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I wanted to be an actor when I grew up. In the ’80s, as a child, I saw Sarah Jessica Parker sing “I Don’t Need Anything But You” from Annie on TV and immediately felt a connection. As a teen I would listen to Patti LuPone on soundtracks at the library and dream about singing with her on stage. My single mom couldn’t afford Broadway tickets, though, so I would play my violin on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in New York near all the theaters, for money. After my violin case was filled with dollar bills and coins, I’d collect discarded Playbills and tape them to my walls as inspiration.
At age 23, I went to drama school on a partial scholarship, working nights as a waitress to pay my rent. My goal was to be a working actor with a steady job and health insurance—not an easy feat in a notoriously fickle, gig-based industry. I knew if I worked a lot as an extra on sets, I could qualify for health insurance through my Screen Actors Guild union, but I ended up with too few hours and earning a little more than minimum wage.
So I took on a variety of jobs: part-time nanny, hostess, cater waiter, and coat checker among them. One memorable night I was working as a cocktail server at The Kit Kat Club, the infamous lounge where Melania met Donald Trump and Jay-Z was arrested for stabbing a record producer, when a gun was pulled a few feet away from me. I shielded my face with my tray and dashed under the small table while my patrons ran. After the screaming stopped and the cops showed up, I quit. I never even returned to pick up my tips.
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Before my first day on set, I received a voicemail: Dress casual. Don’t talk. Do as told.
At 27, I was told by an actor friend that my big eyes and defined jaw resembled Kristin Davis, who was then starring as Charlotte York on Sex and the City. The hit HBO series had been on for two seasons, but I didn’t have cable. I had only seen the ads on buses around the city. He said maybe I’d get discovered if I became her stand-in, a person who looks like the star and is hired to literally stand like a mannequin while the crew sets up the lights.
The next day I rollerbladed to my local Screen Actors Guild office and found the casting director’s address on the bulletin board. I immediately headed downtown to Amerifilm Casting where, sweaty and anxious for the job, I introduced myself and handed over my black-and-white headshot. I was told they already had someone—and that I didn’t look like Davis.
But I kept showing up. Finally, four months later, the casting director called and said they needed a replacement for Charlotte’s stand-in. I couldn’t wait to meet the stars, hold a cosmo, and step into a pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Before my first day on set, I received a voicemail: Dress casual. Don’t talk. Do as told. I got the impression that if I attracted too much attention, the stars might get jealous. And I didn’t want to lose my job over that.
When Sarah Jessica Parker arrived on set, her smile and blue eyes lit up the room.
I arrived at Silvercup Studios in Queens dressed in overalls and a T-shirt. The other stand-ins, all of whom had hair dyed to perfectly match the actors, quickly introduced themselves. A crew member yelled, “Second team!”
“That’s what we’re called,” one of the stand-ins informed me.
The crew herded us and the extras on set to a coffee shop scene. Costumers who also worked with the extras handed us “color cover,” an oversized men’s shirt in the same shade as the star’s costume. One remarked that I was an inch taller than Davis and shouldn’t have gotten the job. I slumped my shoulders, trying to appear shorter.
Our spots, where we were to stand, were marked by fluorescent tape. Muscular men erected lighting silks and moved cameras for close-ups. The cinematographer inspected our faces for shadows, then moved on to back lighting.
When Sarah Jessica Parker arrived on set, her smile and blue eyes lit up the room. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would burst through my body. Even though my childhood dream of becoming an actor hadn’t come true yet, being in her presence made me feel like I was on my way. That first day on set I worked 16 hours.
The job wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be—few are, I now know—but I worked for four seasons, sometimes 60 hours a week. I was sleep-deprived at times but thankful to have a steady gig, pay my rent on time, and finally qualify for health insurance through my union. Whenever Sex and the City went on hiatus between seasons, I got a coat-checking job and yearned to return to set.
But there were good and bad days.
First, the good: The crew was like family. We shared jokes, meals, and fashion tips. They thought it was funny that I didn’t own a purse and always brought a backpack with books to read during downtime. The most fun were the days I brought my violin to set—the crew guys and I formed a band, and we’d play during the catered lunch.
I could feel in my bones this would haunt me forever.
The bad: Some crew members cracked unprompted jokes about me having a boob job. (I didn’t.) Worse, some suggested I had given blow jobs to a colleague who was in a position of power. (Again, I didn’t.) After that, I didn’t always want to come to work, but I needed the paycheck. So I brushed off the comments. Until, one day, I couldn’t.
Season 4, episode 2—“The Real Me”—was filmed on a set that resembled a gynecologist’s office for a storyline about Charlotte’s “depressed” vagina. While the actors were in hair and makeup, it was my job requirement to hold the exact position of what the character would later do when the cameras rolled. I did as instructed and laid down on the gynecologist table. The set up was expected to take a long time because of the complicated lighting. The director, writers, and producers left for a meeting.
“I don’t have to put my legs in those. Right?” I asked a crew member, pointing to the stirrups. I was told I needed to for the lighting.
My cheeks burned. I spread my legs, my jeans tight on my thighs. Lights went up around me. Thirty minutes passed. I breathed, relaxed. It was about 4 a.m. on a Friday, and we had worked about 60 hours that week. My eyes began to close. I fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of masking tape. One of my feet had been taped to the stirrup and a crew member was taping the other, smiling and laughing. I was horrified.
Another crew member took photos of me in this position from the video monitor. A handful jeered at me. I wanted to scream. I wanted to rip my feet out of the tape and jump off the table. Instead, I made funny faces. I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t humiliated, scared. I could feel in my bones this would haunt me forever, especially at annual doctor visits.
As soon as I could, I retreated to a quiet place, my 12-foot-by-12-foot rent-controlled studio apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. I couldn’t afford to quit, and I worried that if I complained I would be fired. So I kept it a secret. I felt the heat below my skin burn. I alternated between chain smoking and puking.
[Editor's Note: HBO responded, “We have always taken seriously our responsibility to create a safe environment for everyone working on our productions, and we are very disappointed to learn of Ms. Kristin’s experience 20 years ago.”]
I dream that 20 years from now, when my daughters are fully grown, sexual harassment won’t exist.
After this incident I realized that being an actor wasn’t a healthy career choice for me. So I started looking for another path. At my local bookstore I bought Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I started following her advice to write three “morning pages” every day. This exercise led to an essay that won a scholarship through my union, and I returned to college at age 31.
In the years following, I became a published writer, a violin teacher, a wife, and a mentor at Girls Write Now, a nonprofit for at-risk teens. For a decade, through weekly meetings and public readings, I found my calling to help others gain entrance into college.
And then, in 2010, I got pregnant. As I laid on the table to give birth, I was sweaty and felt the immense pain of childbirth. But I was finally in control of my body. I pushed out my daughter Daisy into the world and, five years later, her sister, Clover.
When I squeezed my daughters in my arms, I didn’t think about Sex and the City. I thought about how much I loved my girls and the sense of belonging I felt being their mom. It was a feeling far deeper than anything I ever found in the make-believe world of acting.
I also thought about how I would teach them to use their voice and put a stop to any abuses they might encounter. I tell them to let their talent shine. I never want harassment to silence them.
I see more promise for them. Brave women have called out and accused Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and other men of power for being predators. In response to the Me Too and Times Up movements, Mayor de Blasio signed new requirements under New York City law that requires employers with 15 or more employees to conduct annual anti-sexual harassment training for all employees. (Something we did not have on set at the time.)
I dream that 20 years from now, when my daughters are fully grown, sexual harassment won’t exist. But if it does, I hope they’re not paralyzed with fear like I was. I hope my daughters have the courage to come forward. Maybe they’ll even celebrate their strength with a round of cosmos.
NOW NYC offers referrals for those needing help with employment discrimination, divorce and custody, financial empowerment, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. Go to nownyc.org for more.
Originally Appeared on Glamour