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Who Needs Love When You've Got Willie Brown?
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Aya Brackett and Drew Altizer | November 28, 2013
Ten years a trophy girlfriend—but still willing to work!
Sonya Molodetskaya—Russian refugee, aspiring boutique owner, mostly absentee immigrant rights commissioner, and decade-long lady friend of ex-mayor Willie Brown—has a zebra pelt on her living room floor. She ordered it on eBay for $1,500; she thinks it came from Zimbabwe. In her closet hang enough chinchilla, sable, and silver fox coats to inspire a PETA protest. The collection includes the tan mink parka that she was wearing when she stepped off the plane at SFO at age 24, back in 1996, after her parents forced her to leave her social life (and boyfriend) in Moscow and reinvent herself as a Russian Jewish émigré in the Outer Sunset.
But hers is no typical immigrant tale, as evidenced by the tower of orange Hermès boxes in the closet, the shelves of stilettos, the 2011 Jaguar convertible in the garage across the street, and the giant black-and-white painting on the living room wall: Molodetskaya wearing a lacy bra and—what else?—a fur, mob-wife style. Across the room is a baby grand piano. She learned to play after her father greased the palm of a Muscovite schoolmaster, but she’s reneging on her promise to serenade me: She has an earache that kept her cooped up at home yesterday, as well as a gash on her hand incurred while slicing Spanish chorizo for a snack.
We’re sitting on Molodetskaya’s couch on a Tuesday afternoon, her earache beginning to subside thanks to a liberal infusion of red wine—each of us is on our second glass. “I can’t live this life sober,” she says in a rich accent that rolls out like a blend of Moscow and Queens. She’s joking—sort of. Having spent several afternoons and evenings in her company, I have learned her terms: There is no interview with Sonya unless you drink with Sonya. She calls this Russian hospitality, and I’ve been subject to it at the Four Seasons Hotel, at a Marina hair salon before a symphony gala, and at Jardinière after a marathon Immigrant Rights Commission meeting—from which she stepped out and asked me, “Where’s the drink?”
As we sip wine from the cellar of Molodetskaya’s financial district loft, we finally arrive at the juicy topic: her arrangement with the famously philandering ex–California assembly speaker and two-term San Francisco mayor, who technically left City Hall in 2004 but is still widely considered a one-man shadow government. She almost always calls her companion “Willie Brown,” even to his face, as if he were yet another brand name in her closet. (“He doesn’t like when people call him Willie,” she says. “I don’t think he likes his name.”) At 79, Brown could be Molodetskaya’s father (she’s 41); in fact, he’s five years older than her father. Not that age has slowed him down. “He’s never really been faithful to anybody,” she says. “He was always a playboy. So did he change for me? I don’t think so.” (In his 2008 memoir, Basic Brown, he writes, “Personally I think you ought to glory in any such reputation.”) Still, she assumes that she and Brown are—she searches for the word in English— “exclusive? Yeah.... If he still had the time to play around, I would build a monument [to him] while he’s still alive,” she says, letting out her loopy laugh. “You have that much energy?”
Molodetskaya’s candor makes it clear that she doesn’t live in the same über-PC town as the rest of us—she lives in Willie’s world. After all, her boyfriend and benefactor is a man who, in his titular Sunday column in the Chronicle, name-drops his political cronies, roasts his foes, and openly states that all contractors lowball bids—or ought to. A man with a stable of children ranging four decades in age, the youngest of whom was conceived with a fundraising associate during his marriage to Blanche Brown (they are still married, but have been amicably separated for decades). A man who back in the ’90s dated Kamala Harris, then a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, currently the state’s attorney general. A man who now has one half of the Bay Bridge named after him.
In Molodetskaya’s brassiness, her expansive wardrobe, her frenetic social schedule—in everything but sheer intellect, she says—“I’m like the female version of him.” Brown rose from segregated Texas shoe shiner to self-made San Francisco kingpin, and Molodetskaya has a similar rags-to-riches tale, having climbed rapidly from refugee saleswoman to society doyenne. Admittedly, her rise was fueled mostly by the power of association with the city’s most famous living politician. But it was also a product of her own disarming and, dare I say it, sincere charm.
“I know people are judgmental, and I’m sure they think of me as a Russian gold digger,” Molodetskaya says. “If I paid attention, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” In reality, she, like Brown, has created an outsize personality that she lampoons better than anyone else can. For Halloween a few years ago, she wore a gold minidress, a huge dollar-sign necklace, and a miner’s helmet. Ultimately, she says, the joke is on the haters. A T-shirt that she had made at Westfield Centre quotes Coco Chanel: “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”
Life as San Francisco’s premier trophy girlfriend starts at 6 a.m., when Molodetskaya checks fashion blogs over espresso. She’s not working nine to five at the moment, so she sometimes goes to Union Square to shop. In a city of understated fashion, skinny jeans, and flats, her taste skews toward “go big or go home”: loud patterns and colors, leather, furs, blingy earrings—fashion that’s made to attract photographers on red carpets and garner copious likes on Instagram.
Occasionally Molodetskaya heads over to the Yerba Buena ice rink to practice her Salchows. Lately she’s busied herself trying to find manufacturers to produce a line of statement T-shirts and clutches that she’s been modeling around the city (“Can't Afford Hermès,” reads one, erroneously). The champagne cork pops after lunch. By 5 p.m., “it’s time to start moving,” she says as she ascends the stairs from her basement in gladiator heels, having swapped her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt for a floral minidress, a chartreuse coat, and a gigantic golden “Love” necklace.
Her appeal lies in being a bit off script: She’s the busty blonde with a Streisand nose, a fashionista pulling up her sleeve to reveal the bandage over her chorizo gash. Her breast surgery a few years ago? A reduction, she confides, to what she says Brown calls “the perfect C cup.”