Editor’s note: Maggie Parker is an entertainment journalist and a frequent contributor to PEOPLE. In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Morgan Freeman reported by CNN, she decided to share her story of a red carpet encounter with the actor. In a statement on May 24, Freeman, 80, responded to the CNN report: “Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.”
Who would dare to go up against God? Sixteen people, actually. And I’m going to be No. 17.
CNN released a story Thursday in which reporters, production staff, and others came forward to accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. Eight of them were alleged victims of harassment or inappropriate behavior by Freeman. The other eight said they witnessed Freeman’s alleged conduct.
I fall into the first group.
I was a 25-year-old, green and determined on-camera reporter for a men’s magazine when I first met Freeman at the premiere of Now You See Me in 2013. My videographer and I decided to ask each actor, from Freeman to Mark Ruffalo to Isla Fisher to Michael Caine, “If you could do one magic trick, what would it be?” The answers ranged from disappearing to saving the environment, but Freeman’s was the real outlier.
After I asked the question, he responded, “You want me to say something clean don’t you?” I didn’t really get what he meant, so I said, “You don’t have to.” As in, be yourself, not realizing what I was getting myself into. He looked me up and down and said, “Honey, you wouldn’t have a stitch on…how about that?” I laughed. But I’ll be honest with you, I was not only caught off-guard, I was also confused. Did this seemingly sweet old actor mean what I thought he meant?
According to the Macmillan Dictionary, “not have a stitch on” means “to not be wearing any clothes.”
In the moment, it took me a second to process and recover. This at the time 75-year-old Oscar winner just basically told me, a third of his age, he wanted to see me naked…thank you, I guess? Mind you, he knew there was a camera on him, and he was surrounded by other actors and reporters. Still, he said it.
He walked away, and I turned to my videographer; we were both shocked. I wasn’t upset, or, I didn’t know I should be upset. It was more of discomfort and a bit of violation.
But that quickly dissipated, because we got something good. On camera. The clip was funny and juicy. Surely, this will blow up. I went home, excited to see the video live, but also feeling like something was off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I blamed it on the fact that I didn’t react quicker—“must work on caught-off-guard reaction for the future,” I noted to myself. The only blame I placed that night was on myself. How does that make any sense?
The video went live the next day. But it didn’t blow up.
Almost exactly five years later, I’ll never forget my mint green dress that felt like it was being taken off with Freeman’s eyes. At the same time, I’ll also never forget feeling slightly flattered—a very, very famous actor told me I’m attractive. Not in those words. But, he did. That’s kind of cool…right?
As I got older, I slowly began to realize how wrong his comment was, and embarrassment set in.
I was embarrassed for not being more affected by it, for not taking action after. I didn’t acknowledge the discomfort I felt. I was so used to it; I’d been eyed and catcalled all my life—I was a woman with noticeable body parts. Plus, it could have been way worse.
It never really hit me that it was harassment. There are so many inadvertent boundaries placed on people when it comes to sexual misconduct. Victims often experience guilt for feeling harassed when someone out there has had it much worse than them, or think that they’re overreacting about just some silly comment. That is the last thing a victim should feel.
Then the Harvey Weinstein news broke, and I finally realized there was a legitimate reason something felt off that night. I should never have been exposed to such degrading comments, especially in the workplace, regardless of how minor and fleeting the moment was. I was more than a body, but in that moment, Freeman made me feel otherwise.
Unfortunately, all those years laughing it off have cost me. I didn’t feel I had a right to be mad if I wasn’t then. The worst part was, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
When I told people I was writing this article, some questioned the validity of it. Because it “didn’t bother me at the time.” Because I made jokes about it and shared it flippantly when people asked about interesting red carpet run-ins. Apparently, I wore it like a badge of honor.
First of all: No one knows how that affected me but me. Second of all: That’s the exact problem. That I didn’t automatically get offended. Reading the accounts of Weinstein’s accusers helped me realize why I brushed it off—the same reason many women did with Weinstein, and Matt Lauer, and Louis C.K., and so on: that just wasn’t how it worked. Famous men were untouchable. They really could do no wrong. This was OK. If anything, it was good to get the attention of a famous man…whatever kind of attention that was.
I felt it was time to come forward, but there were still some concerns.
This was Morgan Freeman. The beloved man who’s played God and raised money for various charities including the Red Cross. The man for whom everyone stood when he received the SAG Life Achievement Award, and who sort of spoke about gender equality in his acceptance speech.
Like many of the women who’ve spoken out against men in powerful positions, I knew this could affect my career. I interview celebrities for a living, and I know they are human, they make mistakes, so I gave him a second chance. But 18 chances is not something I’m willing to give, especially if that means one more woman, or young reporter, might be negatively affected by his behavior. And it’s not even really about Freeman. It’s about making sure people know this type of behavior is damaging and unacceptable.
Which brings me back to my original question, do I mess with the man who has played God multiple times?
Thanks to the courage I’ve acquired from the women who came before me, I have decided I will. This is no longer a laughing matter, and it never should have been in the first place.
God, you messed with the wrong girls.