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In Conversation With Harvey Weinstein’s Former Assistant, Rowena Chiu, Who Is Breaking Her NDA For This Interview

Rowena Chiu Harvey Weinstein
Kathy LaBarre/John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

Rowena Chiu claims Harvey Weinstein attempted to rape her on a business trip in 1998. She had only met Weinstein two times and had begun working as a new assistant at Miramax, just one month prior to the Venice Film Festival when the alleged incident occurred. During a late-night meeting to discuss film productions and scripts, Chiu says she declined Weinstein’s request for massages, before the producer pushed her up against the bed and took off her tights. Chiu managed to escape the room, but the lasting effects of the incident never went away.

More than 20 years later, Weinstein — who is serving a 23-year sentence in New York state prison after being convicted on two charges of rape in the third degree and a criminal sex act — still denies the attack ever happened.

“I’m breaking my NDA right now,” Chiu tells Variety in an exclusive interview, conducted over the phone from her Northern California home where she is quarantined with her husband and four children. “He could sue me for every single interview I’ve ever done for breaking my NDA, but in practice, he’s probably not going to. He’s got bigger problems.”

In a statement to Variety, a representative for the incarcerated Weinstein says, “Harvey had always respected Ms. Chiu and treated her as a close and trusted friend. He only has feelings of fondness for her, and ultimately sadness for how her memories of him appeared to have manifested to what we hear today. He always hopes for her best and still wishes her only joy and happiness.”

A stay-at-home mom, Chiu stayed silent for more than 20 years, fearing the safety of her family. Over the past six months, she has joined the chorus of more than 100 women who’ve publicly accused Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault and sacrificed their privacy, becoming activists working toward the end of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Chiu first revealed her story in Sept. 2019 on the “Today” show and in Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book, “She Said,” followed up by an op-ed in the New York Times. She did not speak out for more than two decades after her alleged assault, and two years after the dominoes began to fall for Weinstein when the bombshell stories broke in the Times and the New Yorker, detailing multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment against the former movie mogul.

Now, for the first time since Weinstein began serving his prison sentence, Chiu speaks candidly in an in-depth, wide-ranging conversation, as she recalls the horror of signing an iron-clad nondisclosure agreement at 24 years old. Chiu, who is British, says the agreement was so restrictive, she was even banned from speaking of the payment she received from Weinstein to government officials, if she were ever questioned by tax authorities. Instead, the document stated authorities would have to reach out to Weinstein’s lawyers in London. After she had cut ties from Weinstein’s company, Chiu still felt as if the powerful producer had eyes and ears on her wherever she was in the world. The trauma of her experience led her to attempt suicide twice, she says.

“He could sue me for every single interview I’ve ever done for breaking my NDA, but in practice, he’s probably not going to. He’s got bigger problems.”
Rowena Chiu

As allegation after allegation came pouring out in 2017, Chiu chose to remain anonymous. After all, she had already harbored her secret for two decades. She had no interest in becoming a public name, plus, she was bound to the non-disclosure agreement.

After the ’98 Venice Film Festival, Chiu confided in her colleague to whom she reported, Zelda Perkins, then 25 years old, who was shocked and horrified at what Weinstein had done, and decided to escalate the issue at Miramax. The two women banded together and hired a lawyer, but Weinstein’s team pressured them into signing the NDA that forever locked them into silence.

“I would have never said anything. None of what had happened would have happened without Zelda,” Chiu says. “She has a strong moral center and she was outraged. She was very protective of me.”

Perkins, who has recently spoken to members of Parliament to push for changes to legislation around non-disclosure agreements in the U.K., did not grasp the magnitude of standing up to Weinstein, at the time that she escalated the issue of Weinstein’s misconduct at Miramax. “I genuinely did not think I was doing anything brave. I only think it’s brave if you think something bad is going to happen, and I naively thought that it was the normal thing to do,” she says. “Moral behavior should be normal — not brave, not whistleblowing, not courageous.”

The agreements signed by Chiu and Perkins exemplify the abuse of power and the lengths that large corporations will go to, in order to protect individuals in positions of power, under the guise of legal protection.

“For me, this has always been less about Harvey Weinstein or any one man’s behavior — it has been about the system that enables this behavior,” Perkins adds. “Power is a privilege. Your behavior should become more impeccable with power; not less impeccable.”

The NDA between Chiu and Miramax names Weinstein and his brother Bob as one of the many beneficiaries of the agreement, and is signed by Weinstein and his company’s former lawyer, Steve Hutensky. Variety has reviewed the NDA and can confirm the contents mentioned by Chiu in the conversation below.

You didn’t testify in New York, but do you believe that you -- and other women -- coming forward with your stories played a role in the outcome of the trial?

It wasn’t just the six women who took the stand, but obviously those six women paid a much bigger price. It took so long to get here. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the years had to devote so much time, energy and emotion just to go up against one man. That says a lot. When you look at the social phenomenon, it’s quite amazing that all of these different people came together to rally for one cause. But also, if you look at it in a more pessimistic way, why does it take this many people? If you are by yourself, if you’re Tara Reade sticking out against Joe Biden, you’re not really getting any press.

“It’s like the mafia. This agreement had to not exist. This payment had to not exist.”
Rowena Chiu

Speaking of the Biden allegation, what is your take, and specifically with how it’s been covered by the press?

It hasn’t gotten any attention in the media. I’m not at liberty to judge the facts of the case, but having been someone who had a lot of people say to me, “No one is ever going to listen to your story because it happened in a hotel room and only you and Harvey were in the room,” I feel sympathetic for people who are trying to tell a story, but are being shut down. It’s really hard if you’re a lone voice. Zelda and I were two voices and that already made it much better, but at the time, nobody believed us. Even the people who thought we might have been telling the truth told us there was no point in pursuing because we would never get anywhere.

You and Zelda are now in regular communication, but prior to the #MeToo movement, when was the last time you two had spoken?

Oh never! Are you kidding me?

You never spoke once, after you both signed your NDAs in 1998?

No. Never. We had the fear of God put into us. We were told by our own lawyer — not even just Harvey’s lawyers — that we must treat this time as a black hole. It said very specifically in our contract that we can only refer in very general terms to having worked for Harvey, and we can never talk in any detail about any aspect of our life during this time ever to anybody — not just the media and lawyers and doctors and therapists, but there was also a clause about friends and family. It locked us out of any type of emotional support whatsoever.

Did your NDA permit you to speak to anyone?

No. It’s like the mafia. This agreement had to not exist. This payment had to not exist. If the tax authorities contacted us, we had to send them back to Harvey’s lawyers in London. We couldn’t even admit to its existence if Her Majesty’s Government sent officials to ask us about it. It is absolutely staggering, the extent of his arrogance, narcissism and belief that he was beyond any kind of power or authority. And you know what? He was friends with Prince Andrew. He got invited to Beatrice’s 18th birthday party with his buddy Jeffrey Epstein [in 2006]. He probably thought he had the British Royal Family eating out of his hand. The Queen gave him a CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] for his services to the British film industry [in 2004]. He thought he was of the elite group that didn’t have to answer to the police or the legal system or even tax authorities.

You were never let out of your NDA, so how did you ultimately decide to come forward and speak out?

There was never a time that I was released from my NDA. In fact, the day after I spoke on the “Today” show in Sept. 2019, [Weinstein’s lawyer] Donna Rotunno said there was no factual basis to anything [I] said and that Harvey Weinstein and I had a consensual, physical relationship for six months and Harvey was looking at ways to bring legal action against [me] for breaking my NDA. On that day, they threatened to sue me, and there is always that threat.

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Harvey Weinstein arriving to the New York criminal courthouse with his attorney, Donna Rotunno, during his 2020 rape trial. Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

You’re breaking your NDA to speak to me right now. Are you concerned of running that risk?

He’s got 111 women speaking out against him, he’s already done one criminal trial in New York and he’s got another upcoming criminal trial in L.A., so to be honest, he’s not going to waste his time or money suing me. I don’t have any money, so what’s the point of suing me? But legally, he’s within his rights to sue me and bring a case against me that says give back the settlement money. Every time I speak out, I run that risk.

With all this said, do you believe that NDAs should be eliminated completely?

NDAs should be banned as a tool to cover up sexual harassment, unequivocally. If you rape someone, that’s a reportable crime. To say, “I’m going to have you sign a legal document, so that you can’t go to the police or lawyers to discuss what happened to you,” that’s just plain wrong.

There is a public misconception that if a woman signs an NDA, she just wants money. That might be true in some cases, but many of the Harvey survivors have expressed they felt forced into signing an NDA. In your situation, did you even want money?

At that time, we were really young women who actually did not want money – we spent a lot of time arguing not to get money. We spent hours in that law office arguing for clauses that would stop Harvey and protect other women. But, if you are one little tug boat, how do you turn the Titanic around? It’s heartbreaking – when you read our NDAs, you see the path and the pattern where she tried to lay out a blueprint to stop Harvey.

What were some of the clauses that you tried to get into the NDA to stop Harvey’s behavior against other women?

Stuff like Harvey must go to sex therapy, so he has to admit that he has an addiction to sex. And then there was all the corporate stuff we tried to put in about how complaints were handled — we even went so far as to say that if there is another woman who brings an accusation forward [within two years of the signed NDA] and Harvey feels compelled to settle with her for $35,000 or up, he will automatically resign from Miramax and report himself to the Walt Disney Co. How incredible would it have been if he had to do that within two years of 1998? This whole thing would have been cracked open in 1999.

Did that clause, which stated Harvey would need to report himself to the Walt Disney Co., which owned Miramax at the time, make it into the NDA?

It did.

Well, if he did settle with a woman during that time period, he clearly didn’t comply with that clause.

It’s amazing, isn’t it?

But it’s a legally binding document. So, are you suggesting that Harvey and his lawyers just blatantly ignored the protections put into the NDA?

Well, we can’t actually demonstrate that anyone disobeyed any laws. We’d have to find a woman that he paid off [in that timeframe], and then we could say, “Hello, you didn’t report yourself to Disney.” If we knew of a woman who was assaulted by Harvey during that time period and was paid off, and Harvey did not resign from Miramax and did not turn himself in to Michael Eisner, we could all go together to a judge.

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Rowena Chiu at her Oxford graduation in 1998, just months before she began to work as an assistant to Harvey Weinstein. Courtesy of Rowena Chiu

What clauses did you try to get in the NDA that didn’t make it into the legal document?

We fought really hard to have a really simple clause that said Harvey must travel with one male assistant at any time.

Zelda pushed for that specific clause, so that Harvey wouldn’t be alone with a woman when he was traveling. What was the reasoning for the clause not being put into the NDA?

We had to give that clause up because they insisted that we provide them with a list of the names and addresses of our friends and family, which is just evil. Why would we give them a list of names and addresses of our friends and family? Now, we all know about Black Cube and the Red Flag list, but even then, I thought that I would literally be putting them in danger. I thought Harvey would hire people to go around to my boyfriend’s apartment or my poor parents and there would be black vans sitting outside their home.

[Black Cube is the P.I. agency made up of former members of Israeli intelligence, which Weinstein hired to follow Ronan Farrow; the Red Flag List is the list of names Weinstein sent to private investigators, asking them to research individuals whom he believed had incriminating information.]

We published the names on the Red Flag List at Variety when they became available in public court documents, after the trial. Did you know that your name was on that list?

I didn’t know that I was on there, until my name was actually published in your article. I actually knew that Zelda was on it because she had agreed to meet with a few journalists, but I was always so secretive and [Harvey’s] team never contacted me in 20 years, so naively, I thought that I had been forgotten.

Do you regret signing the NDA?

There was no other way. We didn’t want to sign the NDA. We just wanted to walk away, and we would try, and they would say things like, “We know where your parents live.” So, I felt that we were forced to sign the NDA because of the safety of our friends and family.

When was the first time you told your husband about your incident with Weinstein?

In August 2017 because Jodi Kantor showed up and stopped my husband at the minivan and said she had reason to believe that his wife worked for Harvey Weinstein and signed a non-disclosure agreement. I was visiting my parents out of town, and my husband called and said, “There is a New York Times journalist on our driveway.” I said, “Oh s—t!” to myself because journalists would come and go over the 20 years, but no one ever came in the 10 years that I had been married. I just said, “Don’t worry, it will go away,” and I explained to him that journalists have tried, but the story would never come out. Then the story published that October, and my husband read about [the mistreatment] of Zelda’s colleague, and he knew I was Zelda’s colleague. So, we never sat down and had a heart-to-heart, but details just came out.

And you hadn’t told your parents about Weinstein either, correct?

Nobody knew anything. When I sat on the couch at the “Today show” and broke my story to millions of people in 2019, I had only told my parents 10 days earlier.

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Rowena Chiu tells her story for the first time on the “Today” show in Sept. 2019, alongside Ashley Judd, who has also accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Nathan Congleton/NBC

Do you regret coming forward, given all of the public attention?

There’s a duality about going public. After I wrote my op-ed in the New York Times, a lot of people said to me, “Your voice is finally free.” For a nanosecond, you feel liberated. But then very quickly, people tweet about it, they comment and then other journalists call you about it, so the story snowballs and develops a personality of its own. When I first went on the “Today” show, I thought I’d go on the show and go home. I was the 81st victim, so I thought maybe people wouldn’t pay attention. But it didn’t happen that way. I kept getting contacting by the press, I’ve been invited to speak on panels and roundtables about sexual assault.

I’m sure there are parts of coming forward that are rewarding, but at the same time, even the accolades can be overwhelming. Were you prepared for this level of attention?

In some ways, it’s been better than I thought. I haven’t had the Christine Blasey Ford [who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault] experience because people have been mostly sympathetic to the Weinstein survivors. My kids haven’t been hounded. I’ve received this overwhelming swell of support, which has been phenomenal. But on the other hand, I wasn’t prepared for this level of ongoing media attention, and it’s something you can never change. I’m not seeking fame, but now, you go to Google and there are hundreds of hits of my name and Harvey Weinstein.

It must be overwhelming to have your name suddenly become so public. But then to add another layer, is it also tough to see your name publicly associated with Harvey Weinstein?

For the last six months, I’ve been completely in the public eye, which has been a really odd experience for something whose name wasn’t known prior — I’m not Gwyneth Paltrow or Ashley Judd. I wasn’t famous, so I went from being a stay-at-home mom to being on television. I don’t know that’s what I would have wanted my legacy in life to be, to always be connected to Harvey Weinstein, so that is painful and that is a sacrifice. It’s a worthwhile sacrifice because of the number of letters I’ve gotten from sexual assault survivors. But I don’t say that lightly because the cost of speaking out is high.

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Harvey Weinstein with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck at the 71st annual Academy Awards in 1999 where “Shakespeare In Love” won best picture. Affleck was one of the many names listed on Weinstein’s “Red Flag List.” Bei/Shutterstock

You’ve spoken about unbalanced power dynamics, in regards to gender, status, wealth and race. How do you think race played into Harvey’s predation?

In the 90s, he had told Zelda that he “doesn’t do” Chinese or Jewish. Then later, when he attempted to rape me, he told me that he had never had a Chinese girl before. First of all, that’s a really disgusting statement, and reveals a lack of understanding of the nuance of racism. Then, he started saying that he liked Chinese girls because they’re “discreet.” Not only is he objectifying and stereotyping, but it’s also very sinister – he’s basically saying, “I’ve hazed you a couple of times by yelling at you in public, and you didn’t complain and you’re not going to tell anyone. This is going to be our little secret.”

[Perkins confirms that the first night Weinstein met Chiu was in London in summer 1998, before a private screening of “Shakespeare In Love.” Chiu was a brand-new assistant who Perkins had hired, so she asked Harvey, “What did you think of Rowena, she’s really smart, isn’t she?” and he responded with, “I don’t do Jews or Asians.”]

During the trial, the A.D.A.’s painted a picture of how Harvey would set out for his prey, by targeting specific women who “passed the test,” or in other words, women who would never tell anyone about his abuse.

It’s like he was saying, “You’re the kind of person who isn’t going to speak out and complain because that’s how Chinese people are.”

Do you believe that because you are a person of color, he thought he could silence you more easily?

Absolutely. What is amazing about this whole complicated racial dynamic is that I actually did play into it because it is true that I was raised as someone who didn’t complain and who was obedient. For all of his faults, Harvey was good at reading people and manipulating situations.

Harvey was sentenced to 23 years in New York prison, and he faces a potential maximum sentence of 32 years with the L.A. trial. He is also facing legal woes in the U.K. Now that some time has passed since the trial ended and you’ve been able to sit with the news, do you feel like justice has been served?

I think for Harvey, we couldn’t have asked for more. He had an absolutely staggering fall from grace. He is somebody we thought we could never oust because he was so powerful. To even see him in court is really amazing. The whole idea of 23 years is a gift to his accusers who always thought he would walk free and make movies and foster young women. We all thought there would be no accountability.

If your incident had happened today in 2020, and there had been another case as monumental as Harvey Weinstein, do you think your situation would have been handled differently and people would have believed you?

I want to say yes, but instinctively, I feel no. It took this many women and a whole movement that couldn’t be ignored to bring Harvey down. I think some things have changed, but I wouldn’t say it’s a sea-change and things are going to be much easier for accusers going forward. This is just the beginning of what we hope to see as a long-term societal, cultural change.

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The “Silence Breakers,” a group of women who have accused Harvey Weinstein, stand together at a Los Angeles press conference in Feb. 2020 to praise the verdict, after a New York jury found Weinstein guilty of sexual assault and rape. Shutterstock

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)