As part of this week’s Variety Power of Women issue, Ashley Judd shared a story that she’s never publicly revealed before. When she was filming Paramount’s “Kiss the Girls” in the late 90s, Judd was sexually harassed by a mogul from a rival studio, who kept summoning her to his hotel room under the pretense of talking about roles in his movies. The situation escalated until the mogul, who Judd declined to name, tried to get Judd to watch him take a shower. Judd spoke to Variety about what happened, how she internalized the shame and eventually stood up for herself.
Ashley Judd: I was sexually harassed by one of our industry’s most famous, admired-slash-reviled bosses. I was making “Kiss the Girls” at the time, and here I was, a declared feminist. I had completed a minor in what was then called women’s studies, which we now call gender studies. And yet I did not recognize at the time what was happening to me. It took years before I could evaluate that incident and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it. And I think that’s what’s happening in Hollywood with regard to female crew members, above-the-line and below-the-line talent, and pay disparity. We’re individually and collectively coming to a realization and acceptance that this is an entrenched part of the reality, and I think that talking about it is essential to the process of becoming aware, accepting that this is reality and then ultimately taking action.
In my example, there was no casting involved. This was just twirling the lasso. I think it’s very important to note that I considered myself empowered. He was very stealth and expert about it. He groomed me, which is a technical term – Oh, come meet at the hotel for something to eat. Fine, I show up. Oh, he’s actually in his room. I’m like, Are you kidding me? I just worked all night. I’m just going to order cereal. It went on in these stages. It was so disgusting. He physically lured me by saying, “Oh, help me pick out what I’m going to wear.” There was a lot that happened between the point of entry and the bargaining. There was this whole process of bargaining—“Come do this, come do this, come do this.” And I would say, “No, no, no.” I have a feeling if this is online and people have the opportunity to post comments, a lot of the people will say, “Why didn’t you leave the room?”, which is victim-blaming. When I kept saying no to everything, there was a huge asymmetry of power and control in that room.
This will be familiar to all the women to whom this has happened. I have a feeling we are a legion. I was with a bunch of other actors, and it was critical that it was actors: The exact same thing had happened to them by the exact same mogul. Only when we were sitting around talking about it did we realize our experiences were identical. There was a mutual strengthening and fortification of our resolve. One of the things that comes to mind for me: there was a really big feature that was done on this person in a national magazine, and there were all these allegations that they controlled the interview and had people listening in. And I thought, “If someone had come and talked to me, I don’t care. I will absolutely share that experience.” Part of the strategy that keeps girls and women constrained in their professional experiences is retaliation and ridicule.
The ultimate thing when I was weaseling out of everything else was, “Will you watch me take a shower?” And all the other women, sitting around this table with me, said, “Oh my god—that’s what he said to me too.” In that moment, I told him something like, “When I win an Academy Award in one of your movies.” He said, “No, when you get nominated.” I said, “No, no, when I win an Academy Award.” That was a small moment of power when I was able to contradict him and hold to my reality. And then I got out of there. And by the way, I’ve never been offered a movie by that studio. Ever.
I beat myself up for a while. This is another part of the process. We internalize the shame. It really belongs to the person who is the aggressor. And so later, when I was able to see what happened, I thought: Oh god, that’s wrong. That’s sexual harassment. That’s illegal. I was really hard on myself because I didn’t get out of it by saying, “OK motherf—er, I’m calling the police.”
That’s what I should have done, because I’m smart. That also contributed to my journey of coming forward, because I felt bad about myself initially for the way I maintained my safety and got out of the room. When, in fact, what I did was exceedingly clever and brilliant and self-preserving. That’s another element of how we internalize those attitudes and talking to other people is so crucial is being able to take action.
A few years later, I attended a gathering for the literati in New York at the premiere of “Double Jeopardy.” I was getting ready to say something out loud across the crowded table to him. He looked at me and tried to shut it down. I was no longer that naïve ingénue who couldn’t identify what was happening as it was happening. I was getting ready to nail him on it, and he said, “I think I’ll let you out of that deal we made.” He knew I would come into my power.
This happened to be a man who did this to a woman. But this system is one that all of us participate. I feel like I could have easily had a breakthrough conversation about what happened with men as I could with those women. We’re all part of the problem, but we’re all part of the solution. This is one of those incidents where any work I needed to do on it was completed when I confronted him. Healing comes in a lot of different ways. Some things require intensive, contained work. Some things could be resolved with a good run or punching bag or an interaction with the perpetrator, in which one is able to take one’s power back.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.