Julie Bowen's Moment in the Spotlight

Her own water broke while her character gave birth on Boston Legal. The internet lit up after she showed a tv audience a photo of herself breast-feeding twins. During her 20-year career, Julie Bowen has always played it her way—and now, on ABC’s megahit Modern Family, her intelligent quirkiness is paying off.

By Margy Rochlin
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Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Her husband’s unflappability was surely tested when Bowen almost had their first child on the set of Boston Legal, during a scene in which her character was also delivering a baby. “I was pretending to be in labor, grunting and groaning. They’re like, ‘Cut!’ and my water breaks, and I’m standing in a puddle,” she remembers. A teamster was assigned to rush her to the hospital, but Bowen insisted that they first swing by her house so she could wash her face and change into street clothes. Her reasoning: She was afraid the admitting staff “would think I was Froot Loops, showing up in my own hospital gown with full hair and makeup.”

When Bowen and Phillips learned two years later that she was carrying twins (which run in her family), she confesses, “I was terrified. I did not want twins as a second go-around. I should have been much more cautious. I should have had . . . half sex?” On top of her emotional reaction, she recalls endlessly fielding questions from those who assumed the twins had resulted from in vitro fertilization. “Everybody asked me, ‘How many did you put in?’ and I’d be like, ‘Just one penis. Thanks!’

“A friend said, ‘You are the right one to have sons,’ ” says Bowen, who classifies herself as “jocky,” running six miles a day and swimming laps at the Y. But despite her physical fitness, she had a life-threatening health scare almost 11 years ago. It began when her younger sister, Annie, a Harvard-trained physician, noticed that Bowen’s pulse was abnormally low and urged her to see a heart specialist. Soon after, Bowen received a diagnosis of hypervagotonia (which causes her heart to beat too slowly) and was outfitted with a pacemaker. When the doctors broke the news, she remembers having “a big crying fit” about needing a device that’s “for old people.” Since then, she’s come to realize how lucky she is that a serious medical problem could be remedied in a way she considers “no big deal”: Every six months, she goes for a checkup; every seven years, she has surgery to replace the heartbeat--regulating part of the apparatus. “That’s kind of a pain. It’s a full operation,” she says. “They give you a new pacemaker but [not the wires that carry the electrical signal] so they don’t have to actually go into your heart.”

Bowen is grateful to her sister for the medical call and also for pep-talking her through the difficulties of having three children under the age of five. When she’d phone her sister, crying, Bowen remembers, “she’d say, ‘Put on your hard hat and don’t look up.’ ” Bowen also realizes how lucky she is to have plenty of help. When the twins were very young, two nannies were on duty; these days one works the morning shift, and another takes over for the afternoon. But by Bowen’s own mandate, weekends were nanny free. “I have three kids. I should know how to take care of them,” she says. Nonetheless, TGIF soon lost its shimmer. “We’d be like, ‘Here comes Saturday. It’s going to be a long-ass weekend.’ All we did was poop patrol for 48 hours. When Monday would come, we’d be like, ‘Thank God.’ ”

The pandemonium of her everyday life is now a staple of her wisecracking talk-show appearances. Sometimes, though, she misjudges when audiences will laugh along with her. Once, on Lopez Tonight, Bowen showed a snapshot of herself double-nursing the twins, provoking an Internet uproar. “I thought it was funny,” a dismayed Bowen protests. “You didn’t see nipples, just this blurry picture of two heads stuck to my boobs. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ You couldn’t get me out of the house for about a month after that. I felt so embarrassed and misunderstood.”

First Published September 6, 2011

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