Little Phoenix Reum, born by surrogate to Paris Hilton and her husband Carter, is gurgling happily today in his crib in the family’s extravagant mansion in an upscale neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
The two-month-old is a dream come true for the 42-year-old reality TV star, who says she longed for years to become a mother.
But the birth was not a conventional one —instead of going through pregnancy herself, the heiress-turned-businesswoman chose to find a surrogate to gestate and deliver her son. The reason, says Paris, was partly her fear of childbirth — witnessing a woman having a baby in her television show The Simple Life left her ‘traumatised’.
Hilton is the latest of many celebrities who have become mothers through surrogacy, leading their normal, glamorous lives with figures and careers intact and then, out of the blue, announcing a newborn’s arrival with photographs of tiny fingers or feet clasped in mum’s or dad’s hands.
Some, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman and Priyanka Chopra, are upfront about using surrogates for one or more of their children. Others, such as Naomi Campbell and Amber Heard, are more private about how their babies came into the world.
Shanna St Clair (pictured) warned that while surrogacy can bring ‘great joy;, there is a dark side to it
However, as one surrogate for celebrities, Shanna St Clair, will attest, the stories don’t always end in the warm glow of mutual satisfaction and cute social media posts.
‘Surrogacy can bring great joy — there’s the incredible high of knowing you made someone’s dream come true and that person gets their longed-for baby,’ says Shanna.
‘But you have two women, who may have never previously known each other and probably come from completely different social and financial backgrounds, joining together in this incredibly intimate process to create a baby.
‘There is all kinds of potential for it to go wrong. Surrogacy is not something you should enter into casually and it’s important that you are both clear about exactly what the arrangement entails.’
If you had a spare embryo waiting in a laboratory and were looking for a woman to carry your baby, you would probably want someone like Shanna. She’s smart, vivacious and is clearly a warm and fun mum.
A hairdresser by trade, she lives on a farm in the middle of picturesque countryside in Pennsylvania, where she keeps goats and chickens. She is in her cosy farmhouse kitchen for this interview.
It was after three easy pregnancies of her own, all by the time she was 30, that Shanna read an article in a women’s magazine about the struggles of infertile women and felt immediate sympathy.
She and her builder husband Joseph had their own two sons and a daughter but her first daughter had been stillborn at 26 weeks, so she understood the trauma of bereavement and the longing for a child.
Little Phoenix Reum, born by surrogate to Paris Hilton and her husband Carter, is gurgling happily today in his crib
With her family’s agreement, she contacted a surrogacy agency.
‘It wasn’t because I needed to pay my bills — we were OK financially,’ explains Shanna. ‘I looked at surrogacy as a gift I could give another woman.’
The agency was thorough. ‘I had tons of forms to fill out. I had to undergo a psychological evaluation. I had to be cleared not only by my GP but by my gynaecologist. I had to have an ultrasound, blood tests — it was a lot,’ the 46-year-old recalls.
Her profile was then submitted to prospective parents. For privacy reasons, Shanna cannot name any of those involved in her surrogacy experiences; names have been changed.
‘I hit it off with Jennifer and Mark, the very first couple I met. I had great sympathy for Jennifer, who was in her early 30s and had frozen her eggs because she had medical issues and couldn’t carry a baby.
‘Jennifer came from a well-known and wealthy family, so we had very different lives, but I had an instant connection with her,’ says Shanna. ‘They were both kind and grateful and made an effort to get to know me and my husband and my children.’
It took seven attempts for Shanna to get pregnant.
‘The fertility clinic said the problem was the quality of Jennifer’s eggs, so there was no talk of changing to a different surrogate,’ says Shanna.
‘It did take a physical and mental toll — you’re taking medications, you’re taking hormones, you’re getting ultrasounds to check the lining of your uterus, so it was full-on.
Some, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman and Priyanka Chopra, are upfront about using surrogates for one or more of their children
I was told she’d had a baby — with another surrogate
‘I was the one who was supposed to be carrying these embryos and keeping them safe, so there was a sense of not doing my job, even though it was irrational.
‘The contract was for four attempts but I re-signed the contract for another four attempts because it became almost a mission to give these people a family. I was very emotionally invested in it.’
Over the course of three years, Shanna received payment of $50,000 (£40,000), which covered loss of income from her job, travel to the IVF clinic and other expenses.
When Shanna gave birth to a boy, the couple were in the delivery room. ‘It was a happy experience for all of us,’ she comments. ‘I still keep in touch with the family.’
Months later, Jennifer contacted her to say she knew another woman who needed a surrogate.
The woman celebrity, whom we will call Catherine, spoke to Shanna on the phone.
‘I loved her story about being in her early 40s and trying to have a baby with her own eggs and a sperm donor. She had been trying for years and had used other surrogates but the pregnancies had failed.
‘She was going to be a single mother but that didn’t influence my decision at all — I didn’t judge — and I decided to go ahead.
‘At the end of the conversation, she pointed out that I’d already gone through all the psychological reviews and medical tests, so we didn’t need to go through that again. All I needed was a signature from my gynaecologist,’ remembers Shanna.
As one surrogate for celebrities, Shanna, will attest, the stories don’t always end in the warm glow of mutual satisfaction and cute social media posts. Pictured, Nicole Kidman, who has been open about using surrogates
‘Coming off a beautiful experience with the first mother, I didn’t foresee a problem with that. There were a lot of things that Catherine and I should have talked about first, in hindsight.’
Contracts were signed — for three tries at pregnancy — within 30 days of the two women speaking.
The first time Shanna met Catherine was at the transfer of the first embryo at an expensive IVF clinic in New York, which was furnished like a five-star hotel.
When you have money, there’s a danger of thinking: I can get someone to grow a baby for me
‘I naively expected us to have this instant bond over having a child together and it wasn’t there. She was standoffish and self-absorbed — we had a very superficial conversation, in my mind, for this important thing that was about to happen.’
The celebrity left before Shanna had the transfer — and failed to thank her. This rang alarm bells with Shanna, but she managed to put them to the back of her mind.
‘She already had failed pregnancies and I thought maybe she was trying to protect herself from further disappointment,’ she explains.
As the ‘carrier’, Shanna was the first to know the initial transfer had failed when her blood test results came back negative. She waited until Catherine had been told before sending her a message of consolation. ‘She was nonchalant — and I was mystified by that,’ says Shanna.
Before the second transfer, the celebrity took Shanna and her husband to dinner — and the occasion was another ‘red flag’ that Shanna says made her feel uncomfortable and apprehensive.
‘She was rude to the waiting staff, chose food from the menu that I said I didn’t want and ridiculed me when I said I didn’t want any wine.
‘A sip of wine wouldn’t have hurt but I was about to do another transfer and I didn’t feel it was appropriate. She even flirted with my husband!’
Shanna laughs at it now and adds: ‘I thought, ‘I might be having a baby for someone I don’t even like’.’
The second transfer also failed after Shanna’s blood results came back negative again.
‘I was taking medications and hormones all the way through — daily shots and then progesterone shots as you come closer to the transfer. That was rough on me,’ says Shanna.
‘You have to give yourself a month in between transfers, to go through your own menstrual cycle, before starting again.’
During the third transfer, Catherine’s behaviour changed and she seemed nicer and more relaxed towards Shanna.
At last, when Shanna’s blood results came back, the numbers were positive. ‘When I called to tell Catherine the good news, I thought she’d be over the moon but she didn’t seem particularly excited,’ recalls Shanna.
A few days later, with Shanna in the early stages of pregnancy, she received a shocking phone call from Catherine. With little preamble and no apology, Catherine told her that she’d just had a son, delivered by another surrogate.
‘She said she wanted to tell me before I read about it in the newspapers — and when I remarked that she’d never told me she had another surrogate, she said words to the effect that she had been under no obligation to tell me.
‘After we hung up, I was shocked but I messaged her and said ‘congratulations, enjoy the baby’. She didn’t respond.’
Knowing that Catherine finally had a child and with their relationship so strained, Shanna admits briefly thinking there might be some relief if this third pregnancy failed, too.
‘I hate to say it but I did,’ she confesses. ‘Part of me wouldn’t wish a loss on anyone, so I struggled with those feelings.
‘I still had hopes that this would work, or that whatever way it went would work out for the best. It was a mixed bag of emotions.’
Shanna was monitored by the clinic and took another blood test to check her hCG hormone levels three days after the phone call. The result came back as inconclusive — and when she reported this to Catherine, the celebrity sent only a brief response, saying to keep her informed. Shanna waited it out, but her hormone levels started to drop.
‘I knew things were going wrong and I contacted Catherine to keep her updated. Because I was unsure about our relationship by this point, I felt apprehensive about even speaking to her, so I sent her a message instead. I said “I’m sorry that it’s bad news . . . it’s not a miscarriage yet but it looks like that’s where it’s headed.”‘
She asked after Catherine’s new baby and also asked whether she should forward the remainder of the bills to her.
She was astonished when Catherine texted back: ‘Shanna, our relationship has ended. I am appalled at your coldness over the birth of my child. Forward your bills.’
She ridiculed me and even flirted with my husband
Shanna was paid about $11,000 (£8,920) plus expenses. She said the contract she signed with Catherine had specified a $45,000 payment for a baby, $55,000 if it was twins and $60,000 for triplets or more.
The two women didn’t speak again — and two weeks after she cut her ties with Catherine, Shanna had a miscarriage.
‘It was like a very, very heavy period,’ she recalls.
Months later, Catherine was on television and made disparaging comments about surrogates. ‘I burst into tears,’ Shanna admits.
She says she felt that Catherine made her feel like an employee.
‘I’m worried that surrogacy is being taken too lightly — you can order your designer clothes and shoes and your designer baby,’ says Shanna. ‘Obviously, there are times when a woman has a medical condition where she physically can’t carry a child — but that’s not all that’s happening. I think when you have money and privilege, there’s a danger of people thinking: “I can get someone to grow a baby for me.”‘
Shanna also believes women who have their babies by surrogate should be truthful about it. ‘I do think they have to be more open and honest about how their baby came to be, instead of just announcing “I have a baby!”
‘I feel sad for women who grow these wonderful lives for nine months, passing it to someone else, and that the trials they went through are not acknowledged.’
Four years after Shanna and Catherine parted ways, Shanna carried twins for a non-celebrity couple she met at a fertility conference. The births were complicated and Shanna had a stroke and seizures and was in intensive care for seven days.
‘After the third surrogacy I nearly lost my life. It shows that there’s risk in every pregnancy — but it all turned out OK in the end,’ she says.
Astonishingly, she doesn’t regret her third surrogacy but instead says that, for the most part, ‘it was another beautiful experience, which washed away the difficult time I had with Catherine’.
The most important thing Shanna says she learned from being a surrogate is never to rush into the arrangement.
‘I believe both women have to sit down beforehand, working with a reputable surrogacy agency, to put down in detail what everyone is expecting from this journey. If you don’t, there are so many things that can go wrong.’
Shanna has had a hysterectomy, so there will be no more gifts of life to childless men and women. ‘I had two good experiences and one bad experience but I don’t regret them,’ she says.
‘I think women who carry babies for others are heroes and it’s a wonderful thing to do, as long as both sides know exactly what they’re getting into.’