When Lisa was approached to be Virginia’s agent, she was married to her second husband and had never been attracted to women. Little did she know that her business partnership with Virginia would develop into a deep friendship and, eventually, a committed and loving relationship.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up as the oldest of three sisters. My father was a radiologist and my mom was his bookkeeper and owned two tennis boutiques in the tennis heyday. I graduated from Barnard College in New York City as an English major and knew I’d always work with books.
I made my career in publishing, working at a literary agency, then as a publicist at Random House and Crown Books. I was married (for the first time) in 1981 to the father of my two daughters. We were married for 14 years. I left NYC and my job when my husband was offered a position in western Massachusetts. There were no publishing options where we lived and so I decided to launch my own company doing what I loved—public relations and working with books and authors.
I established the first culinary PR agency in the country, Lisa Ekus Public Relations. Over the last 33 years, that business has grown tremendously and morphed into The Lisa Ekus Group, “Representing a World of Culinary Talent.” We have multiple divisions: Literary Agenting, Media Training, Talent Agenting, Literary à la Carte services, and PR/Marketing Consulting.
After my divorce, I raised my two daughters as a single mother with a full-time business, until I met my second husband. I was married to him for 9 years.
When did your love life change?
I first met Virginia Willis, a chef, cookbook writer, and culinary TV producer in 2006, when she submitted her book proposal to my literary agency. Virginia was the Kitchen Director for Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, and Martha Stewart, as well as being a Producer for Epicurious Television and Turner Studios.
I had never been with a woman or considered, a relationship with a woman. She was in a long-term relationship and I was married to my second husband; I had no inkling I would fall in love with her.
In the beginning, my relationship with Virginia was all business.
Because I work in the culinary field, representing cookbook authors, food writers, and chefs, Virginia sent me her first book proposal for Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking. It was the cleanest proposal for a cookbook I had ever received. We were both going to the Greenbrier Food Writers’ Conference that year and I made an appointment to meet with her.
Virginia’s initial appeal to me was that she is an extraordinary food writer. She is beautiful as well: Chanel red lipstick, pearls, and a way with a sentence that made me determined to represent her on the spot. She told me clearly that my agency was her first choice to represent her and she never approached another agent.
Our work together grew into a friendship, which deepened over the years. And, like a slow-cooked dish, a deliciously meaningful partnership started simmering. It was in the fall of 2008 when I realized I was falling in love with her.
I have always loved the wisdom and friendship of women, but never considered that I was gay. I still believe and feel that it is who Virginia is as an individual that made me fall in love with her. And, I have to say, we laugh that I “took to it like a duck to water.” My comfort level with this woman is far greater than I have ever felt with the men in my life. My “aha” moment came the first time we kissed. I refer to this as my midlife epiphany!
We currently commute between Atlanta and Massachusetts, as we both have important home bases in our respective parts of the country. We share Virginia’s town home in Atlanta and my long-time country farmhouse in Massachusetts.
Why do you think you fell in love with a woman in midlife?
I didn’t intentionally choose to fall in love with a woman. I feel as if I’ve lived five lifetimes—all of them very different, all of them with enormous joys and some sadness. I sure didn’t see this next act coming.
After divorcing my second husband, I didn’t say, “gee now I’ll be a lesbian.” Both Virginia and I were in emotionally unsatisfying long-term relationships. Neither of us specifically left our partners for each other, but the realization of what we were missing hit both of us pretty hard over the course of our years working together. We both wanted the proverbial “more” in life and from a partner.
I fell in love with a wonderful, smart, beautiful woman and am enjoying every minute of our deepening relationship and love. She met my intellectual and emotional needs. We are very different in terms of our backgrounds. I’m from the liberal North and Virginia from a more traditional Southern background.
We both fly a great deal for work and both of us are used to the aisle seat (leading/control). When we began flying together, we realized it didn’t have to be one or the other of us getting the aisle seat. There was room for both of us. We could sit across the aisle from each other, close while having independence. That became our joke of “aisle/aisle.” We have each met our match; we complement one another. Virginia and I each nurtured a close and respectful friendship that evolved into love and a full-blown relationship.
How difficult was it to come out? Did you have to “prepare”?
There were two levels of “preparation,” the personal and the professional. Since my girlfriend was also a client of our agency, I had to weigh the impact on and response from my other clients, as well as my family. In the end, I knew this relationship was serious and for long term and “came out” to all.
I told my mom first, who high fived me! My immediate family was 100% supportive. They love me. They trust me and they had known Virginia for some years. They could see we had a deep respect and love for each other. My two grown daughters have welcomed Virginia into our family. She has a special and different relationship with each of them.
My yearbook quote in high school was “Everything I do, I do with everything I’ve got.” At this point in my life, not a lot I do surprises my family! I have always been a woman of passion and commitment. They accepted the woman I love into all our lives. Remember I come from a very liberal family. I also have a very loving and trusting family.
Virginia’s Mama and sister (and relatives) also welcomed me. I am very close to them and, like my family, they are happy that Virginia is in a loving, nurturing relationship of true partnership and support. All our friends have embraced our relationship. I have to chuckle because many of my female friends openly expressed how not surprised they were to hear this and how lucky I was to be with a woman. A few even commented wistfully “men age so badly!”
What challenges did you encounter?
Over the course of the next few years, we both extricated ourselves from our relationships. The decisions were hard and painful for both of us. But we were determined to be together and had enormous patience.
The greatest challenge was in my work life. Some clients had an issue with my being in a relationship with a client. I have to wonder if they would have had the same issue if I had fallen in love with a male client. Most, however, were genuinely happy for, and fully supportive of, me.
A few clients left our agency and my position is that if they couldn’t trust my ethics and commitment to each of them, then it was appropriate they move on. It’s a shame that there was this judgment, but such is life. My business continues to thrive, along with my personal life.Is it a challenge to represent your partner as her agent?
Virginia is the creative and in-front person, and I’m the business and behind-the-scenes person; this works brilliantly for us. The mutual respect we have for each other’s strengths and skills, and our willingness to discuss opportunities and challenges, makes us a power couple. We have each other’s best interests at heart.
My biggest piece of advice is to set clear parameters on life and work. Virginia has two expressions: “I need to talk to my Agent Lady,” or “I need to talk to my Girlfriend.” That clues us both in as to the type of conversation and the results needed. Agent Lady is about business, and Girlfriend is “Hear me out and comfort me. Don’t try to solve it or charge it.”
Not every challenge has the resolution you want or hope for, but so many do. Focus on that. Kiss each other good morning and good night each and every day.
Were there times when you thought about not going through with coming out?
Absolutely not. I never looked back. It is seven years since that first kiss and neither Virginia nor I have ever had any regrets.
My only frustration, and we laugh at this a lot, is that I’m Northern and speak quickly and without filtering much of anything I say. Virginia is Southern, far more thoughtful, and edits her words before she speaks. I still bite my tongue and try desperately to not interrupt her long thought process. And I’ve benefited from learning to be far more patient! Do we have differences of opinions sometimes? Sure. Do we work it out? Always. She slows me down and I speed her up! I LOVE this journey together.
What have you learned about yourself through this new chapter?
I’ve learned to continue to trust myself, my instincts, and my commitments. Change is the only constant and life is truly short. It turns on a dime. I want to and am embracing my joy. I have a true partner in life. That is incredible!
What advice do you have for women considering coming out later in life?
Be kind to yourself. Be fearless and trust yourself. If you need to get the support of a professional therapist and tap into your most trusted friends, then do that. Some friends (and possibly family) will choose to take the low road. So be it. Embrace your happiness. Don’t postpone joy!
Look to your friends or a therapist. I confided in close friends, a lesbian couple, one of whom had left her traditional marriage for a woman. She had children and completely understood what I was going through. Having that support and sounding board was invaluable.
I’m very comfortable in my own skin so I did not doubt my choice or direction. The harder part was not choosing to be in a lesbian relationship, but to realize my marriage was over. I was raised traditionally and having been divorced once I had some moments of what’s wrong with me that I can’t sustain a relationship? What I had to realize was that I can—with the right person, with the right partner.
What resources do you recommend?
I don’t lean specifically towards lesbian vs. straight resources. I approach life as, how can I learn and grow? I’m interested in business books and conferences with brilliant inspirational speakers. I belong to the Women President’s Organization, which has been one of the single best learning organizations in the world to be a member of. The support of so many incredibly successful entrepreneurial women in both my personal and professional life has truly been priceless. I also have a long time therapist who has known me for almost three decades (and many acts); her insight and support has been invaluable.What’s next for you?
Cookbooks and chefs are sizzling hot and I plan on continuing to build their careers and my business. I love every aspect of discovering new talent and cultivating good writing.
Hopefully I have many next acts. Life is a big adventure and I fully intend to participate. What I do know is whatever comes next, Virginia will be at my side—aisle/aisle.
Contact Lisa Ekus at Lcecooks@lisaekus.com
The Lisa Ekus Group represents a world of culinary talent.