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It’s a beautiful day to tell the truth: Why Katherine Heigl was demonised but Patrick Dempsey was idolised for their ‘Grey’s’ exits


By Sarah Finnan
25th Apr 2022

Grey's Anatomy ABC

It’s a beautiful day to tell the truth: Why Katherine Heigl was demonised but Patrick Dempsey was idolised for their ‘Grey’s’ exits

Patrick Dempsey's 'Grey's' exit was the one with all the behind-the-scenes drama and not Katherine Heigl's, so why did tabloids pitch her as a troublemaker and not Dempsey? And why has it taken 10 years for Ellen Pompeo to speak out in her defence? You get one guess!

Katherine Heigl is here to set the record straight. After years of rumours as to why she really left the hit ABC medical series Grey’s Anatomy in 2010, the actress is finally making sure her side of the story is heard… and unsurprisingly, her departure went nothing like how the tabloids said it did. 

Izzie Stevens

Famed for playing Izzie Stevens on the hit medical drama, her shock exit from the Shonda Rhimes’ show was embroiled in controversy at the time. Comments she had made about the programme’s working conditions paired with her decision to withdraw herself from Emmy Awards consideration (because she didn’t feel she was given the material to warrant a nomination), led fans to believe that there was a not-so-secret feud at play. 

Details of her departure were few and far between and neither Heigl nor her Grey’s colleagues did much to clear things up. Viewers were pretty much left to fill in the gaps themselves and so was born the rumour that Katherine Heigl quit (or was fired?) because she was being “difficult”. 

Heigl went from landing small parts in a handful of fairly unsuccessful movies to starring alongside Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. She was the first-ever Grey’s series regular to win an Emmy for her work on the drama and three years after nabbing the role of Izzie, she secured the 2008 movie 27 Dresses for which she earned a hugely impressive $6 million – a 1900% increase on her previous paycheck just months prior. 

However, upon her exit from Grey’s, the media jumped at the chance to villainise her and subsequent coverage of the star was characterised by the insinuation that she was a prima donna with notions of grandeur. The series catapulted her to international success, but the litany of negative headlines kept her as a talking point (and out of work) long after she had left the show.

Mr McDreamy

Years later, it was revealed that Heigl’s former Grey’s costar Patrick Dempsey would also be leaving the show after a whopping 11 seasons. Cast as neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd, aka Mr McDreamy, he cemented his status as one of the series’ most beloved characters and his departure was met with tears, heartbreak and a recurring chorus of “please don’t let it be” from fans.  

The actor claimed he was leaving because “it was just a natural progression”. Everything unfolded in “a very organic way”. It was “obviously the right time”. No one questioned the validity of these statements, they were taken as fact with no further background digging and Patrick Dempsey left without much more hullabaloo. 

Here’s how the tabloids spun both characters leaving the show. 

Katherine Heigl is a nightmare to work with, quits Grey’s Anatomy in true diva style. 

Grey’s Anatomy darling, Patrick Dempsey, leaves show on good terms.

We were there. We read the articles. Cut to present day, and it turns out that what we read was very, very far from the truth.

Here’s how it actually happened in real life. 

Katherine Heigl parts ways with Grey’s Anatomy to devote herself to motherhood. 

Patrick Dempsey killed off in Grey’s Anatomy after “terrorising the set”. 

The truth

Finally revealing why exactly she left the show, Katherine Heigl opened up about the experience for author Lynette Rice’s recent book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, an excerpt of which appeared in The Daily Telegraph late last year.  “I started a family, and it changed everything,” she said. 

“It changed my desire to work full-time. I went on family leave and just got to be a [mum], and it changed my whole perspective… that was really the turning point. So before I was due back, I spoke again to Shonda about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal ok that I was off the show. The rumours that I refused to return were totally untrue.

“[Shonda] wanted to try to figure out how I could do both [parenting and Grey’s], and I kind of wanted to do both,” she continued. “There wasn’t a great way to compromise the work schedule that didn’t negatively affect the crew or the cast. It wasn’t feeling fair to them or the show to ask them to bend around my needs.”

Admitting that she definitely could have handled the whole Emmys situation better, Heigl said that she really thought she was doing the right thing at the time. “I thought I was doing the right thing. And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, ‘No comment’, it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered [to enter the race]. I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.”

But it’s actually “the ‘ungrateful’ thing” that bothers her the most. “That is my fault,” the actress confessed. “I allowed myself to be perceived that way. So much about living life, to me, is about humility and gratitude. And I’ve tried very hard to have those qualities and be that person, and I’m just so disappointed in myself that I allowed it to slip. Of course I’m grateful. How can I not be?”

In summary, Katherine left the show to focus on being more present as a mother. Shonda was aware of this and while there were some underlying tensions (mostly thanks to those Emmys comments and a scuffle over pay), the situation was largely dramatised for media effect. 

Terrorising the set 

If we got it so wrong about Katherine Heigl, chances are we were wrong about Patrick Dempsey too and it turns out he wasn’t all that McDreamy to work with. According to the book, Dempsey was actually more McNightmare and there were plenty of “HR issues” going on behind the scenes. Accused of “terrorising the set” by some of his colleagues, executive producer James D Parriott claims that “some cast members had all sorts of PTSD with him.” Uh oh. 

“He had this hold on the set. The network and studio came down and we had sessions with them. I think he was just done with the show,” Parriott continued, alleging that the actor apparently “didn’t like the inconvenience of coming in every day” towards the end of his stint on the show. 

The book later goes on to detail claims from writer and producer Jeannine Renshaw of supposed tension between Dempsey and his onscreen love interest Ellen Pompeo (who plays Meredith Grey on the show). Filming schedules became a bone of contention between the two with sources saying that Ellen found it taxing to hear Patrick complaining about long days and late nights when she herself was in even more scenes than he was. 

The actor still had his admirers though and Renshaw later described him as a “sweetheart”, while producer Mark Wilding said that “he really does try to do the right thing”. 

Ahead of her time

Then, the plot thickened, even more, this week, when Ellen Pompeo spoke out in support of her former co-star, Katherine Heigl. 

Chatting with fellow Grey’s star, Kate Walsh (a.k.a. Addison Montgomery), on her podcast, Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo, Ellen recalled how “Heigl said something on a talk show about the insane hours we were working”. “And she was 100% right,” she added. 

“Had she said that today, she’d be a complete hero,” Pompeo continued. “But she’s ahead of her time, made a statement about our crazy hours and, of course, let’s slam a woman and call her ungrateful.” Praising Heigl for being “ballsy” enough to stand up for herself all those years ago, the actress basically confirmed that everything her former co-star had said was true. “She was telling the truth. She wasn’t lying.”

Last September, Heigl spoke out on the topic again, sharing a lengthy post to Instagram calling on Hollywood to start implementing fair working conditions throughout all aspects of TV and film production. “Some of you may remember over 10 years ago I was very vocal about the absurdity of the working hours crews and actors were being forced into by production,” she wrote at the time. “Even Diane Sawyer interviewed me and not so kindly informed me ‘no one feels sorry for you.’ I very publicly and for many many years after got my ass kicked for speaking up.”

“When production plows into hour 14 and beyond, they are asking our crews to drive themselves home bone tired. … The number of people who have fallen asleep at the wheel is staggering. The number of accidents that happen on set due to exhaustion are shocking. Illness both mental and physical is off the charts. There is nothing glamorous or sexy about working past the point of exhaustion.

“When I first spoke up I was speaking on behalf of myself and my crew on Grey’s,” she went on. “Today things are a little different for me. I am in the fortunate position of being able to say no. To turn down a job if it requires more than I can bear. And in all honesty… I’ve kind of aged out of giving a sh*t if I piss people off by creating boundaries that protect my health, sanity, and work.

“It is time for reasonable and fair work conditions, wages, and hours to be more than just a priority they need to be the norm. Period,” she finished. 

While the majority of fans have commended Ellen for finally defending Katherine’s comments, many have also questioned what took her so long to speak out. More than a decade has passed since Heigl first addressed the toxic working conditions and she’s suffered more than her share of retribution. But everything she said was true, according to Pompeo, so why make her bear that cross alone?

Men v women

Seeing how differently both Heigl and Dempsey’s departures from the show were treated is not all that surprising. It’s something we’ve, unfortunately, grown accustomed to. We assume the worst about women, but hope for the best about men. It was obviously very difficult to work with Heigl. Good riddance to her! But oh, we love McDreamy. The show wouldn’t be the same without him! 

Men are praised for standing up for themselves, while women are demonised for it. Men leave with their reputations intact, while women are hung out to dry at the slightest whiff of self-importance. Society is quick to believe the worst about women, but is often far more forgiving to men. 

Neither Heigl nor Dempsey are completely faultless in the reasons for their departures, but there’s probably blame to be placed on many shoulders and we shouldn’t be so fast to assume we know the full story. Meredith was right, knowing is better than wondering. 

How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy is on shelves now.