Rose McGowan turned down Harvey Weinstein's hush money, and found a fiery voice

Rose McGowan addresses the audience at the Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, Oct 27, 2017.
Rose McGowan addresses the audience at the Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, Oct 27, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) In late September (2017), just as multiple women were days away from going on the record with reports of Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct, one of his alleged assault victims, Rose McGowan, considered an offer that suggested just how desperate the Hollywood producer had become.

McGowan, who was working on a memoir called Brave, had already spoken privately about the episode over many years and hinted at it publicly. Through her lawyer, she said, someone close to Weinstein had offered her hush money: US$1 million (S$1.3 million), in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement.

McGowan briefly contemplated the deal. She had settled in 1997 for US$100,000 after a hotel room encounter with Weinstein, but that agreement, she learned this summer, had never included a confidentiality clause. McGowan, who was most widely known for her role as a witch on the WB show Charmed, had recently developed a massive following as a fiery feminist on Twitter, but she was now, at 44, a multimedia artist, no longer acting, her funds depleted by health-care costs for her father, who died eight years ago.

"I had all these people I'm paying telling me to take it so that I could fund my art," McGowan said in an interview. She responded by asking for US$6 million, part counteroffer, part slow torture of her former tormentor, she said.

"I figured I could probably have gotten him up to three," she said. "But I was like - ew, gross, you're disgusting, I don't want your money, that would make me feel disgusting."

She said she told her lawyer to pull the offer within a day of allegations about Weinstein first appearing in The New York Times. After that, the dam burst, with The New Yorker and other news outlets reporting on dozens of other women's experiences with Weinstein.

Weinstein, his accusers say, built his long history of abusing women on a risky gamble that worked for him over and over - the assumption that money or threats could buy women's silence on a subject so intimate and painful that most would prefer not to go public anyway.

While McGowan was the rare voice suggesting that the cover-up was not fail-safe, even she considered not naming him, having already, she believes, paid a career price for that long-ago encounter and its aftermath.

A Weinstein spokeswoman, Sallie Hofmeister, said that "Mr Weinstein unequivocally denies any allegations of nonconsensual sex."

McGowan's lawyer, Paul Coggins, confirmed that McGowan received the offer.

By 2015, McGowan, who felt alienated by the industry, started using her sizable platform on Twitter to maximise her status as both insider and outsider - someone with enough Hollywood experience to speak with authority about sexism within in it, and someone liberated enough from its compromises to unleash the fury in her that had been building for years. Only now does the scope of the news about Weinstein - and the public conversation about what's wrong with Hollywood - seem to match the scale of her outrage, giving her the clout of a someone at last proven right.

On Friday, at the inaugural Women's Convention in Detroit, she was a featured speaker - a new, combative face of feminism, endowed with Hollywood charisma yet anything but slick.

"I have been silenced for 20 years," she told the gathering. "I have been slut-shamed. I have been harassed. I have been maligned. And you know what? I'm just like you."

A CRUSADE GATHERS STRENGTH

As other women told their stories in recent weeks, McGowan stepped forward as well, not just addressing what happened to her but also attacking those she considered complicit.

When actor Ben Affleck claimed he never knew of Weinstein's history, she wrote in a tweet: "'GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT' you said that to my face," adding, "The press conf I was made to go to after assault. You lie."

She called out the larger apparatus of Hollywood, criticising agencies and a film studio that she believed knew of allegations about Weinstein.

When Twitter suspended her account - the company said that it was because she had published a private phone number - users retaliated with a boycott that drew support from celebrities such as actress Alyssa Milano and writer Cheryl Strayed. Actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele tweeted, in response to McGowan's blistering attacks, a moody still of her from the film Grindhouse in which she surveys burning wreckage her character has wrought.

"Get 'em, Rose," he wrote.

On Oct 13, the day of the boycott, McGowan retreated from Los Angeles, where she had been working on her memoir, to a beach cottage in Hawaii, safely ensconced behind two gates, near a park locals call the City of Refuge.

"I wanted to come to a place that had so much power to it, that it could hold a lot at bay - a lot of monster energy," said McGowan, sitting at a picnic table a few hundred yards from the ocean. "I came to a place that almost has a protective zone around it."

Her hair was short, but not shaven, as it had been in the past. Having been featured on the covers of Maxim and Rolling Stone as a longhaired, barely dressed object of desire, McGowan seems to have settled on an aesthetic of chic simplicity.

If not a time of celebration, this moment could be perceived as a moment of vindication for McGowan. Yes, she said, she sometimes feels like laughing - "kind of like a witch's cackle," she clarified. But at other times she feels emotionally raw, just knowing that a click on her phone would bring her to conversations others were having about her assault allegation.

The phone had come to feel too powerful: "It's like a live wire that you're holding in your mouth, and it goes directly to your brain," she said.

THE MEETING AND THE AFTERMATH

Her story of assault, although uniquely her own, shares some of the now familiar hallmarks of a Weinstein encounter. McGowan was in Park City, Utah, in early 1997 to attend the Sundance Film Festival and the screening of a film in which she appeared, Going All The Way. She had also recently appeared as a smart-mouthed beauty who dies a gruesome death in the blockbuster film Scream. McGowan's manager then, Jill Messick, told her to meet Weinstein at the restaurant in the Stein Eriksen Lodge for a 10am appointment. On her arrival, the maitre d' directed the actress upstairs to Weinstein's suite, she said. McGowan remembers passing two male assistants on the way in.

"They wouldn't look me in the eye," she recalled.

She sat at the far end of a couch as Weinstein sat in a club chair, and they had a brief business meeting. But on their way out, she said, he interrupted himself to point out that the hotel room had a hot tub.

"And then what happened, happened," said McGowan, who has described her experience, on Twitter, as rape. "Suffice it to say a door opened and my life changed."

She declined to share the details of the encounter. "That's my story to tell," she said with some fierceness, her voice lowering. But she said that she walked out of the hotel suite and directly into a press event. She remembers fighting back tears, and the conversation with Affleck.

She said she told Messick, then of Addis-Wechsler & Associates, what had occurred.

"She held me," McGowan said. "She put her arms around me."

But in the months to come, McGowan did not feel supported by her management team. She was referred to a lawyer specialising in sexual harassment and assault cases who, McGowan said, gave her the impression that filing a criminal charge was hopeless.

"She was like, 'You're an actress, you've done a sex scene, you're done,'" she recalled.

Anne Woodward, now a manager herself, was a young assistant in Messick's office at the time, and was in on many of Messick's calls.

"I remember that Rose was extremely upset and did not want to settle," Woodward said. "But she wanted to fight."

No one around her, as Woodward recalls, supported that instinct. "It was an emotionally shocking way to see a woman being treated," Woodward said. "That's what stuck with me."

Nick Wechsler, then a principal at Addis-Wechsler & Associates, said that he and his partner, Keith Addis, met with Weinstein at Messick's request and confronted him with the claim. "I remember Harvey saying he was going to get psychiatric treatment or some kind of therapy for his sexual behaviour," Wechsler said.

McGowan initially decided to ask for about US$25,000, enough money to cover her therapy; by the time she signed the settlement, the amount had been raised to US$100,000.

Both Woodward and McGowan were shocked when, only a few months afterward, Messick accepted a job working as vice-president for development at Miramax, then run by Weinstein. Messick did not respond to a request for comment.

At the time of the alleged assault, McGowan had finally been emerging from the trials of an insecure childhood, with loving but unconventional parents: Her father, said his sister, Rory McGowan, Rose's aunt, "almost certainly had undiagnosed manic-depressive disorder". He was the leader of a religious cult in Italy, from which Rose's grandmother extracted her before she reached middle school. Both parents were hippie intellectuals, members of the counterculture who taught their children to prize independent thinking and buck the system.

Maddie Corman, an actress who befriended Rose McGowan in the mid-1990s, perceived a change in McGowan after the episode (she says she was aware of the settlement, but could not recall if she learned it directly from McGowan or from others).

"Rose was never this sweet, simple soul - there was always something ferocious about her," Corman said. "But after that assault, a light dimmed. I remember her souring on the powers that be. And she became very protective of us. It was sometimes cryptic: Keep your guard up."

McGowan's friends watched as she made choices that surprised them, including beginning a relationship with Marilyn Manson, a controversial rock star and ordained Satanist who has called himself "the Mephistopheles of Los Angeles." ("I ran away for three years and joined the circus," McGowan said of that romantic involvement.)

She showed up for the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998 in a dress made of tiny beads, with almost no back to speak of. "That was my first big public appearance after being assaulted," she said. "And I thought - you want to see a body? I did it with a giant middle finger."

Camilla Rantsen was also a young actress in Los Angeles who was close to McGowan, and was aware, only through friends, of what had transpired.

"I think some of the people she started surrounding herself with weren't as great as the people she had before," said Rantsen, who is now a writer.

Plenty of young actresses with promising starts see their careers founder for one reason or another, but McGowan believes she was, for many years, blacklisted from the production company that could have launched her career. At the same time, she says, she would never have considered working with Weinstein's businesses.

"And they were doing the kinds of movies that I would be doing," she said.

She continued to work, on Charmed until 2006, but also in independent films. Eventually, she appeared in both of the two films packaged as Grindhouse, directed by Robert Rodriguez, with whom she was romantically involved, and by Quentin Tarantino. It was distributed by Dimension, run by Bob Weinstein, Harvey's brother. As film critic David Edelstein put it in New York, McGowan played "the ultimate abused-and-fetishized action-movie femme."

The experience, says McGowan, left her shattered. "I was really lost at that point," she said. "I was damaged."

SHUNNING 'CELEBRITY'

It is difficult to imagine how McGowan's career path in film would have proceeded had the episode with Weinstein never occurred; she is an original figure, occasionally provocative and profane, but also sometimes old-fashioned and even formal in spirit.

"I never considered myself a celebrity," she said at one point. "I hate that word. It's tawdry."

McGowan became an increasingly outspoken voice for women mistreated by Hollywood.

In The Hollywood Reporter, she passionately defended Renee Zellweger last year from what she perceived as sexist comments in Variety about the actress' plastic surgery.

"How dare you bully a woman who has done nothing but try to entertain people like you?" she wrote, in a direct accusation to the piece's writer, Owen Glieberman.

"It was startling and inspiring to see someone who was willing to put herself out there in support of other women actresses," said actress Molly Ringwald in an e-mail to The Times. "Her tenacity is something that you would hope for in an union leader but of course never really get."

And McGowan spoke, in veiled terms, to BuzzFeed reporter Kate Arthur in 2015 about her experience as an assault victim. "You are taking part of someone's soul," she said. "It's happened to me."

Last year, during a Twitter campaign called #WhyWomenDontReport, she all but named Weinstein as the perpetrator of the violence against her that she had mentioned in the past.

During her recent visit to Hawaii, McGowan, over a day and a half in Kona, revealed a person much more playful than her fierce Twitter persona. She would interrupt a thought to smile and smell a flower that caught her eye; she could not resist a swing hanging from a large tree, and enjoyed walking along the beach and twirling an umbrella the same blue color as her sundress. She seemed free both from a long-kept secret and a labor of love that had occupied her for the last year and a half - her book, Brave, which will be released by Harper One early next year.

To some degree, she had shielded herself from the news. When she learned, though, about the women who had stepped forward to complain of assault or harassment from Weinstein, she said: "I knew we are legion. We are legion."

She had been corresponding lately with Asia Argento, an Italian actress who also accused Weinstein of sexual assault (and was subsequently shamed by the Italian press).

"It feels," McGowan wrote to Argento, reading from her text, "'like toxic slime going out of a spiked birth canal'."

"That's what the whole experience feels like to me. It's an intense process."

Sometimes she feels fresh rage, she said.

"But I'll tell you what I don't feel anymore," she said. "Despair."