Lauren Sánchez on Working With Jeff Bezos

From a Wall Street Journal story by Derek Blasberg headlined “Lauren Sánchez on Going to Space and Working With Jeff Bezos”:

There are helicopter parents and then there are parents who helicopter. Lauren Sánchez happens to be both.

The Emmy-winning TV host–turned–helicopter pilot, who became a well-known name when her relationship with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was made public in January 2019, is recounting the time she did a surprise fly-by of her son’s football practice when he was in high school. “I texted his friend to tell him, ‘Look up!’” Sánchez says. And there she was, waving from a chopper above the field. “He was like, ‘Mom, you’re embarrassing me!’ But he secretly thinks I’m cool, I know it.”

On a recent day, Sánchez, 53, is piloting in a Bell 429 helicopter at 1,200 feet above sea level. She heads from the Santa Monica Airport up the shore of the Pacific Ocean and then over Beverly Hills toward the Hollywood sign. Traffic control prohibits going below 900 feet near the Microsoft Theater because Vice President Kamala Harris is swearing in L.A.’s first female mayor, Karen Bass, and the Secret Service declares it a no-fly zone.

When Sánchez creeps up to Mount Lee near Beachwood Canyon, she squares off her aircraft next to the famous signage for the perfect selfie angle. “Did you get the shot?” she asks me over her shoulder, zooming past Lake Hollywood Park. “If not, I can go around again.”

Midair is an inspiring space for Sánchez, and Bezos too. Their romance blossomed on helicopter rides she piloted. “This is one of the only places I feel entirely in control,” Sánchez says. Bezos founded aerospace company Blue Origin, which provides manufacturing and suborbital spaceflight services, in 2000, and was onboard its first crewed mission on July 20, 2021. Blue Origin’s motto is “For the benefit of Earth.” Bezos was in a helicopter crash in 2003 and credits Sánchez with getting him comfortable in the air again. He’s currently in the process of getting his own pilot’s license.

The couple’s ascent in the public discourse had a rocky takeoff. Both were still legally married to their respective spouses—Sánchez to Patrick Whitesell, the executive chairman of mega entertainment agency Endeavor, and Bezos to Mackenzie Scott, the writer-turned-philanthropist—when the National Enquirer leaked details of their romance. But if paparazzi snaps from their travels around the world are any indication, the two have managed a clean landing. There they are entwined in front of the Taj Mahal, hiking with King Charles in Scotland, chatting with Leonardo DiCaprio at the LACMA gala, receiving a philanthropy award at the Vatican. They even work out together. “He stole my trainer!” she says of Wes Okerson, who pops up occasionally on her Instagram. “Jeff is extremely dedicated to his workouts. I mean, you have no idea. He really puts in the work.”

Sánchez and Bezos, who respectively have three children and four children from their prior relationships, share a historic Beverly Hills house built by Hollywood founding father Jack Warner, which Bezos bought from media mogul David Geffen for a then-record-setting $165 million in 2020. (The couple has other homes, including one in Seattle, where Bezos founded Amazon in 1994, and another in Washington, D.C., where the Washington Post, which he bought for $250 million in 2013, is based.) “On a typical Saturday, we hang out, we have dinner with the kids, which is always fun because you never know where the conversation is going to go with this many kids,” Sánchez says. “We are the Brady Bunch!”

Sánchez was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, coincidentally in the same hospital where Bezos, now 59, was born. “Just six years apart,” she says. “And do not ask who’s older!” She dreamed of being a journalist but, undiagnosed with dyslexia as a child, she was a mediocre student. She left home at 18 and headed to Los Angeles to be a flight attendant. The only problem: She was told she was too heavy. “Back then, they weighed you, and I weighed 121 pounds,” she says of a mandatory weigh-in at Southwest Airlines she failed in 1989. “They said, ‘You need to be 115.’” (Weight restrictions for flight attendants were common practice throughout the airline industry at that time.) She knows what she would tell them if this happened now: “I don’t want to be a stewardess. I want to be the pilot!”

In the early 1990s, Sánchez enrolled in El Camino College, in Torrance, California, and connected with a journalism teacher who thought her low grades weren’t reflective of her intelligence. “I cry every time I tell this story: I got tested [for learning differences] and [the teacher said], ‘You’re not dumb. You’re just dyslexic. Let me give you tools on how to write,’” she says. The teacher gave Sánchez a pocket dictionary, which she kept with her at all times. “It changed my life. I went from barely a 2.0 student to the dean’s list and got a scholarship to USC.” She was enrolled at the University of Southern California from 1992 to 1994, but left before graduating when KTVK in Phoenix, Arizona, offered her a job on-air. “Phoenix was the 17th largest market, which was a huge deal for me,” says Sánchez. She stayed there one and a half years before moving back to L.A. for a job at Fox Sports.

Her first taste of Hollywood came at age 28 in a small role as a TV reporter in 1999’s Fight Club. Sánchez’s cameo features her doing a breaking news segment on underground boxing clubs for the local news. “Jared Leto calls me hot—I peaked!” she says, laughing.

She left Fox and started contributing to Extra, strategizing that it would be a step closer to her dream of doing national news. In 1999, she tested to be an anchor on ABC’s The View. She bonded with Barbara Walters, the show’s creator, but says she clashed with Star Jones, an original cast member. She says Jones later apologized, and they’ve since made up. (Jones did not respond to a request for comment.) The seat ultimately went to journalist Lisa Ling. “It was one of the most devastating days of my life,” Sánchez says, adding that Walters personally called to say she didn’t get the job and that she cried for days. “It turned out to be a good thing because I wouldn’t have had Nikko,” says Sánchez of her first child, who’s now 21, from a relationship with former NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez lived in L.A. and The View films in New York. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says.

Barbara Walters was a hero to Sánchez. “She really helped me with my career. Not only as someone I looked up to, but really guided me when I was up for The View,” Sánchez says via text after Walters died in December. “Producers were trying to make me dress extra conversative and she saw me and said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘They will try and make you ordinary. Don’t let them. Then, if you fail, at least you fail as yourself.’ I never forgot that.”

From 2011 to 2017, Sánchez was a co-host of Good Day L.A., a local morning news show. It was a steady job that started with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up and ended around 10 a.m., which left her with free time during the day since all her kids were in school. (In addition to Nikko, she shares two children, Evan, 16, and Ella, 15, with Whitesell, whom she was married to for more than 13 years.) Both of her parents were pilots, but she was a novice. “The only thing I knew was to stay away from the prop.” She walked into an L.A. flight school and signed up for classes in 2011. “I get this, like, 25-year-old, gorgeous instructor, and I was like, ‘I’m paying attention now,’” Sánchez says.

She formed Black Ops Aviation, one of the first female-owned aerial film and production companies with a focus across television and film, in 2016, when she realized she was one of only a few women doing the job. “I don’t know why more women don’t do it,” she says. Sánchez often pilots Bezos and their families around the world and tries to get in the cockpit at least three times a week to stay up to date on instruments.

Slowly, Sánchez has begun embracing the spotlight, not as a newscaster anymore, but as one half of one of the richest, most philanthropic couples in the world. (“I miss being on air,” she says. “I loved it.”) Last November, they presented the Bezos Award for Courage & Civility to Dolly Parton at a gala in Washington, D.C., which includes a $100 million grant to be disbursed to the charities of Parton’s choosing. “Jeff and I think [civility] is what’s missing in the world right now. Everything’s driven by negativity or conflict,” she says. “When we called [Parton] two weeks before [the award announcement], she goes, ‘Is this real? Did you say $100 million?’ She couldn’t believe it.”

In an interview that aired following the award ceremony, Bezos told CNN he will give away the bulk of his wealth before he dies. “We’re very thoughtful in our approach to philanthropy and how we give,” Sánchez says of their strategic gifting, “because we want to get involved with the people that we’re giving to.” She and Bezos believe climate is the biggest issue today, and their largest commitment of $10 billion comes through the Bezos Earth Fund. “We believe in investing in individuals who are closest to the ground, working hands-on with the people whose lives we all hope to positively touch and transform. Work across the political divide is exceedingly and unfortunately rare today.”

This year, Sánchez will release her first children’s book, Flynn, The Fly Who Flew. The plotline landed literally in front of her. “I was in the helicopter, and there was a fly,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, look, a fly who flew! This is such a great children’s book. And it stuck.’ Except now it’s a rocket [in the book].” The book’s hero travels around Earth before—spoiler alert—being reunited with his family. “I hope that a reader, especially children, will see that if you wander and explore, you never know what you’ll discover. You shouldn’t stay in one place. Don’t be typical.”

She’s also increasing the scope of work for her recently formed production company, Adventure & Fellowship, which she hasn’t previously discussed publicly. She has already produced promotional films for Blue Origin, Bezos Academy and the Bezos Earth Fund, but through Adventure & Fellowship she wants to fund and develop documentaries and scripted projects. “We’re focusing on great stories. They can be movies, commercials, documentaries,” she says. “Everyone has an incredible story and sometimes they don’t have anyone to tell it.”

However, of all her upcoming plans, she’s particularly excited about leading an all-female mission to outer space on Blue Origin by early 2024. “It’s going to be women who are making a difference in the world and who are impactful and have a message to send,’” she says of the five women joining her, who won’t be revealed until nearer launch date.

One person who won’t be joining them is Bezos. “As much as he wants to go on this flight, I’m going to have to hold him back,” she says with a smile. “He’ll be cheering us all on from the sidelines.”

Here, Sánchez speaks to WSJ. in her first solo interview since she and Bezos went public with their relationship.

Derek Blasberg: You’re planning to fly to space next year. How does it feel?

Lauren Sánchez: I’m super excited about it. And a little nervous. I’ve wanted to be in the rocket from the jump, so [Bezos] is excited to make this happen with all of these women. It’s funny what he said the other day: “Fly fast; take chances.” That’s his motto. He’s very encouraging and excited, and he’s thrilled we’re putting this group together.

DB: What sparked your passion for flying?

LS: I left the house when I was 18, but it was the first thing I really did on my own. When you’re on a [TV] set, there’s always people around and everybody’s kind of helping you out. I was up there by myself, flying over Malibu, flying into Santa Barbara alone, and it just empowered me. I felt so strong. Like I could do anything.

DB: Is that how you still feel now?

LS: Yes. I love it. What’s different now is that I really know how to fly.

DB: Why did you decide to found Black Ops Aviation?

LS: Because there were no females doing it! Less than nine percent of pilots are women. That’s it! Of that percentage, even less are helicopter pilots. How many women pilots do you see in every movie? What do you see? You see male pilots. And so [women] don’t realize that they can do it.

DB: When women find out that you’re a pilot, what is their reaction?

LS: They’re shocked! They’re like, “What? You’re such a badass!” And I want to say it’s really not that hard. I do want more women to get involved in it.

DB: You worked as an aerial consultant on projects like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and produced a lot of the promotional footage for companies like Blue Origin. What’s next for you in the entertainment world?

LS: I’m starting a production company, Adventure & Fellowship. [The projects] don’t have to have any aerial elements. That’s just the spice! We’ve been doing all of the videos that come out for Blue Origin, the Bezos Earth Fund, Bezos Academy. People don’t realize that. For the Courage & Civility awards, I did the interviews with [2021 recipients] Van [Jones] and José [Andrés] and [2022 recipient] Dolly [Parton].

DB: The Courage & Civility awards began in 2021. How would you describe them?

LS: [Recipients] are people who have the courage to make change in the world but do it with civility. On Twitter, what gets seen? Conflict. We want to shine a light on people [who] are doing really good things with civility and go, “This is what will get you attention. This is what will make a really incredible difference.” Not all the other stuff that’s just noise and mean.

DB: What are the terms for the $100 million grants?

LS: We have an incredible team that helps us narrow down [the finalists], but Jeff and I are the ones who are making the final decision. The only limitation is that they have to give [the $100 million] away within 10 years, and it has to be to charity with 501c [certification].

DB: Let’s talk about this year’s winner, Dolly Parton.

LS: She’s incredible! Big hair, tiny waist, big boobs. She owns it. When we were doing research on her, I found a Barbara Walters interview from [1977]. Barbara looked at all this hair and makeup [and asked], I’m paraphrasing: “Do you ever think that people might look at you as a joke?” [Parton] goes, “Absolutely not. I love it. And I think people know that I’m authentic to myself.” And I thought, that’s civility. She was able to handle herself when she was being criticized. And never changed.

DB: In a CNN interview Bezos announced that he’ll give away the bulk of his wealth. What types of conversation do the two of you have before making that decision?

LS: Jeff has always told me, since I’ve known him, that he’s going to give the majority of his money to philanthropy.

DB: That wasn’t a surprising revelation to you?

LS: Not surprising to me at all. He just never felt the need to have to say it.

DB: What’s it like working with your partner on those types of initiatives?

LS: It’s the greatest experience I’ve ever had. I’ve always had a career very separate from my partner. I think now that I can work with my partner and be with him all the time…. We love to be together and we love to work together. He’s helping me with the book. He’s getting his pilot’s license. We fly together. We work out together. We’re together all the time.

DB: What’s the best business advice he’s ever given you?

LS: Living with Jeff is like having a master class every day. What he’s really taught me a lot about is management. Biggest pieces of advice? I hold a lot of meetings and I would talk first in a meeting and he goes, “No, no, no. You’re the boss. You talk last. You let everyone else talk so that they don’t get swayed by your opinion.” Keep meetings under an hour if you can. I don’t know how he does it; he can read documents for hours. Another thing he taught me is: If you’re going to have a meeting, have the person running the meeting write a document about what you’re going to discuss and why. And it can’t be more than six pages.

DB: You recently became involved with an organization called This Is About Humanity, which provides support for families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

LS: Right now, I’m immersing myself in philanthropy and strategic giving. Elsa Collins, the co-founder of This Is About Humanity, told me about her cause and asked if we wanted to contribute. So I said, “OK, let’s go to the border. Let’s check it out.” I went there and literally it broke my heart. Every kid deserves to have dignity and respect, and they have these kids in these little cells without their moms and dads. It’s just not OK. [This Is About Humanity] is making sure that while they’re there they have basic essentials, diapers, books, clothing, sleeping bags. I mean, these kids have nothing, and they’re just waiting there.

DB: Presumably, with scams, it’s not easy to give away billions of dollars.

LS: You want to give money away and you want to know that it’s helping people and it’s going to continue to help people, and that it’s going to the right places. You could give it not-strategically. You can just give it away! But, we take it seriously. Like the Bezos Academy: This is [a network of tuition-free, Montessori-inspired pre-schools] for kids that can’t afford it and they’re getting a complete free education.

DB: Climate is another cause you and Jeff are investing in. As vice chair of the Bezos Earth Fund, you’ve traveled the world and met with world leaders to discuss fighting climate change. What’s a recent meeting or trip that stands out?

LS: We recently went to Gabon. We took a boat and saw elephants in the jungle that you can actually pull up next to and they won’t run. They don’t know what being hunted is like. We need to preserve that. People think about the good old days…. Everything has improved since the ’50s: education, health care, all of those things. Except nature; that’s the one thing that is not better. The head of the Bezos Earth Fund [founded in 2020] is Andrew Steer, and he’s brilliant and has been in the climate space forever. Jeff and I have meetings with him every week and we talk about what’s new.

DB: What’s the biggest hurdle with combating climate change?

LS: With climate, you may not know for five, 10 years. Some things may not work and some things will. Scientists, leaders and people like Jeff are really trying to figure this out. This is the decisive decade. This is the decade we need to figure this out. It’s the coolest it’s ever going to be. Think about that.

DB: You have three children, two of whom are still at home. Jeff has four children. How have you successfully blended families? Any advice for other families who are trying to co-parent?

LS: My greatest example is the relationship I have with my eldest son’s father, Tony [Gonzalez]. I learned how to co-parent with him, so I have more experience than Jeff might have. Tony and his wife [October “Tobie” Gonzalez] are my best friends. It wasn’t always that way. There was friction [at the beginning]. But Tony and Tobie were at Thanksgiving with us [this year], and we’re really good friends.

DB: How long did it take to get there?

LS: That took about five years, but we always communicated. I’m not saying that being best friends with your ex is the end-all be-all. But you do need to be able to communicate. I’m so proud of it. My son looks at me, and he’s like, “I’m the luckiest boy in the world because I can have Thanksgiving with both my parents and they don’t have to be married.”

DB: What have you learned about privacy since being in a high-profile relationship?

LS: It’s hard. I’m a very open person. I talk a lot. I like to tell all my secrets. I have had to learn that I can’t do that. It’s a good lesson. [I used to] say stuff to people and no one would care!

DB: Has that been a burden? Do you catch yourself?

LS: All the time. I want to tell everyone everything. I want everyone to be my friend! I learned how to not give the location of where I’m at. I can’t Instagram things that I normally would before. I have to be more private, a little more controlled, and that’s fine.

DB: What’s the most bizarre thing you ever read about yourself?

LS: Nothing shocks me anymore. One time it was [reported] that we left our passport somewhere, and we sent a plane to get our passports. It was such a ridiculous story. [We’ll also read] that we’re somewhere and we’re not even there. We’ll get a text from our family: “I can’t believe you guys are in New York and you didn’t tell us.” And I have to tell them, “We’re not there.”

DB: What’s something that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

LS: I think everyone kind of knows everything about me. I’m sort of all out there. I think people don’t realize how important being a mom is to me, because I don’t put it on social media, but it’s my most important job.

DB: What’s something someone would be surprised to learn about Jeff?

LS: That he’s really funny? He makes me laugh all the time. He can be goofy.

DB: He has a very distinctive laugh.

LS: Yes, but that laugh makes me smile. When I first heard his laugh, I was like, “Whoa! What is that?” Now I love it. And if I’m at a party and we get separated, all I have to do is wait a second and he laughs and it’s like, he’s over there. He’s so happy, he inspires me every day, he makes me a better person every day; he’s the most loving human I know.

DB: When the two of you are not working out or riding in a helicopter together, what are you doing?

LS: Every Sunday morning, Jeff makes pancakes. He wakes up early. He gets the Betty Crocker cookbook out every time, and I’m like, “OK, you’re the smartest man in the world; why don’t you have this memorized yet?” But he opens it up every time: Exact portions make the best pancakes in the world.

Derek Blasberg is a senior staffer at Gagosian gallery.

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