ASHLEY JUDD: Avant le Déluge

Judd in an early photo by an unknown photographer.

I first met Ashley Judd in her room at The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills where I had gone to pick her up to attend the Vanity Fair Oscar party that year.  She had told the magazine that she would attend but she needed a date since the man she was seeing at the time – I seem to remember a photo of Michael Bolton by her bed – wasn’t in town.  So I was assigned to be her date.  She might have requested me.  Not sure about that.  I always thought that maybe my being from Mississippi and her being from Kentucky had something to do with it.  And I also volunteered that I could talk to her about SEC basketball, if nothing else, since she was such a Kentucky Wildcats fan.

I remember our conversation in the limo to the party that night when it was still held at Morton’s.  We did talk basketball.  But her mother had been in the news a lot as well back then for having suffered from Hep C.  When I asked Ashley about it in the car on the way to the party, she told me her mother had fully recovered.  I remember her exact words, “We’re claiming a miracle.”

During the party Michael Douglas, who was at our table during dinner, seemed to be quite interested in getting to know her so I didn’t feel so rude when I sort of faded into the Morton’s mise-en-scene that evening and let her drift off to her own devices as she delighted all those about her with her natural charm, part southern lady with just enough sauciness ladled into it to keep it interesting.

A few years later when I became a contributing editor at Allure magazine, I was assigned a cover story on Ashley, who was then living outside Edinburgh, Scotland, with her then-husband, race car driver Dario Franchitti.  I flew over to spend the day with her where she was living in a little house in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs while a larger castle-like place was being refurbished.  Dario was out of town.  I remember how lonely she seemed there in that odd spot, this Kentucky girl obviously longing for home – even if home were also Hollywood at that point.   But there was something deeper going on that I kept trying to decipher.  There was a sadness about her that day that seemed to have seeped into her being from the inchoate longing that had been inside her even back during her girlhood in Kentucky.  Did she even know what she was longing for, I remember wondering.  It was the longing itself that permeated her very being that day – it really didn’t matter finally what she was longing for – as if it were just part of the Scottish fog on the Scottish highlands that rolled about us.

I wrote the story below and turned it in, but Linda Wells, the Editor-in-Chief of Allure, hated it.  I could never get a specific answer as to what she hated about it – her distaste for the story was as nonspecific as Ashley’s longing itself.  Maybe I had captured too well that indefinable longing and Linda wanted a story that was more defined, that played by the rules more, that didn’t challenge her readers.  Indeed, one of my biggest pet peeves about writing for magazines was when a word was changed with the excuse that a reader wouldn’t understand it – that kind of condescension toward a readership – or that a storyline was just a bit too controversial or challenging.  I was always trying to push the limits of what a celebrity cover story could be.  I often succeeded, but it wasn’t easy.

I was in Africa during the editing of this story.   Yep: Africa.  I had already planned to be there in order to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I just assumed the story would be liked and I wouldn’t have to worry about too many edits.  But it became a nightmare trying to edit the piece and deal with the Allure office because of the time difference.  I was put through several drafts but none were satisfactory. Linda, by that point, was at the fashion shows in Milan.  So my immediate editor was in one time zone in New York.  Linda was in another in Milan.  And I was in yet another in both Cape Town and then Nairobi before heading to Tanzania to begin my climb up Kilimanjaro.

I had one day to go before I headed to Kilimanjaro and the story was still not in the shape required by Linda – who had become obstinate and simply refused to be pleased, it seemed to me.  Nothing I did to reshape the story or rewrite it was working.   My immediate editor finally sent me a story that she had fashioned from mine,  but that I had not written at all.  None of mine was left except some of the quotes I had elicited from Ashley.   Maybe one or two sentences of my own were left.   But I would have never written the story that was sent to me to approve.

I sat looking at the story.

I wanted to remove my name from it completely.

I remember sitting at a computer terminal in a computer cafe in Africa – I had no laptop with me back then – and staring at the screen and the email I was about to send demanding that my name be taken off the story.  And then I felt an utter deflation; it was the opposite of longing.   It was, in fact, the opposite of the kind of longing I sensed in Ashley but it resulted in the same sort of unnamed sadness seeping into my very being.  It’s just a magazine story in a beauty magazine, I thought, and decided to send an email instead telling them to run whatever they wanted to run because I no longer cared.  Yes.  It was at that moment sitting in a a computer cafe in Africa that I ceased caring about my magazine work.  I had always looked on it as something to be proud of and I had truly put all my heart and talent into it.  But from that point on,  I ceased to care.  Something broke inside of me sitting at that computer terminal.   I felt broken.

But then I went and climbed a fucking mountain and “unbroke” myself in other ways.

Ashley and I continued to correspond about her political and mission work.  I so admired her engagement with the world back then even before she bravely stepped forward to instigate the downfall of Harvey Weinstein.  At one point – my days with Allure over – I told her that I had a confession to make.  I told her this whole saga and apologized that I allowed that story to be published with my name on it since I had not written a word of it.  She wrote back how appreciative she was that I had told her that because she had always sensed that I had not really written it.  “You’re a better writer than that.”

I was.

I am.

Unbroken, I now publish the story that Allure refused to publish.

Here it is.

I am claiming the miracle.


“The last tear I shed was over Buttermilk and Shug when I finally got them freed,” says Ashley Judd in her most ladylike Tennessee-cum-Kentucky lilt, sounding like some southern abolitionist ancestor instead of the rather eccentric and doting pet owner – Buttermilk and Shug are her two blonde cockapoos – she has become at age thirty-six.  “And the last time I apologized for anything – though I’m always apologizing – was to those same animals there for the debacle they were put through.”  After a brisk ramble with the dogs at twilight, we are now sitting on a bench on a sloping windswept mead behind the suburban house outside Edinburgh she shares with her hunk of a husband, the Scottish race car driving champion Dario Franchitti, who has most recently made a name for himself in the American Indy League.  Across the water, the distant lights from Edinburgh jewel the night and Judd’s face is silhouetted against the bruised hues left in the Scottish sky after the brutally beautiful colors of one of its wintry sunsets dip one by one below the horizon.  It has been a rough few days.  A bureaucratic snafu was made when shipping her pets over from her farm in Tennessee – there are also three cats back in the house – and she has had to beg and plead with Glaswegian officials to get her animals out of lock-up where they were caged and confused at a distant kennel.  The stress has left a fever blister the size of a two-pound sterling coin atop her lip.  She wears not a speck of make-up and there are bags beneath her tired eyes.  Her unwashed hair has been pulled back into a makeshift ponytail with an old silk orchid stuck haphazardly into it in such a fashion that the silk seems to be wilting.  And yet, here in the night that is quickly enveloping her, she is still as astoundingly beautiful as she is famously self-possessed.  Silk orchids might wilt under such pressure but this is one steel magnolia incapable of such a woebegone state.      

       Buttermilk and Shug sprint back and forth in the damp grass before stopping abruptly to sniff good-naturedly at a neighbor’s dog that has appeared on the scene.  Buttermilk jumps atop the slinky equally blonde bitch whose coquettish growl, one would swear, is laced with a  bit of the local brogue.  He begins to happily hump her as Shug, ever the voyeur, seems to be issuing instructions in her increasingly pointed canine cadence.  “Shug has a bit of a passive aggressive attitude,” Judd evenly observes.  “She doesn’t play with other dogs.  She just circles and barks.”  Is that Judd’s imprint?  “No.  My imprint is on Buttermilk because he was with me about six months before Dario and I met and he was a little jealous of Dario,” she says as the humping comes to a halt and the local blonde saunters away.  “Buttermilk thinks he’s a person.  He even chewed up one of Dario’s stuffed animals out of jealousy.  He’s never chewed anything before or since.  It was Dario’s stuffed bear Barnaby that he travels with.  It is an image seared into my memory: Dario sitting crestfallen on the edge of our bed in Tennessee stuffing the fuzz back into this gaping wound in Barnaby’s face with his finger.” 

That’s a sweet story but not one I’m sure her husband would want his racing fans to know.  Though he is five years Judd’s junior, Franchitti is still a little old to be carrying stuffed animals around with him.  “Well, let’s put it this way,” says Judd, in the hoity-toity tone she so easily employs when she’s only half-way teasing someone.  “When I first came to visit him in that house back there, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?  I can’t live here.’   The place was all cracked champaign glasses and dirty duvets,” she says, impatient for the day when the ancient Scottish estate they have purchased in the countryside will be refurbished to her taste.  “But then I walk into his bedroom and I see this stuffed bear on the bed and said, ‘Just give me a ring right now.’ This sexy butch creature has a stuffed bear on his pillow?  Love love love it.”

     Judd and I have taken a break from playing a game called “Ashley’s Last List” in which I ask her a series of questions based on the last time she’s had certain experiences. She is an avid reader and an aficionado of word games so we happened upon this newly minted one when I mention to her that she reminds me of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story “The Last of the Belles,” in which Fitzgerald – one of her favorite authors –  writes of the title character, “There she was – the Southern type in all her purity … She had the unfailing coolness acquired in the endless struggle with the heat and there were soft, wheedling notes [in her voice] that mingled in unfamiliar loveliness with the night.”  Judd wheedles on in the darkness.  “I just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby  yet again.   Every time I read that book there is something else I am gobsmacked by.  This last time was that line of Fitzgerald’s about personality being an uninterrupted stream of successful gestures.”

     That could be an apt description of how a movie star goes about building her image.  Judd has been in the public eye even before she made a splash as the title character in Ruby in Paradise at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and embarked on a career which has culminated most recently in a Golden Globe nomination this year for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for her role as Linda Porter opposite Kevin Kline as Cole Porter in De-Lovely.  But she first came to music lover’s attention because her mother, Naomi, and sister, Wynona, included her for a brief period in their wildly successful country act, The Judds.  It has been a life, in fact, that at times has been lived too much in the public eye – for example, the recent controversial and confrontational Oprah show in which the three participated and aired some wrenching family secrets.

     “It was intense,” says Judd as she stares off into the distance.  “The backstory is that Sister is basically where Oprah was before she got healthy,” she says, labeling Wynona with the overly-appropriate southern soubriquet she prefers to call her.  “Oprah really recognizes herself in Sister.  They reached out to one another for Sister not only to once and for all shed the weight but also to excavate the deep and profound reasons why she has always carried the weight.  So at the end of that first show, Oprah said something about having Mom on with her the next time.  Basically Sister acquiesced then told me, ‘I can’t do this without you.’  I said, of course, but I told her it was really against my instincts and nature to be so public in that way…I think one of the reasons that it looked so wild and people had such a reaction to it is that Mom and Sister have such energy pouring off of them about each other.  I, on the other hand, hold my space very well and I keep my own counsel and that, without a doubt, is what has preserved me.  I’m quite solitary by nature.  Sometimes without realizing what I’m doing to myself, I’ll isolate – which is different from being lonely.”  She pauses – then continues – those notes in her voice growing even quieter and sounding, no matter what she claims, a rather lone refrain within her family.   “Sister and I have two different biological fathers,” she finally says.  Judd’s own father is Michael Ciminella, who divorced Naomi when Judd was a small child. He now lives in Louisville and works in sports broadcasting.  “Sister didn’t know we had different fathers until she was in her thirties,” Judd says.  “Mom didn’t tell her for reasons that you and I in the modern age would find preposterous, if not outright unconscionable.  But she’s of a certain generation.  And of a certain kind of background.  And she made her choice.  My dad was fully aware of the situation when they got married and was accepting of it,” she says, alluding to the fact that the then-teenage Naomi was pregnant by another man with Wynona at her wedding to Ciminella.  “Mom’s decision of not telling Wynona the truth was all about fear.  It was totally fear based.”  Of what?  Her self-image?  “Technically those are questions for her, but I think I can safely say with confidence it was all about image, yes, both in the macro and micro sense.  But I have never tried to live in fear or make a decision out of fear.  But Mom was absolutely shackled by it for a long time.  Basically I think she thought the world would stop turning on its axis if she told the truth.  So I took it upon myself to tell Sister.  I’d known for a long time.  I went to Mom and said supposedly we are a Judeo-Christian family and we have  a lot of faith and we believe that the truth shall set you free.”

     “Wait a minute.  There are Jews in your family?” I ask.

     “Well, yeah.  My Aunt Margaret is a Jew and I love her for it.  She lives in Pennsylvania.  At Thanksgiving – right after the presidential election –  I said, ‘Fuck you people.  I’m going to go visit my liberal Jewish aunt in a blue state,’” says Judd ever the ardent feminist and as fervently pro-choice as her mother is right-to-life. “My family went, ‘You’re really going to leave us on Thanksgiving because of the election?’  I said,  ‘Yeah! You better believe it!’”

     The sound of Judd’s sudden laughter summons Shug and Buttermilk.  They jump on the bench and lap at her face.  “Do you want kids of your own?” I ask.  “You’ll have to be making that decision soon, won’t you?  You’re certainly maternal toward those dogs.”

         “That’s just one of those things for God to know and for us to find out,” she says dismissively, not happy at all to discuss the subject.  “We’ll see.  I don’t make presumptions.  But I’ve never wanted what I didn’t have.  I’ve never cooed over babies in the department store.  I’ve never chased after boys.”

      “If you do have a child, will you breastfeed?” I ask, telling her a  recent story in The New York Times claimed only 26% of women in certain areas of Scotland still did, with its national average hovering at 35%.  Any noticeable distaste Judd has just displayed because of my nosiness gives way to the calm that overtakes her whenever she’s processing a bit of new information that furthers her ever-expanding knowledge.

      “Of course I would breastfeed my children – until they were two,” she says, her laughter (the only thing she’s smart enough to keep unstudied) once again reassuring Buttermilk and Shug.  The cold waters her eyes.  She does not huddle against it, however, but actually straightens her shoulders in the sharp wind that whips up toward us from the water below.  “I’d do it as long as I possibly could.  I wasn’t breast fed.  We were fed formula.  Sister had sugar put in hers.  We had our heads so far up our asses about that kind of stuff in the 1960s.”

     Judd considers the sound of this last answer.  Too forceful?  Too female?  Satisfied – one can never be too forceful, too female – she jumps up from the bench and strides forth, leading us all back  to the hearth she now keeps lit inside her husband’s ex-bachelor pad.

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         “Ashley incorporates all of those qualites that I find magical and alluring in a woman – elegance, sophistication, modernity, and individuality,” says her good friend, Giorgio Armani, who personally designed Judd’s wedding dress three years ago when she and Franchitti wed at Scotland’s Skibo Castle, the site of the earlier Madonna-Ritchie nuptials.  “But Ashley also,” he says, pinpointing her screen appeal, “possesses this classic all-American beauty.”

     Indeed, American Beauty is the name of the line of products that Judd has just signed with the Estee Lauder Companies to represent.  (Her three-year contract is reported to be $5.5. million, which sounds like a lot of money until one realizes she can make a little more than that for one big-budget film.)  “In American fashion we have experienced over the years that combination of casual and elegance, of a kind of relaxed polish.  That’s what Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors have always tapped into,” says Jane Hudis, the president of the Lauder Companies’ Beauty Bank division, which is launching the line through Kohl’s department stores.   “But the beauty category has never really focused on that particular all-American quality – which is one that Ashley innately represents.  We’ve done the research with Kohl’s customers.  They connect on an emotional level with her.  She is no poster child, just a beautiful face in an ad.  She is the embodiment of what this line is all about.  She is intelligent, accomplished, a feminist, an activist, and she is devoted to her family.” 

     “This American Beauty relationship is a really good fit because Estee Lauder was founded by a woman,” says Judd, as she sheds her Ugg boots from our walk and scoots around the kitchen in her socks. She’s wearing a low slung pair of sweat bottoms and cashmere thermal underwear top.  Carefully preparing a pot of green tea, she places it on a tray with plates filled with ginger spice cookies and fresh orange sections.  Her cats – Amelia and Agnes and Albert – circle her feet and purr at the low hum of her un-harried voice.  “Estee Lauder was discriminated against because of her sex and religion.  She was literally locked out of stores that banned her products.  But she was too clever and ingenious. Her legacy so perfectly suits my outlook and beliefs,” she says, mentioning that American Beauty will furnish the seed money for NutritionAid, an offshoot of Judd’s work as goodwill ambassador for YouthAids, an organization that fights HIV infection in the developing world.  (To better understand her commitment to this cause, log on to and read the diary entries she wrote while recently traveling in Cambodia and Thailand.  Her upcoming travels for the organization will include South Africa, Madagascar, and Rwanda.)

     The cats and I follow Judd upstairs where Shug and Buttermilk await us in her husband’s media room.  A huge Sony flat-screen television towers above us in one corner.  A CD player stands beside it.  Myriad colored racing helmets – just like the ones stacked downstairs like sculpture in the entrance hall – line the floor and mantle above the glowing fireplace.  James Bond movie posters – gifts from his wife – are framed all along the walls.  Judd seems to avert her eyes from the male clutter while at the same time soaking in her husband’s longed-for presence since he’s off right now in Bahrain at a Formula Three Superprix with his eighteen-year-old cousin, Paul Di Resta, who is the latest member of the family to enter the racing game. (Franchitti’s younger brother, Marino, has made a name for himself in the American LeMans series.)  Judd kneels by the fire – her menagerie frantically competing for her attention – and calmly searches her own CDs for the music she wants to hear this evening: Emmylou Harris, The Chieftains, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and k.d. lang.  “She was my first same-gender crush,” Judd says of lang.  “I was eighteen.  I loved her. It was so mixed with admiration and awe.  I know we’re going to see her at some point and I’ve already told Dario, ‘I’m going to kiss her on the mouth.’  I once made her a clover chain.  That’s fairly pitiful, but sincere nonetheless.”

     “Did you have to exorcise all the ghost of girlfriends past from this house before moving in?” I ask.

       “Fortunately that was not Dario’s gig,” she says.  “He was only 24 when I met him.  He didn’t have that much of a history, shall we say, which was nice.”  So Judd was the sexual mentor?  “Yes,” she says, refusing to blush.  Has he been a good student?  That half-way hoity-toity tone of hers gladly gives way to a high-school girl’s skittish giggle.   “Ohhhhh …. yes ….”

       “Ashley has reached such an equilibrium in her life that she has the harmony of no barriers,” says Mary Tripp Reed, an economics professor at Murray State University, who has known Judd since they were  Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters at the University  of Kentucky, where Judd graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in French.  “We’ve been best friends now for fifteen years,” says Reed.  “I was first attracted to Ashley because her spirit is so strong.   She has always been up for exploring everything.  She’s mellowed a bit with age, but I’ll always remember how she was the first woman I’d ever seen who just marched right into the Men’s Room once because the line for the Women’s Room was too long.  I was astonished, then followed her in.”

          This well-honed incongruity  is the essence of Judd’s appeal.  Her femininity is unaffected by her feminism.  ( “I may come off as ‘feminine,’ as you describe the term, but I have never ever been coy.”)  She is as much at home on the red carpet as she is walking a nature trail at her farm house in Tennessee.  (“Dario and I are not terribly urban people.  We don’t have that kind of consciousness.  However much we may enjoy certain cities and the opportunities and the access they include, it  is not where we want to lie down at night.”)  Moreover,  her left-leaning social commitments are deeply rooted in the conservative pews of the evangelical charismatic churches in which she was raised.

     “I literally know people who are calling themselves Followers of Jesus since they are so disgusted and disturbed by what the term ‘Christian’ can now invoke because of people who call themselves ‘Christians’ who are hateful and bigots and exclusionists,” she says, quickly warming to the subject.  “My buddy Bono does a great spiel on how many times Jesus talks about the poor, how many times Jesus talks about loving the outcasts as opposed to how many times Jesus graded sins as to which ones were more heinous than others: never.  Never!  I consider myself a Follower of Jesus.  I love the fact that I grew up in the church in the south.  My spiritual traditions are so resilient for me.  My ability to pray and my constant need for a spiritual life is probably the greatest gift of growing up in the church.  But I did get up and leave my church one day – it’s an independent charismatic church I started going to in college outside Nashville – when the preacher starting preaching a sermon that was anti-choice.  He’s a good man.  But I couldn’t take it anymore.  I did have a lot of amazing and meaningful spiritual experiences there.  You could feel a lot of anointing in that room.  You could feel the Holy Spirit move there.  I’ve never spoken in tongues but I have certainly witnessed it.  But this preacher’s politics are so disruptive that I have to ultimately doubt my being there.  This same old preacher once was instructing us on how to fill out our forms for the membership directory at evening service.  He went, ‘And don’t do that “Ms.” one.  We don’t do that here.’  I shouted from my pew. ‘Too late, preacher!’  He said, ‘Ashley, is that you?’  Because I do not believe that women should be defined by their sexual status vis-a-vis a man.  If you are a ‘Miss’ you are sexually available.  If your are a ‘Mrs.’ you are sexually not available.  That’s what it boils down to.  When he thinks that way, he is perpetuating an outmoded way of looking at men and women and their respective roles in society.  People might think I’m a bit nutty on this issue, but words are powerful.  They are creative.  They are the first step in the process of manifesting.  What we say and how we choose to say it is really important.”

     The door bell rings.  Judd’s brother-in-law, Marino, arrives to take her to an acoustic concert by the Scottish rock band, Travis, for an invited audience of two hundred at a nearby estate.  “Are you driving?” she asks.  The look on Marino’s face signals her that was a dumb question to ask a male member of the Franchitti clan.  She grins at him, instantly idling from her version of a soapbox derby in which her racing thoughts are fueled by debate.   “Good,” she says, switching so effortlessly into her good-time-girlish mode. “I can have a drink then.”  She opens the fridge beneath the bar in the media room and comes up with a bottle of beer and a half-eaten Cadbury chocolate bar.  She attempts to open the beer with her teeth.  The cats scatter in alarm.  Marino tries not to look.  Buttermilk and Shug choose to ignore her, inured by now, no doubt, to the impetuous gesture.  Judd just laughs and finds a bottle opener.  She pops a bit of chocolate in her mouth.  Swigs some beer.  She’s quietly ready to rock. 



This morning when I finished writing in my diary.


Running charades at Thanksgiving.


Pictionary the day after Thanksgiving and Trivial Pursuit, which was a big deal because it was the first time I beat Dario at that.


Eau de Givenchy


Mmmm … who else but Dorothy Parker could come up with that term?  I think it was the morass or bureaucracy I had to dealt with to get my animals freed: people who are enslaved by black ink on white paper printed and decreed in a remote time and place and who cannot connect their own common sense and humanity to make the obviously correct decision.  That is true tyranny.


A train ride to Aberdeen.  I had such a profound sense of well-being.


Couple of weeks ago at my farm.

That Tennessee was exclusively a red state.  I went to a yoga lecture at a church in Nashville and hundreds of kindred progressive spirits were there.  This was right after the election and I was distraught and inconsolable so that was a happy moment.


When Sister and her husband took me into their laundry room and prayed for my safety on this trip to Scotland and my upcoming one to Africa for YouthAids.


A yellow cake with sour cream chocolate frosting.  I think people have birthdays so I can bake cakes.  


Gallus.  It’s Scottish dialect.  It means self-confident or daring or cheeky.  It can mean stylish and impressive too.  Originally, it had a more derogatory meaning – more like a rascal.  It comes from deserving to be hanged from the gallows.  It’s a good word for your line of work.


I knew that was going to be on your list.  I won’t say who but it was a seminal event.  I learned a lot from that.  I owe the failure of that relationship – all six weeks of it – to the success of my marriage.  I learned a lot of life lessons in those six weeks.


Yesterday when I was daydreaming about my imminent third wedding anniversary.


The Reef by Edith Wharton.


I had a little laser appointment a couple of weeks ago.


May you grow in compassion.


Being in a brothel in Cambodia.


Every time I get on my yoga mat.


I’ve found since I’ve been married to the person that I love that when he utters a term of endearment my way without pretense or effort, that it can certainly seem like a miraculous moment to me.


The last multiple what?


Hmmmm … it would have to involve donuts.  Once you start you’ve got to have all kinds – a custard filled one, an old fashion one … 


At this point in my life I’m much more interested in the restraint it takes in letting someone else have the last word.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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