Moment that mattered: Harvey Weinstein is found guilty of rape and sexual assault
At the start of 2020 we spoke to Rowena Chiu, Harvey Weinstein's former assistant, about breaking her NDA and exposing Weinstein
24th February 2020 (Taken from: #38)
This article was published in Delayed Gratification in March 2020
Rowena Chiu spent the days prior to the Harvey Weinstein verdict holed up in a hotel room at the Hilton Midtown Manhattan, ready to take a taxi to the NBC studios at a moment’s notice. “Because I had broken my story on the Today show the previous September in front of four million people, they invited me back [to discuss the verdict],” she says.
The jury deliberated for five days, but Chiu had been waiting a lot longer for Weinstein to face justice. She says that in 1998, while working as Weinstein’s personal assistant, he attempted to rape her, a charge he denies. Chiu, 45, is one of many women who have accused Weinstein of assault but have been unable to bring criminal charges in recent years because of statutes of limitation. She was a 24-year-old Oxford University graduate when she landed a job at Miramax, the production and distribution company Harvey Weinstein founded with his brother Bob and which had had a string of critical and commercial hits including Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting and The English Patient. “It was an extraordinary time,” recalls Chiu. “They were really at the zenith of their power both creatively and financially.” Still, she says working conditions were grim across the industry. “You expected to get phones and scripts thrown at you, to get treated like crap. It was a hazing thing and you had to tolerate it to get into film.”
Following Weinstein’s alleged attempted assault of Chiu at the Venice Film Festival, she confided in her colleague Zelda Perkins, another Miramax assistant. Perkins believed Chiu’s story and the pair attempted to escalate the matter. “What we heard was, ‘You can’t do anything, this is what Harvey is like, he’s got all this money, he’s just going to destroy you.’ Every single place we turned, a door was closed in our face.” It would take a further 21 years for Weinstein to face a jury.
After the fourth day of deliberations, a Friday, a verdict had yet to be returned. Chiu had a tough decision to make: stay in New York or fly back home to California where, some months before, she had agreed to appear at a conference to talk about the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). It is a subject close to her heart. Following the alleged assault, Chiu and Perkins say they were pressured by Miramax to accept a settlement of £125,000 each and sign an unusually restrictive NDA, one that prevented them from talking to family and friends, seeking therapy or aiding a criminal investigation. They both left the company and resolved never to speak to each other again.
“We signed that NDA in October 1998 and disappeared into oblivion,” says Chiu. Five months later, a jubilant Weinstein collected the Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love. Chiu says she “looked at that photo of Harvey accepting the award for best picture at the Oscars and Gwyneth Paltrow crying in a pink dress and thought, ‘Wow, that happened over our dead bodies.’”
Chiu abided by the terms of her NDA for more than two decades, not even telling her husband of ten years about what had happened. She stayed silent when Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, two New York Times journalists who were investigating abuse allegations against Weinstein, tracked her down in 2017, although the article they published that October gave Perkins the impetus to reach out to Chiu. Perkins had been campaigning to end the use of NDAs that seek to gag individuals from talking about abusive behaviour, and wanted Chiu’s blessing to address a UK parliamentary select committee on sexual harassment. “I feel that Zelda doesn’t get sufficient credit for her role in the story,” says Chiu. “Without her, I would never have had the courage to come forward, either in 1998 or 2019.”
Historically these kinds of legal verdicts never came down on the side of women
In January 2019, after watching the #MeToo movement unfold “from the sidelines” Chiu agreed, on condition of anonymity, to attend a gathering of 12 sexual abuse victims organised by Twohey and Kantor at the house of Gwyneth Paltrow, who had been assisting the journalists behind the scenes. “I didn’t want a Christine Blasey Ford scenario where my pre-schoolers could be followed or journalists could surround my house,” Chiu says of her own caution at the time. “Another thing to remember is that when I was at Gwyneth’s house, neither my parents or sister knew my story.”
It was hearing from others at the gathering – including Blasey Ford herself – that inspired Chiu to break her NDA and ultimately go public, culminating in the first Today show appearance.
Chiu subsequently wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “Harvey Weinstein Told Me He Liked Chinese Girls”, revealing that the trauma of her experiences had led her to attempt suicide on two occasions. She described how her British-Chinese identity had played a role in her silence: “I was taught not to talk back,” she says. “I learned the social benefits of being deferential, polite and well behaved. Harvey may not have created this imbalance, but he and many others have capitalised on it, knowingly or unknowingly, to abuse women of colour.”
Despite being “on tenterhooks” about the verdict, Chiu, who is now an economic consultant for the World Bank, decided to honour her commitment to the legal conference and flew back to California. The plan was for the mother of four to be back in New York in time for the verdict. But things didn’t work out like that. “At precisely 8.30am on Monday, just as I was about to take my younger children to pre-school, my phone blew up. Dozens of journalists called me directly.”
Although Weinstein had been acquitted of the most serious charges – two counts of predatory assault and one count of first-degree rape – the jury convicted him of third-degree rape and first-degree criminal sexual assault. Chiu’s sons didn’t make it to preschool that day. “I spent the next four hours perched on the end of the bed, one shoe on and one shoe off, talking to journalists. I literally didn’t pause for long enough to put that second shoe on,” she says. The floodgates had opened; up to this point Chiu had barely allowed herself to speculate about what the outcome of Weinstein’s trial might be.
“Historically these kinds of legal verdicts never came down on the side of women,” she says. “Look at the case of Chanel Miller, who was assaulted by Brock Turner on the Stanford campus ten minutes from where I live. Turner wasn’t a famous name. He didn’t have the money or the connections, and yet he only got six months [for sexually assaulting and attempting to rape an unconscious Miller]. I don’t think I was the only person who was kind of steeling themselves for an exoneration.” And yet the man thanked more times than God in Oscar winners’ speeches was about to spend the night in the notorious Rikers Island prison.
Standing outside the New York supreme court Doug Wigdor, the attorney of the six women who had testified against the producer, said: “We know there are many other victims of Harvey Weinstein whose voices have been heard through these six courageous women.” Journalists were pressing Chiu for unequivocal soundbites. “It was a complicated verdict about which it was impossible to say how I felt in three words,” she says. “The clash of conflicting emotions was almost unbearable. As one of his victims, you feel relief and gratitude that the system has finally come around to recognising what was wrong. But you also want to say, ‘Hold on a second, so much has been wrong with the system, and for so many decades.’ We shouldn’t get carried away with the drama of a big Hollywood producer being carted off to jail and ignore the kind of everyday harassment and abuse that goes on in workplaces all around the world.”
Chiu says the most worthwhile experience of the day Weinstein was found guilty was the hour she spent in a telephone conference connecting journalists and survivors. It included 30 other women who had also broken their silence about their treatment by Weinstein, including the British actress Lysette Anthony and the model Zoë Brock from New Zealand.
“It was incredibly emotional to hear the voices of all these women from around the world,” says Chiu. “That really brought home the extent to which Harvey’s predilections had touched so many lives. Of course that’s negative, but many of these women had managed to convert something horrific into a force for good, leading nonprofits and trauma-informed education. It was fascinating and encouraging on what could otherwise have been a pretty dark day.”
With both shoes finally on, Chiu narrowly made her flight to New York with her youngest child in tow and appeared on the Today show the next morning where she described the verdict as the closing chapter in a long journey. On 11th March Weinstein, who faces more criminal charges in Los Angeles and a series of civil lawsuits, was sentenced to 23 years in jail. He reportedly asked his lawyers: “How can this happen in America?”
Chiu says that this reaction was consistent with the producer she knew in the late 1990s, whom she recalls demanding changes to Shakespeare in Love so that it had a Hollywood ending. “He wanted to have Will and Viola marry one another,” says Chiu, a suggestion that “horrified” writer Tom Stoppard and director John Madden, who refused. “I think it is genuinely always a real shock to him that there are some things he just can’t buy.”
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