Chrissy and her family are on the cover of the december 2019 issue of Vanity Fair. Read the interview down below & make sure to check out the images in the gallery.
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen on Love, Childhood Traumas, and the “Sh–ty Human Being” in the White House
Is it because they’re in love that Trump can’t stand them?
In September, the president famously let loose on John Legend and Chrissy Teigen in one of his bizarre drive-by tweetings, huffing and puffing about the “boring” singer and his “filthy mouthed wife.” Teigen responded with a tweet so sublime that it became canon: “lol what a pussy ass bitch. tagged everyone but me. an honor, mister president.” The whole exchange was suitable for framing—and one of Teigen’s friends actually did frame it and present it to her as a gift.
The shadowbox with Trump’s broadside and Teigen’s burn now sits in the grand entryway to the family’s home in Beverly Hills, on a table crowded with otherwise joyful photos of the couple’s beautiful children and their grand wedding at Lake Como. In person, Teigen herself is unguarded and endearing. When she gives this reporter a tour of the house, she doesn’t just point out the fitness room (“Here’s the gym I never go into”), the master bathroom (“Here’s my tub where I take baths with Luna and we watch the movie Coco”), and the screening room (“Look at all my candy jars. Literally all I wanted as a child was a room with this much candy”), but also the milky tablet in the ceramic bowl next to the Nintendo Switch on her nightstand: “Here’s my Lexapro.” Teigen has become a social media icon precisely because she can be frank about her struggle with anxiety and her need for approval, while also dunking on the president and MAGA nation. As she puts it, “I don’t care about pissing off a bunch of bigots.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon, three weeks to the day since the tweet battle. Three-year-old Luna is running away from her baby brother, Miles, who desperately wants to hug her. She’s wearing a bright orange one-shoulder bathing suit and urging her daddy to put on the swim trunks she picked out for him, which are blue and covered with orange crabs. Legend promised her they’d go swimming in the backyard pool when she woke up from her nap.
Sunlight fills the house. There’s football on the TV, clattering in the kitchen, and the heavy breathing of the family’s bulldogs puttering around everyone’s feet. Awards line the shelves on one wall, most of them the fruits of Legend’s recent EGOT distinction. (At 40, he is one of the youngest of the 15 people to have earned the honor, as well as the first black man.) But there’s also Teigen’s Glamour Women of the Year award, the presentation of which brought Legend to tears as he described how intimidated his wife of six years used to feel in rooms of influential people. In front of all that hardware rests a little plastic trophy for Teigen’s mother, Pepper, who lives with them, for surviving the Hot Cheetos and Takis Fuego Challenge.
It is a rare thing to meet people who care about serious things but still manage not to take themselves too seriously, who accept the well-intentioned and messy totality of themselves enough to live a transparent life. Beneath the awards awaits Legend’s Yamaha piano. Just yesterday, Teigen posted an Instagram video of Legend sitting at it with Miles, big and little brown fingers both doing their thing on the keys, her husband serenading their son with a few bars from “My Favorite Things.” It worked like a balm for her millions of followers—the pleasure of song and the power of parent-child connection—on that first chaotic weekend after news of the impeachment inquiry broke.
Legend brings a decency and gravitas to every room he enters, be it onstage at the Academy Awards or in prisons across the country in conversation with inmates as part of his criminal-justice reform activism. Teigen, 33, is the electricity, the laugh that breaks the tension. She’s a famous person who can’t bring herself to respond to texts from famous people who follow her on Twitter because, as she explains, “I’m terrified they’re going to think I’m a thirsty fame whore.”
Legend calls himself a nerd. Teigen admits she’s kind of a basket case. They adore each other.
“I’ve been nourished by watching them,” says Ava DuVernay, who directed the movie Selma, for which Legend won a best original song Oscar. “It’s just beautiful to see a real melding of their family life—their home life, those moments they curate with their children—side by side with real activist commentary about the way that they feel in the world.”
Earlier in the afternoon, while the children nap, Legend pours everyone glasses of LVE label, his collaboration with Napa Valley winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset. He’s wearing a navy Gucci V-neck sweater with matching blue pants. Even at home, he is all about the classics. Teigen, on the other hand, is dressed for lounging, in a pale pink silk romper and no bra. She chases her wine with an Activia because her stomach is messed up. “I think my next cookbook has to evolve a bit from cheese on top of cheese on top of a different kind of cheese,” she says.
When LVE launched, the New York Times announced Legend’s entry into the celebrity-vintner world by asking, “Would you expect anything less from Chrissy Teigen’s husband?” Legend’s male ego seems to have joyfully survived being eclipsed. At an Obama Foundation event in Oakland earlier this year, Legend bonded with the former president about their magnetic partners: “We joked about how much our wives are loved more than we are now.”
Glass in hand, he sits next to Teigen on the sectional sofa and puts an arm around her shoulders.
“I’m her biggest cheerleader,” he says. “I always think she should do more.”
Legend sometimes pretends that he’s going to retire soon on her money.
How could Trump’s ego withstand the couple’s goodness and glamour? Legend and Teigen are a reminder of what it was like to have #RelationshipGoals in the White House. Their easy riding of each other, the way they lean in with affection when listening to each other, particularly Legend, who looks eager and excited every time his wife speaks…. Wouldn’t they be—with their happy children, the live-in mother-in-law, the dogs!—a first family we could believe in?
“Uh, I did Sports Illustrated and covered my boobs with a leaf,” says Teigen.
“But hasn’t Melania opened the door for anyone to be a first lady?” says Legend, with his low chuckle. “The biggest issue about this presidency is how they’ve just lowered standards for everything. Hopefully we’ll reset?”
Trump tweeted about Legend and Teigen because he had seen an MSNBC town hall in which Legend and others discussed America’s shameful mass incarceration rates—and failed to sing his praises. Teigen can’t see Trump’s Twitter account because he blocked her two years ago for her tweet “lolllllll no one likes you.” She heard about the president’s comments because she’s in a daily text thread with journalist Yashar Ali and Ellen executive producer Andy Lassner. Ali had sent screenshots.
“We know this president has a particular aversion to strong women coming after him, particularly women of color,” says Legend. “So he had to call her out. Every time he does something like this, he just makes himself look more terrible. I don’t know that that incrementally convinces anyone not to vote for him, but he just proves himself to be a shitty human being every day.”
Asked who they’re supporting in the 2020 election, the couple look at each other. “Do we want to say?” Legend asks. (For the record, the only time they balk in three days of conversation is when Teigen shouts at her husband watching news in the other room, “John, did you tell her about your edible experience?” and he replies, “Let’s not talk about it!”) Legend answers the politics question after a pause: “My favorite—I’m going to say it, we’ll break news today—is Elizabeth Warren. She’s the best candidate running today and she comes at it with joy and with sincerity and with a wealth of knowledge and experience.”
“I love Elizabeth Warren,” says Teigen. “I also love Kamala Harris.”
“Honestly, I don’t comprehend why guys hate women so much sometimes,” says Legend. “You see someone as transparently competent and eloquent and on fire as Elizabeth Warren and then you hear some guys just are not into voting for a woman. Why do guys feel so threatened by the idea of a woman president?”
“Our menses,” Teigen whispers in his ear. “Because there’s 10 days a month where we’re just going to war.”
The next day, Legend sits in Raphael Saadiq’s studio in North Hollywood. He’s here to cut some vocals for his 2020 album, but first he wants to play his visitor some Christmas tracks he’s releasing this year. “Okay, from the top,” he says, pressing play on his laptop and dancing around the room in his blue Varvatos suede jacket and Off White brand sneakers. Legend’s jazzy rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” plays over the speakers.
Next up is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It seems like kind of a date-rapey choice for the only well-known musician to say what had to be said about R. Kelly in the TV documentary Surviving R. Kelly. (“He was already canceled in my mind,” Legend says of his decision to speak out. “A few years ago, we had a party at the house and we had a DJ playing music. R. Kelly came on and I walked up to the DJ and said, ‘We don’t play him in this house.’ ”)
“Hold on, hold on,” he says, when this reporter looks skeptical about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It turns out that Legend has updated the lyrics with Natasha Rothwell (Insecure) and recorded it with his fellow The Voice coach Kelly Clarkson. The song’s every bit as fun and swinging as the original, and its newfound sensitivity feels genuine, not performative.
“What will my friends think…” sings Clarkson.
“I think they should rejoice,” Legend responds.
“…if I have one more drink?”
“It’s your body, and your choice.”
Legend, born John Stephens, used to gather with his family around his paternal grandmother’s piano to sing some of these very same Christmas standards. His mother, Phyllis Stephens, was a seamstress married to a factory worker in Springfield, Ohio. She was the choir director in their Pentecostal church, Legend’s maternal grandfather the pastor, and his grandmother the organist. The family didn’t listen to secular music in the home, and his parents decided to homeschool their four children when prayer was pulled out of their school.
When Phyllis Stephens was pregnant with her Johnny, she read a book called How to Raise a Brighter Child. She talked to her children the way Legend talks to his—in an even voice, with respect and real words. Legend’s first word was “Hallelujah.” He started taking piano lessons at four and before long was writing and singing his own songs. “Typically, you tell your son or daughter, ‘Have you practiced your lessons?’ ” says his father, Ron Stephens. “John was the kind of kid, like, ‘Hey man, get off that piano, you’re driving us crazy!”
Phyllis Stephens taught her children about the importance of keeping to schedules, how to do laundry, how to iron. “Johnny, at nine years old, begged me to teach him to cook,” she says. “And he’s a short little guy, and I’m looking like, ‘Oh no, you’re going to burn yourself.’ Finally, he begged me one more time and I taught him.”
It’s stunning how quickly a family can fall apart.
Phyllis Stephens’s mother’s heart failed and she died at 58. “I was so traumatized by it because we were so close,” says Legend. “She was my music guru.” But his mother took it the hardest. She tumbled into a depression that led to a divorce from Legend’s father. Talking about this on the phone, Phyllis Stephens begins crying and likens what happened next to witchcraft coming into their home. A friend turned her on to the numbing power of drugs, and she spent the next decade or so on the streets and in and out of jail.
There were now four latchkey kids living with a single father. “We all just filled in for our mom,” says Legend. “I cooked for everybody.” He went on to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania at 16 where he majored in English and graduated magna cum laude. His mother, who had missed his high school graduation, missed this one, too. “She was a legitimate drug addict,” he says. “We went years where we barely saw her because we felt a sense of shame.”
After college, Legend worked for Boston Consulting Group. He tried to sell himself to record labels, who said that his voice and style were cool but his demo didn’t have any hits. His college roommate was a cousin of Kanye West, who signed on to produce for him and pushed for the stage name Legend. “Kanye, if he’s for you, he’s a very ardent marketer and cheerleader,” says Legend.
In 2006, Legend won three Grammys following the release of his debut album, Get Lifted. He brought 20 of his family members to the ceremony. “We were like the Clampetts gone to Beverly Hills!” says his dad. His mother, now clean and back in church offering her testimony, sat next to Legend at the ceremony. “You look at my mother now, she’s so beautiful and radiant and regal,” says Legend. “Knowing what we went through with her as a kid, I was a little bit resentful taking care of her later in life. Like, where were you?” It was only in witnessing the grief of adult friends losing their own mothers, and seeing how it can unmoor a person, that he could accept that her abandonment wasn’t personal.
There’s clearly a through line from Legend’s childhood to his activism. “When John goes into a prison he’s not surrounded by an army of protectors,” says activist and author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson. “He engages. He recognizes that these are the people he grew up with, the same people he’s known his entire life.”
During the tour of their house, Teigen had pointed to an ironing board that stood in Legend’s third-floor closet. “This is where John irons his clothes every morning,” she said.
At the house the following day, a staff member brings wine to the blue couches in the living room, which sit under a high, brilliant ceiling covered with Indonesian tiles. Luna lies on the top of the back cushion telling the reporter that she’s going to be a good fairy for Halloween. “I thought you wanted to be Darla from The Little Rascals,” says Teigen. Luna gives her mother her best attempt at an eye roll. The generational shade game is strong. A nanny has already put Miles down for his afternoon nap. “I hate pretending that we do it on our own,” says Teigen. “We have daytime help, nighttime, weekend. I don’t know how my mom did it.”
Teigen’s parents met in Korat, Thailand. Her father, Ron Teigen, was an American electrician of Norwegian descent. Her mother was unmarried but had a young daughter, Teigen’s half-sister Tina. Ron brought them home to the trailer he rented from his dad. After Teigen was born in Delta, Utah, the family moved to Snohomish, Washington, where her parents ran a tavern called Porky’s. (Her dad’s recipe for tartar sauce is in Teigen’s first cookbook, Cravings.) Regulars at the bar gave Teigen’s mother the now-famous nickname Pepper Thai, because she ate spicy peppers in the back. Teigen was a cheerleader and, despite not being religious, a part of the Christian group Young Life. “We’d sing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and eat free pizza. I loved it,” she says. She was holding hands in the mall with her mother well into her teens.
When Teigen was 15, Pepper started returning to Thailand regularly to care for her 59-year-old father, who had lung cancer. Eventually he choked to death in front of her. Three months later, Pepper’s mother fell off a train in a freak accident. Teigen’s mother returned once more to Thailand, refusing for months to come out of her room. Eventually she got work for a Thai family, teaching their children English. She remembers her daughters not wanting to talk to her on the phone. She tried to show Teigen she loved her by sending her noodles in the mail.
Pepper is crying as she tells the story. Teigen, who’s enormously protective of her mother, is lying on her back and staring at the ceiling. Legend has just come home from another day at the studio. He sits next to Teigen quietly and pulls her legs onto his lap.
“I never knew what depression is,” says Pepper. “Sometimes I thought about killing myself because I know that my girls are mad at me.”
Teigen’s father tried to cheer up his daughter by moving them before her junior year to Huntington Beach. Teigen dyed her hair jet black and shaved her eyebrows. She got two retail jobs, one of them at a surf shop. When a cameraman wandered in and asked to shoot some bikini pictures of her, Dad insisted on accompanying her to the beach, where he pitched in by holding the light reflectors. Through clients at the surf shop, Teigen went on to land her first campaign with Billabong. The cameraman liked her vibe and showed her picture to John Legend, who’d hired him to direct the 2007 video for his single “Stereo.” Two months after the memorable shoot, the 27-year-old Grammy winner sang “Happy Birthday” into the newly 21-year-old’s voicemail.
They started dating casually. Teigen scoured gossip blogs for intel or red-carpet pictures of Legend with former girlfriends like model Jessica White. “He was kind of known at the time for either being in the closet or a modelizer,” she says. “I used to go on the websites and it was always either how I was his beard, or how he paid his past serious girlfriends, or how he was with some new model. Oh my god, I would read everything.”
“It got serious pretty quickly,” says Legend. “She just entertained the hell out of me, texting me. What people respond to in her tweets today was the same energy in those texts. I didn’t know that I wanted someone funny until I was actually with someone funny.”
At the time, Teigen worked half the year in Miami. She slept in the living room of an apartment she shared with six other models, doing dispiriting jobs for South American clients, like being the random girl on the cellphone background. They partied “super-hard.” They made nothing. “I had no credit cards, I didn’t have a bank account, and it just didn’t occur to me to ask my dad for money,” she says. “I knew exactly how much it was with tax to get a McDouble and fries.” Occasionally, Legend wired money for Teigen to a nearby Western Union. When he came to Miami for a show, he’d book a room at the Ritz-Carlton; after he left, Teigen would invite her roommates over to raid the minibar and use the hotel pool.
Teigen says that because of her anxiety, she can’t hold on to memories of trauma or even triumph. Her wedding is a blur, as is the period during high school when her mother disappeared from her life. Teigen only thinks about the fact that she was motherless for a long time when Legend talks about his own childhood. No one discussed why her dad took years to bring her mother home, and Teigen couldn’t bear the risk of hurting anyone with questions. “She just wants to hold my hand again and drag me around everywhere,” says Pepper, wiping her tears, smiling with gratitude at her daughter. “Even now, you know, she’s like ‘Mom, let’s go to Rodeo Drive!’”
“I think I’m such an open person now because everyone in my family has always been so hush-hush,” says Teigen. “I love attention and affection. I want to be direct with everyone.” How else does a person get nearly 12 million Twitter followers?
On any given evening, Legend will be tweeting about public policy while Teigen is posting about the video game she’s obsessed with or the pimple on her chin.
“You know how some couples take years to allow themselves to be the fullest versions of themselves?” says Brooklyn Decker, who was a bridesmaid at their wedding. “Early on, there’s this knee-jerk habit to quiet the other, like, ‘No, no, no, don’t show that side of yourself.’ And then only decades later does each person say, ‘Well, I’m never going to change them.’ It’s always seemed to me that that’s just how they started their relationship.”
“What makes them the perfect couple,” adds Yashar Ali, “is their lack of interest in appearing to be perfect.”
Legend is a natural optimist. He knows the proudest moment of his career—performing “Glory” from Selma alongside his friend Common on the Oscars stage and then delivering an impassioned speech in which he called attention to the fact that there are more black men “under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850.” The man can seize a moment. “Nothing scares me,” he says. “Except maybe death?”
Meanwhile, Teigen has a catalog of worst-case scenarios she can’t stop scrolling through in her mind: “I’ll get a new dog and be like, This dog is going to die in my lifetime. The second we land somewhere on vacation I think, Oh, it’s going to be so sad to pack. I’ve never said, ‘Oh, I’m so excited for this job.’ I’m more, One day it’s just going to end.” Even social media is filled with dread. “She’s already thinking about what a hater might say,” says Legend. They both wonder sometimes about their habit of posting their kids’ pictures online. “I know a lot of people who make the conscious decision to blur out their kids’ faces,” says Teigen. “I worry, What must they think of me? They must think I’m insane.”
In the past year Teigen was asked to host a high-profile nighttime talk show, at a time when the terrain could badly use a female voice. She turned it down. “It was just too much attention and focus on me,” she says. “It’s almost like the more things you do, the closer you are to getting canceled. It’s so scary to me—to have the world turn on you and hate you.”
“You honestly have nothing to worry about, bottom line. And who’s really gotten canceled?” Legend asks. “The audience does a balancing act of ‘Does what this person bring to culture outweigh the negatives they’ve done?’ Like, the guy they just kicked off of SNL before the season started? He was making a bunch of unfunny jokes and people were like, ‘What is he bringing to SNL that’s worth hiring a racist?’ ”
Teigen nods. “Yeah, it’s not like the entertainment industry is some God-given right.” And let it be known, she clarifies, she is by no means devoid of ambition. “I’m anxious but I still have an ego. I feel like opportunities will come back to me when I’m more ready and more stable.” For now, Teigen will stick to supporting roles on TV gigs like Lip Sync Battle and Bring the Funny, plus launching a new website for fans of her cookbooks. Her dream down the road, besides a third baby, is to cohost a nighttime variety show with her husband.
Later, in private, she can’t help but snark on their love. “There are some famous couples I look at and I’m like, ‘Ugh, we get it. Stop trying so hard, you’re so lame.’ I think people definitely think that about us but…that’s because I think of everything.”
Their closest friends are not famous. While Teigen has her daily “text commune,” Legend obsesses over news in a group chat with some New York guys from his consultant days. He’s in two fantasy football leagues. The couple has spent Easter with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in the past, but they’re not best buddies. “I’m not trying to disown Kanye because I still love him and love everything we’ve done together creatively,” he says. “But we were never the closest of friends.”
In private texts that West later shared publicly, Legend cautioned against his friend’s feckless loyalty to Trump. “I think what was always challenging about it was Kanye has never been political,” he says. “I don’t think he knows one way or another what policies of Trump’s he likes. He just kind of embraced Trump’s blow-it-all-up spirit and the energy of himself being countercultural in supporting him.” Legend’s calm beseeching of West to think deeper in those texts was moving in its wisdom and lack of condemnation. “John was able to respond to him with brotherly insight and perspective,” says Common. “He was giving him the truth and not everybody has the heart to tell you the truth. And John did it with love.”
Of Kardashian’s visits to the White House, on behalf of inmates deserving clemency, Teigen and Legend are torn. “It’s a cheap win for [Trump],” says Legend. “But the people being granted clemency are real people with families. So even if the clemency is won through his celebrity-whore tendencies, it’s still helpful for that family and that person. At the same time, he’s locking kids in cages and he’s a terrible human being….”
“To be able to go in there and put whatever you hate about him aside to do this greater good for this person?” says Teigen. “I don’t know if I could physically muster that smile and handshake.”
Over three days of conversations, news of the impeachment inquiry intensifies, and the couple allow themselves some optimism. But neither believe impeachment is enough. “I think there needs to be jail time for him, for the whole family,” says Teigen. “I feel like he still gets away with everything if he gets out of his office. I know that his first tweet after he’s impeached will be, ‘I didn’t want to be there anyway.’ ”
In the meantime, hope abides. Legend’s mother is getting straight A’s in her college accounting classes. Teigen’s mother brought her parents’ ashes to America and takes Luna to the temple every week so they can offer fruits and flowers in their memory. Recently, Pepper and Phyllis visited Pepper’s hometown in Thailand. “My mother loves to take care of people,” Teigen says of the friendship. Legend laughs: “And my mother loves to be taken care of.”
After Teigen finished giving the house tour that Sunday, little Miles tried to ride a stuffed tiger and scribbled happily over this reporter’s notebook. Teigen would make ravioli and squash blossoms for dinner, but first she dug into her Postmates chicken Dijon panini. “Do you want half of this?” she asked her guest. No, but thank you. “But it’s so good, I’m giving you half.”
Legend had gone swimming with Luna, as promised, but soon he was back with a towel around his wet shoulders. “The water was too cold,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s warming up now. I can feel the hot water coming in but…” Luna looked glum behind him, her wet suit peeled off in a sad puddle at her feet.
“Tomorrow!” Teigen yelled from the kitchen. “We’ll try again tomorrow!”
Legend leaned down to Luna, who wanted more from this day. “Did you hear that? It will be better tomorrow,” he promised his daughter. “Tomorrow, we rise and shine.”