In June 2016, Gretchen Carlson flung herself off a cliff and survived. Not literally, of course — but close. Carlson spoke out against one of the most powerful men in media over a year before the Harvey Weinstein exposé was published in the New York Times, beginning the society-shifting conversation known as the #MeToo movement. "It was an incredibly lonely experience," Carlson told Refinery29 on a recent call.
At the time, Carlson had just been let go from Fox News, where she had worked as an anchor for 11 years. On July 6, Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, claiming she had been fired for turning down his advances. As we've seen so often, women's claims typically aren't believed without "proof." But Carlson had proof: A years' worth of Ailes' incriminating comments, secretly recorded. Carlson's lawsuit started an avalanche. After Carlson came forward, many more women followed. By July, Ailes had resigned from his position and moved to Florida. He died at the age of 77 the following May.
Since filing the lawsuit, Carlson's life has changed dramatically. She hasn't returned to TV journalism. Instead, she's worked to share other women's stories in a book and documentary, and is now fighting to pass a bipartisan bill in Congress. Carlson went from 1989 Miss America to chairwoman of the Miss America pageant; from Fox News anchor to someone who doesn't watch Fox; from victim to advocate. "My life is a testament to completely reinventing yourself in many different ways over time," Carlson said.
Carlson got to this point because she told her story. So it's undeniably ironic that now, as her story is told by others, she's locked in a position of silence. Carlson signed NDAs as part of her settlement with Fox that prevent her from speaking about her experiences at the network. Neither Naomi Watts, who plays her in the Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice, nor Nicole Kidman, who plays her in the upcoming film, were allowed to contact her.
As her character becomes more prominent on The Loudest Voice, we caught up with Carlson to talk about fake news, her mission, and the uncanny experience of watching yourself (but not yourself) on screen.
Refinery29: Back in 2016, did you ever foresee that your life would get turned into a TV show?
Gretchen Carlson: “That would be a hard no. I thought I was going to be sitting at home crying my eyes out every day because I’d been fired from a career that I’d worked so incredibly hard to attain. This is all really surreal. I’ve just seen a glimpse of my character [in the first four episodes]. It’s my understanding that that storyline takes over for the following episodes.”
What was the experience of watching a fictional version of yourself go through some pretty awful experiences?
“I’m sure you know that I can’t partake in the [show’s] proceedings or production. For me, it’s an emotional journey — especially on the three-year anniversary of filing the lawsuit against Roger Ailes. It’s by happenstance that the mini-series is coming out the same time period.
“My hope is that people will watch [the show], and more women and men who have found themselves in these situations — trust me there’s tons of them — will feel confident to find the courage to come forward. Or if they already have, it’ll make them feel more empowered that they made the right decision. I hope it will open up the dialogue across the country to continue discussing this. That’s the only way that we’re going to continue to make progress, more progress than we already have.”
The title of the show is The Loudest Voice, based on Gabriel Sherman’s biography. At first I assumed the voice was Roger Ailes’, but it could also be read that the voice is yours. Has that reading of the show’s title occurred to you?
“I love that. I didn’t think of it in that way until I read one of the reviews of the miniseries, and producer Alex Metcalf said the book’s title was The Loudest Voice, but in the end it’s Gretchen Carlson who had the loudest voice. I stopped breathing for a second. I really had to take a step back. I felt so gracious. But it’s not just my voice. It’s all of our voices collectively that makes it so loud.”
We do see upwellings of unity around these movements. But they also become political issues, as we saw during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. How can sexual misconduct be a bipartisan issue?
“Thank you for asking that question because it’s one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. I've been walking the halls of Congress to pass HR 1443, which ends forced arbitration of sexual harassment. It takes arbitration clauses out of your employment contract so you have the ability to go to an open court and have it be public.
“When I walk into senators’ and representatives’ offices, the first thing I say is, Let’s do this together in a bipartisan way, because this issue is apolitical. Wouldn't it be great if we could get one thing done, and wouldn’t it be great if it were for women and it brought out country together? I covered politics for 25 years. I know nothing’s going to work unless it’s bipartisan.”
Right, but in the midst of all the work you’re doing, the president has been accused of sexual harassment over 20 times. How do you deal with that?
“The number one question that I get when I travel around the country is, ‘How can the president have almost 20 accusations against him for sexual misconduct and still be president?’ The answer is it’s not a private business where stockholders or members of a board make decisions about hiring and firing someone. It’s the American people. That’s why we have elections.
“It’s incredibly disingenuous for people to say that they don’t believe certain women based on political party. You can’t do that. We’re never going to solve this if you say, ‘I believe that woman because I don’t like that guy.’”
Have you ever wondered what it would’ve been like to cover the Kavanaugh hearings on Fox? Like in an alternate universe, if you were still working there?
“You know what? I’ve been so glad that I have not been doing the day-to-day television situation that I was in before. As much as I love my career, it’s been nice to have this respite to take it all in and watch it and observe it from afar. Especially in this era of fake news.”
Do you watch Fox News?
“No, I don’t. It's been fascinating for me to watch a plethora of media over the last three years. But no. I don’t.”
Since coming out against Ailes, you’ve taken control of your life’s direction — become an advocate for sexual misconduct. Is it ever frustrating that you can’t take charge of your fictional portrayal in the same way, both in the show or in the movie?
“Yes. It was such an emotional, painful journey. You just want it to be accurate. Any woman who has gone through something like this would say the same thing. If it was about something that was more trivial and not so painful, maybe I wouldn’t think about it as much. But listen: The biggest thing is that people will be discussing it more and talking about it more.
“It also brings us an important thing, which is why can women not tell their stories? The main reason is that people can’t tell their stories because of the non-disclosure agreements.This brings us back to the work I’m doing to change the laws.”
But if a movie and TV show were being made about you that had something trivial, you probably wouldn’t have an NDA preventing you from speaking about it.
“Right. But let me say this. Gabe Sherman, who wrote the book The Loudest Voice, did over 600 interviews for the book. Since writing the book, he was one of the most prolific writers of my story over the last three years. Five days after I filed my case, he wrote the first big blockbuster story about six other women who had also come forward to him alleging similar behavior with my alleged perpetrator. He’s behind this miniseries. He’s been empathetic to victims. And having met Naomi, just having heard some of the things she’s said about her involvement in the project, has really made me feel more comfortable.”
Apparently she and Nicole Kidman, who plays you in the upcoming movie, email each other facts about you.
“Well, that’s crazy. Let’s see. What do they email each other? She likes Chardonnay; she likes sushi. All I can say about that is, what an honor to have these two Academy Award winners and nominated actresses playing these roles."
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.