The Firefly Lane star and her husband, Josh, are raising their three kids on a Utah ranch where they can foster dogs, keep horses and chickens, and live far from the spotlight. She opens up about life with animals, pandemic parenting, adoption, and living so close to her own mom.

By Catherine Hong
March 02, 2021
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Katherine Heigl has met hundreds of fans over the years, but there's one exchange, she says, that surpassed them all. It was about four years ago, not long after the actor had given birth to her youngest child, Joshua. Heigl was out doing errands near her home in Utah when she was approached by a teen girl.

"Oh my God, hi," said the girl, blushing. "Do you know the show Grey's Anatomy?"

The actor smiled and responded that yes, she did.

"Do you know the character Izzie Stevens?" asked the girl, hardly containing her excitement.

Heigl—who won an Emmy in 2007 for her portrayal of the beautiful young surgeon—nodded again and prepared for that inevitable moment of shriek-punctuated celeb recognition.

"Are you her mother?"

Katherine Heigl and Josh Kelley's family on couch
Group huddle on the couch! From left: Adalaide holding rescue cat Checkers, Josh, Naleigh, Joshua, and Katherine, plus Sarge, who was saved from an abandoned puppy mill.
| Credit: Mark Williams + Sara Hirakawa

As Heigl shares this story over Zoom, she laughs so long and hard that she has to wipe tears from her eyes. The horrifying (yet hilarious) moment of hearing she looked old enough to be her own mother isn't something most actors would readily reveal. But Heigl, one of the biggest rom-com stars of the aughts, has a willingness to laugh at herself that makes it impossible not to fall for her, even over a webcam at a distance of more than 2,000 miles.

Just like almost everyone else in the nation, the 42-year-old married mother of three has been hunkered down at home since the pandemic hit. Her very lively household includes her musician husband of 13 years, Josh Kelley (his latest album, My Baby & the Band, dropped last year), 12-year-old daughter, Naleigh, 8-year-old daughter, Adalaide, 4-year-old son, Joshua, five dogs (Bubba, Flora, Tambor, Sarge, and Poppy), and three cats (Checkers, Coco, and Mr. Woo), all rescues.

Heigl's actual mother and producing partner, Nancy, has a house on the family's sprawling ranch, where they keep horses, donkeys, goats, and chickens. The ranch also includes Heigl Hounds of Hope, an adoption center for vulnerable dogs rescued from high-kill shelters. It's one of many animal-welfare initiatives supported by the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, a nonprofit that Heigl and her mother established in 2008 to honor Katherine's late brother, Jason, who was also a passionate animal lover.

"Animals are so much easier than children," Heigl says. "Far fewer demands!" Instead of being on the road right now promoting her latest project, the Netflix drama Firefly Lane (based on the best-selling novel by Kristin Hannah), Heigl has been doing laundry, battling tweenage Naleigh over cell-phone privileges, and spending an estimated two hours every day picking up "apple cores, wrappers, and other stuff left on the floor and on the tables and on the sofas." And while she acknowledges her privilege in being able to quarantine in comfort, she voices the same fatigue afflicting so many parents. "This is the longest period I have consistently spent with my children," she says. "At first I loved cooking inspired meals, but now I'm like, 'Kids, just make yourself a sandwich.'"

Katherine Heigl in jacket with adopted dog Sarge on beach
Production of the friendship tale Firefly Lane, now on Netflix, wrapped a year ago, just before lockdown. Heigl stars in it with Sarah Chalke and is also one of the executive producers.
| Credit: Mark Williams + Sara Hirakawa

Before we get into your experience as a parent, I'm dying to ask you about your own mom, Nancy. She's been your manager since you were a teenager, and you call her your mentor and also your best friend. What's your secret?

Well, it wasn't always like this. When I was a kid I was pretty terrified of her. But I was a very good girl, and I followed the rules as a kid. I never snuck out, I never drank. Later, in my 20s, we started clashing, and that's when I realized that if we were going to keep working together, our relationship had to shift. It evolved into what I would call a respectful friendship. I always knew that my mother clearly adored me, clearly supported me, and would do anything for me.

It says a lot that you choose to live so close to each other.

Yeah, she's just five minutes down the road. We speak twice a day. We get our nails done together, we go to the grocery store together. Sometimes we have lunch or coffee or cocktails together. She's 77 now, which blows my mind. But one task she will not do is babysit. She loves the kids, but that is not her thing. She says, "Don't call me to take care of your children unless the first words out of your mouth are, 'Help, I'm bleeding.'"

Your three kids are at such distinct stages. Naleigh, your oldest, is a tween. How is she doing?

She's only one of two kids in her grade who doesn't have their own phone. So she's been sneaking my iPad and creating TikTok videos without my permission. I know she thinks I'm being a tyrant, but I worry about the effect of social media on kids her age. I watched The Social Dilemma. So I'm like, "Go ahead and hate me. I'm trying to save you!"

Of your three children, I've heard your middle child, Adalaide, is the one who loves riding the most.

Yeah, thank God somebody on this whole horse ranch does. She's my pistol, all piss and vinegar. She is fearless. She actually wants to start barrel racing [a rodeo event where horseback riders compete to weave through barrels at top speed]. And she loves to make Naleigh laugh.

And what about your youngest, Joshua?

Right now he's obsessed with Spider-Man and the Hulk. Before that, it was John Deere tractors, cement trucks, and dinosaurs. He's a clichéd study in boyness, I guess. Our nickname for him is Stinkews. My mother has told me on more than one occasion that he's totally spoiled. Not wrong. I'm working on it.

Katherine Heigl's children Naleigh Adalaide Joshua on couch with cat
Credit: Mark Williams + Sara Hirakawa

It must have been a relief when you found out you were having a boy, just for the fact that it might dampen the sense of competition with his sisters.

Yes, I was so relieved. It was actually a big reason why I was vacillating between trying to get pregnant or adopting again, since with adoption you can specify the sex. I just thought, another girl could mean lifelong therapy for all of us.

You've often spoken about how you always knew you wanted to adopt a child, in large part because your parents adopted your older sister, Meg, from South Korea. So you and Josh adopted Naleigh from South Korea when she was 9 months old, and then adopted Adalaide at birth here in the U.S. Now that your girls are 8 and 12, am I right that they probably have deeper questions about their birth stories than they had when they were little?

They do have more questions as they get older. We have said to them, this is your story. We don't have any information about your biological fathers, but we do have a bit about your biological mothers. If you guys want to talk more about them, you can have as much or as little information as you want. Tell us what you're comfortable with knowing.

You've spoken openly about your own recent growth of understanding about having white privilege, or as you put it, living in your "white bubble."

Because I was raised with adoption, looking beyond skin color was the norm for me, and I just believed that love is love—it doesn't matter what we look like. But then when I asked my sister, Meg, if she had been treated one way when she was out in public with our parents and a different way when she was out by herself without them, she said, "Oh yeah, all the time!" That made me realize that I had been so naïve. At first, I got very angry. But I had to calm down and realize, okay, this isn't about how it makes me feel. It's about how I need to protect my daughters and prepare them for the world, because I can't change society in one fell swoop.

Another aspect of their upbringing has to be growing up with parents who are both in the public eye. How do you think it's affected them?

The other day, Adalaide came home from school and acted out what she heard from her friends. Like, "Omigosh, your dad's music! Your mom's movies!" She's like, yeah, I know. My parents are famous, I got it. And for Naleigh, I think it's a little bit embarrassing. But the nice thing is that we've been a part of this community for 12 years, and our kids get to see us live just like everybody else, away from the hoopla and the paparazzi.

Your kids are lucky to be growing up in a household surrounded by so many animals.

Caring for animals is a great way to teach children compassion, kindness, loyalty, and responsibility. I think dogs, especially, are the perfect companions. All they live for is to love you and to be loved in return. It's so heartbreaking to see a dog who's been abandoned. Old dogs, especially, are my thing.

Have you guys thought at all about adding one more child to your family?

Before the pandemic, I thought that we needed one more child to complete this home. I wasn't sure if we would go the foster care route or adoption or maybe another pregnancy. But now I have completely changed my mind. I am very content with my three!

After the first few months on lockdown with their kids, I think a lot of parents probably came to the same conclusion.

Yeah, but you know, I could see myself fostering one more dog. There's one sweet old girl now at the shelter named Olive who was used for breeding and then abandoned. I'd love to let her live out her last couple of years here on a soft bed. I just have to convince Josh.

Katherine Heigl in tan jacket on beach
Credit: Mark Williams + Sara Hirakawa

Everything You Need to Know About Katherine Heigl's Family

How we choose names for our rescue pets: Divine inspiration!

The kids care for our pets by... Helping to feed them every morning and give them fresh water twice a day

Zaniest pets we've ever had: Ferrets

Easiest way to make my kids laugh: Tickle them, plus Josh's dad puns always get Naleigh to giggle

Least favorite parenting task: Disciplining

Most favorite parenting task: Nighttime cuddles and check-ins

Show we watch together: The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2021 issue as "Katherine Heigl Finds Her Happy Place." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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