Advertisement

Nicole Avant Salutes Her Late Mother Jacqueline Avant (on Their Shared Birthday!) in a Candid Conversation With Gwyneth Paltrow

March 6 is a special day for Nicole Avant — because she and her mother, the late Jacqueline Avant, share the same birthday.

This year, Nicole Avant spent the occasion working. The former U.S. ambassador, film producer, activist, and now bestselling author of “Think You’ll Be Happy,” sat down for an intimate conversation about mother-daughter relationships as part of Visionary Women’s International Women’s Day summit.

More from Variety

Her friend, Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, was waiting backstage of the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire hotel when Avant floated into the private space ahead their fireside chat.

As the two women embraced, Paltrow quietly sang “Happy Birthday to You,” and Avant began to well up with happy tears. She’d been feeling quite sentimental all morning and kicked off the day by turning on her 1976 playlist to find the song “Love Is Alive.”

Why? Her mom used to play that song when she’d pick her up at school, and the young Nicole would sing along. There was only one problem. She thought the lyrics were “Love is a lie,” which made her mom crack up.

So, on this, her third birthday without her birthday twin physically present — the 81-year-old Jacqueline was fatally shot during a home invasion in December 2021 — Nicole posted a carousel of throwback photos of her mom to Instagram and scored the post with “Love is Alive.”

In a brief interview with Variety before she and Paltrow took the stage, Avant explained why the event felt like a “salute” to her mother’s memory.

“Jackie would have done something like this today,” Avant said. “What better way to celebrate her than in an auditorium filled with women that want to give back to people, children and women around the world who need our services, whatever they may be?”

She’d recruited Paltrow to interview her for the summit because she’d called the Oscar winner for advice while writing her memoir — particularly the chapter about her mom and their relationship.

“I said, ‘Is it too much if I say this part about my mom taking accountability for hurting my feelings? Is it too much if I make fun of her — because I’m not laughing at her, but I love how quirky she was on the last Thanksgiving we had,” Avant recalled. “Gwyneth said, ‘No, of course not. Because you’re not making fun of her; you’re making her a human being. You’re not putting her up on a pedestal.’”

So Avant decided to go for it, writing a chapter that revealed the human side of her late mother, including a moment from what would be their last birthday lunch together in 2021. During that meal, Jacqueline Avant apologized for ways that she’d hurt her daughter’s feelings with her strict demeanor.

“In relationships, so many things go unsaid and unhealed, and the greatest blessing I had was having that last birthday lunch with my mom,” Avant said. “That was the change maker for me. Then that year she passed, but she gave me that. So there are no regrets between us.”

Avant has always believed in the power of storytelling, which is why she’s produced films like “The Black Godfather,” a documentary about her late father Clarence Avant’s life and legacy; “Trees of Peace,” about the Rwandan Genocide; or the upcoming “Six Triple Eight,” working alongside Tyler Perry and Kerry Washington to spotlight the all-Black women battalion that made a major impact in World War II. But there’s also power in telling our personal stories.

In fact, it was while she was making “The Black Godfather” that she really learned to appreciate her mom’s role in her dad’s success.

“That’s really when I started to understand the power of women and respect my mom even more,” Avant told Paltrow. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Everyone is painting my father as this big personality and he did all these great things — which he did and I would never take anything away from him — but there is no way that Clarence Avant could’ve moved throughout this earth the way he did and accomplished what he did without Queen Jacqueline walking right by him.”

Avant chuckled knowingly when Paltrow asked her to discuss her parents’ unique marriage: “Jackie and Clarence were not boring. That is for sure. I really like to tell people, imagine Queen Cleopatra and Archie Bunker together, moving through life.”

The candid 25-minute conversation continued thusly, mixing lighthearted moments with deep introspection and vulnerability. “What lessons have you learned between last March 6 and this [one]?” Paltrow asked at one point.

“What a difference a year makes. I didn’t have the final book done. My dad was alive,” Avant replied. (Clarence Avant died in August 2023.) “The shock and trauma and stress of my mom’s death was still — it wasn’t controlling me, but … I was definitely learning how to live without her and to talk about her without breaking down all the time and really learning how to navigate life without her. So this birthday year is great, waking up today realizing: I know my mom’s happy today. And I really do feel her today.”

Paltrow credited her friend for how “strong” she’d been over the last 12 months. “Therapists say there’s little T and there’s big T, but we all have some kind of trauma,” she said. “Will you help us understand what your practice was around [that], how you moved through the trauma? How do you not have PTSD today? Or, do you?”

“I think I have a little bit, but it doesn’t control me,” Avant admitted, explaining how difficult it’s been to lose both of her parents in short succession and in such vastly different manners. “I said to someone the other day, my heart’s been in repair for a few years now. And guess what, it might be in repair forever, I don’t know. But I decided to move through life with my heart the way it is, and my role was just not to allow the trauma to completely take me over where I was stifled.”

She then shared her mantra — a quote from her father, who would say “What are you going do with your dash?,” meaning how are you going to spend your time in the world.

“I choose to just focus on the things that I love about my mom — listen to the music that she loved and do what she loves, and then I feel more connected to her. And then I feel like I have more of a purpose to move forward in my life.”

As Paltrow wrapped up the conversation, their friend Sara Foster walked onstage with a giant purple sheet cake, leading the 500-woman strong crowd in another “Happy Birthday” song. But Visionary Women had one more surprise — a $10,000 donation to the Jaqueline Avant Children and Family Center.

Nicole Avant officially dedicated the center at the MLK Medical Campus in the Watts-Willowbrook community last year in honor of her mother’s lifelong devotion to helping the underserved and underrepresented. The three-story, 5,000-square-foot facility uses programs that address the needs of at-risk children struggling with trauma, health and mental health problems.

Well, that wasn’t all.

Avant stuck around to present Sharon Stone, another friend, with the organization’s Changemaker Award. Stone began her speech by reflecting on the innate power of women and the “common language” that comes from shared experience — then she turned the tables on her presenter.

“Your mom Jackie Avant was a high wizard of this language,” Stone said, turning to Nicole, who stood a few feet behind her and looked on, visibly moved. “And that is why I am giving the money that I received today to the Jaqueline Avant Children and Family Center.”

Stone shared that she’d had the honor of attending Barack Obama’s inauguration dinner as a guest of the Avant family, and sitting at that table with Jacqueline had left a lasting impact.

“Every time she spoke to you, it was like pearls fell out of her mouth,” Stone said of the late Avant, saluting the philanthropist for her focus on helping at-risk youth in particular. “I’m a single mother of three adopted children, and every kid comes with their own set of problems. … Nothing is more important than having somewhere your children to go when they’re in trouble.”

Reflecting on the surprise donations backstage, Avant simply said, “That’s Jackie.” A little angel whisper from her mom.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 06: Angella Nazarian, Sharon Stone, Lili Bosse and Nicole Avant attend the Visionary Women's International Women's Day Summit at Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel on March 06, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Araya Doheny/Getty Images for Visionary Women)
Changemaker Award honoree Sharon Stone (second from left) and presenter Nicole Avant (right) pose with Visionary Women’s Angella Nazarian and Lili Bosse.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.