Shonda Rhimes's Binge-TV Obsessions, Tree-Climbing Youth, and First Political Memory
Sharing details of her childhood and youth, Scandal creator, writer, and showrunner Shonda Rhimes on her own eccentric biographical data.
Shonda Rhimes—writer-creator ofGrey’s Anatomy, Private Practice,and Scandal, three smash hits once simultaneously on the air—is a three-time Emmy nominee, a powerful spokeswoman for racial diversity on television, and a deft coiner of pop-lexicon mainstays (McDreamy! McSteamy! Va-jay-jay!) that we challenge you to try to forget. But the higher Rhimes ascends in the Hollywood pecking order, the more she clings to her writerly, Dartmouth-educated roots, skipping L.A. nightlife to raise her two adopted girls, listen to composer Rachel Portman’s tunes, or plow through heaps of books on her nightstand. Here, the show-running geek gone chic on her habits, habitats, and (childhood) habiliments.
A POLITICAL junkie turned political-thriller writer, she says her first memory of televised politics is the grainy flicker of the Watergate hearings, watched from the kitchen floor as a toddler.
STORY IDEAS, overheard juicy conversations, and other creative scribblings all reside in her iPhone’s Notes app, which she whips out to read from in the writers’ room.
SHE STOPS short of believing in earbuds. In the early days, she wrote Grey’s Anatomy scenes by herself at a picnic table out on the show’s back lot. She wore huge headphones—big, old, tarmac-traffic-directing headphones—to “keep people from coming up to talk to me.” Now she has a private, sleek office, one for each show—and yet the bulky mufflers are “the one thing that stays the same.”
THE TIC she bets drives her assistants most crazy is that she is “very beverage-oriented.” The day starts with fresh green juice—“kale-apple-ginger-spinach-cucumber-celery-parsley!”—and continues apace with constantly replenished water and iced green tea. It terminates, around five P.M. every day, “no matter where I am,” with a glass of red wine.
THE THREE worst days of her life were consecutive: when she decided to kick coffee.
HER TIME machine is liturgical incense, the smell of which—encountered at random—takes her immediately back to church at age 10, when she first became a plaid-uniformed Catholic schoolgirl.
SHE SPENT all her time in a tree reading books for a spell in grade school. Next, she spoke only French, pretending her real family lived in Paris and were due any minute now to come whisk her off to the Sorbonne. (There was a brief period of overlap in which she spoke just French and kept to treetops.) Her parents celebrated these flights of fancy: “ ‘That’s interesting! Do that more!’ ” Her classmates? “Not so much.”
HER BEST FRIEND adopted “weird” new girl Shonda, a fifth-grade transfer with Coke-bottle glasses and French braids, casting the glow of tween popularity upon her by association. Thirty years later, they still talk every day.
SHE BEGAN writing early. Hundreds of journals chronicling those formative years—going back to first grade and filled with angst-y couplets on unrequited crushes—remain in her possession. The younger the writer, the more “pink and curlicued” the notebooks, progressing to leather-bound, unlined volumes. She’s reluctant to crack them now, “terrified to re-discover” who she was.
WITH PURSUITS outside of work, she has but two modes: disinterest and all-consuming obsession, “because I am only able to become obsessed with things.” Her latest fixation is “endorphins,” after she remembered she had a treadmill—bought with purpose two years ago, promptly forgotten. Now, for one hour a day, she’s on it with no interruptions: no children, no phones, no beverage-freighting assistants. Only, of course, television.
IF PRESSED, she’ll acknowledge the presence, somewhere in her home, of a full-on, Etsy-fied, jewelry-making, quilting-happy, hot-glue-gunning, “secret psycho” craft closet.
SHE MAKES weekly episodic television, but she’s also a bona fide TV binger. She watched all ofFringe in three weeks, then all of Game of Thrones. Next: The Wire.
THERE IS one favored show that she watches only live—that she pseudonymously live-blogs—and despite her allegiance to scripted television, it’s a reality program: the National Spelling Bee, or to her, simply, “the Bee.” In her professional view, it’s even better television now that the kids aren’t swept off to compose themselves in a quiet comfort room. They’re put right in front of the cameras as soon as they whiff. “So much more brutal,” she says, chuckling. “The Hunger Games of spelling.”