scorecardThe ex-girlfriend of ousted McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook reveals the 'surreal and panic-inducing' trauma of becoming a tabloid sensation
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The ex-girlfriend of ousted McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook reveals the 'surreal and panic-inducing' trauma of becoming a tabloid sensation

Kate Taylor   

The ex-girlfriend of ousted McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook reveals the 'surreal and panic-inducing' trauma of becoming a tabloid sensation
Retail8 min read
  • Denise Paleothodoros saw her personal life dragged into the spotlight because of her romantic relationship to McDonald's ex-CEO Steve Easterbrook from 2014 to 2018.
  • Easterbrook made headlines when he was fired in November. In August, McDonald's alleged Easterbrook covered up sexual relationships with three employees after he and Paleothodoros broke up.
  • British tabloids latched onto the scandal, sending reporters to target Paleothodoros, her family, and her ex-husband in what she calls a "surreal and panic-inducing" experience.
  • "I was deeply and personally hurt. ... My online reputation went from bruised to battered," Paleothodoros told Business Insider in one of a series of recent interviews.
  • Now, Paleothodoros is working to repair her reputation and build her own PR consultancy.
  • Easterbrook did not respond to a request for comment placed through his attorney.

Denise Paleothodoros found out she was about to be dragged into a corporate sex scandal when her friend texted her: "Oh my God."

The text was accompanied by a link to the news — that her ex, Steve Easterbrook, had been accused by McDonald's of covering up sexual relationships with three employees during his time as McDonald's CEO. McDonald's said in its complaint, filed in August, that investigators found nude and sexually explicit photos of employees attached to an email that Easterbrook sent himself.

Read more: Insiders reveal how former McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook went from the chain's savior to its worst nightmare as sex-scandal accusations threaten to envelop the fast-food giant

Within 24 hours, Paleothodoros' name and photo were everywhere. Headlines about sexting and claims against Easterbrook were accompanied by photos of Paleothodoros and Easterbrook together. If any of her PR clients Googled her name, allegations against Easterbrook were the top hit. To make matters worse, the news broke just a few weeks after Paleothodoros launched her own PR consultancy.

"I was deeply and personally hurt," Paleothodoros told Business Insider. "That's when my online reputation went from bruised to battered."

Paleothodoros recently spoke to Business Insider in a series of interviews about her experience being dragged into McDonald's corporate scandal via Easterbrook, who she dated from 2014 to 2018.

Easterbrook did not respond to a request for comment placed through his attorney.

She shared what it was like for a past relationship to become tabloid fodder, including the invasive experience of being doggedly pursued by the British press. And, she explained how she is now rebuilding her career — including launching her own PR consultancy.

"My first priority was to set the record straight for my children and family, and second, to hopefully avoid misconceptions with potential business partners," Paleothodoros said. "My priority was definitely not about publicity. It was about what is discoverable online in the face of misinformation."

Easterbrook and Paleothodoros met through McDonald's

Paleothodoros and Easterbrook met in Sochi, Russia in 2014. She was on the McDonald's account for the Chicago-based PR firm Golin, while he was McDonald's chief brand officer.

In the following months, the professional relationship grew into a friendly flirtation, she said. Paleothodoros and Easterbrook were both going through divorces, and mindful of the impact the relationship could have on their families and careers. When things began to move in a romantic direction, Paleothodoros said both she and Easterbrook alerted higher-ups and she was taken off of the McDonald's account.

"We knew we were above board and that's all that really mattered to us, quite honestly," Paleothodoros said. "We did not flaunt the relationship."

There were some perks of dating Easterbrook, including three trips on the McDonald's private jet. However, Paleothodoros emphasized that their relationship was overall "very, very normal." They would cook dinner in on weeknights, with Easterbrook cleaning up and making Paleothodoros coffee afterwards. On weekends, they explored new restaurants in Chicago and spent time with their families.

"My friends were always very impressed by how he was so humble," Paleothodoros said.

Paleothodoros said she sometimes offered Easterbrook advice as a PR professional, but her correctives were primarily on how to use social media. Nothing about their relationship hinted at McDonald's future allegations against Easterbrook. Indeed, Easterbrook was thriving at the company, being promoted to CEO in 2015.

"He definitely wanted employees to feel energized, to come to work everyday and be passionate about the company and the brand," Paleothodoros said. "He wanted employees to feel proud of who they work for. Professionally speaking, it was important to him that he remain humbly grounded."

The pair broke up as trust 'eroded'

Paleothodoros said that the pair grew apart as Easterbrook found success as McDonald's CEO.

Easterbrook had started spending more time with a group of men within McDonald's network of employees, franchisees, and suppliers. A former McDonald's employee told Business Insider that Easterbrook and his social circle were known to frequent the so-called Viagra Triangle, a Chicago neighborhood filled with bars where older wealthy men go to pick up younger women. Paleothodoros said she was not invited on these outings, and felt that Easterbrook wanted to give the appearance he was single on these nights.

"The trust just eroded. It's just kind of as simple as that," Paleothodoros said. "The actions say it all."

Paleothodoros and Easterbrook stayed in occasional touch following their mutual breakup in April 2018. In October 2019, Paleothodoros reached out to Easterbrook to get coffee after hearing that he was not doing well emotionally. Paleothodoros said she assumed he was dealing with stress related to his high-profile job, as well as separation from his family and friends in the UK. Over coffee, Paleothodoros said, Easterbrook seemed unsteady and emotionally distant — like an entirely different person.

Easterbrook's behavior began to make sense to Paleothodoros a few weeks later. In early November, Easterbrook called Paleothodoros to tell her that he was being terminated from McDonald's, after the company investigated his relationship with a female employee. McDonald's investigators found that the relationship was sexual in nature, allegedly involving sexually explicit text messages and photos, but not physical contact.

"I got the courtesy call, [and] it all started to make sense to me," Paleothodoros said.

Paleothodoros had the 'surreal and panic-inducing' experience of being a British tabloid obsession

After the news of Easterbrook's termination broke, Paleothodoros LinkedIn views skyrocketed as McDonald's employees, PR professionals, and reporters searched her name. She began receiving media inquiries from reporters who heard she and Easterbrook had dated after meeting at work. Ultimately, Paleothodoros decided to confirm her relationship with Easterbrook with The Wall Street Journal.

"The Wall Street Journal had its facts straight — that we had properly disclosed our relationship and I had been removed from the McDonald's business to avoid conflicts of interest," Paleothodoros said. "So, I offered them one comment."

That might have been the end of things, if not for the fact that Easterbrook's termination had caught the attention of the British press. Tabloids like The Daily Mail followed the case closely — and soon began targeting Paleothodoros, her friends, and her family as potential sources. The experience, Paleothodoros said, was "surreal and panic-inducing."

"They splashed my LinkedIn picture all over their stories, tried accessing me at my home and office, and went even deeper into my personal life, making home visits to my former husband and also at his restaurant," Paleothodoros said. "They went to the home of my father and my former in-laws. They also visited with my former neighbors."

Paleothodoros said her first instinct was to protect her children, who were 14 and 18 years old at the time. She stayed home from work for weeks to avoid the press. Reporters waited outside her father's house and left notes in his mailbox. Paleothodoros grew fearful and anxious about how intrusive reporting could get.

Easterbrook and Paleothodoros reconnected in the aftermath of the scandal. Paleothodoros said Easterbrook expressed sorrow and remorse for putting her in this position, as he dealt with similar tactics from the British press.

"We were both in professional crisis management mode," Paleothodoros said. "And, because we had this shared experience, we were also there for emotional support."

'I had a constant feeling of embarrassment'

Paleothodoros struggled with lingering anxiety even after reporters moved on from the Easterbrook story. She returned to the office in December, but continued to struggle emotionally.

"I had a constant feeling of embarrassment," Paleothodoros said. "I also felt bad for the unwanted attention that it brought to my company."

After nearly 20 years working at Golin, Paleothodoros began discussing leaving the company. The pandemic created an opportunity to quietly exit in May. While Paleothodoros said the departure was the logical choice for herself and the PR firm, she knew the Easterbrook headlines could make it difficult to find a new job.

"Recruiters were honest with me — that in the current environment, my online reputation may give some hiring managers pause," Paleothodoros said.

So, instead of looking for a new job, Paleothodoros started working on building her own consultancy. She tapped into her network of clients who knew her track record. Paleothodoros said that she was finally letting go of the anxiety that plagued her for months. She quietly launched her consultancy in July.

Then, on August 10, McDonald's sued Easterbrook — and Paleothodoros was dragged right back into the scandal.

This time around, Paleothodoros sprang into action

Easterbrook hadn't given Paleothodoros a courtesy call before McDonald's filed its lawsuit. The pair haven't spoken since February, Paleothodoros said, when they decided it was time to independently prioritize addressing all the changes in their lives.

While Easterbrook's initial termination was a blow to Paleothodoros' reputation, his being accused of exchanging nude photos with employees was even more devastating.

"This time, tabloids and online AI content were identifying me as the only known woman associated with nude photos," Paleothodoros said. "These stories now topped Google searches on my name. Google trends showed high activity of my name being searched, and my LinkedIn views quickly increased nearly 4,000%."

Paleothodoros leaped into crisis management mode almost immediately. She spoke with clients one-on-one to tell them about the news and what actions she planned to take. Paleothodoros said she has not lost a single deal because of the scandal. Paleothodoros also decided to speak with The Daily Mail — one of the tabloids that had relentlessly sought out interviews in November.

"While I knew I'd surrender to their sensational style of storytelling, I agreed to move forward for a few reasons: their content does not hide behind a paywall, they were already cobbling together secondary information about our relationship, and they had already been dominating my Google search for months," Paleothodoros said.

Some of Paleothodoros' other plans for crisis management were already in place prior to the latest allegations against Easterbrook.

After getting a proposal saying it would cost more than $200,000 to clean up her Google search results, Paleothodoros developed her own multi-year plan to fix her SEO. Paleothodoros has been more active on social media and started writing about things she is passionate about, including how menopause impacts women professionally. She is also planning on changing her name back to her maiden name, losing the unique "Paleothodoros" surname.

As she manages the chaos, Paleothodoros remains struck by how different the version of Easterbrook portrayed in McDonald's lawsuit is from the man she knew. Paleothodoros never thought she would speak publicly about her relationship, much less more than two years after it ended. But, she said, she felt it was the decision she had to make.

"When you're faced with a crisis like this, you act in ways that prioritize the audience that matters the most to you," Paleothodoros said. "When all is said and done in the end, who and what really matter?"