"Mom, I want to be discovered by a famous director." My daughter said this with her head just reaching over the kitchen counter, her nine-year-old face still broad, rosy, and freckled.
As jarring as it was to hear this from her as we learn how exploitive Hollywood has been of many young women and men, I know that my daughter doesn’t know anything about Harvey Weinstein or Brett Ratner or Kevin Spacey. She was expressing a common enough fantasy: I want to be a movie star!
But I felt the kind of horror that comes from knowing too much – the same kind I felt when she got the Barbie Malibu Dream House one Christmas and, instead of beachy girlfriend fun, all I could imagine was Barbie and her starlet friends doing tiny lines of coke off the smooth surface of the fuschia patio table.
Although I have never actually found myself at such a party, I did grow up on the far edge of Los Angeles. And I was a girl who was once discovered by a famous director.
Thirty years ago, I sat alone in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica while my father and his fiancé made reservations for their wedding guests across the room. I was 15, bored and sour, when a man at least 25 years my senior walked over to me.
“I noticed you,” he said, before diving into his credentials, a rush of words strewn with shiny gems I was meant to recognize: “Robert Downey, Jr.” and an upcoming film, “The Pick-Up Artist.”
I was not made up to look older or even appealing. Dragged out early on a Sunday morning, I had showered, left my hair wet, and thrown on a tired blue Esprit polo shirt. I was tall for my age, but I had to have looked young.
I remember him having dark hair and being wide, but my own appearance is more vivid to me. I remember it clearly because, afterward, I had wondered what I had done to invite this attention.
His list of accomplishments was so long that he never had time to address his interest in me. “I’m her father,” my Dad said, suddenly at my side. Dad was shorter than the other man, but he was forceful enough to rattle him.
“I saw her…I live in the hotel…Robert Downey, Jr.…”
My father chopped the air between the man and me with his open hand. “I forbid it,” he said.
The chop carried dramatic heft for a small gesture. It would only become more dramatic in the many re-tellings of the encounter: a tale of an over-protective father in the Spencer Tracy mold with the cad shuffling off in defeat. I didn’t even have a speaking role.
What would I have said, unsure as I was of what had happened?
A grown man had “noticed” me. Was I supposed to want that? To feel flattered? Abandon my teenage suspicion that I was hideous? Was this how film careers actually launched?
My Dad must have suffered his own momentary confusion, because as we prepared to leave the hotel, he offered to leave his card for the director with the concierge, in case he had stood in the way of my stardom.
I declined, as I sensed he had hoped I would.
A year or so later and a little more sophisticated, I picked up my parents’ Spy Magazine because it gave me a whiff of the East Coast snark for which I longed. The March 1987 cover read “Director James Toback is The Pickup Artist.” Remembering the man who had found me in the Shangri-La Hotel lobby, I flipped to the article.
The bulk of the piece was a chart documenting the experiences of 12 women with the director, all of which began much as my brief meeting had: an approach from a stranger, a list of his credentials, often including Downey and “The Pick-Up Artist”.
The women in the article were adults without their fathers in tow, so the interactions went further – meetings or calls with deeper discussions of potential film projects, but with Toback also asking explicit questions, suggesting sex, and being rejected. He had even invited one woman to his hotel in Santa Monica.
As I read, two realizations dawned: This was the man who discovered 15-year-old me, and this man had wanted to have sex with me.
My father had not protected me from a heartless film industry that would leave me merely disappointed. He had protected me from a sexual predator. I was at risk in a way I had not understood...sensed maybe, in the ickiness of that meeting, but definitely had not understood.
I felt a flash of shame, that I had been so naïve, but also that I could inspire such repulsive behavior. (And his behavior as detailed in the article was repulsive. To one woman he had offered, “Just touch my nipples, and I’ll come.”)
I kept the magazine from my father and never told him about it. I was too embarrassed to even be perceived as a sexual being by him, let alone one who had attracted a predatory older man.
Of course, now, when I picture him holding his firm open hand between Toback and me and saying, “I forbid it,” I understand that he had known what was happening all along.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Times reporting the sexual harassment claims of 38 women against Toback this fall, I was finally, at 45, able to talk to my father about it. We spoke the way we usually do about current events – with shock, outrage, and humor. But I also acknowledged that he had protected me when I needed him to.
That discussion and this whole fall of #Metoo has helped me let go of any lingering shame I felt for inadvertently inviting the sexual interest of James Toback, not to mention a few other men over the last 30 years.
My father’s words rang in my ears for years after I heard them, when I was a young woman working in politics, receiving a suspicious invitation to discuss my career over dinner, or pouring martinis ordered for me by a “mentor” down the sink of the ladies restroom. I had needed protecting, but my dad also taught me to do it for myself.
I hope this year marks the beginning of a new era, when my daughter will feel safe pursuing her dreams, and I will feel safe letting her, even if they lead to Hollywood. In my kitchen, I side-stepped both her wish to be discovered by a famous director and my own story. But we did talk about why it would be fun for her to be an actress. She is only nine after all.
In a handful of years, I will talk about my experience in frank terms with my daughter, and that those conversations will not be about her vulnerability, but her control – and her own ability to forbid.