When I zip into Lauren Gellert’s office at 5 p.m., I have the distinct feeling that I am just one of her back to back meetings. I bring a bottle of wine to give things a relaxed, “Hey, we’re just two people chatting” vibe, but it never comes out of my bag. Instead we jump into conversation like two people hitting a cold pool. It doesn’t take long for things to warm up.
By Lauren Gellert’s own admission she’s led a pretty charmed life. She grew up in Jericho, Long Island, a New York hamlet 30 miles outside of NYC dotted with strip malls and well-to-do neighborhoods. As a child she embraced the things she wanted, including a kindergarten crush, a bohemian style and what turned out to be a family built on modern love.
When she was five, her parents divorced. In a way, it wound up becoming a gift for Lauren and her little sister Wendy. You could call it a ’70s style conscious uncoupling. It was all very civilized, almost too good to be true. There was indeed a big truth missing that Lauren would learn much later in life.
“When I first got the news, I ran into my kindergarten class announcing that my parents were divorcing. My mom didn’t have a chance to tell her friends,” Lauren said. Classic Gellert, controlling the narrative.
“I was a kid in a Long Island protected bubble. Every other weekend I was with my dad. My mother and father were good friends. We were together at holidays, sometimes we would all go out to dinner together and even vacation together.”
Growing up Lauren faced familiar teen struggles. She managed manipulative frenemies, struggled with her weight and recovered from broken hearts. When I ask what scared her the most, she seems lost for an answer. Finally, she says, “I wasn’t all that fearful. I’m still not.
“Loneliness scared me,” she admits. “I was fearful my father would be lonely, and I had no way to fix that. My mom lived a very ‘single mom’ life. She was available but went out plenty. She dated, tried lots of jobs and eventually landed in a long-term relationship with a beautiful man named Jim and later remarried, my current stepfather Peter. My dad stayed single and I didn’t really know a whole lot about his social life.”
Lauren attended the University of Vermont but got her degree from Northwestern as a dance major. She loved dance.
“I had a job at a DJ company, I was a dancer,” she recalls. “I could do four or five parties on a weekend and make a lot of money.”
(For the uninitiated, dancers are the attractive young men and women at teen parties coaxing sheepish party guests to the dance floor. Simultaneously the DJ pumps the crowd with prompts like, “Give it up for the bar mitzvah boy, Joshua,” who then must embarrassingly slink into the center of a dance circle with his hands awkwardly waved over his head. Call it the Electric Slide 2.0.)
“I loved that job and began dating someone at the company significantly older than me. There was a lot of in-betweens and ups and downs in that relationship over the years,” Gellert says.
Lauren’s dad was an entrepreneur who owned a popular East Coast clothing store called Labels for Less. Lauren said, “As a kid we would spend some time at work with Dad on his weekends; at the company’s height he had 21 stores. Still, I worried my dad worked too much and didn’t have anyone special in his life. When I was 19 my mom and dad sat my sister and I down and shared a truth that has been missing from our whole childhood. My dad said something like, ‘I know you worry about me being alone and you may have a lot of questions when I tell you this … the fact of the matter is, girls, I’m gay.’
“We had a million questions starting with, are you with anyone and when can we meet him? The answer was yes and ‘Whenever you want.’ We wound up meeting my dad’s partner who we affectionately call Papa Bill the following weekend. They have been together about 35 years now. When my dad came out to me, I engaged with him in a whole new way. I was dating that older guy from the DJ company who was a devout Catholic and I ultimately felt he could not accept my expanding family dynamic, so I broke it off.
“Luckily, there’s always been lots of support whenever I needed it,” she continues. “There’s my dad and his partner, Papa Bill. My mom, my stepfather Peter, my stepbrother and my mom’s ex-boyfriend Jim and his new wife. I know it’s a lot, you need a family org chart to keep track of it all. How lucky am I to be surrounded by so much love in so many unexpected ways?
“Ever since my parent’s divorce, there was always this feeling of inclusion,” she surmises. “I think that’s why I love to entertain and always allow everyone and anyone to come. I never want to leave anyone out.”
Lauren was never supposed to be a television executive. In college she wanted to be a professional choreographer on the world’s greatest stage. Through a lot of tenacity and grit, she landed a job working for the ‘it’ choreographer on Broadway, Susan Stroman. To get to Stroman, Lauren recounts a story of finagling meetings with old-time producers that sounds part Hudsucker Proxy, part The Producers. It was at once unlikely and ridiculous, but it worked. The bloom fell off the rose for Lauren when she realized how tough a gig choreography can be, even for the best. This closed a chaotic, fantastical first act of Lauren’s life.
Act two opens up with Lauren in New York City, chasing a new career in television and growing deeper with the honesty and evolution of her modern family. There were group family vacations, dinners and eventually a wedding for her dad and Papa Bill. Lauren took a job on a show for women produced by women at the Dow Jones called Money, Style and Power.
“I made a fair amount of money and sometimes worked till 2 a.m.,” she recounts. “It was a ton of work and I had to wear corporate clothes for the first time in my life.”
I forget to ask Lauren if she kept her sneakers in a bag for the commute, but I’m going out on a limb and calling this the Working Girl era of her career.
In 1997 she wound up at VH1 during the cable heydays when you could try a lot of different things.
“I went through five bosses and three regimes,” she says. “Luckily, I had an angel coaching me through my early career and my life. Amy Leibner helped me get the job at VH1 and she also introduced me to my husband.”
Lauren and her husband Bobby have two children, Zoe, 15, and Marley who is 11. When I ask how being a mom has changed her, she searches for the answer until she lands on, “I don’t think it has.”
I don’t quite believe her, but I think I understand what she is saying. The essence of who she is, the little girl chasing boys at school, the tenacious neophyte muscling her way into the Broadway theatre and the mother trying to figure out how to raise kids are all elements of the same core.
“Being a parent is the toughest job I have ever had,” she offers. “It hasn’t changed my ability to have a social life. My kids come first, within reason. It’s not at all costs. As a mom there’s a quest for knowledge and getting it right. I am constantly trying to know more to get ahead of things. My daughter Zoe has chronic pain syndrome, CRPS, she’s always dealing with pain in some way. My daughter is so brave but it’s still challenging, and it’s made my partnership with my husband stronger than ever. We have navigated through so much. We communicate really well now. That wasn’t always the case, but it’s come out of all the work we put in.
“I’m also lucky to have grown up in this industry alongside strong women who can relate to my daily challenges. We’re all still trying to get the mom/wife/executive thing down. It’s a lot easier with this group of ladies who understand and care. They have become forever friends I deeply cherish.”
Lauren has been at WE tv for close to a decade now. She and GM Marc Juris have grown a very distinctive brand that is number one with African Americans on Thursday nights, and boasts an impressive list of successful shows that have launched successful spin offs. There are three editions of Growing Up Hip Hop, three editions of Marriage Boot Camp. They even managed to find a new hit by mixing two genres – relationship and crime – with Love After Lockup. Still, Lauren is looking to grow the brand.
“We are going into the premium doc space, eventizing untold stories that are important to our audience,” she says. “Much of our programming reflects the incredible hip hop culture. A culture which influences movies, fashion, music, language, social media, business and more. We recognize that and we super serve this underrepresented audience. I love that I get to be a part of that.”
Lauren admits their development process can mean a lot of work and they will only do shows if they really believe they can launch them right. She adds that the shows they greenlight get significant promotion and support across every department. “When we take our swings, we swing for the fences.”
And so, as act three opens on Lauren’s life, she’s found a secure sense of self and a life-changing personal daily ritual.
“I am on day 686 and counting of a yoga practice. I never miss a day. If there is anything that has changed my ability to deal with life, it’s to be able to take a deep breath. Through practice I have learned to do that. I believe in passing it on and I’m happy to talk to anyone seriously interested in learning about it.”
My recorder clicks off, night has swallowed the New York sky and Lauren says, “Well, it feels like it’s time for a drink somewhere.” That moment has passed and instead we both choose to train home to see our families. As Metro-North glides me to the suburbs of Connecticut, I take a minute to quietly toast Lauren for having the strength to stubbornly pursue and realize her dreams. I believe she made them happen not in spite of her challenges but because of them. It sounds a little cliché to say that this former Long Island Princess is ‘very New York’ but I believe she certainly is and suspect she’s just fine with that.
Joe Livecchi is founder and CEO of the prodco Noble Savages. Through these monthly profiles, you’ll learn more about top executives through an unprecedented glimpse into their personal lives — as Livecchi says, “who they are and what made them that way.” For more profiles, keep an eye on realscreen.com and also check the Noble Savages site.