THE little MAN

There he is, behind the wildly successful Hollywood diva, content in her shadow, swallowing his pride and never, never stepping in her limelight: the lesser boyfriend.

April 15, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

There Julia Roberts was on Oscar night, regally ascending the stairs to the stage as the world watched -- when all of a sudden her beau Benjamin Bratt rushed up, adjusted the train of her Valentino gown and scurried back to his seat.

This scene at last month's awards ceremony was significant -- and not just because Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar. Just as important was the fact that as Roberts was poised to rule the world for her few allocated minutes, the public witnessed Bratt being only too happy to perform the role of a supportive, albeit less-accomplished, boyfriend.

"Those couple of frames speak volumes," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University and president of the Popular Culture Association. "There's Julia Roberts and Mr. Julia Roberts who jumps up to help carry her train. He looked like a little lapdog while she was about to go up and take control of time and space."

Julia Roberts and Mr. Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez ditching Sean "Puffy" Combs for an unknown backup dancer, Anne Heche hooking up with cameraman Coleman Laffoon yeah, we know, Coleman who?

The common thread in these prominent celebrity relationships is that the women have chosen beaus who are less successful. Sure, Benjamin Bratt has appeared in flicks like "Miss Congeniality" and Madonna's "The Next Best Thing." But Roberts -- who could command up to $25 million per movie after her Oscar win -- beats him hands down in the career department.

And the fact that she's with him sends an interesting message: The hottest accessory of the moment, the arm candy du jour is none other than the lesser boyfriend.

Gone are the days when it was necessary for most women to date and marry men more successful than they were in order to ensure financial stability. Like Roberts, today's modern woman usually works and is financially independent. So, while that rich, accomplished boyfriend is fun to have for weekly outings to Tiffany, well, he's not exactly a must-have any more.

"This is true female empowerment," said Warren Farrell, the San Diego-based author of "The Myth of Male Power," who holds seminars on gender issues and male-female relationships. "The new generation of women is beginning to feel secure enough to recognize that economic security does not emotional security create.

"This is women being empowered enough to make a choice among men based on their personality, as opposed to only making a choice within the framework of men who earn as much or more," added Farrell, who also was on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City. "It's real women's liberation."

Of course, in Roberts' case, she's so successful that she doesn't have much choice but to date a lesser boyfriend. However, her relationship with Bratt showcases the many ways that a lesser beau is the perfect appendage to the independent woman.

The lesser beau is progressive, he's often sweet and he's sensitive -- he's got to be to endure the unfortunately inevitable jibes for dating a more famous woman. He's usually good-looking -- we say "usually" because Lopez's dancer man Cris Judd somewhat ruins the pool.

And while he has a career, it's not as important as hers, so when they go out, guess what? She gets all the attention. And being a sweet, sensitive guy, the lesser boyfriend doesn't care.

Take Mrs. and Mr. Roberts on Oscar night. After Benny's little train-adjusting adventure, he trailed Julia to a post-Oscar party where an Access Hollywood reporter interviewed the Best Actress winner and commented on her speech, which lasted three minutes and 48 seconds.

"Which was probably three minutes and two seconds over the limit," Bratt quipped -- drawing no response whatsoever. Both reporter and Roberts didn't even seem to hear his joke and instead went on chatting about the actress' big win that night.

This raises an interesting question: If a lesser boyfriend speaks at a Hollywood party and nobody hears him, does he exist?

From Bratt's undiminishing puppy-dog smile, the answer to that question didn't seem to matter. He seemed happy just to be there, standing by his woman.

Who's the earner?

As noticeable as these prominent lesser-boyfriend relationships are, experts say the trend is just beginning. And at this point, such relationships remain rare among the masses.

At Farrell's seminars, he said he often asks women to shut their eyes and envision their wedding days.

"I say, 'How many of you predict that the man you're about to marry will earn less than you for the rest of your life together?' " Farrell said. "Usually about 1 percent raise their hands. It helps the women understand the pressure that still remains on men to either earn as much or more than their wives or have the potential for doing so. When a woman goes out with a guy and earns more, a lot of people around her will think, 'Maybe he's just using you' or maybe her parents will say, 'I don't know whether I can respect him.' "

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