That Time I Was Fired Because I Was Being Sexually Harassed
I took a short break from writing here because as every Virgo knows, reassessing the plan, getting organized, feeling more organized is the only way to dive back in with a purpose. I cleaned out every corner of my house and with each drop off to Goodwill, I told myself I was clearing space for my creativity. Which is always my excuse when I procrastinate—which I usually do out of fear—and telling this particular story scares me more than telling the world I declared bankruptcy. Yet, it was during my great purge of 2018 that my mind open up and could finally pinpoint WHY I was so scared.
You see, on the surface, this is the tongue and cheek story of how I was fired from a job and the crazy circumstances around it that involved a few of the Real Housewives of New York City. In fact, I wanted my book to be titled The Real Housewives of New York City Got Me Fired and Other Career Missteps I Made So You Don’t Have To . . . (and for many reasons, that was tossed out). But the truth is, I’ve since realized that this ISN’T a story about getting fired and the irony that my pop culture filled career came and bit me in the ass.
No . . . this is a story about feeling powerless in the workplace nearly ten years BEFORE the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements came along. It’s about NEVER accepting what makes you uncomfortable and NEVER relying on others to speak or even understand your truth—anywhere but especially in the workplace. It’s about women supporting other women and not projecting their own issues or fears when situations make them uncomfortable or threatened. It’s about owning your mistakes but never taking on the missteps of others without a fight.
Deep breath and here we go . . .
I was a late bloomer, so my sexual revolution came hot on the heels of my 30th birthday. With that, came something I’d never experienced, never worried about and never saw coming—sexual advances and harassment. I lost 60 pounds in the span of a summer. Before that, Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak basically swallowed me up around the opposite sex. So, as the cloak slowly dissipated, I wondered if my excess weight was protection and disarming myself meant I simply had no choice but to accept the consequences. My blood pressure was down and I no longer shopped in plus-size stores. A little harassment at work was the trade off, right?
Wrong. A billion times wrong as I learned the hard way.
I quickly discovered that behind every harasser was an enabler, egging them on. And, no, powerful men are not always the culprit. In my experience, it was also powerful women who felt threatened and therefore projected their buried insecurities. I lost weight, I earned the attention of men and I was no longer seen as “safe.” By exuding confidence and G-d forbid—happiness, I became a target.
I was working in radio and my company produced a myriad of shows on love, sex and dating. The producers pounced on those vulnerable in matters of the heart (and vagina) to create compelling segments. At first, it was a winning situation for me: I was newly thin, newly desired by men, enjoying my sex life yet internalizing a lot of anxiety, questions and fears over my newfound attention.
So, I incessantly—and stupidly—talked about my love/sex life to anyone who would listen. It never occurred to me that my chatter might be offensive and it never dawned on me that anyone who knew me when I tipped the scale at over 200 pounds would be anything but excited for this new social life that “thin me” manifested. I still cringe thinking about it. Normal people don’t ask their officemates for spare deodorant first thing in the morning—and if they do, it’s NOT with a wink and a smile.
The thing is, I wasn’t normal. Until then, I’d played the role of the “fat girl” in my personal life and career in New York City. It wasn’t a role I enjoyed but one that I became comfortable in—and one that my friends, family and colleagues became comfortable “casting” me in. I “played” the self-deprecating, overweight writer to a tee. As an entertainment editor, I had a talent for interviewing male stars and getting them to divulge all about their love lives to me. In hindsight, they weren’t threatened by me and they certainly weren’t attracted to me so I was a safe-haven. Or, maybe they just felt bad for me? Sadly, it was so draining getting these actors to trust me that I usually retreated to my bed for days afterwards. It was confusing to be so successful with men in a professional setting yet an utter failure with them otherwise.
Then I got my act together, got serious about losing weight and practically woke up THIN. I wasn’t prepared for the attention I’d masterfully avoided for years. On the outside, I was happy to show off my tight ass. On the inside, I was still an insecure mess. I was terrified that my new body was a ticking time bomb. Subconsciously, I was quickly trying to reap all the benefits (and then some). I appeared on almost every radio show my company produced with any sort of relationship angle to find out why dating was hard, what I was doing wrong and why so many of my “suitors” transformed into assholes after the second date.
It started innocently enough—the male host of a relationship show overheard me crying because a chef dumped me after I ate dinner at Outback Steakhouse (blasphemy in the chef world, I guess). Before I knew it, I was on the air for a heart-to-heart about why the “Bloomin’ Onion” was possibly better than sex so there was my silver lining. Yes, having direct access to all this free and unfiltered advice was a dream for my new libido, but morphing into a nightmare for my career.
I produced a show for “Miss Powerful”—a feared media mogul—who was condescending and dubious about my weight loss and new dating life. The ultimate narcissist, she wanted all the attention for herself and took down anyone who stood in her way. When I was fatter, I just another annoying underling she could boss around and push to tears. But, as I lost weight, her curiosity piqued and I earned her attention with a barrage of inappropriate questions. She was convinced that I suffered a major heartbreak and that’s why I used to be heavy.
“Who is your ideal guy? Was there anyone from your past?” she asked. “Someone must have made you want to stuff your feelings with food to get over them.”
I lied just to get her off my back. I don’t know what I was thinking (shock will turn your brain off) and why I didn’t just walk away.
“Yes, ‘Jack Schwartz,’ my bat mitzvah tutor. I was 13, he was a senior and I had such a big crush on him. I always wondered what happened to him,” I lied.
I never once wondered about ‘Jack’ though technically, he was my first crush.
“Miss Powerful” started typing furiously on her phone while whispering urgently to another producer. I ignored it until the show started. Instead of reading off her notes— “Miss Powerful” paused and started telling her listeners that her producer (me!) was a newly thin, novice dater and she wanted to do something “nice” for me.
And then she called ‘Jack Schwartz!’
She must have linked to the FBI’s database because in five minutes, she found out that ‘Jack’ was married, a lawyer and living in San Francisco. She was hell bent on reuniting me with him live on the air! I willed the control room to burst into flames. If ‘Jack’ took the call, what would I say? Was this stalking? Could I be arrested? By some divine intervention, his voicemail was full. She defiantly hung up the phone but that didn’t stop her from laughing hysterically, vowing to track him down.
After that incident, “Miss Powerful” started bringing “Sidekick” along as her unofficial co-host. “Sidekick” was a former cop who now appeared on local morning shows with shady tips to avoid scams. He was loud, sweaty, disheveled and full of inappropriate comments. He fit right in with the smooth-talking hustlers he was paid to warn others about. I booked Tony award winning actors and best-selling authors on the show and “Sidekick” always turned those segments into something sexually charged.
As my body got smaller, I cringed more and more whenever he was in the studio. His leers lasted longer and his comments grew more unsettling. Yes, I was wearing tighter tops and shorter skirts. But, I spent a lifetime trying to cover up every ounce of fat with shirts that could double as tents and skirts so modest I could go undercover in an Orthodox community. I had no idea how to make “Sidekick” stop—especially because “Miss Powerful” found him charming and hilarious at his most vile.
Case in point: One spring day I wore a black, button-down shirt that hugged my chest, a yellow mini-skirt and peep-toe leopard stilettos. I felt sexy and confident, two things the “old” me never thought would be possible. But, “Sidekick” pounced, his pants bulging with every step towards me.
“Hot date tonight?” he whispered.
“No,” I said curtly, mumbling something about working late.
“Why not?” he murmured. “You’re wasting that outfit.” My cheeks turned crimson, just in time for “Miss Powerful” to join the fun.
“What are you two talking about?” she demanded. “You’re both blushing!”
I kept shuffling papers.
“I wanted to know if Lauren has a date tonight,” Sidekick said innocently, as if he was casually wondering about my favorite pizza toppings.
“Do you?” Miss Powerful asked me.
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t she look great?” Miss Powerful asked Sidekick, as if I wasn’t standing there. “You know she’s probably getting laid like all the time.”
Was this really happening?
“So, be honest, does sex feel better now that you’re thinner?” Sidekick asked. “Like, I want to drop some weight too but I don’t want to lose it in my dick. Girls don’t have to worry about that.”
I was never so happy to get a call from the front desk informing me that my first guest arrived. I ran out of the studio and could still hear them cackling over his dick size as I raced down the hall.
If this was a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” I would have gone to HR, reported “Sidekick” and “Miss Powerful,” told my boss that I was in a hostile work environment and quit. Instead, the job market was tight so I endured the torture from “Sidekick” and “Miss Powerful” for almost a year. I finally told my boss (a woman) which showed me a stark reality. She wasn’t going to make waves or stand up for me because she didn’t want to confront Miss Powerful— and become a target too.
“You just need to let things roll off your back—it’s who she is and we can’t change her,” My boss said every time I complained.
Then, everything changed when two of the Real Housewives of New York (this was season one—before the show even premiered. Okay fine, it was Bethenny Frankel and Alex McCord) felt sexually harassed by “Sidekick” and “Miss Powerful” on the air. Thankfully it was a pre-taped segment. They were there to promote their show, instead “Miss Powerful” and “Sidekick” begged them to admit if they slept with women and to reveal their favorite sex positions. Bethenny was so uncomfortable that she dove under the table, making the “cut” sign over her throat. “Sidekick” and “Miss Powerful” didn’t take the hint and didn’t stop. The minute the taping ending, Bethenny and Alex marched over to me, demanding their segment never air.
Without thinking through possible repercussions, I immediately complied and swore that the segment would be destroyed. It was unlistenable garbage and I hoped it would be the smoking gun I needed to prove to my boss (and her bosses) that I was in a toxic and demeaning work environment.
Agreeing to pull the segment was one of a handful of times in my career that I acted without permission—and I would never recommend anyone ever do so. But, talk about #TimesUp. I just couldn’t take it anymore and I didn’t want to listen to excuses that the segment wasn’t that bad, that it was “tongue and cheek” or “expected” or that I was “overreacting.”
I knew that the segment wasn’t good radio or responsible journalism. I knew our listeners shouldn’t hear something so revolting and disrespectful. I wanted to believe that after my boss heard the segment that I’d be a hero for putting my foot down and standing up to this type of behavior. But, my boss and her bosses weren’t as offended by the content as they were by my decision to go above their heads. They were more disturbed that I make a promise I didn’t have the authority to keep than the fact that the integrity of the station was suffering by allowing this behavior to spill over onto the air.
So, there were no accolades.
In fact, once it was decided that the segment would air, things played out on Page Six. By some miracle I was always referred to as “producer” and never by name. But, it didn’t matter.
I was fired.
That’s coming on TEN years ago and I’ve played things out in mind again and again. Why didn’t I quit? Should I have punched “Sidekick” in the balls? Was I ultimately responsible for weaving this web? After all, I wore revealing clothing and openly discussed my dating life. I always wonder what would have transpired if I confronted “Miss Powerful” the day she contacted my bat mitzvah tutor or direct dialed HR after “Sidekick” declared he wanted his dick to stay thick . . .
Would it have changed anything?
I wish I could answer differently, but no, I really don’t think so. People like “Sidekick” and “Miss Powerful” won’t change. In and out of the workplace, it’s who they are at their core. And, they’re given permission to act out by inflicting fear and abusing their so-called power.
Change can happen, it just needs to vigilantly come from us. There needs to be zero tolerance for this behavior as soon as it starts and as soon as it’s reported. We can change the narrative if we all abide by rules that make harassment of any kind unacceptable.
Over the years, I’ve been told that I took a stand too late. That, if I spoke up sooner I would have been promoted—not fired.
But, losing my job was nothing compared to the nose dive my dignity and self-esteem took from those months of harassment, fear and embarrassment.
My career didn’t suffer from losing that job—but my self-worth is only now having a renaissance.