By rights, Cheryl Saban – billionaire, philanthropist, advocate and author – should be a totally intimidating human being. The former model certainly looks the part, towering above us in killer black Gianvito Rossi stiletto booties like a Scandinavian warrior. But here’s the thing: she’s not.
Let’s not confuse unintimidating with unimpressive. The woman who currently sits on the board of three charities and is involved in almost 20 others, who has her doctorate in psychology, who has penned 15 books and who, in 2012, was appointed as a Special Public Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Barack Obama himself, can only be described as spectacular. Intimidating though, well, not so much. Her warm and completely genuine smile makes that illusion impossible—as do the sneaky tattoos currently covered by her perfectly pressed Alexander McQueen jacket.
Saban gestures when she speaks; her entire body becomes involved in the conversation. However, her sleeves are tailored so precisely that we do not see the tattoo on her wrist until it is nearly time to leave. She points out the second of her own volition. She has nothing to hide—as we’ve discovered during our time together, she rolls with the punches and transcends hard knocks. It is fitting that she’s inked—the tattoos hint at an inner edge; steel swathed in silk. Even more intriguing is the fact that the now 64-year-old decided to get her ink at the ages of 59 and 60.
he first design she points out is the Hebrew word “l’chaim.” She had it done, in part, for her husband, Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban, the CEO of Saban Capital Group. “[It means] ‘to life,’” she explains. “To live it, to love it, and enjoy it. Embrace it, because this is not a dress rehearsal.” Given that Saban lost her father
a year ago, the meaning is especially poignant today. Her second symbol, a snowflake, also has special meaning. “Every snowflake you see is beautiful, unique and perfect in its own way, but yet, they’re all slightly imperfect. They have a slight quirk here and there, but they’re still so perfect—like every human being. Everything and everyone is different. It can be its own kind of perfect, but what is perfect for God’s sake? That’s how I look at people, at things and even my artwork,” she declares.
The snowflake actually applies to her artwork as well—intentionally.
It is the signature stamp she puts on each and every piece of handcrafted glass sold at her West Hollywood boutique, the Shop on Nemo. No two things at the store are alike. The only true similarity is that each and every item —from jewelry, to glass, to books and even organic spa products—has been created by Saban.
The Shop is almost like a visual diary. If you look closely enough, you’re going to see Cheryl Saban’s life unfold before your very eyes. You might see the vegetarian cookbook she wrote while at San Diego State University, because—at the time, at least—she was vegetarian. You’ll see “What Is Your Self Worth? A Woman’s Guide to Validation,” a companion piece to the Women’s Self-Worth Foundation, the organization she founded in 2009 to help disadvantaged and underserved women. Did we mention that she donates a portion of each sale to charity (of which, currently, is Stuart House The Rape Foundation). Admit it—you’re impressed, too.
What makes Saban so unique is her complete lack of pretension. Sure, she looks fierce and has a resume of achievements most could only dream of, but she keeps it real. For example, as soon as our photographer stops snapping, off come the sky high heels and on come plush grey slippers emblazoned with printed puppies that she isn’t afraid to wear in public.
This is the other side of the coin that is Cheryl Saban: a woman who, at heart, is a self-proclaimed, unapologetic “hippie” and “earth mama.”
She admits that this part of her has always been there—it just happens to sometimes be dressed up in power and couture. “It’s funny, because [opening the store] has been in the back of my mind for most of my life,” she declares. “When I was in college, I loved to go to Mammoth and ski. I thought that I would have a tiny little shop and make macramé bracelets, which were a big thing when I was in college. I thought, ‘this is the way it’s gonna be.’”
But every path diverges somewhere, and Saban’s was no different. The one-time art major married her first husband at age 20 and had two daughters; she married a second time and began a music career, recording her first album under the name “Flower” in 1978. They divorced, and in 1986, she accepted a job as an assistant to her now-husband, Haim. The two have been married for almost 30 years. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in 2005 and found the aforementioned Women’s Self-Worth Foundation, as well as work at the U.N.
Who she has become doesn’t reflect on the woman she once was: that hippie-like flower child is still there, inside. “I made a lot of different turns in my road during my lifetime,” she admits. “That didn’t change the fact that I had art inside of me.”
Nowadays, she allows herself the luxury of letting that art out. In the past, she used an annual holiday girlfriends’ luncheon as an excuse to learn a new skill. One year, it was candle making; another, creating fudge. She even taught herself to both flip and design houses; her Aspen home won the Best of the West home of the year in 2007. Currently, she is teaching herself her husband’s native language of Hebrew. Six years ago, however, was the luncheon that prompted her to resume the path she had started on in her teens. Saban felt the urge to make Christmas ornaments, so she hired glassblowers armed with torches and bobbins to come to her home. Although the party was canceled that year due to an illness in the family, she was still intrigued enough to try it on her own; she now blows glass at least once, if not twice a week. “I went to take a lesson, and that was it,” she says. “I was bitten by the glass-blowing bug and I’ve been mad for it ever since.”
She pauses thoughtfully and adds, “I just constantly want to learn new things. I’m a life-long learner.”
One of the items on display on Nemo is a pack of affirmation cards. Cheryl Saban created them, of course, but she actually uses them, too. One card in particular gets a lot of personal play, and that is “I Am Grateful.”
Every morning when she wakes up, like clockwork, the first thing Saban does is say, “I am grateful for this day.”
She knows she has been afforded once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, amazing experiences and beautiful moments—and is grateful, even if some of the experiences, such as the four months she spent at the U.N. in 2012 as a Special Public Delegate to the United Nations for the 67th General Assembly, weren’t exactly what she had hoped they’d be.
Saban seems disenchanted by what she encountered and was privy to during that time— the year of the Sandy Hook massacre, the Benghazi attack, the Syrian Civil War and the beginning of the Israel-Gaza conflict—so much so, that if longtime friend Hillary Clinton (who suggested her to President Obama and was instrumental in helping her to become a public delegate) becomes president, Saban would respectfully decline a hypothetical position in the White House. “My husband and I are very supportive of Hillary—we’ve been Democrats for a long time—but no,” she says. “I agree with some Republican [values].”
She adds, “I’m a Democrat, but I’m pretty disappointed with our process right now because our elected officials act like children. They’re much smarter than that. I want someone who’s an adult to stand up there, and for me, it’s Hillary.”
With a career in politics effectively off the proverbial table, Saban is going to continue to do what she does best: make beautiful things and make the world a more beautiful place for others. She wants to focus her attention on donating to tribal colleges, is helping to foster female coders at Girls Who Code, and is working with organizations like The Every-child Foundation, the Rape Treatment Center, Stuart House, Feminist Majority Foundation, and the Saban Forum for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she served as a Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families; the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Universal Preschool; and the Board of Overseers at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, as well as serving on the boards of institutions such as Trustees of Girl’s Inc., The Clinton Foundation and The Saban Community Clinic.
She’s matter-of-fact about her philanthropic work, saying, “Being charitable and doing things for other people has been my life since I was a kid. It grew in different ways, and as I got older and changed my life, I was able to use the resources that were at my disposal to help.”
Giving back financially is only part of what Saban hopes to leave the world with. “When I think of my legacy, I think that it is an action that brings about a positive change, so for me it is not just sitting here,” she says. “I’m truly blessed. I’m grateful for that every day, so I want to make sure other people will also have a chance.”
Her real legacy, though, is best conveyed in her favorite story. It is one that she relays warmly, and often. In the tale, a little girl walks on the beach with her grandfather. It is low tide. Stranded on the sand are hundreds of starfish, dying in the hot sun. As they walk along, the little girl picks up starfish after starfish, tossing them back into the sea. After awhile, her grandfather pauses, and asks the little girl, “Mary, why do you trouble yourself? You can’t save them all.” The little girl bends down yet again, and picks up a starfish, tossing it back into the sea. She looks up at her grandfather and says, “I saved that one, Grandpa.”
This, says Saban, “is how I feel about every charitable endeavor. While we may not be able to save every woman, man and child, we cannot let that stop us from making the effort to save those that we can.”
Intimidated? Hell, no. We’re grateful for the dichotomy that is the passionate, philanthropic power woman that is Cheryl Saban…and for her starfish-loving soft side.