Laura Madden was recovering from breast cancer when she received a call from New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor. What she did next was integral to Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.
At the same moment New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey readied themselves to go to press with their now Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, Laura Madden was preparing herself for a life-changing event 3,000 miles away.
The date was 5 October 2017. Just four days before the Irish mum-of-four was scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery for breast cancer, and a few hours prior to the publication of her harrowing account of a historic, alleged hotel room sexual assault by the film producer which would send shock waves around the world.
You can be forgiven for not having heard of Madden until now. She may have been the first woman to have gone on the record for Kantor and Twohey’s investigation, “opening the dam” for others, but her story of incredible courage and steely determination has been lost a little along the way. Especially since celebrities like Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan came forward.
Kantor and Twohey’s new book She Said aims to readdress this balance; shining a light on these lesser-known women without whom the Weinstein investigation may have never have made it into our news feeds.
“You know, in this book, we’re so glad to finally be able to tell that story, because there’s this image of the Weinstein victim as a famous actress in an evening gown,” Jodi tells Stylist. “I think what Megan and I want to say is, sure, to a point of course, and we did bring some of those famous actresses on the record and we’re very grateful, but [women like Laura] are the bedrock, they were part of ground zero of what happened.”
In fact, when I meet Madden in a hotel bar in London, along with Kantor and Twohey, she is far from the typical image of a Weinstein survivor. For a start, she calls Swansea home, not LA. She is a single mum to her four teenage children (more on them later) and answers my questions in a soft, steady, non-media trained voice.
“[Breast cancer] made me feel like there was no point in being frightened of things anymore,” she says. “That you’d faced a life and death situation, and you just didn’t have time to be fearful.”
Madden’s story starts in 1992 when she was “just 21 or 22” and living in her native rural Ireland. As the book explains, “when a film began shooting nearby, she got a job wrangling extras and caught the movie bug. The crew told her to look for work on Into the West [a film produced by Miramax, one of Weinstein’s companies]. She was hired, and that was how she found herself dispatched to Weinstein’s hotel room in Dublin one day.”
He told her she was guaranteed her “dream job”, a permanent role in the Miramax offices in London, before taking off his dressing gown and demanding a massage. She alleges he then sexually assaulted her.
Recalling the incident, she says: “You know, it’s very complicated because it was my first introduction to Harvey, so I had no expectation. I had no idea what he was like, and I was also going in expecting to be hired for a job. And then this hideous event occurs, and I felt at that point I was going to lose everything. I was going to lose that job.”
Madden didn’t lose the job. In fact, she would go on to work for Miramax for six years, but during her first few days in the office, she confided in a female colleague about what had happened in that hotel room. That colleague called Weinstein herself, she says, and confronted him personally about the alleged assault.
“He apologised,” Madden recounts in the book. “I was to take the job and never feel compromised…The overwhelming feeling I can still remember was shame and disappointment that something so full of promise had been reduced to this. Any hope that I had been offered the job on my own merit was gone.”
Madden says she was never happy at Miramax, and remained nervous of Weinstein on his infrequent visits to London, but didn’t speak of the sexual assault again until Kantor got in touch 25 years later.
“Weirdly a week before Jodi rang me [in July 2017], I had received a phone call out of the blue from an ex-Miramax colleague who I hadn’t spoken to for 20-30 years,” she says. “She was ringing me to ask if I was speaking to any ‘cockroach journalists’, and trying to coach me into saying what a wonderful time I’d had working at Miramax. And I was really shocked. I suddenly thought, ‘she’s been made to ring me’, Weinstein is behind this. That galvanised me to expect a call from I didn’t know who, but a journalist. When Jodi did ring me I was totally ready for it and prepared to speak to her, off the record at first.”
Kantor booked flights to the UK, and the two women met face-to-face for the first time in Cornwall. “I basically crashed her holiday,” Kantor jokes. “But I knew that I wanted to meet Laura, because I wanted to ask her to consider going on the record. And I wouldn’t go on the record with someone I hadn’t met in person. I really wanted to talk face-to-face. And Laura was very generous to say yes.”
Madden’s decision to say yes is even more incredible when you consider three factors: she was recovering from breast cancer, her marriage had broken down, and she had just discovered her ex-husband had a new girlfriend.
“It was just this collision of things,” she admits. “But I was in a very bad place when we first met.”
Kantor left Madden to consider her request to go public for the article, and returned to New York. A few months passed, and the women remained in close contact. Then Kantor and Twohey become more concerned about the urgency of their investigation.
“We had accumulated information in New York, including a very valuable memo that we just couldn’t sit on any longer,” Kantor says. “And the moral stakes of the investigation had grown because Laura’s story is from 1992, but we had documented very similar incidents from 2015. So we thought if we don’t publish this, this guy could go on to do this to somebody else again.
“By late September 2017, Laura was really the only woman on the record, in an interview form. We had a lot of other forms of on the record evidence: company memos, the settlement trail, etc. But it was before Ashley Judd had joined the story. So Laura and I were keeping in really close touch and we realised, I think to both of our horror, that this [breast cancer] surgery that Laura had already told me about, and the second mastectomy, that it had been looming on the horizon, it was basically going to coincide with the publication of our story.
“Megan and I just felt like, how we can we ask her to go on the record? This is too much to ask of anybody. But the truth is,” she says, turning to face Madden, “we couldn’t afford to lose you. Because you were the only woman on the record. And so I did not know what was going to happen. I think the decision in the end was yours.”
That decision was solidified by a conversation Madden had with her two teenage daughters. She had “never told them about the assault, so I had to explain what had happened to me.”
“Their faces initially were deeply shocked, and I thought it was going to be horrifying for them, but I was so surprised they turned from being shocked to being proud, ” she says. “They kept saying, ‘I’m so proud of you, it’s so good that you’re part of this. Things have got to change. Our friends go through all kinds of experiences.’ Seeing their reaction, it was very clear I did have a role to play.”
Was she nervous, I ask?
“It was such a journey over the months of talking to Jodi, of one minute feeling confident about doing it and another minute feeling really nervous. By the time it had got to that conversation with my children, it felt clear and I wasn’t frightened anymore,” Madden says.
“The following evening I sent Jodi and Megan an email. I think once I had sent that email I had made a decision I was going to follow through with it, and not be hesitant about having made the wrong decision.”
Madden’s resolve was tested when she received a phone call from “one of Weinstein’s former assistants, who had been caroled into ringing around to see who was talking and who wasn’t”.
“My daughter answered the phone,” she says. “She said I wasn’t there, and that she would take a message, and they didn’t leave a message. And then they tried again, and I just didn’t answer. In fact, I slightly regret not answering.
“I think that all of these components added to a desire to do something transformational. Not that I thought it was at that point, none of us realised the story was going to have the power it did have. It was unbelievable.”
Twohey chips in: “It really was unbelievable, we had no expectation. Two nights before the story was published [Jodi and I] left the office at around 1am and we shared a taxi back to Brooklyn from Manhattan, where the New York Times is located. In the hushed cab we finally turned to each other and asked, ‘Do you think anyone is going to read this story?’ But clearly they did in fact, and within a matter of days our phones and emails were flooded with women who were coming forward.”
Before we say our goodbyes, I ask Madden what her advice would be on being brave.
“Listen to your intuition, trust yourself and assert yourself,” she says straight away. “Actually if you don’t [speak up] because you think you’re going to be compromised, the job isn’t worth it, it’s sullied anyway.”
She turns to Kantor and Twohey and says: “You were asking for me to do something that didn’t come naturally. I’m not naturally someone who does step forward, so I felt glad to be able to do so.”
Harvey Weinstein will stand trial on five counts of sexual assault against two women in Manhattan next year. He denies all charges.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Megan Towhey and Jodi Kantor is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
Images: Getty, RTE.