Julia Roberts was just 22 when the romantic comedy Pretty Woman catapulted her to international superstardom and the very top of the Hollywood tree.
She more than lived up to the film’s title as the call girl with the heart of gold who captivates smooth businessman Richard Gere. The movie, which broke box office records, remains one of the most popular of all time and earned her a Oscar nomination for best actress.
But according to her sister, Nancy Motes, Roberts’ stellar success in Pretty Woman in 1990 was a watershed moment for her, too. She was then an “awkward” 13-year-old, and jealous pupils at school bullied her mercilessly over the fact that her sister was playing a prostitute.
The abuse, she claimed, was only the beginning of a life being compared to her impossibly glamorous sister — a tall order for any sibling, but particularly tough for a young woman who battled depression and yo-yo-ing weight.
And what made it immeasurably worse, she alleged, was that her most outspoken abuser was her own half-sister.
This week, years of mounting rage and a life spent in the shadow of stardom — there are three more stars in the family — boiled over when Motes seemingly took her own life.
Just a few weeks after calling her famous sister a ‘b***h’ and ‘hag’ on Twitter, and warning her ‘You’re going to LOVE what’s coming!’, the 37-year-old TV production assistant was found dead on Sunday from an apparent overdose.
Her body was discovered by her fiance, John Dilbeck, in a full bathtub at a house in Los Angeles where she was dog-sitting. Prescription and non-prescription drugs were found at her side, with a five-page suicide note addressed to several members of her family, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office.
Sources close to the investigation said on Wednesday that the letter left little doubt as to who Nancy blamed for her death: she devoted a page to expressing her love for her mother, Betty Lou Motes, another is said to have been an apology to her fiance for killing herself, with three pages “of rantings that her sister drove her to do this.”
On Wednesday, as Julia Roberts, now 46, comforted their mother and cancelled public appearances to promote her latest film August: Osage County — which, ironically is all about a dysfunctional family — extraordinary claims were made about the timing of her sister’s death.
Conner Dilbeck, the brother of Nancy Motes’ fiance John, said it was no coincidence Motes’ body was found on the day that Roberts was due at an Oscars nomination lunch. The clear implication was that Julia Roberts’ sister may have timed her suicide in an attempt to ruin the actress’s chances of winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film next month.
“We are talking about . . . people who are in the limelight,’ he said. “Their power can be destroyed very easily if unfortunate things make them look more wicked. They have to be careful — it can destroy their career or their Academy Award.”
He said Roberts, the star of Notting Hill and Erin Brockovich, for which she won an Oscar, had inflicted “pure cruelty” on her sister and that the actress was terrified the details — contained in the suicide note — would come out. His provocative claims came just hours after another close friend of Nancy Motes and her fiance said Roberts had “driven” her sister to take her own life.
According to John Fraschetti, while Roberts and her mother were said to be distraught over the death, they were actually only shedding “crocodile tears.” Roberts and their mother, he claimed, had “driven” the emotionally vulnerable Nancy to death after “cutting her off and never caring for her.” He, too, insisted the timing had been no accident.
“It hurt her that none of her family wanted to be with her. She had a miserable Christmas, truly awful, and I think she just couldn’t handle it any more,” he said.
Fraschetti admitted that Nancy Motes had had well-documented problems with drugs, while her weight had caused divisions between her and her sister. But he claimed her family had behaved unforgivably by washing their hands of her.
“They didn’t care when she was alive. She was a handful, and, yes, she had her problems, but there’s a way to deal with your relatives,’ he said. “Nancy’s suicide note also reveals the true depths of depression that her family’s rejection had sent her to.”
Fraschetti claimed the Roberts camp had put pressure on Motes and her fiance to delete the abusive messages about her on Twitter, some of which have indeed been removed.
These, coupled, with two interviews last summer in which Motes accused Roberts of stopping her from seeing their sick mother, are understood to have infuriated the actress and convinced her she had been betrayed by a sibling happy to sell her story to the press.
But as the tragedy turned into a vicious blame game, a source close to Roberts claimed she had tried but failed to convince her sister to go into rehab shortly before her death.
“The sisters had a very complex relationship,” the insider told the website Radaronline. “They used to be very close when they were younger. Julia tried in vain over the years, even in the past six months, to get Nancy to go to rehab. Nancy refused the offers, and that is when she would often publicly lash out at Julia.”
The source added: “It hurt Julia, but she knew her sister was battling addiction.”
That addiction to prescription drugs made Nancy a “totally different person . . . there would be periods [when she was clean] and with that brought clarity.” During those moments, the sisters would ‘reconnect’ but, the insider added: “Sadly, of course, those times became less frequent before her death.”
In two interviews last August, Nancy Motes admitted that the two sisters had once been close, though she laid the blame for their estrangement squarely with Roberts.
Though the two have different fathers they grew up together with their mother. Robert’s father was a playwright and actor like her mother, but after they divorced there was a second marriage — to Michael Motes, a troubled alcoholic — which produced Nancy.
In the interviews she remembered Roberts as a “good big sister” who “played with me a lot” in the small Georgia town of Smyrna, outside Atlanta. Roberts moved to New York at 18, and was spotted by a talent agent on the street.
Within four years she had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the drama Steel Magnolias in 1989.
As Roberts built a career on being willowy and beautiful — she was perfectly cast as Tinkerbell the fairy in Steven Spielberg’s Hook — she took a dim view of her sister’s ballooning weight, said Nancy. While she was still in high school, the actress “would just let me know that I was definitely overweight, she would make it quite clear to me and in a not-so-nice manner,” she said.
When Nancy finished school and headed to Los Angeles in 1995 with ambitions to be a star herself, she claimed the hostility from her sister continued. If Roberts was simply trying to protect her sister from crashing disappointment, Nancy didn’t see it that way.
“Julia did not want to see me go down that path [of acting]. Mostly because I was overweight. My weight has fluctuated my entire life. So I just got a lot of criticism from Julia, which was discouraging for me,” she said.
She stayed in Los Angeles for two years before returning to Georgia where she could work in local theatre and enjoy a “slower pace.”
However, after their mother suffered a mild heart attack in 2009 and Roberts decided she should move to Los Angeles, Nancy, who had recently met her fiance, who was from LA, decided to do the same. She said her sister was on her case again about her weight before she had even unpacked her belongings. Nancy’s fiance John Dilbeck described the scene like this: “We had just got there, we’re unpacking and our bags were on the floor and we had not put everything away. Julia was like: “You should really clean up that room because it’s kind of disrespectful to Mom” and Nancy was like: “My back’s really hurting I just want to lay down.”
“Then [Roberts] made some really backhanded slant, like: ‘Maybe if you weren’t so overweight . . .’ and that’s when Nancy snapped.”
Nancy said she swore at her sister, but added: “She was rude, I was rude and we cooled off.”
But a month later, she celebrated her birthday with a party at their mother’s house and says she caught Roberts discussing her weight with a friend in the kitchen.
She recalled: “Obviously I know my sister’s mannerisms well enough. As I was passing, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Sure it upset me, but it was my birthday and I kept walking.”
Was she imagining things? It’s impossible to say. After her weight soared to 133kg (21 stone), Nancy Motes said she finally had a gastric bypass last June — which led to her shedding 44kg — to improve her health, not to please her sister. She admitted at the time that their relationship was a “work in progress” and wouldn’t be “fixed by me just getting skinny.”
She had been planning to marry Dilbeck, a fellow TV production worker, in May but there were reports that Roberts intended to boycott the wedding, regarding him as a sponger.
Of course sibling tensions are often aggravated by fame. (In Motes’ case, half-siblings Eric Roberts and Lisa Roberts Gillan are also well-known screen stars, as is her niece, Emma Roberts.)
But then Hollywood is the capital of body fascism, and critics of its shallow values might easily be able to imagine a beautiful star looking down on her physically imperfect sister. We may never know whether Roberts is in any way responsible for her sister’s tragic fate, or if she’s just a scapegoat for a troubled woman whose frustrations about her career and weight became too much to bear.