×

Inside Gretchen Carlson’s Mission to Keep Fighting Sexual Harassment

When Gretchen Carlson makes her way through the streets of Manhattan, she notices flickers of recognition. But many New Yorkers don’t want a selfie or an autograph — they simply want to express their gratitude. “Even if I’m on the phone, they’ll just say ‘Thank you,’” Carlson says, on a recent afternoon, mouthing those two words. “A lot of people who have come up to me at restaurants — men — and have said, ‘I want to shake your hand, because I have daughters.’”

Carlson, a former anchor at Fox News, became the center of a media firestorm in July when she filed a bombshell sexual-harassment lawsuit against her boss, Roger Ailes, after he fired her. “I jumped off a cliff by myself,” Carlson says, describing the moment when everything changed. “And I had no expectations or idea what would happen.”

In the chaotic days that followed, Fox News talent quickly banded together to discredit Carlson, including Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Martha MacCallum, and Geraldo Rivera. But after a slew of other women came forward, Ailes was forced to step down as CEO of the network he had built into a cable-news juggernaut. (Carlson, who later settled for $20 million and a public apology, isn’t allowed to speak on specifics about her former employer.) “I could have filed my lawsuit and gone home,” says Carlson, 50. “But I’m not choosing to do that. I’m choosing to help other women who have reached out to me since this happened, to make a difference for them.”

She’s heard from thousands through her website. “It’s so heartwarming and unbelievably sad, because it’s so pervasive,” Carlson says. “It’s so unbelievable that in 2017, almost every single woman has a story about sexual harassment.”

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Indeed, it’s the best of times and the worst of times for women in the workplace. “I think two opposing things are happening at once,” says Nancy Erika Smith, the New Jersey employment lawyer who represented Carlson. “Sexists and misogynists are looking at who’s in the White House and feeling empowered. At the same time, four million women took to the streets. I kind of think the women are going to win. These men have to go home to women.”

Carlson’s decision to come forward, accusing Ailes of propositioning her for sex, is still creating ripples at Fox News and beyond. (Ailes has maintained his innocence.) “What Gretchen did was she slayed a dragon that no one thought could be slayed,” says Lisa Bloom, the civil-rights attorney representing Wendy Walsh, a Fox News contributor who alleged this month that she was sexually harassed by host Bill O’Reilly. “She not only got a very large settlement, she got an apology,” says Bloom. “And that’s part of her story that people forget. She set a precedent: You don’t have to take the money and go away. You can actually get some respect and dignity in the process.”

Fox News is reeling from sexual harassment accusations that O’Reilly used his clout at the network to seek sexual favors from several women, resulting in at least $13 million in settlements.

A New Mission

On “Fox and Friends,” Carlson was a bubbly morning TV presence. But away from the studio, she showed backbone as an advocate for an issue normally associated with anonymous victims. In October, Time put her on its cover. “I never expected to be the face of sexual harassment,” says Carlson. “But I never give up on anything. So when placed in a new, challenging situation, it’s like, ‘I’m going to give this 110% because that’s what I’ve done my entire life.’ ”

That mantra can be traced to her upbringing as a prodigy violinist who took a leave from Stanford University to nab the crown for Miss America in 1989. From there she took local news jobs, covering the Anita Hill case from Richmond, Va., and thinking, “Holy crap, nobody believes her.”

Carlson isn’t ruling out returning to television full time. “That’s what I’ve done for 25 years, so I have ambition to go back,” she says. For now, she’s made fighting sexual harassment her primary duty. “It’s like five separate full-time jobs,” she says. She stays up at night (“I’m not a good sleeper”) to personally answer the messages she’s received. “It’s everywhere,” she says, recalling tales from police officers, the military, teachers, doctors, accountants and Hollywood. “I’ve heard from all walks of life.”

She’s turning some of these stories into a book, which will include advice about what women can do if they find themselves in a similar situation. “Maybe Human Resources isn’t the place to go,” she says, adding that it’s important to collect evidence first.

Carlson also revealed to Variety that she’s making a documentary, where she’ll serve as a reporter investigating sexual harassment. “No one has done a serious film on this issue,” she says. “This is a movement now. I plan to carry that forward.” And she’s met with senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), ahead of her plans to testify on Capitol Hill against binding arbitration agreements that allow companies to keep these complaints private. “Gretchen is using her voice to make a difference through advocacy and legislation that will undoubtedly help others,” Gillibrand says.

Adds Carlson, “We’ve done a huge disservice to our society, because we’re not hearing about these cases. The biggest advantage is that it’s a secret; the people in a situation like mine can stay in power.”

Carlson, who lives in Connecticut with her husband and two kids, ages 12 and 13, has been open with her family about what she went through. “They are very aware,” she says. “My daughter had some issues where she needed to stand up for herself. She told me, ‘Mommy, I saw you do it. Now I know I can do it.’”

She’ll launch a campus speaking tour later this year, where she’ll try to educate other young women about what she’s learned. It’s important, she adds, to know that many victims suffer from PTSD as they try to move beyond what’s happened to them.

“You find a way to survive, which is actually one of my favorite songs.” She stops to clarify the two titles that fit the bill: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” “I listen to them both when I work out,” Carlson says, as she sits higher in her chair. “Good lyrics.”

This story is from Variety’s Power of Women: New York issue.

More TV

  • Al Burton

    Al Burton, 'Jeffersons' and 'Diff’rent Strokes' Producer, Dies at 91

    Television producer and executive Al Burton, known for his work on “The Jeffersons” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” died Tuesday at his home in San Mateo, California. He was 91. Burton leaves behind a six-decade legacy of hit television shows that also included “One Day at a Time,” “Silver Spoons,” “Square Pegs” and “Facts of Life.” However, long [...]

  • Dwyane Wade Sets Multi-Year Development Deal

    Dwyane Wade Sets Multi-Year Development Deal at WarnerMedia

    Dwayne Wade is bouncing his way into WarnerMedia’s court. The retired NBA All Star has signed a multi-faceted, multi-year deal with the company, including a development deal via his 59th & Prairie Entertainment production banner. Part of the deal sees Wade sign on as a commentator at Turner Sports. He is set to make appearances [...]

  • Katie Couric Sheryl Sandberg

    Katie Couric Steamrolls Sheryl Sandberg in Roving Vanity Fair Summit Interview

    Sending a jolt through a luxurious and excessively polite afternoon in Beverly Hills, veteran journalist Katie Couric delivered a relentless series of hardball questions to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on Tuesday. Speaking in conversation at the sixth annual Vanity Fair New Establishment summit at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Couric’s [...]

  • EVIL is a psychological mystery that

    CBS Renews 'Evil,' Orders Full Seasons of Four Other Freshman Shows

    CBS is doubling down on all its new shows. The network has renewed “Evil” for a second season, and handed out full-season orders to its other four freshman series, namely “All Rise,” “Carol’s Second Act,” “The Unicorn,” and “Bob Hearts Abishola.” “Evil” is set to conclude its 13-episode first season (creators Michelle and Robert King [...]

  • Jamie Lee Curtis

    Jamie Lee Curtis to Produce Military Drama With Put Pilot Order at Fox

    Jamie Lee Curtis is teaming up with April Fitzsimmons and Berlanti Productions for a drama project that has received a put pilot order at Fox. Titled “Chain of Command,” the one-hour project follows a young Air Force investigator with radical crime-solving methodology who returns to her hometown to join a military task force that doesn’t [...]

  • Michael MannLACMA: Art and Film Gala,

    TV News Roundup: Michael Mann to Direct and Executive Produce HBO Max's 'Tokyo Vice'

    In today’s TV news roundup, HBO Max names MIchael Mann as a director and executive producer of “Tokyo Vice” and Chip and Joanna Gaines announce the first original series coming to the couple’s Magnolia Network. DATES Netflix announced a six-episode docuseries centered on Nasty Cherry, the latest all-female group signed to Charli XCX’s label will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content