Face of Malibu: Karen Portugal York

Karen Portugal York

The Face of Malibu is an ongoing public portrait project by portraitist Johanna Spinks to record the many unique personalities and newsmakers who shape the modern Malibu community. Each sitter is always painted in a single live sitting. If there is someone you would like to nominate, please email Emily Sawicki at emily@malibutimes.com. To see more of Spinks’ portrait work, visit johannaspinks.com.

They say that behind every successful man there is a great woman. This couldn’t be truer for Arnold and Karen Portugal York. Married for 52 years, Karen has been the driving force behind where they are today. Co-publisher and chief marketing officer of The Malibu Times, Karen has a long list of achievements to her name.

With a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in sociology and a master’s degree from USC in occupational therapy, Karen has developed, administered and managed several successful business operations in the fields of healthcare services, marketing, advertising, executive recruitment, public relations and publishing.

She is a director and founding member of the Malibu Film Society. She has served as a director of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce and she sits on the board of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

The Malibu Times got a chance to sit down with the woman who says she was born to be here (in Malibu).


You have been living in Malibu for 40 years. What was it about Malibu that made you want to move here?

I always wanted to live by the ocean. And when I was a child, my grandfather would take me to the Sea Lion Restaurant, which is now Duke’s. They had a tank of sea lions that I loved. I would also surf as a teenager.


You have been involved in such a broad range of business operations. Which one did you start with and which is your favorite? 

After I practiced occupational therapy for a while, I decided I couldn’t work with sick people anymore — especially since I had small children at home. So I changed careers and got a certificate in commercial art from West Valley Occupational Center. That’s when I got into advertising and, because of my healthcare background, I got into healthcare advertising. Healthcare runs through everything that I’ve done. I did all this while simultaneously helping with The Malibu Times

What inspired you to write a book?

When I had my advertising agency, I wrote a book on healthcare marketing called “Mark  eting Healthcare Services.” At the time when I wrote the book, marketing of healthcare services was just starting and our agency recognized that.


How has journalism changed and why is The Malibu Times so successful?

A lot has migrated to the internet. But local print is still very important to support local businesses and for community building. The paper is a common place to honor achievements and to connect the community. We’ve been successful in that. The community has really supported us.


What is the one thing about the Malibu Film Society that you are most proud of?

That is one of the things that really pleases me. We went from three to four movies a year to 40 this year. About 90 percent of the time we have a major speaker. Last week we showed “La La Land” and the director and producer was there. We are in our sixth year now. I’m proud of the board, especially the executive director, who’s created something wonderful for the community. 


What would you like to say to the critics of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce?

There’s tremendous opportunity for the chamber. When I was in the chamber, we had a very good director and local businesses were promoted. It needs a good director. I’m optimistic that things will get better.


You and Arnold are among the founding members of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. What role has faith played in your life?

It played a very important role. I’m not super observant. But I’m very involved in Jewish learning. Malibu has one of the largest diversity of Jewish beliefs. We’re a very open and diverse community. It was founded about 35 years ago.


What was it about Arnold that made you want to marry him?

He looked just like Paul Newman. He was smart, handsome and a very affectionate human being. I knew it immediately. Our first official date was on my birthday.


What is the secret to a happy marriage?

Respect. You have to respect each other. I’m seeing less of it in the world today than ever before and it scares me.


If you were to recommend one good book for everyone to read which one would it be and why?

I recently finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy” and I would recommend it. A young man wrote it and it really provides an interesting perspective of that whole area of the country and our times.


Do you have any regrets in life?

No regrets. Just some things that I’ve put off and will get to. I really want to get back to working with my hands. Weaving is something that I’m really looking forward to.


What’s an interesting fact about you that people don’t know?

My life is an open book. But maybe that I was a surfer. People don’t think that a nice Jewish girl from the valley would be a surfer.


You have been very involved in Malibu over the years. What is the biggest change you have seen in the city? What is your favorite thing about Malibu?

The makeup of the residents has changed a lot. We have a small core of old time residents, a small group of snowbird residents and then there are people who come through to enjoy the beauty of Malibu. My favorite thing is the ocean and also the kindness in the community. When we do the Dolphin Awards, I see so much every year that it brings me to tears. It’s a little town with a big heart. I love my Dolphins.


How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?

I enjoyed the sitting although I felt that the likeness wasn’t quite right. That said, I don’t really know what I look like so maybe it’s accurate. It was a new experience for me. Johanna is a delightful and talented woman.