Audra McDonald captured the spirit at Variety’s fourth annual Power of Women New York luncheon when she told the crowd: “This feels like good church.”
McDonald was honored along with Jessica Chastain, Chelsea Clinton, Blake Lively, Gayle King, and Shari Redstone for their efforts on behalf of a range of philanthropic causes. The Friday afternoon event at Cipriani 42nd Street also honored Tina Knowles Lawson with the Community Commerce Impact Award.
Chastain was honored for her work with Planned Parenthood, an organization that she relied on for birth control services before she became a big-screen star. Access to affordable reproductive health care “makes it possible for a woman to have the equal opportunity of her male counterparts of having jurisdiction over her body, her life and her health,” she said.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson got a big round of applause for her courage in pursuing a sexual harassment lawsuit that led to the ouster of Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Another former Fox News colleague, Bill O’Reilly, who exited this week under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, was name-checked by speakers at least four times.
Chastain was introduced by Lena Dunham, who gave a shout-out to Carlson and couldn’t resist a jab at O’Reilly. “We should have known something was wrong with Bill O’Reilly a few years ago when he confused a loofah and a falafel,” she said, referring to a claim made in a 2004 sexual harassment case.
The gathering featured inspirational speeches from the honorees, recitations of favorite quotes, calls for equality, a disturbing explanation of the horrors of child pornography and a standing ovation for honoree Chelsea Clinton.
Host Vanessa Bayer of “Saturday Night Live” opened the luncheon with a few sharp jokes (“Say what you will about them, no one pays women more than Fox News”) and the observation that the seven honorees had one thing in common: “None of their mothers are president.” Clinton, recognized for her work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation initiative, closed the luncheon one a more hopeful note: “It’s true that no one’s mother is currently president, but someday someone’s will be,” she said, with conviction.
Lively was recognized for her work with Child Rescue Coalition, an org that aims to stop the spread of child pornography on the Internet.
Lively cued up an interactive map that showed the heavy traffic in such material in real-time. She described some of the unspeakably cruel things that children have endured to create such vile content, and she delivered the chilling statistic that child exploiters typically exploit 50-100 victims during their lifetimes.
“Sexual exploitation of children isn’t happening rarely or worlds away. It’s happening right here,” she said. Presenter Salma Hayek hailed Lively’s dedication to her work with Child Rescue Coalition as representative of “a new breed of women who are going to heal the world.”
Cory Booker, Democratic senator from New Jersey, did the honors for “CBS This Morning” co-anchor King for her work with SEO Scholars, an org that helps prepare youth from underprivileged backgrounds for college. Booker called King “a superhero.”
King thanked private equity titan Henry Kravis (“he is a bad-ass billionaire guy,” she explained) for introducing her to the SEO Scholars program, and she spoke lovingly about trying to help give every kid the opportunities that her own son and daughter have enjoyed. She reflected on her success by offering a favorite quote from Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”
McDonald, who was intro’d by her former “Private Practice” co-star Kate Walsh, broke up while talking about her work with Covenant House, which helps homeless youth in New York City and other cities around the U.S. and Canada.
McDonald said she first went to the organization’s office in 2014 just as she was about to New York City to make a donation just as she started playing Billie Holiday on Broadway in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” She was inspired to do so by Holiday’s troubled youth. What she saw the Covenant House broke her heart and also gave her hope.
As a boy of about 15 or 16 came in for help, she saw a kid whose “face was filled with terror, sadness and fatigue.” And then she watched as two Covenant House employees “turned in to Batman and Robin the way they leaped to this boy’s aid.”
Shari Redstone, vice chair of Viacom and CBS Corp. and the head of investment firm Advancit Capital, sounded the alarm for the need to support Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit that provides legal assistance in civil cases to low-income litigants. Redstone noted that the Constitution provides that defendants get legal representation in criminal cases, but there is no such obligation in civil cases, which can involve everything from saving a home to dealing with child custody issues.
Some 70% of those who seek help from Legal Services Corp. are women, Redstone noted. “Without representation, our system fails and our laws become meaningless,” Redstone said. “If we don’t have equal access for all, we have justice for none.”
Redstone was introduced by actor-director Justin Baldoni, of “Jane the Virgin,” who met first Redstone last year when she was in the thick of the legal battles that raged around Viacom and her father, mogul Sumner Redstone, last year. Redstone had heard of Baldoni’s documentary project “My Last Days,” chronicling the lives of people with terminal illness, and she wanted to help, albeit anonymously. He apologized to Redstone for “outing her” at the luncheon, and he praised her as “a down-to-Earth, family-focused, kind and loving woman.”
Knowles Lawson was recognized with the Community Commerce Impact Award for spearheading the WACO Theater Center in Los Angeles, which offers arts education and resources to youths. She urged the crowd to make time for volunteering through churches or community-based organizations. Quoting the Bible, she reminded attendees: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Lifetime is the founding and presenting sponsor of Variety‘s Power of Women New York. Skincare firm SheaMoisture and electric carmaker Karma were also among the key sponsors. Music direction was provided by Daisy O’Dell.