Best essays of 2017: Preyed upon by a Hollywood director

If I had been older, or bolder, I would have stopped his game as soon as he started it

Published December 28, 2017 7:00PM (EST)


It happened on a weekday afternoon in early May 1998, as I walked south along Second Avenue. The man appeared as if from nowhere, panting, sweat beading on his balding brow. Bespectacled and potato-shaped, he looked like he was in his fifties — older than my father. I was 20 years old, but with my rosy cheeks that clung to a baby-faced pudginess, a pixie cut of bleached-blond hair, and my outfit that day — baggy jeans, sneakers, a mechanic-style snap-button shirt and no makeup —I looked younger. A dangerous combination of lonely, bored, curious and trusting, I stopped.

“I was eating lunch at that diner on the corner,” he said, pointing up the block with one sausage finger, “when I saw you walking down the street, and I thought, she would be perfect for this role in my new movie, so I had to chase you down.”

The man flipped open his leather satchel and pulled out a magazine, then rifled through it, opening to a dog-eared page that featured a photo of his face with his name printed underneath. Premeditated proof he was who he claimed to be: A Hollywood director.

Sure of his credentials, I went with him to the diner up the street where he had left his unfinished meal. How much trouble could I get into in the middle of the day, in a crowded restaurant? I sat with him for almost half an hour as he spoke of my potential. When we parted ways, he gave me an assignment. I was to go see his movie (starring famous actors) that was out in theaters that night. We would meet the next day to discuss at a coffee shop uptown.

Finally, the words that should have put a stop to the entire plot before it progressed any further: “Don’t tell anyone about any of this. Go to the movie alone.”

The next day, I arrived early to our meeting spot — a chain coffee shop on the Upper West Side where street numbers were higher than any I’d yet set foot on. To kill time before our appointment, I wandered into a magazine store a few blocks away. Flipping through the latest issue of Seventeen, I felt compelled to look up, turn my head. Silhouetted in the doorway of the store was The Director.

What a coincidence! To have never seen someone before, then to run into him twice in two days? To me, it felt fated, which only added to the seduction. He came in to meet me, and we left together for the coffee shop. On our way out, the man behind the counter said something to The Director about having seen him the week before with Madonna and then asked, “Who’s the new girl?”

At the coffee shop, I followed The Director to a table in the back where it was darker. I don’t remember what I drank or what I was wearing that day; I don’t remember what I told him about the movie, which I had gone to see the night before, though not alone. Keeping our rendezvous secret seemed illicit, so I had confessed to the only other person I knew in town — the boyfriend of a girl I had roomed with in Paris two years earlier — and I made him come with me. He was excited, too, that his friend had possibly just been cast in a Hollywood film. Fame by association is just as alluring.

I sat and listened to The Director talk. About his sex life, his sexual exploits, his famous friends with whom he shared outlandish (and sometimes sex-filled) adventures. He dropped names. Some I had heard of. I’m pretty sure there was talk of illegitimate children in there, too, but that could have been just for effect. I tried to keep any emotion from appearing on my face; I tried to remember this was a “business” meeting.

Then the talk turned to me, and, having nothing at all to add to the conversation, I did the only thing I knew how to do: tell the truth. I admitted that I had never had sex.

Had I been more clued in, I’m sure I would have seen The Director’s pupils react to my admission. “Cha-ching!” they would have declared. Isn’t a virgin a coveted big game trophy of sexual predation?

It was decided that the following Saturday, The Director and I would meet again — this time, at his hotel. Though I don’t remember the whole dialogue, I do remember these words coming out of The Director’s mouth: “Don’t worry. No matter what happens, I won’t f**k you.”

Writing about this 20 years later still brings me to a sad and angry and shameful place. Sad for that innocent and foolish girl. Angry that The Director lured me with promises of Hollywood acclaim; angry that I allowed myself to be dazzled by it. The shame of not having any clue as to what was going on. Mostly, the shame that I had allowed this to happen.

Now that I'm older, emboldened, I’ll wish I had stood up in that uptown coffee shop, thrown my lukewarm drink in his face and walked out. Or slapped his cheek and screamed something to the room like, “The Director is a big fat perv. And his movies suck. Big time!” Or, what he most likely deserved: kicked him — hard — in the nuts. Though he probably would have enjoyed that. Feisty one, he would have thought.

Instead, we walked to a nearby pizza joint where, a few minutes after sitting down, he told me his sick mother lived a couple of blocks away and he had to go check in on her. Did I mind waiting there for a few minutes, to keep an eye on his stuff?

He left and I sat there alone at the table, futzing with the shakers of hot pepper flakes and Parmesan as if they were chess pieces, ignorant as to who the real pawn was. The comforting scent of baking pizza hung thick in the air, making my mouth water.

As the sun shone through the front window, shifting then lengthening the shadows, I waited with The Director’s stuff: a white plastic shopping bag filled with I don’t know what — because I never looked — and an umbrella. I don’t know why I just didn’t leave these surely replaceable items at the counter and get myself out of there. But I was still under the impression that if I did everything right, I would be starring in a movie. And then, who knew where my life would lead me?

Why was being in a movie so important? More important than my safety, apparently. More important than my dignity. I don’t know. Because girls from the Canadian suburbs don’t wind up in Hollywood movies? And aren’t we meant to buy into the fantasy of being “discovered” while simply walking down the street?

At the time, I had been modeling full-time since I graduated high school at 17, but the bookings recently had been slow. For the previous three years, I had made myself amenable to an industry that I didn't realize at the time only cared about me as long as I booked worked. I was a commodity, an object, bargained over, bought and sold. I told myself acting would be different. I envisioned my rise to fame. With a speaking role.

I don’t know how long I waited at the pizza place, but I do know that it was a long time. Too long.

Looking back, after having learned more about other people and myself, after studying psychology from both textbooks and hours of intentional observation, I’ll view this whole thing as a f**ked up set-up. I’ll feel queasy when I admit to myself that there was no ailing mother. What a line. Instead, I’ll create a scenario where The Director scopes out the pizzeria from some third-story window across the street, maybe with binoculars, keeping his eye on the prize, watching to see what it would do. And with this knowledge, The Director would conclude that he had absolute control over me. I mean, I sat and waited for over an hour with a plastic bag and a five-dollar umbrella. (The day was sunny, even, cloudless.) Knowing I was the type of girl who did as I was asked, The Director would know how far he could take things. And, as I would eventually learn from regrettable experiences yet-to-come, when a man says, “I’m not going to have sex with you,” that is in fact exactly what he intends to do.

Eventually The Director did return, grabbed his stuff, and, plans all set for our Saturday afternoon meeting, he handed me a piece of paper. A single page of hotel stationery with his room number and the French phrase, “Ton Avenir,” written across it in an infantile scrawl.

Your Future.

When I first heard about the multiple recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein, my mind immediately retrieved the details from what I experienced with The Director almost two decades ago. I didn’t know who he was back then, but I do now. He’s legit.

Once, when I was 36, a male friend who I thought I respected said to me: “Well, people are always going to try to take advantage of other people. It’s your fault if you allow it to happen.”

(This in response to a news story of a male fashion photographer using his position of power to allegedly manipulate and abuse unknowing models — again.)

My high school basketball coach who commented on my legs as I stepped off the school bus arriving at an away game. A group of construction workers sitting on a sidewalk who serenaded me with a rendition of ZZ Top’s “She got lay-eggs. . . . ” A photographer who peppered his conversation with the words “sexy” and “sensual” — as he spoke about Texas. Another photographer, who grabbed me by the hips, pulling me close, to get me to “loosen up” on set. A nightclub DJ who invited me to join him in his booth only to rub himself against my knees as I sat there, unable to push past him. A modeling agent who told me that I “didn’t want it bad enough,” alluding to girls who did; later, I’ll recognize this as an attempt to get me to ask him what I needed to do to show him just how bad I wanted a modeling career. A date who insisted he never heard the word “no” coming from my mouth. though I had whispered, spoken, then screamed it over and over and over. The Director.

I am no stranger to the varying degrees of sexual harassment and assault that women face. Every day.

Recently, a male fashion photographer said to me he didn’t think female models were taken advantage of sexually as much as male models were.

My response: “It happens more for the girls. They just don’t say anything.”

In the end, I didn’t go to The Director’s hotel as planned. As Saturday neared, I had grown more and more wary. His voice saying “No matter what happens, I won’t f**k you,” played over and over in my mind. No, I didn’t need to see what he meant by No matter what. Maybe I didn’t need to be in a movie that badly after all.

I called him in his room on Saturday morning to tell him I wouldn't be coming over.

“Who did you talk to?” His words came out harsh, threatening.

“Nobody,” I said. I knew I had made the right decision.

After mumbling something about how I knew how to reach him if I changed my mind, he hung up.

What if I had gone to the hotel? Would I alone have been responsible for what happened next? Would it have been fully my fault if The Director had in fact f**ked me?

He was certainly a pro, I have to hand him that. Now I know: I was not the only girl he tried something like this with. And we know he is not the only man in the film industry to try something like this.

I hate to think I live in a world where there are people out there who will try to take advantage, and if I allow that to happen for whatever reason — moment of weakness, lapse in judgment, too many drinks, just plain curious, being utterly fooled — then it becomes my fault.

It is becoming clearer that this is an unfortunate undercurrent flowing below the surface of, well, everything: picking off the vulnerable from the pack to be preyed upon, coerced into doing things they might not feel comfortable with. Because the promised outcome, the hoped-for reward is attention, recognition, a type of acceptance. Along with, of course, money, the desire for which has a strange way of making people do things. I, too, am guilty.

The comfort I can take from this is that I didn’t follow through to the end, that in this particular situation I emerged physically unscathed. But I do have the memory of the entire episode — this episode responsible for removing any last trace of lofty dreamer I had left inside of me and shattering any remnants of trusting others and their stupid promises — and the accompanying feelings that arise sometimes, whether I give them permission to or not. I grieve the loss of that girl, my former self. But I also feel an intense sadness for the girls who didn’t escape and for those who won’t in the future.

No, it’s not their fault.

The Director is still around, doing his thing. I wonder if he’s still using this same technique to cast his films. I wonder how many other women have similar stories to this one. I wonder how many men use their power and influence to target and silence, as they continue to shroud their behavior with shitty excuses.

Even if I were to name The Director, what good would it do? He would claim this didn’t happen. My story? Attention-seeking and bogus. His word against mine. Who am I to be believed? Simply one of many. A nobody. Forgettable.

As with many things I lived through, I only told my mother part of the story, unable to break her heart. Every now and then, I fake a smile as she asks: “Remember the time you were discovered by that Hollywood director?”

But as Amber Tamblyn recently wrote in an Op-Ed for The New York Times: “We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change.”

This, finally, is my song.

By Ainsley McWha

Originally from Nepean, Ontario, Canada, Ainsley McWha recently relocated from New York City to rural southeast Idaho, giving up an almost two-decade-long modeling career to write in a hundred-year-old homestead. Her MFA in Creative Nonfiction is from The New School.

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