What do a crisis manager, a surgeon, a law professor, a 19th-century debutante, and a socialite scammer have in common? They are all grist for the mill for Shonda Rhimes, the writer, producer, and director responsible for network television’s most deliciously dramatic prime-time shows, from Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal to Netflix’s Bridgerton and, soon, Inventing Anna.
“You caught me on a ‘lot of hair’ day!” Rhimes jokes when she meets me on Zoom from her home in California, wearing a lilac Lululemon sweatshirt and fluffing her voluminous curls on camera. Behind her, there is an upholstered chair with an ottoman, and a MacBook positioned squarely on the cushion. This, I soon discover, is where the magic happens. “If I write anywhere in a room that has a bed in it, I am asleep in literally five minutes,” Rhimes says. “That chair is my writing chair. I’ve tried to bring it with me on vacation. I wrote Grey’s Anatomy in that chair, with my baby strapped to my chest. I’ve had it restuffed and re-covered.”
At 52, Rhimes has risen to the uppermost echelons of Hollywood. She’s a household name, synonymous with addictive, fantastically soapy television. Her success as a showrunner is unprecedented, especially in a white- and male-dominated field: She is the first Black woman to create and produce one of the top 10 series in the world (Grey’s Anatomy), and the first woman responsible for three shows with more than 100 episodes each (Grey’s, Private Practice, Scandal). “It continues to surprise me that anybody is interested in the person behind the scenes who does this stuff, when there are so many amazing forward-facing people who are actors, who are saying all the words, who are building out the characters, bringing so much to the screen,” she says.
This person behind the scenes has a knack for entertainment that becomes a pop phenomenon, addressing—and sometimes propelling—larger cultural shifts. Rhimes’s work has been a constant in my life since I was in middle school, and it has always led me toward deeper thoughts and spirited discussions. When Grey’s Anatomy took off, I was 12 years old, watching what was, at the time and for my age, a very adult show with very adult problems. When Scandal came around, I was in college, but was still a card-carrying citizen of Shondaland; I would assiduously track the live tweets, the first of their kind, from the actors on the show. After Netflix released Bridgerton, in 2020, my various group chats would not stop popping off about how the show’s debonair duke was either helping them weather the pandemic or making it even more unbearable. By that point, Bridgerton’s effortless injection of Black characters into the aristocracy of the early 1800s, paired with its anachronistic soundtrack (the first episode delivers a Vitamin String Quartet cover of Ariana Grande’s breakup paean “Thank U, Next”), steamy sex scenes, and sumptuous costuming, had made it clear that in the streaming era, it wasn’t just water cooler chats that Rhimes’s work dominated. According to Netflix, 82 million subscribers tuned in to Bridgerton’s first season, making it the platform’s most watched television series ever. In March, a new chapter will follow a feisty Indian debutante contending with her sister and with the marriage market, while slowly falling for London’s most notorious cad, Anthony Bridgerton.
Rhimes’s next series, Inventing Anna, premiering on Netflix in February, follows the ascent and crash of Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey. Based on the 2018 New York magazine article written by Jessica Pressler (who also serves as a producer on the project), Inventing Anna is the first show Rhimes has written since Scandal. The nine-episode series, which unfolds from the perspective of a journalist, played by Anna Chlumsky, captures Pressler’s experience breaking the story of the Russian grifter who posed as a German heiress, scamming her way into New York society and defrauding the elite, until she was caught and sentenced to four to 12 years behind bars. “Everybody who got involved with Anna got swept up in her wake and in her life,” Rhimes tells me, moving her hands in the air with a swirl-like swoop. “There was no one version of Anna. To me, the best way to find that was to watch the reporter talk to all of these different people and hear their version of what Anna was to them.”
Before she became one of the highest-paid showrunners in Hollywood, Rhimes spent her 20s writing breezy films, such as The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads. She pivoted to television after she became a mother, adopting her first daughter at the age of 32. She often found herself stuck at home while her friends went out, so one day she turned on her television—something she had not done in a very long time—and caught up on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 24. This serialized medium, she thought, was the key to securing more space and time to develop characters with more nuance. “Television had much more interesting, complex, fascinating characters than what I was seeing at the movies,” Rhimes says.
Shondaland, the production company Rhimes founded in 2005, pioneered its own genre of storytelling. Rhimes’s shows became known for breaking barriers, such as casting the first Black female lead in a network drama (Scandal) in 38 years, and making queer characters regulars on prime-time shows (Grey’s Anatomy) at a time when that was still controversial. “We very much wanted to make mainstream material that was diverse,” says Rhimes’s mentor and former boss Debra Martin Chase. “It was the world as we saw it, as we wanted it to be.” What Rhimes says has always interested her the most is “impossible relationships,” and playing with the “damsel in distress” archetype. “I am suggesting that the female characters are the leaders of my stories, and that the pretty ones are the men, and that’s okay,” she says. “I love the exploration of what happens when you go from the belief in the magical romantic fiction to the realities of what an actual relationship is, can be, and cannot be. Most women have been conditioned from birth to believe that romance and being loved is the most powerful, amazing, special thing that can ever happen to them. I’ve been writing a deconstruction of that my entire career.”
In 2013, Rhimes found herself working at “an untenable pace.” She was responsible for producing at least 70 hours of television each season; by then she had adopted another daughter and welcomed a third through surrogacy. She discusses this at length in her memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, and in the TED Talk she gave on the subject of burnout, and building herself back up to a place where she could enjoy her job again. And yet, Rhimes says she didn’t even realize how much she had accomplished until 2017, when Oprah Winfrey inducted her into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. “I was sitting next to my teenage daughter, holding her hand, and she said, ‘You are squeezing all of the blood out of my hand.’ It was the first time I really felt, I’m doing a good job and I can relax a little bit.”
At around the same time, Rhimes sent shock waves through Hollywood by signing a multiyear deal with Netflix. Some speculated she moved because of the reported $100 million Netflix’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, was offering, but there was plenty of cash still waiting for her at ABC. Her motivation was not the money, she says, but rather, creative control—if she could leave network television behind for a chance to slow down and keep her creative vision for Shondaland intact, she was going to do it. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” Rhimes says, adding that she requested the independence to produce podcasts and write essays on her own.
Rhimes was born and raised in Chicago, the youngest of six children. It was the type of household where “pretty” was not a compliment. Her mother “was not interested in us deciding who we were in relation to a man,” she says, and her father “wanted us to work twice as hard to get as much as everybody else.” (Diehard Scandal fans will recognize the line as one that Olivia Pope’s father says to the fixer in the series.) She credits her Midwestern roots and humble, “super feminist” upbringing for her work ethic, which she is currently trying to figure out how to pass on to her three daughters. If you’ve read Year of Yes, you also know that Rhimes’s family doesn’t give her any sort of special treatment for becoming the television titan she is today. “I always felt like people who get really comfortable and start to think, Oh, I’ve made it, I’m good—they lose stuff really easily,” she says. “I always was like, This could all go away any minute.”
After attending Dartmouth College, Rhimes held an entry-level advertising job, until she decided to get a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. Her break came when she interned for Chase, and began working at Denzel Washington’s production company, providing script coverage. The way she works as a showrunner and executive producer has always been unique: She hardly ever comes to set. She is a writer to her core, and has been known to scrap a script at the last second to start fresh. Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh recalls Rhimes as being very quiet—“a classic writer who is much more connected to her interior life”—when they first met. Now, Rhimes is nothing short of a “cultural force,” she says. “She has really grown into who she is, very purposefully. The thing that has been just so constant is her ability to tap into what people want. That’s always been there.”
“My first and most powerful memory of Shonda was when she stood up before our first table read for For the People and stated calmly but unequivocally to her new cast: ‘We respect writers here,’ ” says Regé-Jean Page, the leading hunk in the first season of Bridgerton. “She asked us to read what was on the page as it was written, out of respect to the work and care that had gone into its creation.” Actors, directors, and producers know to roll with Rhimes. “The most valuable lesson I learned working with Shonda is to trust myself, because she doesn’t want to process stuff with you,” says Tony Goldwyn, who first met Rhimes in 2004, when she hired him to direct the third episode of Grey’s Anatomy. “She doesn’t want to be your hand-holder. She writes it, and then it’s up to us.” Rhimes is also known for sticking with people whose work she admires: Goldwyn eventually played President Fitzgerald in Scandal; Kate Walsh, the star of Private Practice, the first Grey’s spin-off, recently announced her return to Grey’s Anatomy, and told me she would jump at the chance to work with Rhimes again and again. (Her exact words: “Oh fuck, yeah! Are you kidding? I want to be on Bridgerton.”)
Rhimes’s day begins at 6 a.m., when she wakes up to send her kids to school. From 8 a.m. to noon, she does nothing but write. When she’s cooking up dialogue for her characters, she’ll act out every single line, often with headphones on, so she has no idea how much those around her can hear. “That’s my favorite part,” she exclaims. When she worked in the Shondaland offices, before the pandemic started, “I would always act out all of the scenes, even the tearful ones, even the screaming ones, even the romantic ones.” In the afternoon, she takes meetings, but by 3 p.m. she’s off reading or listening to podcasts, to keep abreast of the cultural conversations that she uses to inform the creation of her sharp, witty characters. Rhimes has called herself a workaholic before—in Year of Yes, she details how she spent a year saying yes to anything that scared her, in an effort to free herself from the tendency to disappear inside her work.
It wasn’t until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that her relationship to work changed. She went from being the type of person who rarely used her stove to being someone who cooks every day and listens in on her kids’ Zoom classes. She also discovered that in the throes of the pre-pandemic hustle, she had not truly been thinking creatively. “It was really odd to discover that the one thing that I thought that I was doing so much of, I wasn’t doing as much of at all,” she says. “I didn’t realize how exhausted I was.”
In the future, no genre or platform will be off-limits for Rhimes. She is currently focused on growing Shondaland’s digital presence, which she’s been building since she went on her Year of Yes book tour. In the meantime, her toughest critics are not the Shondaland audience, but her daughters. The eldest, who practically grew up on the set of Grey’s Anatomy, and as a kid thought her mom actually worked at a hospital with real doctors, is now 19. She has never seen any of the series Rhimes has written, and she likes it that way: There’s too much of her mother in those shows for her. “I don’t think she even watched Bridgerton,” Rhimes says. “She was like, ‘It’s just too gross.’ ” The younger two, on the other hand? Well, they just might take after their mom in more ways than one: “My little ones have repeatedly requested that I do something about the lack of fairies on Netflix,” Rhimes says. “They’re always pitching.”
Hair by Verlyn Antoine; makeup by Armond Hambrick; produced by Artist Commissions; production manager: Jemma Hinkly; lighting design: Christian Larsen; photo assistant: Julia Bahlsen; digital technician: Mike Webb