The YouTube Divorcée

Photo: Bruce Gilden/Magnum

YouTube’s unlikeliest superstar was squeezing back the tears on the couch of her Park Avenue apartment. Here she was, age 52 but looking a full ten years younger with that Morgan Fairchild hairdo. Now her husband, Philip, had filed for divorce. Under the impression she had just 30 days to remove herself from the 76-year-old’s sight line, she had taken her case to the court of public opinion.

“You’ve got the Post and the Times in your pocket, but there are 100 ways I can screw you,” she says she warned Philip, the reigning president of the Shubert Organization, which oversees seventeen Broadway theaters. “You’ve got power and money, but I have my imagination.”

Philip just sat there in the den in his velour jogging suit, his cane hooked over a doorknob, and laughed, she says.

“I’ll go on YouTube, and everyone will know my name,” she assured him.

She made good on the threat, uploading a video of herself in her marital abode on April 10. Now millions of people across the planet had been briefed on the precise terms of Tricia Walsh-Smith’s draconian prenup, subjected to the thumbs-down review of Philip’s bedroom performances, a guided tour of their worldly goods, her campy renditions of show tunes. She stated on the video that he is worth $60 million, a figure she pulled from the clouds.

“Hi, it’s Tricia,” says Walsh-Smith in the video, brightly broadcasting from the couple’s French Provençal kitchen. Before she was a playwright, she’d starred in more than 500 commercials on English television, for Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Ariel dishwashing liquid. Now she was hawking humiliation. Just two minutes in comes the big reveal:

“Oh, and another thing: We never had sex. He said it was because he had high blood pressure and he was older than me,” she says with a casual wave of her hands, as if comparing two rival brands of laundry detergent. “And I accepted that.” But this was before Tricia found his stash of Viagra, porn movies, and condoms. In the video, she dials him at the office, asking just what he wants her to do with the stuff.

“Wait wait wait wait wait,” says Philip’s hapless longtime secretary, Gwen, caught in America’s headlights. “You want me to ask him this now?”

WILL POOR, VULNERABLE TRICIA BE EVICTED? OR WILL MEAN BAD HUSBAND DO THE RIGHT THING? flashes onscreen. Some of the answers would be supplied in subsequent videos—there are now three of them, along with what seemed like daily appearances on The Insider, whose ratings pop in sync with her appearances.

Her unblinking zombie eyes seemed to mirror some madness in the soul. Tricia Walsh-Smith was either a Jackie Collins character who’d short-circuited under the strain of overdrawn credit cards and lawyerly manipulations, or she was an astute video marketeer aiming to mill disgrace into some rhinestone-studded rebirth à la Paris Hilton. One couldn’t help but wonder how enamored she’d become of the media circus unfolding around her.

Her ex, meanwhile, was saying nothing. “Mr. Smith’s position is that these are private matters, and he is not going to engage in a public debate with his wife,” says his attorney, David Aronson. “Look, he regrets she has taken this course of action, but he’ll deal with it in the courts.”

A feminist following has dumped $1,000 into a PayPal account the e-mail address of which flashed across the screen in video No. 3, answering her plea for Women Warriors of the World to unite! And the inevitable has already occurred: Tricia is now in serious talks for her own reality show. YouTube made her a star, in a way the legit theater never could.

What a fool I was. What a fucking fool,” YouTube’s superstar is saying in her British accent as she stretches her blue-jeaned legs felinely across the sofa, mood music and a Filipina maid gently wafting about the perimeter. The dramatic Twiggy eyeliner seen in the video is not in evidence as she answers her cell phone. “I’m going through a really bad time,” she tells whomever is on the other end of the line, before she gets back to unspooling more—much more—of the story that made her famous.

She looks like somebody’s rebellious teenage daughter, wearing video No. 3’s T-shirt, proclaiming, to anyone who cares, YOU CAN’T BREAK MY SPIRIT. She flexes her tangerine-painted toes as she begins to explain why she’d hooked up with this man 25 years her senior in the first place. “I have a father complex, okay?” she tells her public on video No. 2. “You don’t have to be Freud to figure it out.”

Father was a sergeant in the Royal Air Force, a lanky Irishman with the furrowed forehead of William Holden. He’d said he had served with the Gurkhas in Her Majesty’s Army. And if a Gurkha pulled a knife, he was obliged to draw blood. He’d told Tricia that, before a series of strokes and a massive heart attack that finally felled him at his posting in Germany when she was 12. “He had high blood pressure,” she says solemnly. “He wouldn’t die now. He’d be given pills.”

Tricia Walsh-Smith in the original YouTube video, filmed in their Manhattan apartment and uploaded April 10.

She didn’t last long back in Yorkshire—Brontë country. At 15, she enrolled in London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. Mother had married someone for about six months and lost all of Father’s pensions, but Tricia says she made so much money off commercials that by age 17 she was thinking of buying a brand-new four-bedroom house in Spain. “But I didn’t know how to do it. I remember going to the school and saying, I need somebody to help me with investments.” They found her a man who sold insurance. She groans at the memory.

She was a Bunny Girl at the Playboy Club on Park Lane back when it was prestigious to be one. That’s where she met husband No. 1, John Obertelli, thirteen years older and running a nightclub for the Hilton hotel chain. She paid for her own wedding: “We had real Champagne. Mo-aay.” She was pregnant with her son, Jamie, when husband John suddenly required open-heart surgery. After Jamie arrived, John got controlling, she says—didn’t want her to work, got his kicks watching her make him sandwiches. Only when she threatened to walk did he permit an au pair, paid for with her own money, which she partly earned waitressing at the Greedy Grape wine bar. But she wanted to act, and started up with theater after a role in the slasher movie Terror (she insists it’s a cult film). “I speak a real Cockney, saying things like, ‘Well, if it’s ’er, you’re going to be next, oran’ cha?’ ”

The two fought bitterly—she reportedly smashed a painting over his head. She says he was after her to use her money to buy a new living-room set. Then she looked into his safe, she says, and found it stuffed with cash. That was the end.

Tricia knows the value of a good story; 12-stepping her way through years of confessional meetings has made her exceptionally free with the details of what she calls “a colorful life,” an impresario of overshare. “I had an affair with a married man,” she continues. She got half the house in her divorce from Obertelli but didn’t fight for full custody of Jamie—so the private-school bills would continue being paid, she says. She had been a hands-on mom, says her old friend actress Diane Janssen. “She and Jamie were very close.”

Tricia wrote and starred in the play Bonkers, about a bulimic ex-model whose husband is always having affairs. “Tricia has never been the kind of woman to let the grass grow under her feet,” says Janssen. She took the play national, though “I was as a producer what Inspector Clouseau was to the police force,” Tricia freely admits.

There followed a string of quashed engagements and entanglements—with a Canadian businessman, a U.N. official, an entrepreneur from Bristol, and the son of a Spanish count—the last of which reportedly vaporized after all of three hours. After she fired her Bonkers co-star Ross Davidson, she remembers he told the tabloids, “I never bonked that Bonkers bird.”

It might be said that Tricia had prepped for her star turn on YouTube with a long-running engagement in the British tabloids. The late gossip columnist Nigel Dempster “adored me,” says Tricia. She was always phoning stuff in to him, the zanier the better. He liked to run a publicity still of Tricia hunkered down on all fours, draped in a leopard skin like Racquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. “I think they had quite a lot of fun with me,” she says, not unhappily. “I think even now they’re all having fun with this.”

She somehow couldn’t make it to those court-appointed-therapist appointments and lost joint custody. Scheduled to see Jamie on weekends and holidays, maybe she’d be five minutes late, she says. “When you have a child on the weekend, it’s not the same as having a child in daily life and taking them to school. You have to entertain them. So it’s like museums. Yeah, it was horrible,” she admits.

One night, she got absolutely looped with her friend Champagne Pat, who told her about a friend who had attempted to overdose on Mogadon sleeping pills, thereby gaining some advantage in her divorce. Tricia swallowed about fifteen Mogadons herself, but only succeeded in almost breaking her nose when she fell off the hospital gurney. “It was just the most stupid thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” she says.

They wouldn’t let Jamie see her after that, she says. Booze blunted the pain when her child hung up the phone on her. Now came what Tricia Walsh-Smith calls her “Eugene O’Neill years.” Her stay in an Antigua hotel was comped when she told them she was writing a book mentioning the hotel. She would park her suitcase with the front desk whenever a yacht pulled in with some noisy Brits inviting her for a sail to Barbuda. In London for a spell, she met some guy at a club who wanted to be her agent, said there was a deal waiting at Random House. Turns out he was an airline pilot.

From left: In a Hellmann's mayonnaise commercial in the late eighties; Tricia and Philip's wedding blessing in 2000. Photo: Courtesy of Trisha Walsh-Smith

She had bills to pay, and she consoled herself with a romance with “the Face,” a handsome California surfer. He was captain of a yacht in Hawaii he told her he owned. (Only he didn’t, really.) He hadn’t even kissed her when he asked her to marry him, she says, and she accepted. They tied the knot up on a cliff. She wore a muumuu.

There was money to be made chartering the Face’s yacht, a three-masted affair requiring more than two people to sail. “But if you pulled out into the channel and went to the left toward the pineapple island of Lanai, the wind never blew. So we’d go out that way, and the sails would flap pathetically, and I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, guys, but we’re going to have to motor.’ ” She took care of the sandwiches. But the Face turned out to be “really dumb; he thought Shakespeare was an Arab sheikh,” she says.

After two months, she sailed off with a “wild and crazy and sooo dangerous” Italian who proposed over dinner the night they met. She started work on a new book: Yacht Girl, whose heroine was one Venetia Van Myers. But the relationship foundered after the boat caught the tail end of Hurricane Seymour. Broke, she was soon living in New York, on the couch of yet another fiancé, a perfume manufacturer almost 30 years her senior who was eager to get her into analysis “because he wanted nookie,” she says. His therapist slapped her into rehab that weekend. It was December 15, 1994, and she says she’s been sober ever since.

She was soon telling the tabloids that she’d joined Emotions Anonymous, a group that discouraged even platonic dating. She was now claiming she was a man addict—addicted to falling in love.

In June 1995, Elaine Stritch took Tricia along to a wedding reception on Park Avenue. It was here she met Philip. “I said I was a playwright,” she remembers.

“How do you live?” he asked.

“With difficulty,” she said, twitching her nose like Samantha Stevens on Bewitched. A businessman in his early sixties, newly widowed, a workaholic, Philip had a sexy radio voice. At first they were “inseparable; he was the love of my life,” she will say in a heartfelt way. No sex, but “we had a very healthy romping around.”

She excused his bedroom behavior because he was Catholic, she says. He got her a job in theatrical PR and then Manhattan Plaza Health Club hired her as a consultant after a brilliant promotional campaign. “Going up the wall? Climb ours!” was the slogan. Philip lent her actors from Cats to demonstrate the feat on the club’s climbing wall.

She escorted Philip to premieres, and he took her clothes shopping even though he wanted her to dress like his mother. But after two and a half years with Philip, she demanded marriage, knowing he’d waited eight years to marry his first wife, a June Taylor dancer.

After they wed, “Philip never laid a hand on me again,” she said, except for once in Palm Beach. “I tried to seduce him. I did candles. I took him to a therapist.”

“Somebody once asked Sophia Loren why she chose Carlo Ponti over Cary Grant, and she said, ‘Carlo is my culture,’ ” Tricia says. Philip was second-generation Irish, born in Brooklyn, self-made, in the theater “but not a producer, really,” says Tricia, watering down his role. “They’re landlords. He’s not creative at all. Which is why I’m feeling a bit used. I would read scripts for him, write the notes.”

“Phil Smith is one of those people who loves theater and loves the people in it,” says Rocco Landesman, head of Jujamcyn Theaters, a Shubert competitor who sometimes stages things in Shubert theaters. “He is a person of unassailable integrity. People love him. I’ve operated with him for many years on a handshake. And his opinions on shows very much count. That he’s not a producer is inaccurate.”

They split for a year, and Philip was miserable, she says. There was a time when “all sugar sweet, his daughters wanted me back with their daddy,” she says. For the first time in her life, it appears, she was perceived as a good influence. She went to see him in the hospital after a colonoscopy, and “he was a big fat piece of blubber.” She got him out, refurbished him, “and I was basically his cop. I’d say, ‘Skim milk in that cappuccino!’ And, ‘No, you can’t have that Brie.’ ”

They were married in October 1999 by a judge downtown, but not until she’d signed away her right to everything he would earn during the marriage in a prenup. Philip reserved the right to chuck her out with 30 days’ notice upon the filing of a divorce action, even if the divorce—in which she’d been guaranteed $750,000—never went through. She imagined Philip was worried she’d run off with a younger man. He seemed so grateful; he would never leave her.

From left: From the movie Terror in 1978; 18-year-old Bunny Tricia.

But after the marriage, “Philip never laid a hand on me again,” she says. Except for that time the following January, when she claims they had sex in Palm Beach. “I tried to seduce him. I did candles. I took him to a therapist.” The therapist sided with Philip, who was now on blood-pressure tablets. Philip took to sleeping in the den amid cutesy cushions embroidered with such legends as IT ISN’T EASY BEING KING. He’d be seated upright, one of those inflatable airplane neck preservers on his shoulders so he wouldn’t die from sleep apnea. (“This could totally kill him, having all this go on,” says his wife, noting parenthetically that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain and perhaps should be tested because she thinks he’s “gone nuts.”)

On a tour of the apartment recently, she is coaxed into opening the drawer where Philip left the now-infamous Viagra and condoms (size large). “It’s not him. It must be his lover,” she squeaks naughtily.

She says she doesn’t know what to think. “I still feel very sad about the fact that he’s going to be on his own. He’s going to be so unhappy, because I know him. But then again, I don’t know him, do I?”

The Smiths fought over things married couples fight about, the $500 shoes she bought herself for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s premiere that she says Philip claimed were leaching money from his daughters’ inheritance. “He wanted me to wear Nine West,” she says to illustrate his cheapness, then mentions that she ran into Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, on the Concorde. Only recently did she discover he’d been making an annual $1.5 million, she says.

What if he had a stroke and was incapacitated for years, like his friend Murray? She would be forced to rely on an allowance from his two married daughters.

After he refused to make changes to the prenup, “I broke some crockery,” she admits. “I said, ‘I am not going to grovel to your fucking daughter!’ ” Namely the eldest, the one in advertising married to a paralegal and labeled NASTY, EVIL STEPDAUGHTER in her first video. (“I really don’t care to comment on anything she has to say,” says the stepdaughter, Linda Phillips.) Tricia Walsh-Smith, as she now preferred to be known, was due Philip’s Florida two-bedroom condo and a pension upon his death. “Would you be kind enough to give me the money now or sell the Florida condo so I can actually lay my hat somewhere?” she says she asked Philip. She dreamed of living in Westport and staging her plays there “like Eugene O’Neill.”

She claims Philip was distinctly unsupportive of her writing, always citing Shubert’s anti-nepotism policy. “When we first got married, Goodspeed Opera House was going to give me some development money, and he said, ‘You can’t accept that because you’re my wife and the foundation gives them money.’ ”

She believed she’d found a mentor in Bob Whitehead, Zoe Caldwell’s husband, a friendly-to-everyone guy who discovered Aaron Sorkin, and who died in 2002. “Robert Whitehead is like God. He knows talent. If he’d been alive today, I would be up on Broadway now,” she says. But somehow, efforts to stage her work always derailed just before the curtain went up. Like Addictions in London, where the producer just faded away, and there was Philip, having lunch with the guy a month later. “You should be knocking his block off, not having a friendly yo-ho-ho lunch with him,” she told her husband.

Back in 2004, she was in England visiting her mum, who now had cancer, and some American bloke made a pass at her in a pub where they’d stopped for lunch. Her Yorkshire psychic informed her the man was a detective. She should have listened, she says. Also, Philip had stopped taking the vitamins she was putting out for him, “as though I was trying to poison him. He needs his calcium!” she says. Philip was now accusing her of almost breaking an ankle in a mad dash to be photographed on the red carpet. “Tricia is probably the most narcissistic and self-involved person I have ever met in this business,” says Rocco Landesman. “She’s ferociously focused on her own ambition.”

The Last Journey was on the verge of being staged at the Westport Country Playhouse when she says she confronted Philip about writing in her signature on their tax returns. “If it went well, we were coming to Broadway. That’s huge! I was finally Broadway. You know, little girl from Yorkshire.” Later that same Saturday afternoon came word that the play was being “postponed,” she says. A source close to Smith says he had nothing to do with the show being canceled.

Shortly after, Cindy Adams ran an item announcing that Tricia was bucking for a postnup and that the couple was at war. Adams counseled Tricia to find herself a good lawyer. Now Tricia found a piece of paper in Philip’s jacket pocket listing all manner of psychiatric ailments: Schizophrenic. Bipolar. Borderline personality disorder. She inferred the mystery memo had something to do with her. “They were always kind of saying I was trash. But do they say that about Eugene O’Neill? He’s supposed to be the writer who writes the pain of his life, you know?”

Philip had actually filed for divorce way back in October. Tricia’s anxiety over any impending eviction appears to have escalated after she was served with papers in March and her psychics told her not to go to London or he’d change the locks. There was also that credit-card bill of some $46,000 for the month of February that Philip would only go halves on.

She was intimately familiar with YouTube: It was the only way she could visit with her son, now 26 and posting videos of himself using the name “BlondeAssasin,” clowning around with his friends. Fed up with Philip, Tricia got her roots done, found a cameraman on Google, and stoked Philip’s theater-world colleagues in advance of the video’s release with blind items e-mailed by one “April James.”

“This mogul has some very dark secrets and the wife apparently called his secretary on speakerphone and outed him on film,” reads an excerpt from the first.

Ten minutes after the video posted, Philip informed her he was going back to the office, said he’d forgotten his cane. He came back several days later to pick up his stuff.

After a stint with top-shelf divorce lawyer Eleanor Alter, who wanted her to ease off the press, her new lawyer, Raoul Felder, thought YouTube was genius, she says. But they fought when he wanted to go on the Today show with her (Felder denies he wanted to accompany her), and she went ahead and booked Good Morning America, which put her up at the Trump International Hotel & Tower, where NBC couldn’t get its mitts on her, she says. Like so many involved in high-profile divorces, Tricia is haunted by the notion that her lawyer might sell her out. Felder offered to secure her an apartment in trust worth a measly $750,000, which only buys a studio these days. “He said, you’re over, you’ve had your publicity, you can’t afford the court fees. I said, ‘Well, maybe the networks might pay because it’s a good reality show.’ ” She says Felder then bragged that Hollywood wanted him to do a reality show.

“Yeah, but you don’t have 3 million hits on YouTube,” she countered. (“I can’t talk about a lot of this, as it’s privileged, but I’ve never been approached to do a reality show,” says Felder.)

But behind some of this comedy lies a real tragedy. When her alcoholic auto-mechanic brother Kevin lost everything in a divorce, he hanged himself. She is preoccupied, she says, with thoughts of Kevin, his failures. “I’m basically going to go bankrupt. I’m going down the toilet and nobody gives a shit!” she says, weeping. A letter from the firm of Raoul Felder and Partners sits on her desk, the one in which she’d been axed as a client. Felder had then billed her $13,800 for three days’ work.

It’s a life now drowning in the undertow of paranoia. Every time a video goes up, she says she lies in bed the following morning paralyzed with fear. “This whole thing is making me want to throw up. My dream was to get my plays on and for people to say she’s not a dumb blonde. If you read my stuff, it’s really thoughtful. I mean, I read all the philosophers and stuff like that. Do you think I really want to do bloody YouTube?” But the world is still having quite a lot of fun with her, almost 4 million hits and counting.

The YouTube Divorcée