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Who Needs Love When You've Got Willie Brown?

Ten years a trophy girlfriend—but still willing to work!

Sonya Molodetskaya

Sonya Molodetskaya in her financial district closet. Her dress was designed by a friend, Vasily Vein. The clutch she designed herself. (Aya Brackett) 

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Sonya Molodetskaya

At the Opera Ball in September 2012. (Drew Altizer)

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Sonya Molodetskaya

At the Palace Hotel in April 2012. (Drew Altizer)

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Sonya Molodetskaya

At Cavalier restaurant in August 2013. (Drew Altizer)

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Before long, Brown was picking Molodetskaya up at her parents’ house with his driver to go out to dinners alone. The age difference took some getting used to, she says, but soon she forgot about it. “You can love him and hate him, but the minute you talk to him, you get under his spell,” she says. “He’s so charming and so smart, and I’ve always had a thing for smart men.” Because she bristled at the idea of becoming a “kept woman” (and because, she says, Brown has always encouraged her to work), she kept her job at Saks, checking her gowns with the store’s security for galas after quitting time. “The only time she had an extra privilege,” recalls Marsha Sanders, her former boss, “was when she said, ‘Marsha, do you think I could get off early because I’m going to the Grammys?’ Honestly, she never made a big deal that she was his girlfriend or knew all these people. She’s not affected.”

In 2006, Brown cosigned the lease on a storefront on Chestnut Street for Molodetskaya to open a retail store, Podium, but it went under during the recession. She flirted with event planning (once getting 400 people to a condo grand opening overnight by roping in Brown to give a speech) and eventually took a job at Bloomingdale’s fragrance counter, lasting several months.

Molodetskaya’s political life consisted of organizing some of Brown’s fundraisers (like one at North Beach Restaurant for Ed Lee’s mayoral campaign) and attending events. Then, in 2010, Mayor Gavin Newsom called, offering her a post on the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission. Molodetskaya and Brown both claim that he had nothing to do with it: “I swear on my mother’s life, no,” she says. “[Brown] said, ‘If that’s what you really want to do, you have to actually perform, you have to actually do things,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”

Molodetskaya was reappointed by Mayor Lee last year. Although the commission’s clerk calls her an “enthusiastic member,” she’s not an overly active one—she hasn’t proposed one resolution in her three years on the commission and as of press time had attended only 4 of the last 14 meetings. She is honored to serve, she says, but adds that her status as an immigrant (she’s now a voting citizen) doesn’t necessarily qualify her to make decisions for others. She’d prefer to tackle sex trafficking on the Human Rights Commission or perhaps take on the homeless problem—by moving them off the streets. “Willie Brown thinks I’m a right-winger,” she says.

Last year, while talking to former Newsom staffer Dwayne Jones at an event, she mentioned that she’d like to start working again. Jones offered her an office manager job with his private RDJ Enterprises in the Bayview, which works on contract compliance with government and private companies. She tells me that Jones “was a little skeptical, [thinking,] ‘Oh, gold digger—she’ll be sleeping and just roll in,’” but boasts that she was on the job at 8:30 every morning. “I was surprised because of how hard she plays at night,” Jones says, “but she did a fabulous job and was always there on time, monitoring our staff in the office.” Molodetskaya enjoyed relating factoids at events about the city’s ancient sewer system, but in the end, she lasted about six months: “My heart,” she says, “is not there.” (Later, I ask Brown about her gig, and he quips, “Oh yeah—where she was trying to work?”)

When I ask Molodetskaya why she took the job, her usually ebullient mood grows melancholy. “Because I’m 41. You gotta be smart about things, and Willie Brown is not going to live forever, I’m sorry to say that.” She likes to be able to pay her own way and save, she says, and Brown’s largesse doesn’t extend to her parents, whom she has long tried to help. When her mother, who recently separated from her husband and retired from a long-time job as a receptionist, applied for subsidized housing, Brown told Sonya that Alla “needed to go and stand in line,” says Molodetskaya. “It was nothing he could help her with.” Her mother finally landed a below–market rate apartment in a housing development for elderly Russian and Chinese immigrants run by the Chinatown Community Development Center. Her father, Yevgeniy, remained retired and now lives in HUD-subsidized disabled and senior housing on Sacramento Street. Along with other Russians, he frequents the pool at the Jewish Community Center. “I think they sit and talk about good ol’ times,” Molodetskaya says.

Meanwhile, Molodetskaya lives a life that she could never have imagined back in Moscow. “I wouldn’t want to live in Russia now. I would probably be one of the wives being cheated on,” she says. “Yeah, much better here.” Much, much better: She flew to New York’s Fashion Week this fall on Academy of Art University president Elisa Stephens’s jet. In 2009, she flew private to Obama’s first inauguration alongside Dick Blum, Dianne Feinstein’s husband. A shelf in her closet is stacked with photos of her posing with Bill Clinton and Christian Louboutin. Still, she looks somewhat askance at her socialite existence. “My life, what I have, is all because of Willie Brown. That is not a goal,” she says reflectively. “It is an achievement, maybe, in the Russian community. But it’s not an achievement of my life.”

Molodetskaya’s dream is to open a fashion gallery to display and sell local designers’ work. She admits that, given the crash of her former venture, it “would take me a lot of convincing” to persuade Brown to float the startup costs. But she thinks that she might be able to cash in on her wider reputation to find other investors. For now, she’s focusing on her T-shirts, ordering samples from various manufacturers.

Back on the social circuit in her chartreuse coat, Molodetskaya puts her estimable social capital on full display as she knocks out three parties in an hour and a half: Brooks Brothers; Prada; Cavalier. Finally, she Ubers to Sutter Street for the Wilkes Bashford preview party for the Museum of the African Diaspora gala. Brown is already here, holding court in a gray suit and hipster glasses, surrounded by a well-heeled, largely African-American crowd. Molodetskaya chats warmly with Brown’s daughter Susan. (“I’m better friends with [his adult children] than he is,” she says.)

Brown finishes a conversation with a laugh line: “For a $10,000 fee, I’ll do it for you! I have an expensive girlfriend!” When I approach and tell him that I’m working on an article about Molodetskaya, he shrieks in mock disdain: “You are?! Why?” Brown doesn’t like to be upstaged. I ask him for the secret of their longevity. “Ten years ago! Ten years ago!” he repeats, as if he can’t believe it. “I fear the Russian Mafia,” he says, his eyes twinkling mischievously. “She’s a fun lady. She’s really funny.”

And he was attracted to Molodetskaya at Ana Mandara...“Instantly,” he interjects. “Instantly!”

“Instantly what?” Molodetskaya calls over her shoulder from the jewelry counter, where she’s been eavesdropping. “Instantly fall in love with me?”

“No, never!” Brown says. “Attracted, yes. Love, no.”

“I guess our stories are different,” Molodetskaya replies, belting out a belly laugh that carries across the room.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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