From growing up in poverty in Kilmichael, Mississippi, USA, to being a wealthy socialite and the wife of acting legend Robert De Niro, Grace Hightower’s rags-to-riches story has been one for the books. The African-American philanthropist was brought up in unglamorous circumstances, and started working odd jobs at a young age to support her family; later, she joined Trans World Airlines as a flight attendant, in order to see the world and get a much-needed change of scenery.
Grace, who was born on 7th April 1955, lived in Paris and London for a while in her 20s and 30s, working as a mutual fund trader and in restaurants. She met Robert De Niro in 1987, while working at the upmarket London eatery Mr. Chow At the time, the actor had been married to the actress and model Dihanne Abbott for eleven years; a year later, they divorced, and he almost immediately began dating Toukie Smith.
He began dating Grace after he split from Toukie, although the exact timeline of their relationship is a mystery. In the 1990s, the “Taxi Driver” star also dated supermodel Naomi Campbell, so it’s possible that he was seeing both women at the same time. Whatever the case, in June 1997 the Hollywood bigshot and Grace married in an intimate affair, which took place at their home in Marbletown, New York, with just 11 guests present.
In March 1998, Robert and Grace welcomed their first child, Elliot, to the world. Fans of the couple were shocked to learn that Robert had filed for divorce in 1999; although the pair remained on good terms and co-parented successfully for two years, an ugly custody battle began in 2001, and intimate details of their marriage were leaked to the press.
During court proceedings, the actor accused the socialite of having a bad temper, and once breaking one of his ribs during a fight. Meanwhile, Grace claimed that Robert had a drug problem, and had been intimate with another woman prior to their separation. In the midst of the custody battle, a judge ordered that both parties meet with a mental health expert.
However, the divorce was never finalized – in 2004, Robert and Grace appeared to be happier than ever, having apparently left their problems in the past. In November of that year, the famous couple renewed their vows at their farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York State – this time round, there were dozens of A-listers present, including Ben Stiller and Meryl Streep.
Grace and Robert were then often spotted together at high-profile events, and she even became his publicist. In December 2011, they welcomed their daughter, Helen Grace, via surrogacy, announcing the news via an interview with PEOPLE magazine. Over the next few years, the actor and philanthropist made plenty of public appearances, such as Robert’s star-studded 75th birthday party in August 2018. Even so, only three months later the news broke that the former lovebirds were once again going their separate ways.
“We [Grace and I] are entering a period of transition in our relationship which is a difficult but constructive process,” Robert told PEOPLE at the time, while praising Grace as a “wonderful mother” and asking for privacy and respect.
Grace has yet to be publicly linked to anyone since her divorce, but Robert has since moved on. In 2021, he was photographed on a romantic vacation in the south of France with the martial arts instructor Tiffany Chen, whom he met in 2015 – when he was still married to Grace – and while working together on “The Intern”.
During the outing, Robert and Tiffany were caught kissing and holding hands on a friend’s luxury yacht. The couple have made other public appearances since then, with sources telling PEOPLE that Tiffany would often visit the set of Robert’s film, “Wise Guys”. In May 2023, the legendary actor shared that he had welcomed his seventh child, Gia Virginia Chen De Niro.
Shortly after the announcement, the couple were seen together at the Vanity Fair x Prada party that took place during the 2023 Cannes Film Festival; they also went on a double date with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler. Nevertheless, their current relationship status is a mystery.
Career & Net Worth
Over the years, Grace has had a handful of TV and movie roles, making her small-screen debut in 1994 with a guest-starring appearance in an episode of “NYPD Blue”. In 1997, she played Chris in the fan film “Brotherhood”; 12 years later, she made her feature film debut playing a social worker in the Lee Daniels movie “Precious”. Grace’s last movie roles were in 2012 when she played Yardley’s girlfriend in “The Paperboy”, and 2017 when she had a minor role in “Unspoken: Diary of an Assassin”.
In 2013, the philanthropist launched Coffee of Grace, marketing Rwandan products internationally to help improve the quality of life of the country’s citizens. Grace is also a board member of the New York Fund for Public Schools and the New York Women’s Foundation, as well as a member of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and Ronald Perelman’s Women’s Heart Health Advisory Council. Never one to boast about her good deeds, Grace’s work has been honored by the American Cancer Society of New York City and other institutions.
Fashion journalist André Leon Talley of Vogue magazine covered Grace’s luxurious 55th birthday party in 2010. The gala was attended by dozens of well-known faces as well as Grace’s nearest and dearest. In the same year, she also presented Lee Daniels with the Pratt Institute’s Creative Spirit Award. Despite having no singing experience, Grace also proved herself to be a decent vocalist when performing “Somethin’s Comin’ My Way” for the “Precious” movie soundtrack.
With a reported net worth of $20 million, Grace is currently living in New York City with her children. Her son, Elliot, was diagnosed with autism at a young age, although it would be years until his father revealed the news in 2016. Elliot’s love of sports and exercise helped him find confidence in himself, and he’s since become an accomplished player who was previously featured in the “Special Olympics: 50 Game Changers” series.