The honorees at Variety’s third annual Power of Women New York gathering lend their voices to a range of issues — from child abuse to gun safety laws to diversity in the arts — but on Friday they all delivered a similar message to the packed crowd at Cipriani Midtown.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o was eloquent in discussing how her association with Uganda’s Mother Health International has allowed her to witness firsthand the impact of women “using our power to lift each other up.”
Megyn Kelly talked about the need for women to find strength and courage by facing their fears head on. Mariska Hargitay teared up while explaining the shocking statistics about the backlog of rape kits. Vera Wang spoke candidly about her long battle with overwhelming anxiety. Julianne Moore urged the audience to demand tougher gun safety laws at the state and federal level. And Misty Copeland spoke from the heart about her journey “from living in a motel to dancing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.”
Copeland, principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, was hailed for launching Project Plie, an effort to open doors to the dance world for underprivileged youth. Moore was recognized for her advocacy with Everytown for Gun Safety. Kelly represented Childhelp, a nonprofit that works to help victims of child abuse. Superstar designer Wang was feted for her dedication to Manhattan’s Youth Anxiety Center. “Law & Order: SVU” star Hargitay received the Karma Award as the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation helping survivors of sexual assault.
Nyong’o noted that activism has influence that stretches beyond an org’s dedicated mission. The more that women around the world see the impact that such efforts can have, the more they will be inspired to take on the world’s social ills. Mother Health International takes aim at the unspeakable horrors of women who face pregnancy in war-torn areas, particularly those who have been turned into sex slaves and child soldiers.
The org’s work has become particularly meaningful after Nyong’o’s run in the Broadway play “Eclipsed,” written by Danai Gurira, the “Walking Dead” trouper who was on hand to present Nyong’o’s award.
“When we see the great power we have in supporting each other, not only to heal the wounds of our world, but (giving) the great gift of allowing every woman to stand in her power,” Nyong’o said.
Hargitay said her goal with Joyful Heart was nothing less than “to be part of a movement working to bring about an end to this violence” against women. “It’s just unconscionable” that hundreds of thousands of rape kits are backlogged in police departments across the country for lack of funding, she said. Helping survivors of assault to heal is also a prime focus for the foundation. “Never underestimate the power you have to affect the course of a survivor’s journey” just by listening to her, she said.
Hargitay, whose award was presented by Jim Taylor, CEO of electric car maker Karma Automotive, also made a point of thanking Variety “for this gathering of bada– women.” That list included Variety’s co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller and publisher Michelle Sobrino, who welcomed the crowd, and music director Daisy O’Dell.
Politics wasn’t on the agenda for Power of Women, but the heat of the presidential race wasn’t ignored, either. Host Billy Eichner kicked off the luncheon presentation with a string of jokes about Melania Trump (a sample: “She’s promised to go around the country and talk to young parents about what is really going on at Nordstrom”). And Kelly couldn’t avoid a few veiled references to the fact that she’s been in the headlines as the target of attacks by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
But mostly the focus was on good works and deep commitments to channeling energy and celebrity to benefit worthy causes.
Copeland’s kudo was presented by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. As the first female African-American principal dancer of the ABT, Copeland has influence that extends across “world stages, but it’s in multi-purpose gymnasiums across the country where she leaves her strongest impressions,” he said.
Copeland was emotional as she described her good fortune in having been discovered on a Boys and Girls Club basketball court at the age of 13. Project Plie is a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs to open doors for minorities in the arts, operating at 31 locations with the goal of expanding to 50 next year.
The org’s most important mission is “not just plucking (kids) out of underprivileged communities, but surrounding them with teachers and executive staff who look like them and can relate to their experiences,” she said. “Being able to see yourself or someone who looks like you on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House matters.”
Kelly was introduced by fellow Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer — or as she described him, “my former TV husband.” But mostly she spoke of the importance of turning fear into power — something she has likely done in the past few months as Trump has trashed her journalistic credentials.
The notion of living without fear is a myth, she stressed. “The goal is not to get rid of it; the goal is to walk through it. Courage is what we need,” Kelly said. She got a laugh out of the room in describing her vulnerabilities: “I cry, I worry, I have fear. I have self-doubt. I have insecurities. I have cellulite,” she said.
True power is not fearlessness, she said. “It’s dignity. It’s courage. It’s principle. It’s independence — showing, not telling, the world that we women are a force to be reckoned with.”
Vera Wang was introduced by her former boss, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Wintour praised Wang’s legacy of designing wedding dresses, “the single most emotional garment that many women wear,” she said. Wintour was the one who helped connect Wang to the leaders of Youth Anxiety Center, a mental health org operated by New York Presbyterian and others.
“Anxiety is my constant companion,” Wang acknowledged to the crowd, noting that it started in her youth. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she faced “enormous pressure to perform, conform and, most of all, achieve.”
Wang’s support of Youth Anxiety Center stems from a desire to help others understand the debilitating effects of anxiety disorders that frequently occur in older teenagers and young adults, problems that run far deeper than typical teenage moodiness.
When Wang was growing up in the 1950s, mental health problems were a taboo subject.
“The stigma and shame associated with any kind of anxiety or depression still exists today,” she said. “The more I learned, the more I realized how serious an epidemic it has become.”
Moore closed the luncheon with a story of how the 2012 shootings of 20 kindergarteners at Sandy Hook Elementary spurred her to become an activist for gun safety legislation. When her 10-year-old daughter Liv asked her “did a bunch of little kids get shot today,” Moore felt she had no choice but to speak up.
“I couldn’t bear it anymore. I couldn’t bear hearing about senseless gun violence and needless loss of life,” she said. “I needed to help prevent an atrocity like this from happening to Liv or anyone else ever again,” she said.
Everytown for Gun Safety pushes for tougher laws at the state and federal level regarding background checks and other measures. The org’s president, John Feinblatt, presented Moore’s award.
“I fervently believe that this is not a partisan issue. This is not a Second Amendment issue. It is a safety issue,” she said. She gave shout-outs to a group of survivors of mass shootings who came with her to the luncheon. “I am so happy to be on your side,” she said.