Paradoxically the same kind of event can make an A-lister more relatable.”

A wedding can be an opportunity for high-visibility product placement. It was hardly by chance that Priyanka Chopra Jonas celebrated her bridal shower in 2018 at the Tiffany & Co Blue Box Café, or that her groom, Nick Jonas, posed with a bottle of Stoli Elit vodka at his bachelor party, a paid partnership acknowledged on Jonas’ Instagram.

Then there was actress Jennifer Lawrence, who, on the cusp of her wedding to Cooke Maroney, an art dealer, released her Amazon wedding registry, which included $15 string lights and a $500 roto mop. “Turning a major life milestone into a chance to make money sounds dystopian, but it’s pretty standard for celebrities in 2019,” Business Insider commented at the time.

“People love magazine covers with the wedding or the new baby,” Wasser said. “But the ones that sell out are the breakups,” which she has ascribed to “pure schadenfreude.”

In any case, she is not judging. “Watching people go through what is often the most painful thing they will experience is really tough,” she said. “One of the more disturbing things, when people are hurt and frightened, is that they can be very ugly. Often you see good people at their worst and also their most vulnerable.”

Meet Laura Wasser the celebrity divorce lawyer with clients in Kim Kardashian Johnny Depp Angelina Jolie

Laura Wasser at her home in Los Angeles. Photo by Rosie Marks c.2021 The New York Times Company

She urges clients to separate emotional issues from legal ones. “People feel that they need to explain sometimes why things have broken down. To justify themselves they will say things that they wouldn’t otherwise say: ‘I didn’t feel seen,’ or ‘He would have sex with call girls, and then come home and try to have sex with me.’”

Most of her clients are already in some form of therapy, she said. “They don’t need me for that. I tell them, ‘This is a mental health issue. I’m not qualified to help. My marriage lasted for 14 months in the ’90s. What do I know?’”

Their stories fascinate her just the same. “It’s such a gift to me that I’m getting paid all this money per hour to problem-solve, and come up with resolutions to the big issues: What’s going to be the custodial timeshare; what are going to be the support payments; how are we going to divide the estate."

“But while I’m doing that, I get to hear these narratives. I really believe it’s important to give these clients the narrative for their next chapter, to drive home the message that the world is your oyster, to ask, 'What did you learn, and what are you going to do now?'”

She is quick to remind them of the bedrock realities of a marriage — who will be the breadwinner, who will take care of the kids, who will play host. She tends to push for a prenuptial agreement. “It sets a template for what you can expect going into your marriage,” she said, “which, mind-bogglingly, many people don’t discuss.”

If that sounds transactional, so be it. “Isn’t every relationship to a certain extent transactional?” Wasser said. “In the old days, with the dowry you got the wife and a couple of cows. Now the deal may be, ‘You’ll pay my student loans and I’m going to work at the Dairy Queen.’” Or, as is more likely among her celebrity charges, “It’s, ‘I have an IRS debt from my last movie that was a blockbuster.’ There is the expectation that the spouse may take it on,” she said.

Hollywood persists, nonetheless, in clinging to the fairy tale. “It’s amazing to me how many of my young clients — when I say young, I mean 45 and under — have been married more than twice,” she said. “And they keep going back to the well.

“I mean, they love those weddings,” Wasser said, more piqued than amused. “Then here they come a few years later for the divorce.”

Ruth La Ferla c.2021 The New York Times Company

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