Last Sunday night, New York magazine dropped a bombshell online —original portraits, videos and interviews with 35 of the by-now 46 women who have come forward to allege that legendary comedian Bill Cosby drugged and raped them at some point(s) in the past 50 years. Prior to Sunday, of course, the sheer number of women who had come forward since last fall–when stand-up comic Hannibal Buress unleashed the floodgates by publicly calling Cosby a rapist— was astounding. But there was something about seeing in the aggregate the unsmiling faces of the women, who range in age from their early 20s to 80, and in hearing the overlapping details of their stories (not to mention their echoing feelings of rage, shame, confusion and–finally–relief at coming forward), that drove home not just the horrifying reach of Cosby’s aggressions but the sense of an entire generation (or more) of women coming to grips with the idea of date rape, realizing collectively they were not at fault for what happened to them, even if they knew or were intimate with their attacker. Yahoo Style talked with New York’s Noreen Malone, one of the editors behind this eight month project.
Yahoo Style: Congrats on this amazing journalistic feat, first of all. How did this project come to life?
Noreen Malone: Back in December, our photo director Jody Quon had this idea after the Buress comments went viral and all of these women were coming forward one by one. There were so many similarities between their accounts that Jody thought, what if we could get them all to pose? The sheer volume of it would be really powerful and astounding. She did some photo research on them and saw that they ranged in age and background, but a lot of them had been aspiring models or actresses or Playboy bunnies [that Cosby had lured through their agents with promises of mentorship and connections]. So she called six of them, all of which said yes enthusiastically.
YS: Ultimately about 10 of the 46 women who’ve come forward so far declined.
NM: For personal or legal reasons. Some of them just weren’t ready for this.
YS: What were some of the things the women said when you first reached out?
NM: Jody made the calls. They were very eager to share their stories. It wasn’t like pulling teeth. They had felt the burden of a secret they’d kept for decades, so by the time they spoke with us, they were so ready to talk about it and had a lot to say.
YS: How did you organize the photo shoots in New York and L.A.?
NM: It was a giant logistical puzzle. We had to work around their schedules. We put tremendous effort and resources into it at the magazine and we flew some people from the East Coast to L.A. for the shoot there. A few women who stepped up toward the end had to be shot individually but most were shot in groups. Many were meeting each other for the first time and felt a kinship. Some had been in touch before via phone, email or Facebook. Some helped us do the wrangling to put us in touch with other women.
YS: It’s interesting in the piece that the women say the L.A. shoot had a sad tone but the New York shoot was like a celebratory party.
NM: I was only at the New York shoot and there definitely was an oddly joyous party atmosphere. Many of the women there felt so much relief. As for L.A., well, this wasn’t a happy moment in their lives we were asking them to revisit.
photography for New York Magazine by Amanda Demme
YS: You and fellow New York editor Jennifer Kirby did the interviews. What was that like for you?
NM: I’m 30 and many of the women are my mom’s age. It was fascinating to hear how they thought about rape and sexual assault so differently than the way people my age have been brought up to think about it. The college generation now has been even more radicalized. It was really moving to see that these older women had learned lessons from the current campus rape movement and that it had changed their lives. One women shared that her daughter had been raped at 15 and had been very outspoken about it and become an activist about it.
YS: Cosby obviously did this in a culture with no understanding of date rape but the extent of his violations still seems jaw-dropping, beyond the pale.
NM: Yes but I think some of what protected him, like status and power, are part of less extreme cases too, like the Steubenville High School rape case. Those male students were celebrities in a way in their school, so they were protected even when there was video evidence.
YS: A lot of people are saying that the Cosby case, as well as the campus rape movement, are part of a sea change in which women are fearing less that if they come forward they will be discredited, shut down and shamed. It feels part of a bigger movement in which social media is bringing down walls of secrecy and shame. Do you agree?
NM: Yes I think for sure that social media has changed things, and I think that people do feel slightly more comfortable coming forward, but it’s not like everything is better. There are still tons of women who don’t feel comfortable coming forward. It’s very rare for people to make false accusations of rape, but those get a lot of press when they happen, and I think that can discourage people.
YS: When the incidents happened, did the women clearly understand that Cosby had done something wrong or did they have confusion about their role in it?
NM: Yes, some of them were totally confused. Many of them were unconscious when it [allegedly] happened [because he drugged them] and he later said to them, “Oh, you drank too much,” so they felt like they’d embarrassed themselves in front of a celebrity and made themselves available to him. It took them a while to figure out that it hadn’t been their fault.