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Cheryl Saban’s journey from beach bunny to philanthropist

Allison Hoffman
June 17, 2009
Tony Blair, Cheryl Saban, and Haim Saban at a benefit in Los Angeles in April.(Todd Williamson/WireImage)
Tony Blair, Cheryl Saban, and Haim Saban at a benefit in Los Angeles in April.(Todd Williamson/WireImage)

Cheryl Saban knows exactly what she’s worth. Within minutes of sitting down recently for an interview in the second-floor lounge of the Ritz-Carlton in midtown Manhattan, overlooking Central Park, Saban—the wife of Israeli-born entertainment mogul and powerhouse political donor Haim Saban—leaned forward and said, conspiratorially, “He’s a multi-billionaire, so it makes me one, too.”

Saban is nonetheless less well-known than her husband, who as the Democratic Party’s largest single donor has the ear of both Clintons, along with Israeli president Shimon Peres and, until his stroke, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. (He and his wife are also friendly with Rep. Jane Harman, who was captured on federal wiretaps, leaked in April, apparently offering to intervene in a federal investigation of AIPAC in return for lobbyists’ help getting Haim Saban to back her bid for chairmanship of the House intelligence committee. “I felt so bad for Jane,” Saban said. “Obviously if there was something there they would have gone for the jugular, but there wasn’t.”)

Haim Saban is usually portrayed as the macher in the family—“I have zero interest in being big. Biggest, I have an interest,” he told Portfolio last fall—but his wife says she was the first of the two to get into the world of big-time philanthropy, in the early 1990s. Now, at 58, she’s stepping into the limelight as an advocate for women, setting aside $10 million to establish a Women’s Self-Worth Foundation that will underwrite micro-financing programs and other initiatives targeted at women in the U.S. and in Israel. Saban, who recently earned her doctorate in psychology, has also written a companion book—her eighth—called What is Your Self-Worth? A Woman’s Guide to Validation, the proceeds of which will go to the foundation.

She was in New York last month for appearances on The View and The Early Show, where she talked about being raped as a teenager and struggling to support her children as a single mother after her first two marriages ended in divorce—details she has been loath to share until now. “I think that telling my personal story helps [women] relate to me, you know?” Saban, dressed in a chic leather jacket and jeans and wearing her trademark peace-sign necklace, told Tablet, in a wide-ranging interview about her personal story. (Her husband declined to be interviewed.)

Saban grew up in San Diego, where her father worked for the telephone company. The family didn’t have much extra money; Cheryl worked as a telephone solicitor and waitressed at a barbecue-pit restaurant, and spent summers as a lifeguard at a Navy training center.

The summer before she started college, at San Diego State, Saban was raped by someone she knew. Afterward, she said, she felt “muzzled”—afraid of criticism and judgment. (Two decades later, in 1997, she refashioned the episode into a thriller that made it onto the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.) Saban got back together with her first boyfriend, got married, and had two daughters. They moved to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles, where Saban began modeling; the marriage unraveled, but Saban soon met her second husband, a music promoter, and soon she had her own music career, recording under the name Flower. A UPI reporter writing about her first album in 1978 compared her to Raquel Welch; a year later, Playboy included her in a pictorial titled “Disco Queens.” But when that marriage fell apart, she found herself struggling to afford health care for her girls on the money she made as a secretary. “It was complicated,” she said. “I wanted to be on my own but it wasn’t that easy to do.”

In 1986, she answered a job ad Haim Saban placed in The Hollywood Reporter. Born in Egypt, and raised in Israel, he moved as a young man to France, where he made his first fortune selling recordings of television theme music; by the early 1980s, he was in Los Angeles, where he licensed music for children’s cartoons. When Cheryl, then 35, appeared in his office, he was in his early forties and still a bachelor; he drove a Rolls-Royce with the license plate RSKTKR1 and was, his wife said, “a magnet.” They began dating, but broke up after a few months, not because they didn’t get along—“I fell in love immediately,” Saban said—but instead because he wanted to have a family, and Cheryl, who had had a hysterectomy, could no longer have children. Haim, she said, wasted no time getting back out into the dating game—even though she was still his assistant. But soon the two were going out for lunch again, and for New Year’s, Haim invited her to Acapulco; within a year, they were married.

Saban kept working for her husband the first year after their wedding, and then opened a designer children’s clothing store in Beverly Hills, which closed in 1991. Meantime, the pair had two children through a surrogate; their son, Ness, born in 1988, was the eighth surrogate-born baby in the world. (The name is Hebrew for miracle.) Their one deal before marrying, Saban said, was that their children would be raised Jewish—Cheryl, who was raised Lutheran, never converted—and while they always put up a Christmas tree, the family celebrates Shabbat weekly. “I didn’t feel I needed to do any of those kinds of changes to be able to embrace the religion,” she explained. When they went to the rabbi who married them, she added, “I was like, ‘Think of me as a Christian who believes in Judaism.’”

While running her store, Saban joined the board of the Westside Children’s Center, where she pledged $250,000 to fund foster-parenting programs—“which, back in the day, was a lot for us!” she says now. But in the years that followed, as Haim Saban built the Fox Family Channel on the back of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the children’s television juggernaut he imported from Japan, they became a political power couple, first hosting meet-and-greets for Israeli politicians organized through the consulate, and then, increasingly, events for Democratic politicians, including Bill Clinton. Last year, the pair were avid supporters of Hillary Clinton; Haim reportedly toyed with throwing his support to Republican candidate John McCain after Barack Obama became the Democratic candidate, but ultimately backed down, at his wife’s urging. “He doesn’t intimidate me,” she said. “We don’t intimidate each other.”

And then her iPhone rang. She lit up; it was her husband, whom, after two decades of marriage, she still refers to as her “lover” in Facebook updates. “Hi, baby!” she purred in response, and turned away to have a private chat.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.