I had been following the Harvey Weinstein fiasco with interest — partially because it involved so many movie stars I thought were unbreakable. Starting with Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow. Followed swiftly by Angelina Jolie and Taylor Swift. Hollywood heavyweights who endured sexual harassment, but felt too frightened to publicly shame their perpetrator, and as a result felt shame and humiliation.
The stories grew, with victims coming forward to share their stories publicly – how they were shamed into thinking that the harassment was a result of the way they dressed, the fact they looked different, spoke differently, gave out a type of vibe… And how many of them had harboured their experiences for decades, because they felt helpless to do anything, because they were afraid of being judged, or not believed, or that nobody cared.
What changed things? Having the pinnacle of Hollywood success stories telling personal stories of helped to validate victims and give them the power to share their stories – in essence taking the power from the predators and handing it over the victims. And it didn’t matter whether you made $5 an hour or $5,000, were black or white, smart, or uneducated, heavyset or slim, male or female. The feelings of anger, fear and helplessness were echoed across cultural and social demographics.
What does this have to do with us? A Muay Thai gym in a city as far removed from Hollywood as we can get? Ask the people who walk through our doors many of whom don’t just want to learn to fight, or get fit, but to also find confidence in overcoming past experiences and the strength in spirit to stand up for themselves.
The #MeToo campaign launched the fastest moving social change movement in decades, with stories coming from all over the globe. It wasn’t about getting attention, it was about being given a voice to share stories, to show that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. We’d like to do keep the conversation going. So here’s one of our stories.
When the James Toback story broke, I too read on with interest. The more I read, the more it rang bells. He was a successful Hollywood director who would approach women on the bus, in the park, in LA and New York asking them to audition for his movies and then going on to molest them. Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams were two of his hundreds of victims. It started in the 80s and went on for decades. Decades! It took over 30 years and hundreds of victims before he was finally exposed. And it was eerily similar to an incident I had pushed far back into my mind.
I was 17, fresh out of school and full of youthful bravado and confidence when I stepped onto that bus. This bus was going to (literally) take me to Hollywood. I may have grown up in New Zealand, but I had also grown up with the Brat Pack on the big screen. Finally heading down to Sunset Boulevard was a dream come true. True, it was on the public bus and achieved after years of saving from delivering pizzas and answering phones for a call centre. I was travelling without parental supervision, without curfews and the world at my feet. I had stars in my eyes.
I had applied for a degree in film, with the hopes of becoming a director like Peter Jackson. So even the act of travelling to Hollywood was like getting my first big break.
So I was already star struck when a nondescript man dressed in a hat and black suit came to sit beside me. He was a lot older and while I remember how he made me feel, I have only the vaguest recollection of his face and no recollection of his name.
He introduced himself — and told me he was a film director — a famous one. My first thought was “yeah right”, but while I didn’t say anything, I zoned out. This seemed to unsettle him a little, and he started rattling off a list of names of movies and actors. Whether it was because I was so disbelieving, or because I was only interested in a very specific group of stars, it didn’t leave any impression on me. Which, I’m sure given my blank face — made it obvious.
Despite this, the “director” carried on to ask if I would be interested in trying out in a role for a movie he was about to start filming. It had already been cast, he said, but they were looking to cast the lead female role, and he really thought I had potential to fill it.
Now while acting wasn’t something I was averse to trying out (I had enrolled in film after all), there was not a sliver of temptation to take him up on his offer. I was from New Zealand. I was not gullible. Hollywood directors do not ask ordinary girls they meet on the bus to star in movies. Especially one going for the grunge look in jeans and a baggy jacket.
I declined. Firmly. And… as I’d done to my parents so many times to silently show my distaste, rolled my eyes. Very obviously. That would show him. Hopefully, he’d get off my case and let me continue towards my dream destination.
That look didn’t go unnoticed. But it didn’t have the effect I’d hope. Like a machine gun on rapid fire, he started to fire insult after insult.
I had always felt I was one of the more assertive and confident ones at the all-girls Catholic school I attended. The one who had no problems getting into bars, because I rolled my eyes at the bouncers when they checked my forged with twink ID. “Dude really? Do I look 16?”
So this weirdo didn’t know what he was getting himself into. We were on a public bus, which was half full. Some grown-up would step in before things got out of hand. Surely. Heck manners. I fired back, telling him like it was.
“You’re not a real director.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You don’t dress like one.”
“Oh yeah, I’m trying to fit in with people. And what is director supposed to dress like?”
“Well, if you’re so famous, why would you be on a public bus?”
“So that I can meet normal people to cast — stupid. And you’re really going to regret not believing me.”
Minutes ticked by. While I was losing steam, he was gaining momentum.
“Who do you think you are?”
“You think you’re really special?”
“You’re nobody, you never will be anyone.”
“When you see my movie on the big screen next year, you’re going to wish you had acted differently.”
“You think you’re pretty? You’re nothing special.”
“ You’re a dime-a-dozen nobody who is going to be full of regret when you realise I’m telling the truth.”
“You don’t know this, but you’ve just ruined your life.”
Mr Director was now shouting. Spittle was flying. Out of answers, I looked around wide-eyed… for someone. Anyone. The bus was half full, but everyone seemed to have become deaf. Occasionally I’d make eye contact, and a pleading look. The cocky teenager was gone. I just wanted someone to step in and say something. Do something. Anything. But then just as quickly, they’d look down again and I’d become invisible to them.
l started to wilt and sink deeper into my seat. I couldn’t get off the bus, because he was semi-blocking my exit. Besides, if I got off, I’d have no idea where I was, and not enough cash for a taxi to go back to the hotel or to Whisky a GoGo where I was going to a gig. Just the night before, my friend and I were walking on the streets of LA before when we were stopped by a police patrol car. Our crime? Being stupid enough to walk on the streets alone. We were given orders to head back home immediately and a stern warning to stick to public transport.
This incident predated my Muay Thai training. It pre-dated social media. I couldn’t call for help because it would be years before I even got my first cell phone — a large unwieldy drink bottle-sized contraption assigned for my job.
I felt trapped. And I felt scared.
Finally, I saw the sign. Sunset Boulevard. I quickly stood up, and pushed my way through. I’d have to take the risk that he would follow me.
And he did. He stood up and followed me towards the exit. When I stumbled out the door, I half ran down the street — any direction.
I turned around and saw his back walking in the opposite direction. I turned around a corner and ran another 100 metres before I finally stopped. Then I started bawling.
Did I let this creep ruin my dream holiday? Not really. I still flashed my fake ID confidently that night at Whisky A GoGo and screamed like I was possessed when Shonen Knife performed. I still went to pay homage to the Viper Room where River Phoenix had passed away.
I did become paranoid when I thought someone was following us, clutching my hands around my pen knife ready for — well anything.
I made up fake names, addresses and occupations for me, as well as my friend, and would quiz her on our backgrounds, in case any strangers approached us. I got genuinely upset when she slipped up and used my real name.
Other than that one friend who I went on holiday with, I never spoke of that incident. Perhaps it was a mixture of shame and guilt. Not because I let him get away with it, but because I one random guy with a ridiculous pick-up line make me — the tough girl cry.
Besides, it wasn’t a big deal — it wasn’t like he actually physically hurt me. Life carried on as normal. I did a theatrical acting stint, found work as a producer and hardly thought of the incident. Perhaps it subconsciously left its mark. Perhaps in compensation for the humiliation, I’d put up walls. I did become confrontational and aggressive when strangers said anything I felt was out of line. I’d was intensely protective of my female friends and would be very suspicious of any guy who showed interest in them.
Taking up Muay Thai gave me a strength that I didn’t have before, both physically, but also spiritually. While I actually knew how to properly hurt someone, I now felt less desire to so. The walls started coming down and I learned to laugh off some corny lines and introductions.
Toback is now finally getting his just desserts. Whether or not he was my “director”, is not really relevant. Maybe Hollywood is full of directors and producers (real or not) with the same modus operandi of preying on someone’s desire to change their life for the better.
Perhaps I was lucky enough to have been brought up to be less trusting of strangers. But what if at the time, I could have googled him and realised he was a legit director. What if he had name dropped knew Keanu. Showed me photos of himself with Emilio. Offered to put me in a movie with Judd Nelson. Would that have let me star struck enough to have changed the outcome?
It is also with regret that I now have realised that while I was furious that not one person on the bus had come to my rescue, I never spared a thought to his potential future victims. Is it possible that my “director” went on to actually cause long-term hurt — physically or mentally to other women? If so, could I have done something to stop him?