Book Excerpt: How A Branch of the Getty Family Became LGBTQ Icons

LAMag is proud to present an exclusive excerpt from James Reginato’s book, ”Growing Up Getty: The Story of America’s Most Unconventional Dynasty,” out this week from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster
From left, Ariadne Getty and her children, Nats and August, at Ariadne's home in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 26, 2018. (Emily Berl/The New York Times)

Ariadne—Gail and J. Paul Getty Jr.’s youngest child—was the shy one. She successfully dodged the public eye for most of her life, while her siblings became the subjects of headlines, though generally not by choice.

When eventually she did appear in the spotlight, she chose a venue as high-powered as it gets: The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On a frosty morning in January 2018, this diminutive then-55-year-old blonde, clad in a dark blazer, slacks, and shiny Giuseppe Zanotti sneakers, joined the heads of state, captains of industry, and other potentates who gathered for the annual alpine summit.

WEF is where global leaders go to “move the needle” (a Davos catchphrase) on humanity’s pressing issues: climate change, income inequality, and Mideast peace. LGBTQ rights had never been on the main menu. In recent years, there had been a few “off-piste” events to address the subject, but it remained a fairly taboo topic, not tackled in the official panels.

Acceptance for LGBTQ people became a personal priority for Ari Getty (as she is generally called by friends and family) as soon as her children, Natalia (known as Nats) and August had each come out as gay, loudly and proudly, around 2010. (In 2021, Nats adopted the male pronoun, when he announced his gender transition.) When they advanced into their 20s, both launched careers as fashion designers and Nats began to date Gigi Gorgeous, a Canadian-born transgender icon. Ariadne rejoiced in their identities. Then Donald Trump got elected. Ariadne grew fearful as his rhetoric and policies generated increasing discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people.

She journeyed to Davos to announce her response: A $15 million gift to GLAAD, the world’s foremost LGBTQ media-monitoring organization. (It was founded in 1985, when a group of journalists gathered to protest defamatory, sensationalized AIDS coverage in the New York Post; two years later, it persuaded The New York Times to begin using the word gay in place of homosexual or other words that were pejoratives.)

Ariadne’s donation—made through her Ariadne Getty Foundation (AGF)—was earmarked to establish the GLAAD Media Institute, which will train an army of 10,000 activists and leaders around the world to communicate accurately the stories of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

When it was time to announce the new institute, Ariadne, previously a quiet philanthropist, realized she had to show up, and only one location would do. “We need to go to Davos, we need to be on center stage to do this, with the world’s biggest companies,” she said. Leveraging the Getty fortune and name, she cosponsored, with GLAAD, a panel entitled “How Business, Philanthropy, and Media Can Lead to Achieving 100 Percent Acceptance for LGBTQ People.” The corporate heavyweights who participated included Brad Smith, president of Microsoft; Serge Dumont, then vice chairman of Omnicom; and Jim Fitterling of Dow Chemical, the only openly gay CEO of a large industrial company. After the discussion, moderator Richard Quest, the CNN anchor, announced Ariadne’s gift. As claps erupted, she remained in her seat in the audience, still a bit shy.

But in an impassioned voice, she made a declaration: “Take a cause—make it your one cause, make it stand out, make it shout out.”

Philanthropist Ariadne Getty arrives at the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on March 28, 2019. (Photo by LISA O’CONNOR / AFP) (Photo by LISA O’CONNOR/AFP via Getty Images)

Born in Rome in 1962, Ariadne spent much of her childhood in the Tuscan countryside around La Fuserna, the simple farmhouse that her mother bought after her divorce from Paul and her remarriage to actor Lang Jeffries. Ariadne’s chores included picking out tomatoes, zucchini, and other bounty from the vegetable patch for family meals, and starting the primitive electrical generator that was the farmhouse’s only source of power. In her free time, she would walk the two miles to the tiny village of Orgia and go from house to house, helping out the predominantly elderly population with their household tasks. In return, the matriarchs of the community doted on her. “I literally was raised by a village,” said Ariadne.

In 1988, Ariadne married Justin Williams, an actor she’d been seeing for a couple of years, and the pair moved into a small house in Brentwood. They had Nats in 1992 and August two years later. In his babyhood, August designed his first gowns by draping napkins over forks. Before long, he was repurposing his mother’s silk Louboutin shoe bags to make new looks for his Barbie dolls. “Fashion was my first language,” he later explained. Nats, on the other hand, was a tomboy, usually skateboarding or climbing trees.

Shy though Ariadne might have been, that didn’t mean she wasn’t tough and fiercely protective when it came to looking out for her children. They were brought up using their father’s surname, Williams; until around the time Nats turned eight, they had no idea they were Gettys, much less what that meant.

In Los Angeles, the Getty name looms large, sometimes literally. When they passed signs for Getty Drive or Getty Circle on the freeways, for example, Ariadne would steer straight ahead without saying a word. Even on school field trips to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the children were unaware they had any connection to it. In retrospect, Nats says he should have had a clue: his mother always chaperoned those class trips. “I wanted them to grow up without the weight of the name,” Ariadne explained.

Around 2000, the Williamses left Hollywood for Buckinghamshire in England, motivated in part by her wish to be close to her father, who had acquired a magnificent country house called Wormsley. That’s when Ariadne told her children about their Getty blood. (As adults, Nats and August chose to use the Getty surname).

During the decade the family lived in England, Nats and August attended elite boarding schools. Nats did well academically but school was never for August. He did, however, find inspiration at Wormsley, in the Walled Garden.

Roaming alone through the mazes of flowers, inspired by beauty and decay, August (who described himself at the time as “a chubby, ginger, American gay kid”) created imaginary scenarios and characters—including one he calls the Getty Girl, a sort of phantasm and muse. The bowered sanctuary was formative. “I like to live my life somewhere between fantasy and reality at all times,” he said.

In 2004, around which time Ariadne and Justin divorced, she began to establish herself as a philanthropist when she started the Fuserna Foundation (she later renamed it the Ariadne Getty Foundation). Its mission statement was two words long: “Unpopular causes.” 

Around 2010, Ariadne and the kids moved back to Los Angeles. Nats flew to California a few months ahead of his mother and brother. Academically he was doing fine, but he needed to escape the boarding school social scene where he’d fallen into trouble. He was drinking and struggling with body image issues, which would challenge him for years to come.

During those months in L.A., his aunt Aileen looked after him. After her own battles with drugs and HIV, Aileen was now in a good place and running Gettlove, her nonprofit to aid people experiencing homelessness. When Nats arrived, he and Aileen lived in a building attached to a men’s sober-living center. “We would wake up at five every morning, make three hundred lunch bags, do the breakfast line, then we would drive around L.A. handing out bags with blankets and toothbrushes to homeless people,” Nats recalled.

“It was hardcore, but one of the most meaningful and important things I’ve ever done, and it really set the tone for my life back in L.A. It turned me into a mini version of my mom and my aunt.” 

Around the same time, 2,500 miles away in Mississauga, Ontario, Gregory Lazzarato was a high school athlete (a nationally ranked diver) with a secret. Lazzarato—who was born the same year as Nats and who later became Gigi Gorgeous—had discovered makeup.

Lazzarato began making videos in which she offered makeup tutorials, posting them on YouTube. They quickly gained viewers; in the process, she earned self-esteem. “I never felt beautiful earlier in my life. Makeup was a confidence tool for me, and it helped me identify with my femininity,” she said.

But she was still embarrassed enough to hide her posts from her family. Eventually, a relative saw them and informed Gigi’s mother, Judy. “She confronted me,” recalled Gigi. “I thought she would be mad. Instead, she said, ‘I’m your biggest fan. But we should probably keep this from your father for now.’ ” Soon enough, David, her dad, found out. His reaction: “Just be safe.” Before long, Gigi began to receive checks from advertisers on her YouTube channel, and later from brands she partnered with. Her two brothers, one older, and one younger, were supportive too.

In Los Angeles, Nats enrolled at Mount Saint Mary’s University, where he double-majored in political science and business; August entered New Roads School. After he was asked to repeat freshman year, he dropped out. He began homeschooling while teaching himself how to be a fashion designer. “I decided to take a whack at what I’d been doing since I was three,” he said. “I was kind of the oddball in the family. I have a fascination with an absurd amount of glam. No one knows where it came from. I’m from a family of tomboys.”

As the trio settled into a 6,000-square-foot penthouse atop the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, the kids were finding their identities. August’s coming-out story, at age 15, involved a room service waiter at the Sunset Tower Hotel, as he later told The New York Times. Nats began to date girls. When they both told their mother about their orientations, it was no surprise, as Nats recollected: “When I told her I was gay, she looked at me and said, ‘Nats, I gave birth to you. I knew the minute you came out of me.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, but, dude, mom, you could have given me a heads up!’ ” Said Ariadne, “I kept waiting for them to tell me because I didn’t want to tell them.” As her children explored gay life in Los Angeles, Ariadne welcomed their friends and lovers. She became a den mother to much of the city’s queer community, members of which took to warmly calling her Mama G. One typical night, August stepped out of his bedroom around midnight and found six drag queens in the kitchen with Ariadne, who was making them bowls of pasta. “They were like, ‘We’re here to see your mom. Go back to bed,’” he recalled.

Even while rolling out hospitality, Ariadne was fretting about the darkening political climate and the threats it presented to Nats and August and people like them. Their coming out encouraged her to come out as an activist. “That’s when she got super involved in the LGBT Center and GLAAD. I think that’s when she found her inner fire,” said Nats. “It lit a fire under her ass. I’m so proud of her.”

In 2012, August—18, lean, tanned, and liberally tattooed—officially launched his career. He opened August Getty Atelier in a spacious building his mother acquired in Culver City. Two years later, he debuted at New York Fashion Week, becoming one of the youngest designers ever to show there, with a collection of sculpted minidresses and chiffon gowns.

While at Mount Saint Mary’s, Nats—gamine, with porcelain-pale skin, sometimes-platinum short hair, and his share of tattoos—began modeling, represented by Next Management. In November 2015, when August staged his next big show—an extravaganza on the Universal Studios lot in collaboration with photographer David LaChapelle— Nats was cast to walk in it. So was Gigi Gorgeous; two years earlier, when Gregory announced her transgender status on social media, she’d adopted the name (legally, she changed it to Gigi Loren Lazzarato). About the same time, she moved to L.A., where through mutual acquaintances she met August. Self-described as “boy crazy,” Gigi was dating men and identified as gay.

Already a tall, striking blonde with full breasts, she was still in her transition process, which had started quietly a few years before. Her path began when she met a transgender girl for the first time. “It clicked for me,” Gigi said. “From that day on, in my mind, I started living as a trans woman. It just took everyone else a little longer to find out.” It also involved years of hormone treatments and surgeries, in locations ranging from Los Angeles to Bangkok. Every step of the way she documented her transition on social media. In the process, she gained some eight million followers across YouTube and other platforms and a reputation as a trans role model.

Canadian YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous attends the Race to Erase MS Gala at the Fairmont Century Plaza on May 20, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran / AFP) (Photo by MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

They met again a few months later when they flew to Paris to walk in a show for August there.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport, Nats fell for Gigi. “I pretty much knew the second I saw her. She radiated an infectious amount of positive energy and happiness. She is this amazing bright light. I pretty much laid it on the table to her. I said, ‘We’re not going to be just friends. I’m obsessed with you. Can we go out on a date?’ ”

“Then, sooner rather than later, we both said, ‘I love you,’” said Gigi. She came out as a lesbian.

Gigi got an immediate stamp of approval from Ariadne. “I liked her straight away. She’s so full of life, you can’t resist her,” she said.

As the couple was finding happiness together, August Getty Atelier, with about 20 employees, was taking off. Rachel McAdams wore a slinky emerald-green satin halter-neck gown August designed for her to the 2016 Academy Awards, where her film, Spotlight, won Best Picture. His ever more extravagant custom creations were also being worn by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and others.

“I just want to make the world a shinier place—one sequin at a time,” said August, summing up his philosophy.

That September, August showed his Spring 2018 collection at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan. “His vision translated well: Models wore glamorous looks with red carpet appeal such as a silver and gold beaded white strapless gown,” wrote WWD.

Next, it was Nats’s turn to take the wraps off his fashion line. He began it in secret, as he completed his studies at Mount Saint Mary’s. His grades were perfect, and he planned to become a lawyer. “But there was another side of me, and I didn’t know how to express it,” he said. His aha moment came via a Yves Saint Laurent jacket. “It was white leather. I had wanted it forever, and finally treated myself to it. I was so stoked.”

But the joy was short-lived. “I went out with it on, and there were, like, five other people wearing it. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding. I had spent so much on it and now it didn’t feel special.” He remedied that by taking paint pens and Sharpies to it. His customized jacket was soon drawing praise from friends, who asked him to perform similar interventions on garments for them. Following some Instagram posts and word of mouth, his pieces—hoodies, trucker hats, and other staples of streetwear to which he gave an arty, luxe spin— became “a thing,” as he recalled.

In the beginning, he financed it from his allowance and kept it a secret from his mother. “I was super insecure about it. It took a lot for me to say, ‘Look at this’ . . . because it’s a representation of me.” He needn’t have worried. Actress Bella Thorne and singer Halsey were among the first customers who began snapping up the merch online.

The business, Strike Oil, launched officially in 2018 out of the Culver City building where August operates. Ariadne serves as CEO of both companies. The name Nats chose for his is a tribute to his great-grandfather, oil magnate J. Paul Getty, and his famous statement that the key to success was “Rise early, work hard, and strike oil.”

“It’s one of my favorite rules to live by. I have it tattooed on my right ankle,” he said. “So, when it came time to name my empire—if you will—I chose it as an homage to the family I have now and the ones that came before. It’s my DNA.”

At the same time, he had some harrowing experiences. In his social media posts, he has talked forthrightly about his battles. During the Covid lockdown in 2020, he reflected: “I never realized how ill I truly was. Between drugs, eating disorders, and mental health issues I honestly was knocking on death’s door. After multiple overdoses, a near coma, broken bones, and a body weight of under 80 pounds, I still returned to a life of drugs, darkness and self-hate. It has taken me years to recover and it is still a daily struggle.”

Gigi helped him find the light. She was the first person he had dated “who saw me for me,” he said. In March 2018, Nats proposed. The pair flew to Paris, where they boarded a helicopter. They hovered above the forests of the Île-de-France and landed at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which Nats had rented for the occasion. Designed in the 17th century by Louis Le Vau, architect of Versailles, it is widely considered the most ideal château in France. (J. Paul Getty admired it too: he contemplated buying it, as he wrote in his diary.)

“Will you marry me?” appeared in large lights on the building’s façade as the couple descended. Ariadne, August, and other family and friends were awaiting them inside with champagne. Cue the fireworks.

Model and designer Nats Getty (L) and partner actress Gigi Gorgeous arrive at the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on March 28, 2019. (Photo by LISA O’CONNOR / AFP) (Photo credit should read LISA O’CONNOR/AFP via Getty Images)

The jubilant scene inside was captured in a video that Gigi posted on YouTube. “I’m going to have a daughter-in-law!” said Ariadne, who was accompanied by her partner of more than a decade, Louie Rubio, a music producer. (His credits include soundtracks for numerous movies and TV shows, including Baywatch and Brothers and Sisters.)

In June 2018, Ariadne, along with Nats and August, gave a pretty remarkable interview to Brooks Barnes, LA correspondent of The New York Times, for the profile entitled, “Growing Up Getty.”

Ariadne was nervous at the start. “I’m a super-shy introvert—this is not my comfort zone,” she said over sips of chicken soup in her apartment at the Montage, where she was also flanked by Bandit, her brown chihuahua, and a pair of Jeff Koons balloon dogs.

Talking about why she gave $15 million to GLAAD, which had been announced in Davos a few months earlier, she decried the Trump Administration’s assaults on gay rights—they were affronts to her family and others like theirs. 

That September, the Los Angeles LGBT Center presented her with its Distinguished Achievement Award—her first-ever award for philanthropy. (A $4.5 million gift from Getty enabled the construction of the organization’s new Ariadne Getty Foundation Youth Academy and the forthcoming Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing.) “I’m shaking like a leaf,” she said when she got to the stage in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton, even though her children had warmed up the 1,500 guests with a humorous introduction. In August’s part, he offered details of his coming-out story: “I never came out. I just said one day, ‘Mom, I’m going on a date with the room service guy.’ All she said was, ‘Which one?’” (Ari did go out later that night in search of one of the health-service vans that operate around West Hollywood; she loaded up on information packets and condoms, which she gave to her son.)

“I have recently stepped out of the shadows of my donating and my philanthropic work, which hasn’t been that easy,” said Ariadne in her remarks. “I’ve done it to encourage others to step forward and understand the impact of what it means to give . . . and to participate on a larger platform, to have things resonate. I encourage everybody to get connected, start being active, and don’t be shy like me for all the years that I have been.”

She also thanked one of August’s ex-boyfriends for introducing her to the LGBT Center. “My office is filled with all of August’s exes,” she said.

August Getty attends The 33rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton on April 02, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for GLAAD)

In January 2019, August vaulted to fashion’s stratosphere when he showed a collection entitled “Confetti” alongside the haute couture collections during Paris Fashion Week. Inside the Salon d’Été, a glass-conservatory-like space at the Ritz Hotel, models in white silk, satin, and lace lounged around a grand piano. “Bridging the Old Hollywood glamor of his hometown with Parisian Grace,” WWD wrote. 

As soon as the presentation was over, August flew to Davos to join his sibling, Gigi, and Ariadne. Returning to the World Economic Forum, AGF and GLAAD sponsored another panel with top corporate executives, “Making Equality Equal: The Next Move Forward for LGBT Rights.” The emphasis on corporate social responsibility reflects Ariadne’s view that while governments—in the U.S. and around the world—are lagging behind on human rights and moral leadership, big businesses can be more responsive and effective agents to advance social equity issues (something that became more fully apparent to others a couple of years later, in the wake of battles over election laws and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement). “So, basically, we’re here to strong-arm the corporate world, to make sure they do the right thing. Shame them, if necessary,” she said.

A particularly moving moment came when Dr. Corinna Lathan, CEO of AnthroTronix, a robotics and biotech firm, spoke. AGF/ GLAAD is helping to foster “a culture of LGBTQ acceptance” at Davos, she said; its panels were having an unexpected impact. The previous year at Davos, she recounted, her main purpose had been to moderate a panel on the Earth BioGenome Project. Yet “the most powerful conversation that I had was with pop culture icon Gigi Gorgeous.” Gigi, as it happens, is “the idol” of Lathan’s own 11-year-old transgender daughter, Eliza. A letter that Gigi subsequently wrote to Eliza was enormously inspirational to her. “The professional became personal,” Lathan said.

July was a blockbuster month for the whole family. August returned to the Paris Ritz to present his next couture collection. With “Enigma,” his theme was darkness. A gorgeous, gothic spectacle, it unfolded as models slowly began to materialize through an allée of pleached Linden trees, planted in Versailles boxes, in the hotel’s Grand Jardin. The procession of extravagant if macabre looks ranged from an armor-plated minidress molded from resin to look like a tombstone, to a boat-sized pannier skirt and bodice of black lace. Clad in a black sleeveless T-shirt, black jeans, studded belt, and boots, August beckoned the models forth as waiters served champagne to guests, classical music played, and a breeze rustled through the trees.

“I like to tell stories,” he later explained. “With ‘Enigma,’ I wrote about tragedy and morbid love.”

Nonetheless, the atmosphere was lively, in part thanks to more than a dozen friends who August flew to Paris to see the show. The multicultural group, most of whom live in West Hollywood and had not been to Paris before, included drag queens and transgender individuals. It was definitely some fresh air at the Ritz.

For August, there were just two opinions that really counted: His mom’s and the French. “Both are a little scary because they are both hard-hitters,” he said. He held his breath, then, when he saw Ari in the Grand Jardin: “I get nervous for my mom. She means the world to me.”

Before the month was out, Ariadne celebrated her 57th birthday, Variety honored her as Philanthropist of the Year at a dinner at the Montage Hotel back in Beverly Hills, and Nats and Gigi were married.

Giselle Lazzarato, left, better known as the YouTube personality Gigi Gorgeous, and Nats Getty, the model, designer and oil heiress, during their wedding ceremony at the Rosewood Miramar Beach Hotel in Montecito, Calif., on Friday, July 12, 2019. “The moment I saw her, I was instantly a thousand times happier than I was the second before,” said Getty about Lazzarato. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)

The ceremony, on July 12, had all the pomp one would expect for the marriage of a great-grandchild of J. Paul Getty. Formally clad guests—220 total—gathered on the lawn of the Rosewood Miramar Beach Hotel in Montecito, California, overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel. Pink and white rose petals were strewn everywhere as a violinist drew her bow and commenced the ceremony with the notes of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.”

Nats, wearing a white suit with a tailcoat that he had designed, waited by the altar with Ariadne and Louie. Gigi, in a white flowing gown by Michael Costello, walked down the white velvet carpet bordered with white cherry blossom trees, accompanied by her father.

After the couple was pronounced Gigi and Nats Getty, the guests (including Caitlyn Jenner) dined on pan-roasted filet mignon and chicken piccata. Video toasts to the newlyweds came from, among others, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom (“Show us how it’s done!”) and Gavin Newsom, California’s governor and Nats’s godfather (“I’m proud of you and I’m proud of Gigi”).

When 2020 began, the family returned to Davos, this time with one more Getty. Ariadne’s brother Mark announced that his company, Getty Images, was partnering with GLAAD to build a new digital glossary and set of guidelines that prioritize intersectionality, allowing LGBTQ-related images shot by Getty’s 250,000 photographers to be more easily found. “There’s a huge opportunity here to break stereotypes, tell stories that haven’t been told before,” he said. The Ariadne Getty Foundation later posted photos of the brother and sister captioned: “We moved the needle in Davos… siblings changing the world.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, the Gettys, like most of the population, went relatively quiet. Nats took the opportunity to examine his life and reflect. In January 2021, he posted a photo of himself bare-chested on Instagram. His breasts had been removed. “I am transgender, nonbinary,” he announced.

All his life, he explained, he had felt “not in sync with the body I was born with. So I decided to start my physical transformation and get top surgery.”

He also acknowledged the advantages he enjoys, which others might not. “While I feel so blessed to be able to start my transition surrounded by love and support, it’s not lost on me the many people who are having to navigate this alone and in silence.”

Shortly afterward, Gigi announced her new status as pansexual: “I didn’t fall in love with Nats because of his gender, I fell in love with the person that he is.” 

As the pandemic began to wane, the family got back to business. With its new “Oil Spill Tee,” Strike Oil continued to attract buzz (Machine Gun Kelly was spotted wearing one). At the same time, the fledgling company recognized the ills of fossil-fuel extraction (15 percent of the sales proceeds went to the Marine Conservation Institute). And Ariadne awaited the opening of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing—a 70,000-square-foot, five-story tower adjacent to the two-year-old Ariadne Getty Foundation Youth Academy. Fostering a community where young and old cohabitate—where each can support and learn from the other— reminded her of her childhood in Orgia, she told the Los Angeles Blade

 “That’s definitely the thing that makes me the happiest,” she said of this coming together. “There’s no room for loneliness.”

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