Meet 7 Women Who Are Making Our World a Better Place
- Photographed byMichael Becker
- Makeup byCat Sherwin
When Ellen K was 25 she went with a friend to see a psychic. The psychic told her that she was going to be a late bloomer. “I didn’t know whether I should try and do something to head that off or just be okay with it!” the petite blonde laughs. Turns out the psychic was right. After being on the air at KIIS for 12 years with Rick Dees and then for another 12 years with Ryan Seacrest as a so-called sidekick, Ellen finally got her own radio show. Since 2015 she has been the host of the Ellen K Morning Show on KOST 103.5, which ultimately spawned a nationally syndicated version that airs on weekends.
“Honestly, I never really minded being a sidekick all those years. I was just grateful for the work, which I really enjoyed. There just weren’t female hosts back then. There were only men on radio shows,” Ellen says.
The hosting opportunity arose in 2015 just before Ryan landed the Live with Kelly and Ryan gig and moved to New York. “They reached out to me about hosting my own show and I was so excited. It is a lot more work, but I enjoy having more input. Every day I get to decide what we are doing on the show and that feels really good.”
As Ryan Seacrest’s sidekick, Ellen was regularly on the air during the somewhat provocative “Ryan’s Roses” segment in which women surprise-busted their husbands and boyfriends who the women believed were cheating on them. “I loved it and I hated it,” she now says. On her own show, Ellen has created segments on relationships and positivity, or as she puts it, “feel-good” interviews.
The California native (born Ellen Thoe) began her career in radio while in college. Originally a veterinary science major, Ellen took an internship at a radio station. After one fill-in shift behind the mic, she was hooked. She switched her major and graduated with honors in radio/TV/film from Purdue University, where her father was a professor.
Her days are busy. She regularly appears on CBS’s The Talk and does a substantial amount of voiceover work. She is the voice of the ABC prime-time TV show The Proposal as well as the Grammy Awards; she is also the narrator for My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding on TLC and Hatched on the CW. Ellen was recently honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She lives with her husband and teenage son in the east Valley hills above Ventura Boulevard.
Reflecting on her 26 years on the air, the silky-voiced radio personality sums them up by saying, “It is a great ride. I get to do what I love … and although I was always comfortable being a ‘sidekick,’ I’m so happy being a host now. No one uses the word sidekick anymore. My male co-host Ryan [Manno] is my co-host.”
Madylin Sweeten Durrie
Former Child Actor Who Is Paying It Forward
Sitting at a café near her east Valley home, Madylin Sweeten Durrie, 28, candidly reflects on the rocky road she’s traveled since Everybody Loves Raymond ended its nine-season run in 2005.
“Everything in my career had always come easy … until it didn’t,” shares the thoughtfully loquacious blonde, best known for the role she played from age 5 to 14 as daughter Ally Barone on the show.
She is the eldest of eight in a close-knit family from Texas, and inked on her left wrist is a tribute to their unity: “Amor Vincit Omnia” (love conquers all). But despite strong support, she went through a dark period after the sitcom ended.
“I just lost my fire and drifted,” says Madylin.
In her early 20s, she decided to return to acting, eventually landing at the Loft Ensemble in North Hollywood, where she now serves as production manager, scenic designer and actor. Known as one of the most vibrant theater groups in the Valley, the 60-member troupe (composed mostly of 20-somethings) premieres new material, championing novice playwrights and nurturing the next generation’s voice.
“So many actors come to LA, and it’s hard enough to pay rent, much less find a place where you can create good art and feel good about what you are doing. The company was founded by six friends who decided they wanted a place to do art without being told what the parameters for that art is. We stay true to that philosophy.”
At the Loft, Madylin also fell in love with and married fellow actor Sean Durrie—“my rock who has stood by me through everything.”
She won Best Actress in a Play this past summer at the 2019 Valley Theatre Awards. She is also a co-producer for the Young Playwrights Festival at The Blank Theatre. And at the end of last year, she branched out, graduating with a degree in interior design from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM).
She explains that her fast-forward trajectory stemmed from deep sorrow—the death of her younger brother Sawyer, who in 2015 took his life at the age of 19. He and his twin, Sullivan, played her on-screen brothers on the CBS sitcom.
“I felt like I had to live up to my potential for him because he couldn’t live up to his anymore … and be a better role model for my younger siblings,” states Madylin, who is now three years sober. Sawyer’s Playhouse at the Loft is dedicated in his name.
With sobriety came a new body image. “I’m comfortable with who I am. Body positivity starts with the way you talk to yourself. I refuse to tell myself hateful things I would never tell another person.”
In addition to helping others, there have also been personal rewards. “The Loft Ensemble gave me a sense of purpose and friends who are pure. It gave me confidence again after Sawyer died, and a sense of helping and giving back, which is something I think everybody needs to feel.”
—Written by Karen Young
Community Connector | Environmental Advocate
“I built that,” Barbara Romero says with obvious satisfaction. From the 27th floor of Los Angeles City Hall she is pointing to Vista Hermosa Natural Park below her. In her previous role as chief of urban projects and watershed planning for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation authority, Barbara used her voice to advocate for urban parks. And now, as one of seven deputy mayors serving under Mayor Eric Garcetti, she continues those efforts, as one of her key responsibilities is to “connect nature, communities and people,” she says. As Deputy Mayor for City Services, she oversees the 15 departments that operate LA’s infrastructure, including Engineering, Recreation and Parks, Sanitation, Transportation, and Water and Power. Garcetti elevated her to deputy in March 2015 from her role as a commissioner on LA’s Board of Public Works.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles and a graduate of UCLA, Barbara has devoted her entire professional life to public service. A favorite aspect of her job is visiting communities all over the county to listen to residents’ concerns about neighborhood services. “One of the most important things about my job is being sure that people feel heard,” she says.
Barbara originally thought she wanted to be a teacher, working early on for the Roosevelt High School Healthy Start Program. Today, her 7-year-old son Brady is her main educational focus. She sometimes brings him from their home in Sherman Oaks to her office in City Hall. “It’s an important life lesson for him. I want him to see what it means to give back,” Barbara says.
Having just won the 2019 Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters’ Smith-Weiss Environmental Champion Award, Barbara has prioritized. At the top of the list: the multi-decade plan for revitalizing the Los Angeles River. The project, which crosses through eight council districts and several municipalities, is spearheaded by one of Barbara’s departments—the Bureau of Engineering—with backup from another—the Department of Water and Power. If the dream of a clean, green, accessible LA River comes to fruition, it will be the ultimate legacy: a 51-mile ribbon of water connecting neighborhoods and nature.
Her job requires long hours and constant multitasking and, she admits, at times it can be overwhelming, particularly as a single parent. But she says her sense of gratitude gets her through it. “I feel so grateful for everything I have. I go to work every day with that attitude. I don’t take my job and my life lightly in terms of all the opportunities I’ve been given. I am always thinking: How can I give back? Being grateful puts everything in perspective.”
—Written by Anne M. Russell
Rev. Stephanie P. Jaeger
Faith Activist | Homeless Advocate
Twice a week—every Monday and Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m—you can see Stephanie Jaeger practicing what she calls “living out faith in action.” Under her direction and staffed almost entirely by volunteers, the St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church NoHo Home Alliance drop-in program feeds and assists 60 to 65 homeless men and women.
“They know that we care,” says Stephanie, 56. “That we see them as human beings and not as human detritus. We believe every human deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Three years ago, when she got the program rolling, Stephanie gave up her official pastor’s office and, with the donation of a water heater, converted it into a shower room for her guests. In addition to being able to take a hot shower with clean towels, visitors to the North Hollywood facility can have breakfast and lunch, charge their phones, receive a bag lunch and fresh toiletries, and meet with medical professionals from the Northeast Valley Medical Center and housing specialists from Family Housing.
The mostly privately funded NoHo Home Alliance’s goal is to get each participant “shelter-ready,” so that when housing becomes available, the person is willing and able to claim it. Since a person’s wallet is often the first thing to go when they become homeless, Stephanie explains, her program assists people in getting required documents such as driver’s licenses replaced, and then provides safe storage. About 48 of NoHo Home Alliance clients get housed each year.
Compared to the total homeless population in LA County—now estimated at almost 59,000—that number may seem insignificant, but Stephanie isn’t daunted. “We believe small programs are more effective,” she says, referring to the intensive support system NoHo Home Alliance builds around each client. “I see the difference we make with this tiny little program.”
Stephanie was called to the ministry later in life. Her first career was as a tenured professor of German literature and cultural history. In fact, her mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, so Stephanie’s first language is German. After stints teaching in Canada, Germany and Illinois, Stephanie settled down in Burbank about a mile from her church with her “very supportive” husband, a retired professor of medieval studies, and two daughters, age 17 and 18. Prior to her five years at St. Matthew’s, Stephanie spent five years as pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica.
In June, the NoHo Home Alliance was honored in Sacramento as California Nonprofit of the Year for its district. But like many people who do outreach work, Stephanie dreams of a day when her services are no longer desperately needed. “We want to reach a situation where we don’t have to do this anymore,” she says.
—Written by Anne M. Russell
Emily Current and Meritt Elliott
When their fashion brand Current/Elliott was bought by a private equity firm in 2012, no one would have blamed Emily Current and Meritt Elliott if they went separate ways. The two befriended each other at UCLA, and after college worked together as stylists. Then in 2007 they formed Current/Elliott, credited by some for the popularity of the boyfriend jean. “At the time all the other denim being sold was tight and bedazzled,” Emily recalls. “We were disruptors.” But presented with the chance to part professionally, the duo, both of whom grew up in Northern California, opted to stay together.
“We have a lot in common; the same sense of aesthetics and the same moral compass,” shares Emily.
And when they differ, they’ve developed a formula. “We blend our points of view,” Meritt explains..
Their first endeavor after the sale of Current/Elliott was the brand Emily + Meritt, launched when they designed a collection for Kate Spade. Next the brand partnered with Pottery Barn on several collections. Then in 2018 they launched the Emily + Meritt online store, offering soft knits, paper goods and accessories for teenage girls and young women.
That same year, another bold move: The duo (both of whom were pregnant at the time) opened a brick-and-mortar store, The Great on Melrose. The shop showcases their signature denim, but also feminine pieces like Victorian-inspired blouses. “We like mixing the tomboy look with the ultrafeminine,” says Emily. The brand is now sold at more than 200 retailers including Nordstrom.
Despite the fact that Emily now has two kids and Meritt has three, they say it has been easier this time around and they are having more fun. “We are in a new era—an era of kind, female-led companies. We have our priorities straight and we can be more confident in our decision making,” states Meritt.
The women, both of whom own homes in Fryman Canyon, share that most of The Great’s line is produced the U.S. They employ 30 people, 80% of whom are women.
—Written by Linda Grasso
Growing up as an only child in New Jersey, Melissa Bacelar’s love of animals was readily apparent. In fact her mom always told her that she got along better with the family pet than she did with most people.
Her other passion early on was for performing, and she worked for a spell as an actress. Melissa starred in cult horror films like Toxic Avengers 4 and Eat Your Heart Out, but before long she found her way back to her true calling. Today she is the owner of The Wagmor in Studio City, a hotel and spa for dogs, cats and even a few goats and pigs.
While Melissa and her staff lovingly care for what she calls “fur babies,” they are equally focused on finding homes for rescues.
“We have this business on Ventura Boulevard and the rent is astronomical, and everyone that I talk to is like, ‘You can’t give away space on the Boulevard to house rescue animals.’ I know it’s not the smartest thing I can do economically, but I want to give them all a shot at a great life,” she admits.
When it comes to helping animals in need, for Melissa, practicality isn’t top of mind.
“I’ll never forget the first time I rescued an animal. I heard someone talking about not being able to keep lab-mix puppies, and with my heart beating out of my chest I said, ‘Did you say something about puppies needing a home?’ Next thing you know I had 11 dogs in the back of my tiny sports car. I was 17, and when I showed my dad he said, ‘Your mother is going to kill you,’” she fondly remembers. “From that point on I couldn’t say no if I saw an animal in need.”
Melissa moved to the Valley in 2004 and a few years later opened a small retail shop that she upgraded to a new space, The Wagmor, which also offers daycare, boarding and grooming. Plans are currently underway for a second outpost in Valley Village.
For adoptions, Melissa works with Sally Cicchetti, who runs Sally’s Rescue. “Ninety-five percent of the dogs I have up for adoption she gets from kill shelters. She does everything you can possibly do to vet them, from teeth cleaning to dealing with any medical issues,” says Melissa, who is mom to two boys, Wylder, 6, and Easton, 3.
Melissa’s soulful connection with all creatures has landed her on TV shows like Anderson Live and The Doctors as a pet communicator.
“I really feel what they’re feeling, and I can see if something is bothering them or hurting them.”
In light of the selfless devotion she has shown for dogs, she says it is a two-way street.
“They don’t worry about the future and are always so happy and grateful. We can all learn so much from them.”
—Written by Heather David
Rod Zaray and chef/mother Ruth, who hails from Rabat, Morocco, now preside over Sababa Kosher Grill in Sherman Oaks Plaza after running several restaurants in Israel. The family relocated to LA two months ago and replaced short-lived Ventura Blvd Grill in September, with a name that translates from Hebrew as “cool.” The space retains a […]