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Denzel Washington may have been named PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1996, but he caught his wife Pauletta Washington’s eye long before then.
The Equalizer star met Pauletta (née Pearson) on the set of his first movie, 1977’s Wilma. But it wasn’t until months later, at a mutual friend’s party, that the two actually spoke.
The pair eventually wed in 1983 and went on to welcome four children. When it comes to raising their now-adult children, Denzel has given Pauletta a lot of credit.
“You can buy a house, but that doesn’t make it a home,” Denzel told PEOPLE in 2018. “And not to say a man can’t make a home a home, but my wife has made our house a home, and raised these beautiful kids and protected them and sacrificed for them, she did the heavy lifting.”
While accepting the American Film Institute’s life achievement award in 2019, Denzel said he “wouldn’t survive” without his wife’s love and support. “I would not be alive without Pauletta Washington,” he said.
The Remember the Titans actor sang Pauletta’s praises again in November 2023, when he appeared on Tom Brady’s radio show, Let’s Go! with Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray.
“I have been blessed beyond measure with the greatest woman in the world, who not only is a beautiful woman and a great wife and a great mother of our children, but she holds everything together,” Denzel said.
So, who is the actress, philanthropist and musician that Denzel Washington can’t live without? Here’s everything to know about Pauletta Washington.
She is a classically trained pianist and vocalist
According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Pauletta began entering piano competitions at age 10 before studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts, The Juilliard School and the University of North Texas.
She also recorded the song “It’s In Your Eyes” for the soundtrack of Denzel’s 1993 film Philadelphia.
She’s an accomplished actor
Pauletta began her acting career on Broadway, starring in Jesus Christ Superstar and Shakespeare’s Cabaret, among others, per the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She then ventured into TV and film, landing her first on-screen role on the same film she met her future husband.
“The first movie I ever did — TV movie — was about Wilma Rudolph and I played Wilma Rudolph’s boyfriend,” Denzel said on Live with Kelly and Ryan in 2018. “Pauletta was one of the track stars. I met her then, but I didn’t meet her then. I saw her then.”
She has since built an impressive résumé in TV. From 2017 to 2019, she worked on the series adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, and in 2021 she played Aretha Franklin’s grandmother Rachel in the biography series Genius: Aretha Franklin. She has also continued to work on Broadway, starring in a wide variety of productions.
She and Denzel disagree about how they met
In a 1996 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Pauletta revealed that she met Denzel at a party thrown by a mutual friend from Wilma.
“Denzel and his friends came at the very end of the party,” she recalled. “We spoke again. We were reintroduced. And then next night, I attended a play. And I got there late, so I snuck in and just sat down. I didn’t look at who was around me, and at intermission, the lights came up, and we were sitting next to each other.”
Pauletta added she grew attracted to Denzel over time. “I thought he was cute, but I fell in love with his spirit, really,” she told Winfrey. “That I saw first. And then I thought, ‘Not a bad package,’ you know?”
While Pauletta made the encounter sound like a happy coincidence, Denzel recalled the moment differently.
“I had talked at that party, I talked about going to see a play. I went to see the play and at intermission, the lights came up and she was sitting [there],” he recalled on Live with Kelly and Ryan. “She said she just happened to go see the play … I’m getting in trouble as I speak!”
She paid for the cab on their very first date
In 2017, Denzel recounted his first date with Pauletta during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The actor had planned to pay for a cab on their date, but his plan went slightly awry.
“I was gonna splurge and we were gonna take a cab,” he said. “And the meter’s going, and I’m going, ‘Uh oh … how far away does she live?’ She paid.”
She turned down two proposals from Denzel
At the 2013 premiere of Denzel’s film 2 Guns, Pauletta told Access Hollywood that he proposed to her three times. Denzel objected, recalling that it was only twice.
“It was three times. I know with age sometimes things [go], the mind,” Pauletta joked.
“You heard it here first,” Denzel said. “She turned me down, she said no. And since it was three times, that means she turned me down twice.”
She and Denzel married in 1983
Denzel and Pauletta got married in June 1983.
During his 2017 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the actor revealed their wedding also had a small mishap. “We were shaking so many hands, taking pictures, they ran out of food,” he told Kimmel. “We ended up at [a diner], we had eggs or something. True story.”
Following their 35th wedding anniversary in 2018, Denzel told PEOPLE that he and Pauletta kept their celebrations low-key. “We just chilled, had some dinner,” he said. “It was kind of quiet.”
She took a break from her career to raise their children
When Denzel began starring in the TV series St. Elsewhere in 1982, Pauletta took a step back from music and acting to raise their four children.
“When I became pregnant … [St. Elsewhere] was shooting in Los Angeles and I was here on Broadway,” she said in a 2011 interview with Wendy Williams. “Where would the child be, you know, in the air? So I decided that I wanted to — it was my choice — to be home and create a home. I’m so happy I did.”
She is a philanthropist
Pauletta is one of the founding and executive members of The Brain Trust of Cedars-Sinai, a group that raises money and awareness for research into brain tumors and the central nervous system, according to Spelman College. She is also on the board of trustees at Spelman.
In 2005, she and Denzel were awarded the BET Humanitarian Award, according to CBS News, for the Pauletta and Denzel Washington Gifted Scholars Program in Neuroscience. According to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the program offers undergraduates and graduate-level researchers the funds and resources to work with renowned physicians, neurosurgeons and scientists in their fields.
She enjoys cooking
In 2018, Denzel spoke to PEOPLE about the secret to their decades-long marriage. “I do what I’m told. I keep my mouth shut,” he joked.
He also shared what he appreciates most about his wife. “What pops into my head: security, food, a beautiful home,” he said.
When asked about her cooking, specifically, Denzel added, “She has a few [specialties]. I’ve been eating her curry chicken since I’ve known her. I used to make it too, but not as good as hers.”
Their children are following in their footsteps
The couple’s oldest son, John David, began his adult life as a professional football player. After playing for Morehouse College, John David was briefly signed to the St. Louis Rams. He also played in Germany with NFL Europe and for the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions for three seasons.
After his football career, John David made a name for himself in Hollywood. He’s starred in films like BlacKkKlansman, Tenet and Malcolm & Marie. In October 2022, he began performances in the Broadway production of The Piano Lesson with Samuel L. Jackson and Danielle Brooks.
John David spoke to PEOPLE in 2020 about how his parents influenced his career.
“I think the best actor in the industry, in the business, is my father,” he said. “I’m inspired by the kind of career he’s had and what he’s had to do. Again, he’s been on the frontline for many years and what he’s done with it, with his opportunities, I just am so inspired and continue to be inspired by what he does and how he works and his approach to the craft and the business.”
As for his mother, he said, “Pauletta Washington gives me inspiration. That’s my mother, the most consistent person in my life.”
The couple’s daughter, Olivia, is also an actress. In an October 2021 appearance on Good Morning America, Denzel discussed his and Pauletta’s children all being well-versed in the arts.
“I’m a dad so I’m gonna keep saying it: Olivia Washington is a great young actress. Very, very, very good young actress, so she’s coming for her brother [John David],” he joked. “It’s a team sport in our house.”
Their other children both work behind the scenes; son Malcolm is a director and producer and daughter Katia is also a producer.