Tomi-Ann Roberts was deciding whether to pursue a life in theater when she met Harvey Weinstein, an emerging Hollywood power broker whose heavy-handed sexual advance pushed her toward a career exploring the sexualization of women in society.
“I’m not going to say the line between walking out of Harvey Weinstein’s apartment is the line that got me here,” the 54-year-old Colorado College psychology professor said Thursday, “but that was foundational.”
Roberts was a Smith College student waiting tables in New York City’s theater district in the summer of 1984 when Weinstein and his brother, Bob, sat down for a meal at the restaurant.
She had been involved in theater throughout high school and college and arrived in the city planning to audition and maybe snag some acting jobs. “I was at a crossroads, trying to decide, ‘Am I going to major in theater?’ ”
The Weinstein brothers headed Miramax, a rising entertainment company at the time. “They had mostly been importing foreign films, but Harvey explained to me that I looked like someone who would be perfect for the part in a movie (they were planning).”
The Weinsteins hadn’t achieved the celebrity that came with Miramax’s subsequent success. Because the brothers were new to filmmaking, it wasn’t that surprising that they would offer an audition to a nobody, Roberts said. “I was young and blond and waiting tables.”
She received the script and updates, and later an invitation to meet with Harvey Weinstein. She expected the meeting to include others who were working on the movie.
Instead, when she arrived, she “heard him call me and say, ‘Come on down the hall,’ and he was in the bathtub. I remember being abjectly petrified. There is no script for that.”
He asked her to remove her top, saying she wouldn’t be good for the part if she was uncomfortable with nudity.
“I would like to tell you that I ran out of there,” she said. She responded that his suggestion was surprising and that she was too uncomfortable to disrobe, but she would be able to do what the part required.
A casting agent later auditioned her, telling her beforehand, “You know you are not getting this part.”
She told her mother — who had already seen the script and judged it “smutty” — what had happened.
“She was proud of me, but it was ‘Just leave this behind,’ ‘Thank goodness you got out of there’ and ‘Men will be men. It’s a good thing you didn’t fall for it,’ ” Roberts said.
Sexual exploitation was more accepted at the time and the casting couch had long been a symbol of the price paid to rise in Hollywood, Roberts said. “It took a long time for me to recognize that ought not be the way that industry works. That is not the way any kind of industry should work.”
She graduated Smith with a degree in psychology, and earned a Ph.D at Stanford.
But, Roberts said, “throughout graduate school I would find occasions when, particularly, older men would derail whatever I was trying to say with commentary about my physical appearance. It is often very subtle.”
Once, after speaking about her research to a group of scholars, one of them ignored what she had said, instead commenting that “I sure looked good while I said it.”
“It was death by a thousand cuts,” Roberts said. She began to think of the sexual objectification of women as a continuum of behaviors ranging from dismissal of their intellect to rape.
She began to study the connections between compliments given to little girls — “You’re so pretty” — and the sexualized images of girls and women in media.
With physical beauty determining the treatment that women receive, they often internalize a corrosive message: Their value lies in the way they look, Roberts said. “It is a survival strategy. If you can anticipate that you will get better treatment if you are pretty and sexy, you are going to try to do that.”
And that can lead to shame, anxiety, mental health problems and eating disorders.
Roberts, now a faculty member of Colorado College’s Feminist & Gender Studies Program, said she has never discussed her encounter with Weinstein in her classes.
When The New York Times last week published an account of the mogul’s alleged predation and his payoffs to accusers, she “couldn’t believe how similar those stories sounded to mine.”
She emailed a Times reporter who was working on the story, and her account appeared in the newspaper, along with those of actresses Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rosanna Arquette.
Roberts said she hopes that the decision by so many to step forward and talk about their victimization will help women say, “This stops now.”
Times have changed since Weinstein told her to step into his bathroom, she said.
“I would like to think if it that happened to one of my daughters in the 2000s, I would understand that it was a horrifying, illegal way to behave, and I would have found a human resources number, and I would have called,” Roberts said. “But in the early ’80s, it was the movie industry, and you just walked away from that.”