Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde’s ex-employee is the latest to join a long line of nanny scandals. Here we look back at why the role of childminder to the celebs is so contentious and complex
It is a truth universally acknowledged that parents in possession of A-list stardom must be in want of a nanny. Nobody rich does their own child rearing — they’re too busy curating their brand. Yet the nanny, even within non-famous families, remains one of the trickiest roles, both for the nanny and for the employer — she (because the nanny is almost always a she) is simultaneously less than a family member but more than an employee, navigating a blurred line between intimacy and distance. And this boundary is entirely invisible to children.
The nanny dynamic fascinates the rest of us, who regard the nanny as a kind of human periscope into lives closeted by wealth and power, so that when it goes wrong, we get whiplash from rubbernecking. And it does go wrong. This going-wrong tends to involve two possible scenarios: the male employer has sex with the nanny, or the nanny blabs about the family to the media. In most — but not all — cases, the nanny loses her job. What is less spoken about is that the children lose their nanny, but we’ll come back to that.
The latter scenario most recently happened to actors Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde, whose former nanny told the Daily Mail in a detailed interview in October, complete with text screenshots, that Wilde had left Sudeikis for pop star Harry Styles. The Daily Mail have since taken down the interview.
Sudeikis and Wilde, who have two children aged six and eight, got together in 2011 and reportedly split in November 2020. The unnamed nanny then disclosed all kinds of personal information to the Daily Mail prompting the former couple to issue a joint statement to CNN: “As parents, it is incredibly upsetting to learn that a former nanny of our two young children would choose to make such false and scurrilous accusations about us publicly.” Wilde told Vanity Fair it was “complete horseshit” that she had left her kids’ dad for Styles, and that the relationship with Sudeikis had been over for some time before she and Styles got together. Wilde and Styles have now also broken up. Whatever. The issue here is not times, dates and places, but trust, boundaries and betrayal.
Still, at least neither employer had sex with the nanny. This famously — infamously — happened when Jude Law was in a relationship with fellow actor Sienna Miller. Their engagement ended abruptly in 2005, when one of Law’s three children with his ex-wife Sadie Frost walked in on their dad having sex with their weekend nanny, Daisy Wright, and told Frost all about it.
Wright had been keeping a diary: “Jude and I started talking about the kids and his work on a level of friends I suppose, not just employee”. Except she was an employee.
Law apologised in public, Miller retorted with a fling with Daniel Craig, and it even popped up in 2010’s Sex and the City 2 as a gag, when Kim Cattrall says, “There ought to be a law against hiring a nanny who looks like that,” to which Sarah Jessica Parker replies, “Yeah, the Jude Law.”
Actor Ben Affleck broke the Jude Law by getting involved with his family’s nanny, Christine Ouzounian, to the great displeasure of his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children. Things came to a head in June 2015 on a family holiday in the Bahamas when Garner, to whom Affleck had been married for a decade, realised what was happening, she immediately sacked Ouzounian, and soon after Affleck discontinued their liaison. He has since got sober and married another Jennifer — his ex J-Lo — while the former nanny now works in LA real estate.
In 2016, musician Gavin Rossdale’s 14-year marriage to singer Gwen Stefani, with whom he has three sons, collapsed when his phone synced to the family iPad, revealing sexual texts from their nanny Mindy Mann.
Another of the family’s nannies saw the texts and told Stefani. Rossdale described the collapse of their marriage as the most embarrassing moment of his life. Stefani wasn’t too happy either, telling Cosmopolitan it was “hell” and “torture.” Rossdale had been involved with the nanny, whose look strongly resembled Stefani’s, for three years.
Back in 1994, Irish singer Chris de Burgh, then in his mid-forties, had sex with the family’s teenage nanny, as his wife recovered from a broken neck. And in 2002, nanny Claire Houseman says she had sex on a kitchen counter with Mick Jagger, whom she’d met 48 hours previously, as his then partner Jerry Hall slept in a nearby room.
Both of these encounters echo the traditional master-of-the-house-shags-the-help dynamic, except instead of pregnancy, dismissal and destitution, there’s media fallout, non-disclosure agreements, and gagging orders.
The more power you have, the greater your ability to shut things down. In 2000, Cherie Blair got an injunction against her children’s nanny of four years, Rosalind Mark, after a lengthy conference call involving herself, Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, and legal eagle Lord Falconer; the nanny’s tell-all book was duly killed, the Mail on Sunday describing their actions as “draconian.”
In 2007, nanny Melissa Dumas touted a $5m tell-all memoir of her time with Madonna and Guy Ritchie, their children and their life together, titled Live To Tell: My Life As Madonna’s Nanny. After she shopped an 80-page taster to agents and publishers, Madonna had it axed and nobody in the book trade ever heard from Melissa Dumas again.
This nanny initiative of keeping detailed diaries to later disclose the intimate domestic details of the rich and famous in return for cash incentives differs greatly from the ultra-discretion of the Norland nanny — the type of nanny the children of Prince William and Kate Middleton currently have.
For this article, I approached a Norland nanny with 25 years’ experience to speak to me anonymously, in general terms, about the pitfalls of nannying; she demurred, directing me to their media company, who also politely declined to comment. (That’s the kind of nanny you want, rather than one having sex with your spouse while FaceTiming the tabloids).
Norland nannies are the ones who wear uniforms, have attended Norland College — founded in 1892, this year celebrating its 130th anniversary — and can command salaries of up to £100k a year; they are the original Mary Poppins, with a non-disclosure ethic to rival the SAS. Yet even royalty can encounter difficulties with their nannies, with a rivalry reported between Princess Diana and Tiggy Legge-Bourke, who was not a Norland nanny but attended the same Swiss finishing school as Diana, when the nanny referred to William and Harry as “my babies”.
“It’s a difficult dynamic,” says Dr Katherine Holden, author of Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny. “Before World War II, nannies were more general servants. Today, they’re professionals. While parents love their children, nannies are being paid to love the children, they are being paid for their emotional labour, they’re being paid to love. It’s transactional, yet when they leave, the child can think it’s their fault. What’s so often overlooked is the attachment formed by the child to the nanny.”
She adds that in the past, before we understood attachment theory, it was not uncommon for nannies — often the child’s primary carer — to just disappear without saying goodbye. She says that this can feel like bereavement for a child, if handled badly, and can affect the child into adulthood.
Even today, there’s always going to be a power imbalance, which can lead to betrayal. “When you’re working for a powerful family, you’re a powerless employee, you’re still in a ‘servant’ role,” says Dr Holden. “All you have is knowledge and information, and if you’ve been treated badly, it can be tempting to get back at your employers.”
The ideal dynamic, says Dr Holden, is when the nanny stays for a good length of time, and when she leaves there is a proper parting, and she stays in touch with the children. While this is most likely what happens in most households which employ nannies — UK politician Jacob Rees Mogg remained so close to his nanny that he took her on his campaign trail — it’s the employers who break the Jude Law that make the headlines. So could the solution be the manny?
“There will still be power struggles,” says Dr Holden. “And also I believe there’s an awful lot of unacknowledged attraction between men.” In other words, although sex with the manny would be more unexpected within straight couples, it is just as possible as sex with the nanny. It’s all about power dynamics, subterfuge, and crossing boundaries — a heady combination.
Another route is inverse lookism — the Mrs Doubtfire strategy — where a family employs an older woman who may be less inclined to become sexually involved with her employer. It can be a minefield of boundary-bashing, inappropriacy, and duplicity, before you ever consider the practical stuff, like differing approaches to childcare.
Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon, blogs about what happened when the family nanny “accidentally” sent a text to Amurri’s husband, saying how she’d like to “f*ck his brains out”. He was horrified and asked her to leave immediately, prompting Amurri to call him a “legend,” which seems excessive — all he did was not have sex with his child’s paid carer.
“We teach our kids that money can’t buy love, and then we go right ahead and buy it for them, hiring strangers to love them because we have more important things to do,” writes Susan Cheever in a New Yorker essay titled ‘The Nanny Dilemma’. Cheever, the author daughter of literary titan John, employed nannies herself and interviewed several for her essay. One, a first-name-only Irish nanny called Sally, describes how, “The kids see you all the time, and they assume you’re going to be part of their life. When you leave, the children can be devastated — and it can break your heart too.”
The nanny role, writes Cheever, is a job with negative stability — as soon as the kids stop needing her, the role evaporates. “Nannies have to get along with their employers in a relationship that is in certain respects more intimate than a marriage… They are required to be completely reliable and completely discreet. They are asked to ignore drug problems. They must see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
Cheever adds that the intensity of connection between nannies, mothers and children has inspired storytelling from Homer’s Odysseus to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the sub-genre of evil nanny includes Miss Jessel in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, all the way to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in her book Mothers And Others, suggests that supplementary childcare has been vital in our evolution as a species. Human babies are so dependent for so long that the help of what she terms “alloparents” — individuals other than the genetic parents who care for children — has been crucial. This role — which today we call nanny, or childminder, depending on your wallet — generally falls to single women, often outsourced from poorer countries and separated from their own children.
Our innate desire for attachment — hardwired into children for survival — is what can cause friction and boundary-crossing. But not all nanny stories end badly. Actor Ethan Hawke, after a divorce from his children’s mother Uma Thurman in 2005, went on to marry the family’s nanny, Ryan Shawhughes in 2009 — they’re still together. The late Robin Williams also left his first wife to marry his children’s nanny, Marsha Garces, in a marriage which lasted from 1989 to 2010.
“It can be a very lonely role,” says Dr Holden, adding how the peculiar status of outside-insider can take its toll on nannies, even the most dedicated, discreet, and professional. Jill Ceder, a family psychotherapist lists some of the issues which cause nannies to quit, none of which involve anything as dramatic as having sex with the boss. Lack of communication, overwork, lack of appreciation, being micro-managed, feeling isolated, family dysfunction and differing childcare philosophies are all more likely to drive the nanny to her next job, rather than tabloid headlines about inappropriate liaisons.
So, if you’re lucky enough to have one, don’t be like this hilariously entitled woman who concludes in an article from the Jude Law era called ‘The Trouble With Nannies’ that they are all predatory, greedy blabbermouths on the make: that “nannies are the enemy.” Anyone who helps you with your kids is to be treasured — it’s the hardest job.