UPDATED: The fallout from Friday’s premiere of Netflix’s few-holds-barred Motley Crue biopic, “The Dirt,” began even before the film, which focuses on the quartet’s ‘80s-‘90s decade of decadence, was released. The group’s ill treatment of many women in their orbit is a matter of public record, and is depicted both seriously and unsettlingly light-heartedly in the film, leading many journalists to question whether the depiction is tone-deaf in the era of #MeToo. Stereogum spoke for many with its concise headline, “’The Dirt’: A Terrible Movie About Terrible People,” while Lorraine Ali wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s as if the film arrived in a bubble, unaware that the culture has moved on and that Netflix is brimming with content written, directed and starring strong women.”
But no matter how the film is perceived in the present day, is its depiction of the ‘80s metal scene and the era’s misogynistic culture accurate? Variety spoke with several female music-business professionals from that era — journalists, agents, managers, and two of Motley Crue’s former publicists — and the collective short answer is an unequivocal yes.
At least three of those professionals said they have #MeToo stories that they chose not share, and all said that overall, they found their careers in the music industry more rewarding than troubled. Yet many also expressed a collateral concern: that a younger generation will want to emulate the behavior depicted in the film.
That issue is directly addressed by Vicky Hamilton, a manager, A&R exec and author who worked with both Motley Crue and the equally notorious Guns N’ Roses. “Was that era like the film portrayed? Yeah, it was,” she says. “Obviously, using women like sex toys is very concerning to me. But what really scares me about this movie is that with the #MAGA guys out there right now, this sort of behavior could become popular again. I don’t want to see women get treated like that and take a step back.”
She says that she was on the receiving end of plenty of sexual harassment, although not from Motley Crue or Guns N’ Roses. “It was more of a problem when I was younger and hotter,” she says. “But verbal harassment never went away. I have been an independent contractor for the past 15 years and if I feel it’s going to be abusive relationship, I won’t take on the job.”
Maria Ferrero, owner of the publicity, marketing and branding firm Adrenaline PR and a former longtime exec of Megaforce Records (Anthrax, Testament, Metallica’s first album), says she believes the world has moved on in the last few decades, and that young people seeing “The Dirt” will view it “like it’s bullsh–, because we live in such a different world today,” she says. “They’ll think ‘It’s Hollywood and it’s embellished’ — but it’s not. It’s so not. That movie was super-accurate — it’s really the way it was.”
On the other hand, Sherry Ring, who headed the publicity department at Elektra — the longtime label of both Motley Crue and Metallica — from 1988 through 2004, missed much of the legendary debauchery depicted in “The Dirt.” In fact, the chastened band she remembers doesn’t appear in the film until near the end. “I had many personal dealings with Motley Crue — more specifically with Nikki, he would call me fairly often and we brainstormed a lot,” she says. “They were very polite and I really loved working with them.” Asked whether she had been sexually hassled or harassed by musicians or coworkers, “I wouldn’t call it any of those things,” she says. “Yes, I had musicians and coworkers ask me out. But no was mostly no.”
While Ring acknowledges the music industry in those years was “one big party,” she feels that her gender did not hinder her career. “I was really good at my job and was mostly taken seriously. The only company where I ever had any trouble was Polygram,” the company where she was employed before Elektra. “I was set to get promoted to vice president, and I became pregnant. When I got back from [maternity] leave, they hired another woman instead, but one with no music business experience at all. I had to teach her everything and it was very painful,” she says. “I was never very good at kissing up to the male executives, and that was one company where it mattered.”
Indeed, one of the first women to break the glass ceiling in the live-entertainment business was veteran booking agent Marsha Vlasic, now president of Artist Group International, who worked at ICM in ‘80s before moving over to William Morris in the early ‘90s. “I think I felt [sexism] much more at ICM than William Morris,” she says. “ICM then was less women-friendly. As to the difficulty I endured from some of the people there, I would say it was demeaning. The overall culture and climate was a boy’s club.”
Yet contrary to stereotype, she says bad behavior by musicians was seemingly unrelated to the genre of music they played. “Each genre was the same!,” she says. “It was all very drug- and alcohol-oriented. At one point my roster had Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and the British punk-rock stuff. With singer-songwriters you had weed-smoking and downers; with punk and metal, it was whatever they could get their hands on. That was the industry then. Each one had to go sober and clean for different reasons.”
These days, she says, “The industry has become a much more serious business than it was. When you go backstage now, it’s mostly dry [intoxicant-free].”
Motley Crue went down that road as well, and the bandmembers’ struggles to stay clean are portrayed in “The Dirt.” Ring recalls being with the band in Vancouver while they were recording. “We went out to a club and all the girls were coming up to them, wanting to buy them shots, and I really understood how difficult it was to maintain sobriety when this was their world,” she remembers. “They kept politely declining.”
Less polite is an incident involving members of hit pop-metal outfit Poison and Bryn Bridenthal, who headed publicity departments at DreamWorks, Geffen, Capitol and Elektra and worked closely with both Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses. After attending a Motley Crue show at the Los Angeles Forum in 1987, a few months after Guns N’ Roses released their debut album, Bridenthal went to an after-party at the venue. There, she chatted with Poison bassist Bobby Dall.
“He was all upset over a feature in Hit Parader that had [GNR guitarist] Slash saying Poison were posers,” she recalls. “I may well have had a smirk on my face, because I thought it was pretty funny that he thought this was all that important. So I said to him, ‘I can’t believe a band that’s sold 2 million albums feels so threatened by a band that hasn’t even sold 200,000 copies [GNR] yet.”
According to Bridenthal, Dall responded by throwing a large drink in her face. Then the bassist “jammed the cup on my head like a dunce cap. I retreated to the restroom to blot up the sticky liquid — mascara and beer really sting when splashed in your eyes,” she says. As Bridenthal and her friend were leaving the party, she was approached by Dall and Poison singer Bret Michaels. “One held my arms back and the other threw a tub of melted ice water over my head. Then a couple of security guys from the venue came up to say I was leaving, grabbed me under my arms and carried me out to the parking lot, locking me out for ‘bothering’ the Poison guys.”
That wasn’t the end of it. “The next day I told [Geffen Records President/ COO] Eddie Rosenblatt and David Geffen what had happened and right away they were outraged and wanted to call an attorney,” Bridenthal says. “I declined, because I thought it went with the territory and I could just forget about it. But when Poison and their management began calling repeatedly to threaten me, I changed my mind and wanted apologies. I got insincere letters typed from their attorneys. Let’s just say I’m not a Poison fan.” She later filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against the band; the two later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors.
Indeed, Ring’s worst experience working with Motley Crue came not from the band but its team, and after the glory years. “Initially, [the group and their management] respected me and my team. However, their [1997 album “Generation Swine”] wasn’t selling well, and there was talk of dropping them. I tried to be an advocate for them since I really didn’t want that to happen. However, that turned and I became the enemy for him, along with the rest of the company.”
The last straw was a meeting in manager Allen Kovac’s office, without the band but with most of Elektra’s senior executives. Regarding a particular business disagreement, Ring says Kovac called her a liar —which her colleagues knew to be untrue. But “everyone was silent around the table, which also upset me, because nobody had the guts to back me up,” she recalls. “I have to admit I cried — something I rarely did. If I was a man I am sure he would have handled it differently.” (Reached for comment by Variety, Allen Kovac says, “I don’t remember it that way. I liked and respected [Ring], we collaborated on several projects. I had my own PR, radio promotion, sales and international departments, and [presumably on that occasion] I believed my PR person and not her. I would have handled the situation the same way if she were a man.”)
While Ferrero, who came up at a small and scrappy independent label, had a different experience in many ways, she says she would simply bat away sexism she encountered. “Sometimes people would bring [gender] up to me and my response always was, ‘Whether you’re male or female, we all have the same goals and we’re all working together.’”
However, she was once passed over for a promotion when she was young, and a man was brought in above her. Although she says she was never sure whether it was over her gender or her age, “It never felt good.” And like many women in this story, she said the uneven playing field made her work harder to prove herself. As Vlasic notes, “The more success I had, the more it infuriated certain people.”
While many women feel that recent #MeToo instances in the music industry prove that things have not changed enough, some find themselves receiving belated credit for the work they did back in the day. Marsha Zazula was CEO of Megaforce and Crazed Management, the companies she formed with her husband, Jonny, in the early 1980s. While she acknowledges that she may have been treated differently — in other words, better — because she was married to the label’s boss, Zazula says she still was on the receiving end of plenty of sexist attitude. “It’s a boys’ club,” she says. “I felt that some men looked at me as if I was just somebody who sat under my husband’s desk, giving him blow jobs!”
However, she notes that Megaforce had a strong female culture, and at some points the company’s gender balance was close to 50/50. Recently, while on tour with the band Venom Inc., she found that fans knew and respected her, and thanked Megaforce for its role in the advancement of heavy music.
Many women say they considered inappropriate talk or touching to be “the cost of doing business” in those days, and most say they feel things have changed for the better… although they may be swinging too far in the other direction.
“Now, I think that men think before they speak or act out, which is good,” Hamilton says. “However, I feel like work situations have become socially awkward: I feel like we have been divided into two clubs.
“I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the #MeToo thing,” she concludes. “Of course women need to be treated as equals in business, and not treated like sex toys. But also, I don’t want to see it where you can’t kid around with somebody — which is where it’s kind of gone.”
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad