For more than 20 years ago, Zelda Perkins knew that film producer Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator, although not the scale of his abuse. This year, Weinstein was finally convicted of rape; in March, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Perkins was “impressed”.
Perkins was not one of the women Weinstein attacked, but his colleague was. Instead, Perkins became, as a naive but furious 24-year-old assistant, one of the few people brave enough to take on the rich and powerful man known for his intimidation and ability to make or break careers.
In 1998, Perkins exposed Weinstein’s behavior to his company, Miramax; Until recently, he had been living under the terms of the confidentiality agreement (NDA) he signed. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, when Weinstein’s history of sexual assault came to light and Perkins, along with other women, began to talk about it, that she realized what a burden it had been. The agreement had prohibited her from talking about what she and a colleague had been through with anyone, including the family.
When we talk about Zoom, she’s outgoing and talkative, but looking back, she realizes how those two decades affected her. “Once I started talking, I found my voice. It sounds so cheesy, but I found myself, from that 24-year-old girl who had been told she was wrong and was stupid and to shut up. “Perkins now campaigns against the heinous use of NDA; on the rise of the #MeToo movement, it’s been a very busy few years. The pandemic, she says, has been almost a welcome pause from it all, though with the promised NDA legislation stalled, she’s ready to start over.
In the mid-1990s, Perkins was one of Weinstein’s assistants, based in London. In her frequent visits to the UK, she had become used to defending herself against sexual harassment: when she went to her hotel room to wake him up, he would try to put her in bed or expose himself to her. “Every time he left to return to the United States, the relief of having survived was enormous,” he says. But he learned to deal with it, with a mixture of “humor and aggression.” She was also protected, she thinks, by her “lack of ambition. If she had desperately wanted to work in the film industry, she probably would have ended up in the position of many other women who were her victims. “
The moment when she couldn’t take it any longer came not when he was harassing her, but his assistant, Rowena Chiu. On a trip with Weinstein to the 1998 Venice Film Festival, Chiu alleges that her boss tried to rape her. She fled, traumatized, to Perkins. “I said, ‘That’s it. Finished. You’re not going back to a room with Harvey. ‘
Perkins confronted Weinstein immediately. Back in London, he reported it to a senior Miramax colleague, who simply told him to find a good lawyer. Perkins, in his naivety, thought this would mean that he would go to court (he had not gone to the police, the assault had not happened, he points out, and Chiu did not want to report it).
It was only when she spoke to her own attorney that she realized that she, too, had been subjected to extreme sexual harassment. She laughs, as if to underline how ridiculous it sounds now. “Isn’t it okay for your boss to be in his underwear or naked? Everything had been normalized to me. And then the reality was that we had no evidence [of the attempted rape]: we had not gone to the police, it had happened in Italy. Very quickly, we were told that there was nothing we could do other than agree to some kind of agreement with him. It was a huge and horrible realization that it was ultimately about who had the power. It would be just a word from two silly girls against Harvey Weinstein. And that discovery was really disturbing. “
The negotiation process was long and intimidating, and while Perkins could have walked away, she was determined and fueled by anger and also a sense of responsibility towards Chiu. At one point, the two women and their legal team had a meeting with Weinstein’s attorneys that lasted all night until 5 a.m. “They made us feel like criminals,” he says. “We were not allowed a pencil and paper, we were not allowed to go to the bathroom without company. We were not allowed to speak to anyone. “Weinstein’s legal team had required her to give the names of anyone she had told what happened. She declined.” I felt like Harvey would go after them. “
Perkins thought that if they could get Weinstein to agree to their demands, that he should be fired if he tried to get back to an agreement, that he should receive therapy, and that the company should create a strong human resources system, signing a nondisclosure agreement would not be enough. Not at all. “That is what we were paying for with our silence, we are paying him to stop.” That said, when she left the building, having signed a confidentiality agreement that would pay her and Chiu £ 125,000 each, “I felt embarrassed. I felt like a massive personal failure that I hadn’t held Harvey responsible for what he did. My heart was broken, because I believed in our justice system and could not believe that I did not have access to justice because of a man of power. I didn’t realize that this was how the world worked. “
Losing his job wasn’t a big deal, he wasn’t passionate about the movie industry, but keeping quiet was. Perkins was unable to discuss it with his friends or explain in job interviews why he had left. She had been considering obtaining a law degree, but lost faith in the legal system. When a friend got married in Guatemala, Perkins ended up staying there for five years, working with horses. “I was in a place where no one was interested in the fact that I worked in the film industry. It was liberating. “
Back in the UK, Perkins began working in the theater, becoming a successful producer, but Weinstein still had a strong presence. She was nervous about the NDA when journalists began contacting her, including New York Times writer Jodi Kantor and journalist Ronan Farrow, who were working to expose Weinstein. “I realized that the right people were starting to talk,” says Perkins. He was surprised because he thought Weinstein had only harassed his staff. “All the relationships I had with actresses, I thought, were consensual. It was annoying, because, again, I felt partially responsible. If my agreement had worked, if he had really done what he wanted to do, which was go to court and expose him, they would have stopped him. So I thought I had a moral duty to step forward. “
She was still nervous that the terms of her NDA would mean repercussions, but she thought, “I can’t go on. And if no one listens or if I go broke and they send me to jail, I go broke and they send me to jail, it’s not so scary. “
When he heard that Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison, “it was the first time I felt any emotion about the whole case,” he says. “I was almost crying, almost laughing. In fact, he couldn’t believe that justice had been served. And it moves me now. “Her voice cracks.” I spent 20 years of my life believing that justice did not work. “She had not followed the case closely, partly because she did not dare to believe that he would be convicted, much less a long sentence. Plus, he says, it was never just Weinstein. “From the beginning, my focus was on disclosure agreements and the law.”
In 2018, Perkins gave evidence to the women’s selection and equality committee on sexual harassment at work. Theresa May, then Prime Minister, “was way behind what we were doing, which was really exciting and I couldn’t believe how quickly everything was happening. I really believed that we could make changes. ”Legislation to restrict the use of NDAs was announced last year, but nothing has happened since.
The BBC found that British universities had spent over £ 1 million on NDAs in the past four years, including in cases of sexual assault. The House of Commons has also used NDA in recent years in deals with former employees. They are also widely used to silence women who allege pregnancy-related employment discrimination.
“They were designed to protect intellectual property, or if two people want to reach a consensual agreement that an argument is not discussed publicly,” says Perkins. “There is nothing ethical in a legal agreement that hides harmful behavior – intimidation, racism, any form of aggression -[and] protects that kind of information and works exclusively for the powerful. The power disparity in almost every situation where an NDA is used is shocking. “
Weinstein, she says, was a distraction from the real problem, the system she operated on, including the use of NDA, and she is determined that, now that she is in prison, the problem will not go away. “There will always be Harvey, but if the law doesn’t protect you, we’re screwed. I had no power over Harvey, I had no power over the case, but what I can do is try to change the system that allows men like him. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.