1 of 6
photo by Barbara Porter
Gretchen BonaduceGretchen Bonaduce
2 of 6
photo by Sherry Lee
Gretchen BonaduceGretchen Bonaduce
3 of 6
photo by Barbara Porter
Gretchen BonaduceGretchen Bonaduce
4 of 6
Gretchen and Danny BonaduceGretchen and Danny Bonaduce circa 2004
5 of 6
Gretchen Bonaduce with band AnkhGretchen Bonaduce with band Ankh
6 of 6
Ankh on the Whiskey marquee in HollywoodAnkh on the Whiskey marquee in Hollywood
f you have ever dreamed, or at least daydreamed, about becoming a star (and who hasn’t?), there are two direct routes that can hasten your journey: shamelessly audition repeatedly for any and every reality TV show and/or marry a current, former or marginal celebrity of any stripe.
Both paths are littered with landmines: The former is a cauldron of indignity, public humiliation and rejection, and you will likely resume your place in obscurity, cursing the competitor who dashed your dreams while you labor in minimum-wage drudgery. The latter, too, is almost always a labyrinth paved with all manner of torment and abuse, and you will likely end up little more than a footnote, a mere mention in a dark, smelly corner of Wikipedia or TMZ.
If you choose the latter, there is, of course, the against-all-odds chance you may find a way to spin your experience into a jaw-dropping reality television series. You may also further extricate yourself from your co-dependent union, inspiring others while rising, phoenix-like, from the cruel clutches of (insert celebrity spouse’s name here)’s devastating death-spiral to advance your career, realize your dream of fronting your own rock band, and take your rightful place among the ex-wives of Hollywood’s star machine.
In this case, you would be Gretchen Bonaduce.
Bonaduce, you may recall, is the former wife of child star-turned-radio personality Danny Bonaduce, the wise-cracking middle-child of “Partridge Family” fame who managed to extend his 15 mintues long after its discard-by date. She has starred in or been the subject of many reality shows, but it is for her real-life marriage-meltdown to the problematic Partridge that she is most widely known—the strong but long-suffering martyr to the red-headed man-child with a catalog of disorders and self-destructive tendencies rivaled only by Charlie Sheen.
“Breaking Bonaduce” ran for two seasons on VH-1 beginning in 2005 and documented (many say exploited) the couple’s efforts to maintain their increasingly unstable marriage amid Danny’s episodic binging, which by then included several stints in rehab for a crack cocaine habit, a snowballing addiction to alcohol and an infamous encounter with a transvestite prostitute in Phoenix, the city where the Bonaduces met and married the same day after a blind date, because Gretchen would not have sex outside of marriage.
Despite (or because of) critical backlash, the show was a ratings winner and propelled the Bonaduces into reality TV orbit for two seasons before divorcing in 2007. Why lay your life bare before the camera, I asked? With candid honesty, Gretchen, now 46, admits the show represented a healthy paycheck during a difficult financial period. And while she says she and Danny were oblivious to the fact they were documenting the collapse of their marriage, she also cites the show as an unexpected gift, an opportunity to make a statement on behalf of co-dependent spouses married to addicts who find the strength to leave them.
“It was very important to me to do something important and real,” she says. “It was not about recreating or setting anything up—neither Danny nor I realized the show was actually capturing the collapse of our marriage. I truly wanted to do something that made a difference, and I know it did. I received so much mail from women who were in the same boat. To make them feel like they were not alone … that turned out to be very important to me.”
These days, Bonaduce fronts the 1980s throwback cover band Ankhesenamen, or Ankh for short, named for King Tut’s wife (who, ironically, must have suffered some celebrity-spouse angst), and is CEO and star of what could be called Gretchen Inc. Bonaduce spends most of her time promoting her Los Angeles-based band on Facebook; creating, producing and appearing in reality shows; and raising her two children, Isabella, 17, and Dante, 10.
Given she is a reality-show staple, little is known about Bonaduce’s own backstory—overshadowed by the dim but still-glowing wattage of her infamous ex-husband—which includes a stint living in Chattanooga. Born Gretchen Hillmer in Waukeegan, Ill., her family moved frequently before her father’s work as a nuclear engineer brought him to TVA’s Sequoiah nuclear plant and Hixson, where a teenage Gretchen attended Hixson High School in the early ’80s.
In an email interview, I found the busy singer, businesswoman and mother something of a paradox. (Full disclosure: I was a year ahead of Gretchen in high school, but we did not know each other well.) A self-described Christian Republican who supports the troops, God and country, Bonaduce is also a supporter of gay rights and has been photographed in bondage. When not performing with her band, Gretchen reaps the dubious rewards of having been Mrs. Danny Bonaduce on such behind-the-curtain vignettes as “Hollywood Ex-Wives.” She is engaged to marry her drummer, Kevin Starr. Last year she appeared on a panel at Reality Rocks, a fan fest/how-to convention in Los Angeles, alongside reality stars Christopher (“Peter Brady”) Knight and Eric Roberts, actor and brother of Julia, and a former inmate at Dr. Drew Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab.” This year, she’s busy booking her band (she hopes to play Riverbend), recording with Jerry Dixon of Warrant, and will appear in “Ex Wives Rock,” a Candian reality show on the Slice network.
Possessed of a keen sense of humor and relentlessly optimistic, it’s not difficult to imagine Bonaduce will succeed in any or all her myriad endeavors. While the former Chattanoogan may have never imagined her future would include marrying a dysfunctional, dual-addicted child star, that path, for better and worse, led her on her current journey—one she embraces without a hint of irony.
The Pulse: Your band, Ankhesenamen, appears to be your primary focus at the moment. The makeup and costumes have a punk-meets-new-wave look and feel, and the music is ’80s covers, but not the typical Top 40 stuff. Tell me about your musical background, experiences and influences.
Bonaduce: Right now I am very focused on Ankhhesenamen. I have sung my whole life, including in gospel and varsity choirs at Hixson High, and I also joined my first band in Chattanooga. I think we were called Boys Life, but I preferred to call us the World’s Most Unlikely Band. A motley crew of characters, for sure. I have always been an average singer, but what I lack in range I try to make up for with enthusiasm. I started Ankh because I am old [laughs]. I have been singing these songs for 25 years, so I figured the songs would be the easiest for me to remember [laughs]. Plus, I just love the ’80s so much. Incredible music came out of that era. Growing up in Chattanooga you could sometimes pick up the college radio station in Knoxville, so I listened to bands like Joy Division, U2, The Cult and The Cure before most people had heard of them. I saw my first concerts at The Roundhouse and I had my own stool at Yesterday’s. I was a fixture there every weekend (even when I was under age with my fake ID). I think the most embarrassing moment in my life was when my dad called them and told them I was in the establishment and that they better throw me out or he would close them down!
You’ve got quite a resume as an element, focus or star of reality shows. Are you producing or appearing in any new shows?
I’ve been producing shows since “Breaking Bonaduce.” I was very lucky to have produced two seasons of that show. We declined to do a third season because we thought it would implode our marriage. Now, I wish we would have since it turned out to be inevitable anyway. We brought in “I Know My Kid’s the Next Child Star” as an alternative and we produced that as well. After that, I was cast on a show called “Gimme My Reality Show.” I was up against several celebrities to write, produce and edit my own show. America voted and somehow I won! I never thought I would, since I was competing against people from “American Idol” and “Baywatch.” I didn’t realize I had that kind of fan base. I have several shows optioned by production companies right now, which basically means nothing, but I keep plugging away. It’s a numbers game. The more you throw against the wall something is bound to stick.
Among other things, I understand you have a clothing and fragrance line. You’re a businesswoman, a “personality,” and front-woman for a band. Tell me about “Gretchen, Inc.”—are you cultivating a brand?
I wish I was a brand. Right now the Gretchen “brand” has very little value. I am not doing the clothing or fragrance for the time being. But I actually had very big plans for branding myself and wanted to get a jump on getting everything arranged in case the brand exploded. So far, there’s no explosion. But if it comes I’m ready. I enjoy running and being the focus of my business. But Hollywood is a very young town, so you can’t be the focus forever. As a woman, when you start to age you become less and less relevant in this town. You need a Plan B. I have a Plan C and D as well.
It’s undeniable that your marriage and life with Danny changed the course of your life, for better and worse. You were married hours after your first blind date. You must have known who he was. What were you thinking?
[Laughs] That is the age-old question, isn’t it? I lived in Germany when I was a kid, so I was never exposed to the “Partridge Family” much. I knew who he was, of course, but I did not understand the magnitude of that show. When we met, the radio station (where Bonaduce worked) made him go by “Danny Partridge” when he was 30, which could easily explain his drinking problem! [laughs] Honestly, having analyzed that question myself on numerous occasions, I think we were two lost souls in search of someone else to save them. Thank God he married me and not some crack whore (which he could easily have done). Let’s face it, any reason to marry someone is good as the next. Half of them don’t work out anyway. Eighteen years in Hollywood is like 50 years anywhere else, so I am quite proud of it. But you can’t blame me for getting out. Look what I had to work with—I should have gotten a medal for hanging in for as long as I did!
You’ve appeared on reality shows before and after your divorce from Danny. What propelled you to share the intimate details of your life and marriage? And what effect did it have on your children and family?
A paycheck would be the honest answer. Plus, do you see how much fun I get to have on TV? Even on “Breaking Bonaduce” we did some pretty cool stuff. Some of the effects on my kids have been negative. I really didn’t think that my daughter could read the horrible things people were saying about us. That is one thing I wish I could take back—to have protected her a little better from the things people said. My son was too young, so I don’t think he understood at all what people were saying. But I was able to put food on my table.
All things considered, there must have been some priceless moments being married to a former child star-turned-radio personality.
Yes, there were many many of those. Danny and I traveled the world together, met many amazing people—too many experiences to recount. And for the record, I did not have a crush on David Cassidy. I was more a Donny Osmond kind of girl [laughs].
The emphasis and appeal of such shows as yours and others (“Behind the Music,” “True Hollywood Stories,” “Celebrity Rehab”) plays to the public’s appetite for watching celebrities self-destruct. Last year the public was enthralled by Charlie Sheen. When does reality become surreality and how do you reconcile yourself?
I think Charlie Sheen is in a bit of trouble. Charlie, meet Danny. Danny, meet Charlie. Same guy. I recognize his manic mood swings and bi-polar condition very well. Still, I took a wealth of things away from the show and I don’t regret doing it at all. I think to make a reality show that made a difference is something very valuable and rare. I doubt “The Bachelor” can say that.
Danny is remarried and hosting a radio show in Philadelphia. You’re engaged and leading a very active, high-profile life. Looking back, did you ever imagine yourself in the position you’re in right now?
I always felt deep down that I was going to do something exciting with my life. I am sure all people think that about themselves, but I am happy that I was right about that. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunities I have had. My life has been anything but boring.
You were born in Illinois, but moved to Chattanooga and attended Hixson High School. Tell me a little about your upbringing, your family and early life.
My parents are two of the finest, most incredible people that you could ever meet. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that would have an unkind thing to say about my mom and dad. My parents are very religious and I think I get all my good qualities from them. They taught me the meaning of kindness, compassion and helping others. They always put themselves last and sacrificed for others. I am glad that I grew up in Hixson, a wonderful place to raise a family.
What were your ambitions growing up Gretchen Hillmer? Did you engage with music/entertainment at an early age, and did you perform at all while you were in high school?
I wasn’t really that focused on the school part of high school, but I sure embraced the party aspect. The one teacher that made such a difference in my life was Hixson High music and drama teacher Barbara Branch. She changed my life and was an incredible inspiration. I loved music and was in any choir that I could get into. I also loved the drama club, but learned early on that I am not a great actress. I was cast in every play, but always in a minor role. I did not have the confidence, nor did my teachers, in my abilities to pull off a major role. That has changed—I have more confidence in my little finger now then I did as a teenager.
Ankh is making more trips outside Los Angeles. Do you have plans to tour more, and is a Chattanooga or Tennessee show a possibility?
We are playing Vegas more and more. I hope that we can do the Riverbend festival one day. I need to redeem myself from my one and only appearance there many years ago. I made quite the ass out of myself trying to play “Born in the USA” on the keyboards. I don’t play the keyboards and am not sure why on earth I thought that would be a good idea. I hope the organizers see this and ask us to come!