In the ‘second chapter’ of her life, this judge balances
justice, beauty and strength.
By Allan Richter
On the set of “Justice with Judge Jeanine” at News Corporation studios near New York’s Rockefeller Center, Jeanine Pirro points to a wall of lavender bulbs behind her desk. “Aren’t these pretty?” Pirro beckons a visitor. Pretty? Is this the former district attorney who put away scores of felons and ran five sometimes-grueling political campaigns? Is this the Fox News Channel, hard-driving political lightning rod? Pretty?
Why not? Pirro, a petite, olive-skinned beauty, has long struck a balance with her femininity and her career by embracing and putting her good looks and womanhood unapologetically on display. During a recent visit with a reporter on her set, Pirro wore red lipstick, gold hoop earrings, and bangles around each wrist; above a dark skirt, she wore a white top with a bow across her midriff. At home, Pirro works on her biceps with pink free weights.
Combining New York grit with small-town sensibility, Pirro is clearly comfortable in her skin. On TV and in private conversation, she has lost none of the brassiness, confidence or smarts that were hallmarks of her previous public life in the courtroom and on the campaign trail. Those qualities belie her 5’4” frame.
Pirro allows brief glimpses of her vulnerability when touching on diversions from what was once the promise of a storybook life. But she mainly wears a broad smile that comes as easily and often as the boisterous laugh that punctuates her conversation. “This second chapter in my life is a very happy one,” says Pirro, who turns 60 next month. “I’m thrilled to be here.”
Pirro wasn’t always so comfortable flaunting her beauty. When she started her legal career more than 30 years ago, she pulled her hair back in a ponytail and wore dark suits, cotton shirts, eyeglasses and no makeup. It was how a woman played ball on a man’s ballfield. “I decided when I was about six I wanted to be a lawyer,” Pirro recounts. “People would say to me, ‘Don’t you want to be a mommy?’ So I grew up thinking that the two were mutually exclusive, that you had to be one or the other.”
Then, in 1997, People magazine called Pirro to include her among its picks of the 50 most beautiful people. Pirro wasn’t sure she was ready for that very public recognition of her beauty.
“I actually thought about not doing it because at the time I was a sitting DA, and women were just emerging from the mindset of having to be men,” she says, seated behind her television studio desk and swapping roles for an interview. “But I decided to do it. That was a turning point in my career because I realized that the public could accept a woman who was pretty, and you could be feminine.
You didn’t have to be what I was when I first started, when I tried to blend into the woodwork. And I tried murders, rapes, violent felonies. I was a fighter in the courtroom but never tried to be feminine or pretty.”
After working as assistant district attorney in New York’s Westchester County, Pirro became the first female judge to sit on the county court bench. She was later elected the county’s first female district attorney, a position in which Pirro championed causes to which few people were paying attention. She began prosecuting abusive husbands when society, she notes, still “kind of looked the other way and thought we couldn’t get involved in family matters.”
With a small team operating from a windowless room on the fourth floor of the courthouse in White Plains, New York, she ran stings to capture and prosecute predators who trolled the Internet for children; all were convicted. Other counties in New York and elsewhere around the country soon began their own stings.
New York magazine called Pirro’s effort a “prosecutorial home run.” Pirro’s Republican Party took notice of her growing national reputation for defending victims’ rights. (“We call it the criminal justice system,” she says. “It should be the victim justice system for the person who never chose this.”) She was seen as a future contender for New York governor.
But marital problems dogged her political ambitions. In 2000, she won reelection as district attorney despite her husband’s high-profile legal problems. After runs for US Senator and New York State Attorney General, Pirro left politics in 2006.
Ups and Downs
Today, Pirro is fit and sanguine. She is writing a legal thriller and juggling two television programs. “Judge Jeanine Pirro,” an Emmy-nominated syn-dicated daytime court show, has Pirro weighing in from behind the bench on cases from small claims to emotionally charged family disputes. The primetime “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” meanwhile, gives her the freedom to take on topical issues and report on lapses in the legal system. One recent segment spotlighted an illegal immigrant who killed three people after he had been in custody but not deported.
“All of us have ups and downs, and I’m no different,” she says. “Mine have been somewhat more public because of the life that I’ve chosen. I think you just have to get back up on that horse. I’m tired of that horse, getting up and down, up and down,” she laughs before turning serious again. “Sometimes it’s hard to have faith in yourself. Sometimes you lose faith a little bit, but you’ve got to get it all together.”
Pirro’s acceptance of personal change is reinforced by her professional dogma that the legal system must be malleable to reflect cultural change—to keep up with predators on the Internet, for instance. “The criminal justice system is something that needs to be driven,” Pirro says, “because if you don’t drive it, if you’re not forward thinking, it just remains stagnant. Laws are nothing more than a reflection of the world we live in.”
Geraldo Rivera, Pirro’s Fox News Channel colleague, says the “content of her character” drives Pirro’s successes. “She has an inner fire and a sense of righteousness—not self-righteousness, but right and wrong—that is very clearly defined and reliable,” says Rivera, who has known Pirro since inviting her on his old CNBC show as a guest commentator 15 years ago.
Sustenance for Pirro comes from an array of sources, foremost her faith and her relationships with her 82-year-old mother Esther, a one-time department store model (“She’s still whispering in my ear and telling me to look good,” Pirro says), and her children, Kiki, 25, and Alexander, 22. Following in their mother’s footsteps, Kiki was recently admitted to the bar while Alexander is deciding on law schools. “I’m a very proud mom,” Pirro says, then adds with a signature hearty laugh, “The husband’s gone, the kids are gone. It’s just me, the pig and the dogs.”
Pirro and her husband legally separated in 2007. The animals she is referring to are the two standard French poodles that follow her every move at home—and Wilbur, the 250-pound potbellied pig she has had for more than 20 years. Wilbur lives in a heated children’s playhouse on the grounds of her opulent gated home. Pirro has author E.B. White and his children’s classic Charlotte’s Web to thank for the pig. “I’m reading my kids Charlotte’s Web. I am a guilt-ridden young prosecutor working day and night trying felony cases. My kids say, ‘Mommy, mommy, can we have a Wilbur?’ I say, ‘Of course.’”
Potbellied pigs typically live 12 to 15 years, and Pirro attributes Wilbur’s longevity to his sharing in his owner’s healthy diet. Wilbur gets Pirro’s vegetable leftovers, and she used to grow strawberries and raspberries by his pen. “He’s in great shape,” she says proudly.
Pirro’s regular diet of wholesome foods and supplements, coupled with a consistent workout routine in the well-equipped exercise room at her Westchester mansion, keep Pirro trim and muscular. She works out three times a week with her trainer of 10 years (five times a week after she was tapped as a presenter on the Emmy Awards show), and is quick to flex her arms and show off strikingly well-defined biceps.
“Working out and good food are important. They sustain you,” says Pirro. “You’ve got to have a healthy body. You’ve got to be somewhat spiritual. I don’t care what your religion is or who the spirit is that you believe in, but I don’t think that it’s just us here. That has helped me.”
She has tried yoga but found its quietude incompatible with her high-energy need to keep moving. “I like to go outside. I like to garden. I go out with the dogs. We visit the pig, we walk around, I have my coffee. Life is good. Mainly my quiet moments are with my animals. Maybe that’s why I can’t deal with the yoga.”
A Taste for Fresh Food
Pirro grew up in Elmira, New York, in an upstate farming community where her family ate vegetables from their garden and bought fresh milk and eggs from the dairy that employed her. “You were closer to the food,” she recalls. Pirro would open the dairy at 5:30 a.m., bring bottled milk up front after it had been pasteurized back by the cows’ stalls, then prepare breakfast for truckers passing through and egg salad sandwiches for the lunch crowd. “Then about 2:30 it was ice cream time. I scooped so many ice cream cones I didn’t eat ice cream for 20 years.”
She puts the lessons she gleaned from those meal preparations, and from her homemaker mother’s cooking, to work in her newly remodeled kitchen. She designed the room with touches from medieval history, a favorite subject at the University of Buffalo that speaks to her spirituality and artistic sense. Glass cabinet doors are arched, cathedral-style, as are panes with blue-and-white crests over her stove, which is bookended by urns. A tombstone charcoal etching she made in Canterbury, England 30 years ago is framed on the wall.
On a blue granite countertop, she is chopping parsley, celery, onions, tomatoes and lemons, some of which will make their way into a chicken soup and some into Wilbur’s bowl; she stuffs diabetes medicine into a tomato earmarked for Wilbur before putting on mud boots and carrying a dish of the greens out to the pen.
Pirro’s farm-town roots shaped her kitchen credo: “As long as it’s fresh I’m a happy camper,” she says. “You’ll find very few cans in my pantry. I made a sauce this past Sunday, and I bought the plum tomatoes and peeled them and I got most of the seeds out. I make my own sauce with clams and shrimp and mussels.”
She splurges with seafood-and-pasta dishes for Sunday-night dinner parties but typical meals are less heavy. Though her father succumbed to head and neck cancer at age 52 and her mother is recovering from colon cancer, Pirro insists her healthy diet and fitness and supplement regimen—she takes vitamins E, B and D, and CoQ10, L-carnitine, calcium, magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fish oils, selenium and folic acid—are less a response to her family health history than an effort to energize and maintain her strength.
Each morning she makes a breakfast drink of an apple—“I don’t peel it; you need the skin,” she says—strawberries, blueberries, egg protein, yogurt, mint, parsley, lemon, flaxseeds and ice cubes. “Then if I’m bad, I’ll have eggs after that. I’m an eater. I’m one of those people who eats four meals a day at least, and I drink a lot of tea.” She is “bored” by green tea but relishes a cinnamon tea back at the Fox studios.
Demonstrating her passion for lemon, Pirro squeezes a piece of the citrus then pushes the pulp and skin inside out to show what she dabs on her face for smooth skin. “Alpha hydroxy acids are nothing more than some of these citric acids. It’s kind of an old country thing,” she says. “I also drink a lot of water. I drink hot water with lemon.” Lunch is usually a salad, dinner a piece of salmon or chicken.
She uses pepper in place of salt, which she says makes her retain water, and she loves oregano.
Lentil soup is a favorite dish, as is rice and beans, both nods to her Lebanese heritage. “If you use a lot of oil with your rice and beans, it’s over. If you use just a little bit and onions and more of that stuff, then you’re okay. The problem is when people eat out they think rice and beans is healthy; they have no idea that those rice and beans are loaded with oil.”
With her disciplined focus on diet and health, there is little worry about the television camera adding weight to her trim frame. More important for Pirro is the forum the primetime show gives her to “talk about whatever issues move me, whatever outrages me, whatever I’m passionate about.”
George Pataki, who as New York governor appointed Pirro to a domestic violence review board that helped pass added protections for victims, regrets Pirro’s departure from politics. “I’m happy that her second career is such a success but I’m disappointed that her first career has given way to her current roles,” Pataki, now in private law practice, said in an interview. “She is as talented a person as I’ve met in a long, long time. There was no task I would have been reluctant to hand to her. I do hope at some point she finds it in her heart to choose public office again.”
With the New York press reporting on Pataki as a potential presidential candidate in 2012, those sentiments could conceivably put Pirro back on the national political landscape.
For now, Pirro says she’s happy where she is and won’t let on about longer-term aspirations. “In politics you’re locked down in a certain way. In other forums you’re locked down,” she says. “In politics, people would say to me, ‘I did not know you were so funny.’ Well, of course I’m funny but if I’m announcing the indictment of a triple murderer we’re not going to be chuckling. It just brings out the other side of my life. I’m at a very happy point now.”
Whatever comes next, Pirro says she is prepared and will wear a smile. “There will be more changes in my life, no question,” she says. “I don’t deny that they’re hard. Change is very hard. But I thank God for everything I have.”