Three of the women who accused Trump of making unwanted sexual advances feel the culture may finally change but worry about men’s relative silence
Trump accusers (left to right): Cathy Heller, Kari Wells and Jessica Leeds.
As the aftershocks from Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct spread to other powerful men in Hollywood and media, a group of women for whom the allegations are “gross but familiar” are wondering if the fallout will reach an even more powerful man – the one in the White House.
During the course of his presidential campaign, more than 10 women came forward with accusations that Donald Trump had touched or kissed them without consent – something he bragged about on the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape when he said stars like him could “grab them by the pussy”.
A number of other women accused Trump of unwanted sexual advances. And like so many of the Weinstein stories to come out this month, their claims have remarkable consistency.
Three of them spoke with the Guardian after the allegations against Weinstein – who denies the claims against him – came to light, to revisit their accusations against Trump.
Although they are glad women have spoken up against the Hollywood producer and feel the culture may finally change, they are worried the relative silence of men will continue to allow abusers to rise to power.
They are Cathy Heller, who told the Guardian last year that in the late 1990s Trump forcibly kissed her on the lips the first time they had ever met; Kari Wells, a former model and Bravo Actress, who said Trump aggressively propositioned her in 1992 while he was dating her friend; and Jessica Leeds, who said Trump assaulted her on a plane in the early 1980s when he allegedly groped her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt.
They were just some of the women who spoke out about Trump’s behavior – women who, in many cases, were young and vulnerable and eager for an opening in industries such as modelling or TV in which the Miss Universe owner and Apprentice star had sway.
There was his former business partner in the beauty pageant industry, Jill Harth, who told the Guardian in an interview last summer that Trump groped her breasts and grabbed her crotch in one of the children’s rooms at his Florida home Mar-a-Lago in 1993.
“My pain is everyday with bastard Trump as President. “No one gets it unless it happens to them. NO one!” Harth tweeted after the Weinstein allegations came to light.
Then there was Kristin Anderson, who claimed last fall that Trump touched her vagina through her underwear at a Manhattan nightclub in the early 1990s.
And Mindy McGillivray, who said Trump groped her in 2003 when she was 23, also allegedly at Mar-a-Lago.
And Rachel Crooks, who said Trump kissed her forcibly on the mouth in 2005.
Temple Taggart McDowell, a former Miss USA beauty pageant contestant, also alleged that Trump kissed her without permission, as did Jessica Drake, along with other claims. Natasha Stoynoff accused Trump of “forcing his tongue down my throat” in 2005.
A former contestant on The Apprentice, Summer Zervos – who also said Trump kissed and groped her without consent – has filed a defamation claim against the now-president. Through her lawyer Gloria Allred, she declined to be interviewed for this story.
A year after the election of a man they say sexually harassed or assaulted them, Leeds, Heller and Wells spoke in depth with the Guardian about Weinstein’s fall, and why their allegations against Trump didn’t have the same effect on the man who went on to become the 45th president of the United States.
Trump has denied all allegations, at various points threatening to sue his accusers and calling their accounts “total fabrication” and “pure fiction”. He also suggested some of the accusers were not attractive enough for him to have assaulted them, saying of Leeds: “Believe me: She would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”
Of the ongoing legal case against him, he has said: “It’s totally fake news. It’s just fake. It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff, and it’s disgraceful.”
For Leeds, one of the first women to come forward with her story last year, her frustration revolves around just how little effect the renewed attention on sexual assault seems to be having on the man occupying the White House.
“Mr Trump was able to slough off the whole thing and that was very disappointing,” Leeds told the Guardian last week. “I think perhaps without the Weinstein stories I probably would have slipped more and more into the background.”
She expects Trump will be able to continue to slough it off, too.
“I wish personally that the Weinstein story would have some effect on the Trump story, but to some degree Hollywood and the glamor machine is kind of a different category,” she said.
And men needed to make it clear that Trump’s brand of “locker-room talk” is unacceptable, she said. “It would be nice at this point if we started hearing from men on this issue, because it’s not one-sided.”
For example, Leeds referred to Gwyneth Paltrow’s story in which, after Weinstein allegedly made a move on her, she confided in her boyfriend at the time, Brad Pitt. Paltrow came forward with her story this month, Leeds noted, but we have not heard from Pitt.
“Some of these men, it would be helpful if they could speak out. And until they do, maybe we’ll get it off our chests and feel better about ourselves, but I don’t think it’s going to change,” she said.
That should be as true for men in Washington as for those in Hollywood, said Leeds.
“The only way to get it to stop is to put a mic in front of them and say, ‘What do you think of that?’” she said. “These stories did not happen in a vacuum. There is the person, the boss, the supervisor, the co-worker.”
Another way to change public consciousness, said Leeds, is to put more women in positions of influence.
“But that may be a bad case of wishful thinking.”
Heller, who last year told the Guardian Trump grabbed and kissed her at a brunch at Mar-a-Lago in the late 1990s, becoming angry that she twisted away and refused his advances, said that the important thing about her story was “I told people at the time what a creep he was. I told people right away and people had seen what had gone on. That I met him – that he lunged at me and I thought he was a jerk. I told them at the time and then 19 years later they remembered.
“I knew that if I had been alone with him it could have been a lot worse,” she added.
But, she said, her decision to speak out last year to the Guardian was still a difficult one.
“I did have hesitation about speaking,” she allowed. “But once I did, I really had tremendous support with one possible exception from a neighbor.”
She said she was glad Weinstein’s accusers had stepped forward, and hoped it would lead to more women feeling comfortable enough to speak out.
“This behavior has existed a really long time. It’s always been there,” Heller said, but only when women speak out do others feel comfortable doing the same.
Heller recalled how her grandmother, who had worked as a legal secretary in the 1920s, reacted to Anita Hill’s testimony against the future supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, which first introduced sexual harassment into the lexicon of many Americans.
“These law partners, who were very respected men in our town, the expression she used was, ‘They pawed me,’” Heller said of her grandmother. “She really needed the job so she put up with it.”
The Weinstein allegations were particularly surprising, she explained, because the producer was such a supporter of liberal causes and had made movies with prominent parts for women. “It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s men in power,” said Heller.
What was less surprisingly, she added, was the traction Weinstein’s accusers have gotten in a celebrity-worshipping society. “Many of the women who accused Weinstein are famous actresses and I think because of that, their stories had more heft,” she said. “Ordinary women put up with this all the time.”
She also said she understood why it was hard for some of Weinstein’s accusers to come forward. “It’s hard because it’s kind of embarrassing. It makes people uncomfortable.” Of the anecdotes coming out of Hollywood she added: “A lot of the stories are gross. Many of these women were very young in their 20s and the thought of this big fat guy in his bathrobe … it’s creepy.”
Maybe, just, maybe, she said, the dam was finally starting to break.
“I think now is when it’s beginning to change – like right now, the last month,” she said.
To Wells, a British-born former model who starred in Bravo’s Married to Medicine, the Weinstein accusations felt incredibly familiar.
When Wells was trying to break into the entertainment industry, she always feared the “casting couch” – the idea that actresses needed to sleep with producers and directors in order to land roles.
“To get a fabulous role in Hollywood and to have to suffer something at such a young age, the thought of it was terrifying,” she told the Guardian.
Speaking out against the prevailing culture did not even seem like an option. “There’s a lot of people who just don’t believe you, people that think you are making it up or doing it for attention and you hear that especially among men,” Wells said.
Her experience with Trump, when he allegedly propositioned her at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Aspen in 1992, was “nothing major”, she says, because it was unfortunately “an everyday occurrence, a reminder of how some men act”.
After Weinstein’s downfall, she said she was hopeful something might finally change – but not hopeful enough to think it would happen quickly. “So many women have had enough,” Wells said. “Good will come of it, but it will be over the next several decades.”
Still, she thought that was progress. “In the past it didn’t get discussed,” she said, “and when it did women were disbelieved or it was swept under the rug. Now women have a voice. People are listening to them, they are paying attention.”
Ironically, she said she thought Trump had played a role in that by getting more people talking and thinking about what had been a taboo issue.
“Trump’s presidency has opened up the topic,” Wells added. “Everything that happened during the election – it outraged so many women, so many women paid attention, and so many women that would never be involved in politics became involved in politics.
“I do think we have Trump to thank for that. I think he’s been a huge inspiration for women to speak out against men,” she said.
For years, Wells, said, women assumed, with good reason, that speaking out against powerful men was hopeless. It would just put a target on their back and do nothing to harm the man.
But after the series of accusations against media personalities Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and now Harvey Weinstein, women are finally feeling that speaking out is no longer hopeless.
“With each of these stories we get to a new level,” she added. “And it’s going to bring down so many people it’s just the beginning and I love it.”
“Now,” Wells added. “There’s fire.”