Ambrosia Healy and Dennis Dennehy’s first meeting wasn’t quite storybook perfect.
It was a stormy day backstage at the Tibetan Freedom Concert at Washington, D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in June 1998. Healy and Dennehy were already aware of each other — but they weren’t fans. Dennehy, then handling publicity at Geffen Records, had a roster that included Britpop band Embrace, and the band’s legendary manager, Jazz Summers, had recently suggested bringing Healy, a talented indie publicist he was working with, into the fold to take the lead for the act’s press.
To put it mildly, Dennehy wasn’t thrilled. When an indie is brought in to supplement a label representative’s work, he says, it implies, “You’re not doing your job” — and anyway, he still insists he’d “gotten Embrace under control” on his own.
Meanwhile, shortly before the concert, Healy had called Dennehy to discuss a different artist. Her star client, Dave Matthews Band, was playing two stadium gigs supported by Dennehy’s Geffen act Beck, and she wanted to review photo logistics. Still stinging from the Embrace episode, he rebuffed her. “I was like, ‘This guy f–king sucks!’ ” Healy recounts. By the time Summers introduced them backstage at RFK Stadium, they were primed for conflict.
“You were kind of an a–hole!” Healy insists today. “No, you — that’s not true at all!” Dennehy protests with a bit of dramatic flair. “You gave me the brushoff!” Twenty years later, he hasn’t quite given up on this point, though their circumstances have, to say the least, changed: In what feels like a plot twist out of a music industry romcom, Healy and Dennehy have now been married for 14 years. “It’s like [When] Harry Met Sally, without the friendship,” Healy says with a laugh.
We’re sitting on this July afternoon at Farm Club, a hip farm-to-table restaurant in Northern Michigan, where the couple, who are based in Los Angeles, own a home in the Traverse City area. They’ve been tagging in and out of here to piece together a summer for their 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son; Dennehy arrives a few minutes late, having driven directly from Cherry Capital Airport after flying in from New York that morning, and in a few days, Healy will return to L.A. for work. Understandably, both publicity lifers seem mildly apprehensive about being the subjects of a profile rather than playing their usual roles as seasoned pros ensuring an artist’s interview doesn’t go awry. When we order a round of pilsners, Dennehy half-jokingly quips, “That’s off the record!” Healy overrules him.
Over three decades in music publicity, Dennehy and Healy have guided scores of culture-shifting artists’ careers, as well as those of executives at the highest echelons of the business. “It’s a real name-check of major music industry events,” reflects Dennehy, 56, as he begins to unspool his history with Healy, 55; names like Jimmy and Coran (Iovine and Capshaw) pop up casually as supporting players in the couple’s personal story. From digital piracy to the pandemic, the pair has seen — and helped shape the messaging around — widespread change in the business, even if, as Healy puts it, “what’s needed [from publicists] has always been the same.”
Since 2014, Healy has served as executive vp/head of media strategy and relations at Capitol Music Group. Dennehy has been chief communications officer at AEG Presents since 2019, when he left Interscope Geffen A&M after 20 years. Together, they’ve navigated a turbulent, demanding music industry, and though their relationship has created conflict between them countless times — over Saturday Night Live bookings, magazine covers, Grammy campaigns and lots more — working in the same field, and the mutual understanding that has brought them, has strengthened their bond. “It’s not all kill or be killed,” Healy says. “In fact, the kill or be killed, that’s just the nature of what we do. But my greatest ally? I’m married to my greatest ally.”
Technically, Dennehy and Healy first crossed paths three years before their Tibetan Freedom Concert run-in, at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 1995. At the Austin Convention Center, Dennehy, who had just moved to L.A., spotted Healy and asked his then-Geffen colleague Jim Merlis, “Who is that woman? She’s very attractive.” Merlis didn’t know, so Dennehy later “did the brush-by” and saw her tag: “Ambrosia Healy, Ambrosia Healy PR.”
Both had established themselves in music publicity in the early 1990s. Though Healy might’ve seemed destined for the music business (her father, Dan Healy, was a sound engineer for the Grateful Dead for most of its career), she had settled in Boulder, Colo., with plans to become a teacher. While working as a cocktail waitress — and handling publicity — at the Fox Theatre, she saw Dave Matthews Band when it passed through the venue on its first tour west of the Mississippi in 1993; when DMB returned to town a few months later, she met its manager, Coran Capshaw, who asked her to do the band’s publicity. After graduating college, Dennehy had landed in New York with record-industry aspirations, and a short spell doing publicity at an indie German metal label led him in 1992 to the Geffen Records publicity job he would hold for the rest of the decade.
As Dennehy puts it today, he and Merlis “thought we knew everybody. You know, you’re in New York, you’re young, you’re…” “Full of yourself,” Healy deadpans. When he saw in the SXSW guide that she was from Boulder, his spirits fell: “I just closed it, and I was like, ‘Aw, I’m never going to meet her.’ ”
But by the late ’90s, Dennehy’s and Healy’s social and professional circles began to converge. Healy moved to New York in 1997, and though Dennehy was out west for his Geffen job, he kept his apartment in Manhattan, where he regularly spent a week per month. “All of a sudden, we’re having lots of mutual friends in New York, and so our paths started to cross,” Healy says. “Every time I’d be like, ‘Ugh.’ Like, ‘That guy is so mean. He’s so rude. I don’t want to be around him.’ ”
“And that’s what I thought about her,” Dennehy says. “ ‘What is her deal?’ ”
For professionals in other fields, a shared occupation might well be the perfect grounds for a meet-cute — but the very nature of music PR prevented that for the two young publicists. “Even your best friends, in what we do, are your competitors,” Dennehy says.
One of those best-friend competitors was Sheila Richman, then working in publicity at Island/Def Jam, who rented a house with Dennehy and longtime Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine in La Quinta, Calif., for Coachella 2001. Healy, also a close friend of Richman’s and Fine’s, was in town, too, and they all met for dinner the night before the festival.
“I get there and that mean guy” — Dennehy — “is there,” Healy says. “And over the course of that dinner in April 2001…”
“And into the evening,” Dennehy interrupts.
“No, it was the dinner,” Healy says. “It started with dinner.”
“I know,” Dennehy says. “We sat around talking for…”
“I was like, ‘Oh, no. I — I love him,’ ” Healy says. (Dennehy: “I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome!’ ”) “We were sitting next to each other. I asked him for one of his shrimp from his shrimp cocktail as a flirting move and he let me have it. Cut to years later, I know he really doesn’t like to share his shrimp cocktail.” (On the other hand, when Dennehy plucks a crouton from Healy’s salad shortly after they tell this story, it goes unacknowledged.)
“I remember them talking all night and really hitting it off,” recalls Richman, now executive vp of publicity at Atlantic Records. “As the weekend progressed, it seemed like they were falling for each other. It seemed like it made total sense.”
Even so, the weekend didn’t cement their romance; they would date on and off for two monthslong stints before encounters at a fortuitous Big Hassle Media holiday party in December 2003 — where Dennehy recalls thinking, “I need to get back together with Ambrosia Healy,” when he saw her — and the subsequent Grammys brought them together for good. Following short periods at Shore Fire Media and Marty Diamond’s Little Big Man agency, Healy moved to L.A. to run publicity for Capitol Records, where clients included an ascendant Coldplay. Dennehy, meanwhile, joined Interscope Geffen A&M following Geffen’s 1999 merger with Interscope, where, among other things, he was soon running point on PR for one of the world’s biggest artists, Eminem; by 2002, he was head of IGA’s publicity department.
“Think we were competitors before?” Healy says. “We now have identical jobs.”
Saturday Night Live is a sore spot for the couple. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s — with Dennehy at Interscope and Healy at Capitol, then an indie, then Capitol Music Group — they would often compete for the same bookings. For years, he says, “For one of us to win, the other one had to lose.”
“If I call Dennis, Ambrosia will typically let him do his thing and obviously hear what’s going on,” says SNL coordinating producer Brian Siedlecki, who has worked at SNL since the mid-’90s and booked the show’s music for almost that long. “If I call Ambrosia and he’s sitting there, he’ll be screaming the names of his artists in the background while I’m trying to have a conversation with her.”
In early 2014, Healy got Bastille on SNL before Dennehy scored a booking for The 1975 (“Made me insane,” he says), and in fall 2018, she booked Maggie Rogers, then just bubbling up and without an album out, over Dennehy’s priority, Ella Mai, who had scored two huge Billboard Hot 100 hits in the preceding months. “We were in a full-on brawl,” he says.
“It was quiet around our house for a couple days,” Healy recalls. “That was the time I was like, ‘If you don’t get it, aren’t you happy I get it?!” “And I was like, ‘No, I want somebody I don’t know to get it!’ ” Dennehy retorts. (Ultimately, they both got their SNL wishes: Mai played the show just two weeks after Rogers.)
By the ’10s, Dennehy and Healy — who bought their house in L.A.’s Hancock Park in 2006 and got married in early 2009 — had established a clandestine but (mostly) compassionate rhythm. “There are times we’re on the phone and the other one’s listening and you’re like, ‘What are you doing here? Get out of the room,’ ” Dennehy says. “Especially before we had kids, there were like two silos in our house. We always had to be two rooms away from each other.”
“It’s a mutual understanding,” Healy says. “These are our livelihoods. We have to be trusted by our employers. There were things we couldn’t talk about.” Or, as Dennehy puts it, “It’s a little cloak and dagger. It’s a little Mr. & Mrs. Smith in our house sometimes.”
Finding that balance took trial and error. In early 2008, a lawyer working with Dennehy needed to contact a prominent magazine editor (even today, they can’t share specifics, but Healy calls it a “cease-and-desist situation”) who Dennehy knew was a personal friend of Healy’s. Without explanation, he asked her for the editor’s number — “Back then, you didn’t have everyone’s cellphone number,” she clarifies — and, assuming good faith, she gave it to him. Backstage at a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Healy received a call from the editor explaining a lawyer had just called.
“We hadn’t just been dating, we had been dating for a long time,” Healy says, adding that Dennehy explained himself at the time by saying he was under pressure from his colleagues and was willing to do what he had to — even betraying the trust of the person he shared a home with — to get it done. “That was a big line crossed,” she continues. “We haven’t had many of those.”
“But you learn from that,” Dennehy adds. “You figure out how far you can push things.”
Their periodic conflicts make for good stories, but the couple are emphatic about the overall benefits of their shared profession. In no small part, that’s because while their styles differ — they agree that Healy is more methodical while Dennehy is, in her words, “a vibe guy” — they see the job similarly.
“What both of them share [is] they don’t do press. They tell stories,” says Jim Guerinot, who as manager of Nine Inch Nails worked with Dennehy (before the band left Interscope in 2007) and later Healy. “Some people just carpet-bomb the press. Both of them were always very clear about forcing the artist into having a vision for the story that they want to tell and then telling that story.”
That extends to the demands of the gig itself. “We understand what the pull of the job is and where you need to be at a certain time,” Dennehy says, recalling an ex who “couldn’t comprehend why I was at CBGB’s until three in the morning every night.” When his and Healy’s newborn daughter was just a few weeks old, she understood when Dennehy had to fly to Dublin to shoot a U2 magazine cover: “She’s like, ‘Yeah, you have to go.’ ”
Both now laugh about their years facing off in label PR. Dennehy’s pivot into the live space was unexpectedly tumultuous — less than a year after assuming his AEG role, he ended up navigating the biggest calamity that sector has ever faced, the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re noticeably relieved that his new gig has helped ease their professional tensions.
“We’re not competing anymore,” says Dennehy before Healy cuts in: “Actually, it’s kind of more fun than it has ever been.”
This story will appear in the Aug. 26, 2023, issue of Billboard.