The untold truth of Shonda Rhimes

Medical dramas have been a staple of television since the medium's earliest days, from the soapy shenanigans of General Hospital to the high-stakes emergencies of ER. Yet it took the creativity and innovation of Shonda Rhimes to turn the genre on its head. With the 2005 debut of her ABC series Grey's Anatomy, viewers were introduced to a new type of doctor drama, along with the iconoclastic style of the show's creator. Grey's became a television hit and a pop-culture phenomenon that spawned spinoffs and more nicknames than perhaps any other show as fans grew to love McDreamy, McSteamy and, of course, the couple dubbed MerDer.

The show's success led to more Rhimes-created hits, including Scandal, Private Practice, and How to Get Away with Murder. Rhimes later struck a blockbuster $150 million development deal with Netflix, with the streaming giant paying big bucks for the honor of becoming home to her future projects.

She's left an indelible mark on television, yet there's much that fans of her shows may not know about the talented writer, producer, director, and overall TV mogul. Read on to discover the untold truth of Shonda Rhimes.

Shonda Rhimes was in a champion marching band

As a teen, Shonda Rhimes attended Marian Catholic High School in the Illinois suburb of Chicago Heights. For one of her extracurricular activities, she played oboe in the school's marching band, according to the school's spring 2006 newsletter. But this was no ordinary band. As the school's website boasts, the Marian Catholic Band has won hundreds of awards; as of 2020, Marian High's marching band boasted a 33-year winning streak in its competition class in the State of Illinois Marching Band Championships, taking first place every year since 1980 — an achievement the school said is "unprecedented in any arena."

In a 2015 interview with Billboard, Rhimes referenced her marching band past during a conversation about the role that music plays in Grey's Anatomy. "I grew up in a house filled with music. I was in the marching band, [but] I wasn't one of those people who [knew] every band and every genre," she explained. She went on, saying that she was basically "a I-know-who-Duran-Duran-is kind of teenager." However, she added, "I just know what I like."

Shonda Rhimes was nominated for a Razzie Award for this movie

Long before she was collecting accolades and Emmys for Grey's Anatomy and other TV hits, Shonda Rhimes was an up-and-coming screenwriter with credits including The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and the Britney Spears-led movie Crossroads.

It was for the latter, in fact, that Rhimes received her first-ever major award nomination — although she probably wasn't thrilled about it. That's because, as Vice recalled, she was nominated for a Razzie, a mock award celebrating the year's worst movies.

The year 2003 was a crowded one for bad movies, and Crossroads lost the worst picture "honor" to Madonna's Swept Away (although Spears tied with Madonna for worst actress), according to The Guardian. Rhimes was spared a Razzie win in the worst screenplay category when the award went to George Lucas for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Rhimes, however, was unashamed of her Crossroads screenplay. "I never thought the critics were going to say Crossroads was a brilliant movie," she told Written By magazine, as reported by HuffPost. "My goal was for 12 year olds to think it was brilliant."

Shonda Rhimes' simple but powerful secret to keeping her shows fresh

In Shonda Rhimes' MasterClass presentation, she revealed the axiom that guides her whenever she sets out to write anything: Stay away from clichés.

According to Rhimes, "any line of dialogue that you've ever heard anybody say before is already a cliché." She advised others to avoid including these clichés in their writing. Imitation, she declared, is not the sincerest form of flattery, but a guarantee that whatever is written will feel stale. "Don't do, like, 'Oh, I've seen this scene before, it's a really cool idea, so I'm going to do something like that,'" she explained. She asked, "If you've seen it before, why would you do it again?"

While admitting that there's "nothing new under the sun," Rhimes insisted there are "different interpretations and different ways of thinking of things that are new." That way, instead of imitating others, you can "be the thing that other people would admire themselves."

Not all of Shonda Rhimes' series have been hits

Shonda Rhimes boasts an extraordinary run of television hits, including Grey's Anatomy, Private PracticeScandalHow to Get Away with Murder, and Station 19. Yet not everything she's touched has turned to TV gold, and she's taken some big swings and struck out. 

Rhimes' Shondaland production company experienced its first taste of failure with the 2011 launch of Off the Map, a Grey's Anatomy-style medical drama in which the sexy doctors weren't saving lives in a hospital, but rather in a tropical jungle. Reviews were not great. The New York Times said a better name for the show would have been "Doctors Without Shirts" — and it was canceled after its first season. Rhimes took to Twitter at the time to admit she was "very sad" about the show's cancelation.

Other Rhimes-produced series to have received the axe include legal drama For the People and con-man thriller The Catch (both canceled after two-season runs). There was also Still Star-Crossed, a Shondaland take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that was shifted from Mondays to the TV wasteland of Saturday nights after three low-rated airings, eventually vanishing altogether.

How this tragic event led Shonda Rhimes to become a mother

The world changed after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and that horrific day also led Shonda Rhimes to get philosophical about where her life was heading. In a candid chat with Oprah Winfrey for her SuperSoul Sunday series, as reported by The Wrap, Rhimes revealed how 9/11 gave her a wake-up call. 

As Rhimes told Winfrey's O, The Oprah Magazine, she had rented a Vermont farmhouse in order to do some "navel-gazing" and to "think about [her] life." She continued, "The day after I arrived, 9/11 hit." After watching the horrific events unfold, she had an epiphany. She shared, "I thought, 'Well, if the world's going to end, what are all the things I've ever wanted to do?' I went home and hired an adoption attorney."

As a result, she adopted daughter Harper (named after To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee), born "nine months and two days after 9/11." According to The Hollywood Reporter, Rhimes adopted a second daughter, Emerson, in 2012, and welcomed a third daughter, Beckett, via surrogacy in 2013.

The surprising reason Shonda Rhimes will never get married

Shonda Rhimes is a mother of three, but she certainly didn't take the traditional route to starting a family. Yet she makes no apologies for wanting to be a mother and not necessarily a wife. As she told Entertainment Weekly, she was "seriously dating" someone when she abruptly came to the realization that she didn't want to do that anymore. It took her some time to come to terms with what she was feeling. "We're all so conditioned to want it," she said of marriage. "I felt like there must be something wrong with me. But the minute I said it out loud to my family, it was fantastic." She noted there's a "freedom" in being able to admit that she's not looking to share her life with a husband.

In an interview on Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sunday, Rhimes said she always envisioned herself having children, "but I have never wanted to get married." Noting that she never had any interest in it, she went on, "I love having boyfriends, I love dating. I do not want a husband in my house."

Why Shonda Rhimes decided to have a "year of yes"

In 2015, Shonda Rhimes released her first book, Year of Yes, chronicling what happened in her life when she decided to start saying yes to every opportunity that came her way. "My oldest sister said to me, 'You never say yes to anything,'" Rhimes told NPR. This forced her to admit, "I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home."

Realizing her existence had become "really small," Rhimes thought about how much of life she was missing, and she decided to embrace a new philosophy. "Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it," she explained. 

As she told The Hollywood Reporter, her "year of yes" delivered some extraordinary experiences, including an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (something she'd been terrified to do), a cameo on Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, a commencement speech at alma mater Dartmouth College, and a weight-loss regimen that led her to shed an excess of 100 pounds. "When you're not making the most of your life," she said, "whatever your life is, it's not a life."

How saying yes led Shonda Rhimes to change her workaholic ways

Shonda Rhimes' "year of yes" not only led her to have some amazing experiences, but it also opened her eyes to the realization she'd become a workaholic. "I was completely burned out and had reached a place where I was probably not that productive," admitted Rhimes in an interview with Fast Company. Given that she had multiple television shows to oversee, that's certainly understandable. However, she worried that her workaholic tendencies had begun impeding the creativity that allowed her to achieve success in the first place.

Saying yes, Rhimes shared, "showed me there are so many things outside the four walls of my office that I need to spend time doing." She added, "And so that's what taught me how to decide to manage my time."

According to Rhimes, opening herself up to those new experiences boosted her creativity and, she believed, re-energized her cornerstone TV series. "I have many more stories to tell," she added. Noting she felt "reignited," Rhimes said, "That's just come from living differently, I think."

Shonda Rhimes' real-life BFF inspired Grey's Anatomy's Cristina Yang

Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh, was a longtime Grey's Anatomy fan favorite until the actress left the show in 2014. Shonda Rhimes herself had a special affinity for the character, and that's no coincidence. Rhimes didn't just create Cristina — she based the character on her real-life best friend... who's also named Cristina. 

"The Grey's Anatomy Season 10 finale is locked and loaded," Rhimes tweeted in May 2014. "Goodbye, my dearest Yang (who is based on my ACTUAL Cristina btw). I'm going home."

According to a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, Rhimes revealed she and the real Cristina met in fifth grade, when Rhimes was the "weird" new kid in school wearing thick-lensed glasses. She and her bestie, she divulged, still speak every day. "I've had [the] same awesome BFF since I was 10 years old," Rhimes wrote in tweet. "Even though we live 1,000 miles apart, she's still my Person."

Shonda Rimes lost 150 pounds... and "hated every second of it"

One of the most amazing benefits to emerge from Shonda Rhimes' "year of yes" was her stunning physical transformation. In an essay published on the Shondaland website, she revealed she ultimately lost close to 150 pounds — but "hated every second of it." Losing weight, she admitted, "is annoying and hard and painful and no fun and a terrible, terrible, unnatural struggle against your body's natural wishes, hopes and dreams."

She did, however, identify one thing that was even worse: She realized people started treating her differently than they had before. "I mean, things got weird," she recalled. Women she hardly knew "gushed" over her, while men held lengthy conversations with her. The uncomfortable truth she came to comprehend was that people now saw her "as a person," leading her to wonder, "What the hell did they see me as before?"

Ultimately, Rhimes came to feel "like a chunky spy in a thinner world."

Shonda Rhimes is a spelling bee nerd

In a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, Shonda Rhimes made the surprising admission that her favorite televised competition was the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee — or, as she called it, simply "the Bee." Remarking at how "brutal" it could be on the youngsters who compete, she jokingly described the event as "the Hunger Games of spelling."

Rhimes has demonstrated her extreme fandom of the spelling bee by live-blogging the event, something she's done for the A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago blog since her days of working from home as a screenwriter. As told West Palm Beach's WPTV 5 that she's watched the spelling bee "forever," admitting, "I'm a nerd that way, but I was very into it and a bee nerd in school." 

For Rhimes, the appeal of the event is that it awards intellectual achievement, something she feels is in scarce supply on television. "I think for me the excitement or the interest is that it feels like one of the few times on a big scale we are celebrating smart," she explained. "We are making stars out of people because they are brainiacs, not athletic or pretty."

Why Shonda Rhimes became obsessed with this British show

In a 2019 interview on her Shondaland site, Shonda Rhimes admitted that she'd become enthralled with long-running BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who.

It began, she said, when she finished watching the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series in its entirety and went through "a phase of misery and depression" wondering what she was going to watch next. She wound up diving into Doctor Who and did not regret it. "I love sci-fi," she declared. "With Doctor Who I loved the idea of time travel, the idea that he could regenerate. ... But also, in every story they went to different places, and every story and every world was completely different. As a television writer? Come on!"

Rhimes isn't the only member of her family to become enamored by Doctor Who; as she revealed via Instagram, her daughters told her if she got them a dog they would name it River Song, after a character played by actress Alex Kingston on the show. "Which is how they got a dog," Rhimes joked.

Why Shonda Rhimes hated when Scandal was described as a "guilty pleasure"

Throughout its seven-season run, Scandal became a Thursday-night addiction for fans who dropped whatever they were doing in order to catch up on the latest over-the-top antics of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, and her crew of Gladiators. Boasting wild twists and unabashedly bonkers storylines, Scandal earned a reputation as a "guilty pleasure" — a term that Shonda Rhimes admitted drove her up the wall.

"It's so annoying," Rhimes told Salon. "It's like saying the show is a piece of crap but I can't stop watching it." Elaborating in an interview with Vulture, Rhimes theorized that because she was also behind Grey's Anatomy, people had a tendency to assume that her projects "are a little fluffier in their mind." She added, "Which is weird, because Grey's Anatomy is pretty dark." 

Rhimes noted she was similarly irked whenever she saw Scandal described as a soap opera, "because it's not a soap opera." Describing Scandal as a "guilty pleasure," she told Vulture, "just sounds like a backhanded compliment."

The throwaway comment that inspired Shonda Rhimes to write the Grey's Anatomy pilot

Grey's Anatomy may never have come into being had Shonda Rhimes not become "obsessed" with watching TV docuseries about various surgeries. And while she was fascinated by the surgeries themselves, she came to be even more intrigued by the way the surgeons interacted, "like the fact that doctors talk about their boyfriends or their day while they're cutting somebody open," she told O, The Oprah Magazine.

Asked about what differentiates her medical drama from a show like ER, Rhimes answered by revealing how she came up with the idea for the show in the first place. As she explained, she was first struck with the idea for Grey's Anatomy "when a doctor told me it was incredibly hard to shave her legs in the hospital shower." When she initially brushed that off as a "silly detail," the admission later led her to an epiphany. "I thought about the fact that it was the only time and place this woman might have to shave her legs," she marveled. "That's how hard the work is."