The former Fox News star is taking on sexual harassment. And she likes to win.
When Gretchen Carlson was a cub reporter in Virginia in the early ’90s, she was returning from a shoot in the TV production truck when the cameraman at the wheel suddenly asked her if she had liked it when he attached a microphone under her shirt. “I was touching your breasts,” he noted. Carlson sat bolt upright, then leaned away from him and into the passenger door as far as possible. He continued the one-sided commentary on her breasts all the way to the studio, either not noticing or not caring that his co-worker, only a few months into her first TV job, was repulsed and terrified.
When she got back to her office, the assistant news director’s antennae went up. “He knew something was wrong,” she says now. “Probably because I was shaking.” After he insisted that she spill the beans, she reluctantly recounted what had happened. The cameraman was fired.
Maybe this story sounds like an unfortunate encounter with a creep in a bygone era. But in recent days, it has become clear that it’s not an aberration, and hardly history. After a tape surfaced of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President, joking about sexual aggression, millions of women, from all points on the political spectrum, joined an Internet movement started by a Canadian writer to discuss not just the assaults they had suffered but also the constant, wearing, workaday nature of sexual harassment, using the hashtag #notokay.
“I think this is happening every single day to women in all walks of life and in all different types of corporations,” says Carlson, 50, who has become something of a magnet for letters from women who have lost their jobs after complaining about sexually inappropriate behavior at work. “I’ve heard from so many women, from Wall Street to a tiny little town in Alabama. It’s everywhere.”
Indeed, Virginia would not be the last place where Carlson said she was sexually harassed, nor the last time a person subsequently left his job. But the next time—which happened shortly after she was fired from the Fox News Channel—it would get a lot more press. Carlson, who, as was widely reported at the time, has a settlement agreement with Fox News, declined to answer any questions about her former employer or the end of her career there, but had this to say about Trump: “I am saddened by the prevalence of powerful men disrespecting and objectifying women—and getting away with it for years. I am particularly distressed when people in the public eye who influence our culture perpetuate sexism.”
If prognosticators had been asked to guess which prominent woman would be the next whistle-blower on the level of sexual harassment that women are still dealing with in 21st century America, Carlson probably wouldn’t have made the short list. Until June, the former Miss America made her living poking at political correctness from one of the most conservative news outlets in the country. And she seemed born to the role.
Carlson’s childhood babysitter was Michele Bachmann, a former Tea Party favorite. Her family nickname was Sparkles. Her best friend was until recently the president of a company that sells collectible holiday figurines. She opposed Festivus—a joke celebration made up on Seinfeld—because it denigrated Christmas. Carlson is not only an actual Sunday-school teacher; she struck writer William Goldman as having the potential to be “the most dedicated Sunday-school teacher in the history of the Western world.”
Goldman, the Academy Award–winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, was a Miss America judge the year Carlson won. He was appalled. He had predicted that Miss Piggy, as he called her, had only slightly better chances of winning than he did. He was also strangely prescient, in that a lot of men who were to decide the young Minnesotan’s fate would miscalculate her intellect, drive and resilience.
In person, Carlson is short—5 ft. 3 in.—and it’s sometimes hard to tell if she’s wincing or smiling. She lives in a stately $5 million house in Greenwich, Conn., with two kids, a husband and an overly friendly nonshedding Lagotto Romagnolo dog who carries a Donald Trump chew toy that says Bite me. (She claims to also own a Hillary Clinton one, but the dog does not favor it.) The house is hotel-lobby spotless, with manicured lawns, gigantic sectional sofas inside and out, a three-car garage and zero evidence that there is a single unresolved item on the family’s to-do list; nothing on the fridge door, no random pile of papers on the kitchen counter, no half-empty cans of Carlson’s beverage of choice, Diet Dr Pepper.
She has been married for 19 years to Casey Close, 53, a sports agent who is used to dealing with prodigies; he represents baseball stars Derek Jeter and Clayton Kershaw. The immaculate home, he says, is her doing. “She has the ability to multitask like no other woman I’ve ever met,” he says. “Many of our friends and even family members wonder how we are able to do it.” When she was on morning TV, she could go from waking up to being out the door in nine minutes, and that included showering. She advised one of her successors to set three alarm clocks. The couple recently took their annual couples-only vacation, this time to Croatia. It was planned long before June 23, when Carlson was let go from her show The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson, but the timing proved fortuitous.
Since leaving Fox, says Carlson, she has been “incredibly busy.” Always formidably task-oriented, she now has more flexibility to give a whole afternoon instead of just an hour to a crafts project with her kids, Kaia, 13, and Christian, 11. She attends many more of her daughter’s soccer and her son’s hockey and baseball games. (He also plays golf, tennis and basketball.) She joined the board of an animal shelter started in memory of a Sandy Hook shooting victim.
But it’s clear that Carlson won’t stay on the sidelines for long. “When she wants something, she goes and gets it,” says Close. “She doesn’t wait for it. I think there are people who might want someone as a spouse who’s a little less vocal about issues, who maybe takes a more passive role, but I feel lucky to have found her and found that kind of relationship.”
Carlson has agreed to testify before Congress after the election about forced arbitration, fine print that permits companies to have new employees sign away their rights to litigation and instead agree to settle all employment disputes via arbitration. “A lot of people that I’ve heard from [about being unfairly dismissed] find themselves in the middle of either legal action or, more likely, forced arbitration,” she says. “It is a huge problem. Because it’s secret. And it plays into why we think that we’ve come so far in society and we probably really haven’t—because we don’t hear about it.”
The sponsors of the anti-forced-arbitration laws are Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Al Franken. That’s the same Al Franken who wrote the best seller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Carlson brushes off the extreme unlikeliness of these political partners with a joke about how she and Franken are both from Minnesota and were on Jeopardy! together. (Franken crushed her.) She has already boned up on some of the legislative history. “The intent of the Supreme Court when they ruled on arbitration was to unclog the courts,” she says. “It was not to put issues of discrimination and harassment into covert operations.”
Carlson hopes to persuade Congress to take another look at the laws that protect the practice. She says she’s also going to think really hard about “what we need to do to change the system so that women feel safe.” She is not convinced that human-resources departments are capable of effectively dealing with sexual harassment, or that the millions of dollars corporations spend on training courses is making any difference. “I’m certainly not going to sit here today and say, ‘Well, I know how to solve this just because I’ve experienced it.'”
It’s not that Carlson has become a fan of the nanny state; she stresses that parents ought to teach their kids how to treat others. But she thinks corporations have a role to play too. “It also depends on the tone that is set within an organization, because that trickles all the way down,” she says. “We need more women in higher roles, because the tone for sexual harassment would no doubt be different.”
Just as it was Nixon who went to China and the Pharisee Paul who spread the Gospel to the gentiles, Carlson may be the improbable ambassador who can take the issue of sexual harassment beyond the liberal mainstream, a crowd that was already converted by Anita Hill. It doesn’t hurt that she’s bringing with her old-school values like discipline, hard work and talent. (Those very qualities didn’t help Hill.) Her childhood in Anoka, Minn., the Halloween capital of the world, was defined by violin and faith. She grew up in a large Lutheran church, of which her grandfather was the pastor. Her dream was to play piano, but her hands were deemed too small, so she focused on violin. Raised by the Swedish equivalent of a tiger mom—a woman who at the age of 72 took over her husband’s car dealership and has, according to Carlson, grown it—the youngster had to practice at least an hour a day from the age of 6, and three hours a day from the age of 10, which left little time for hanging out with friends.
“My parents would say, ‘If you just had her focus, with your talent, you would do great,'” says Gary Levinson, now senior principal associate concert master at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, who often competed in the same violin competitions as Carlson as a teenager. Levinson says the youthful Carlson had an unusual combination of rigor and sentiment, and her particular skill was adding extra oomph to the more romantic pieces. “My vibrato was my weakness,” says Carlson. “With romantic pieces I could be a lot more schmaltzy. My wider vibrato fit that.”
Discipline and playing to the emotions of the crowd were not the only music-related skills she would find useful in her TV career. She also had to learn how to blend in, because being an A student and violin prodigy does not make for incredible popularity in high school. She likes to tell the story of playing a morning concert with the Minnesota Orchestra when she was 13, then changing out of her gown and going to school for a math test. “The kids at school had no idea where I had been,” says Carlson. “I just wanted to be included and get along with everyone. I used to say to my parents, ‘I just want to be normal.'”
This aptitude for camouflage would come in handy when, on Fox & Friends, the honors graduate of Stanford University would profess the need to look up such terms as ignoramus or czar when commenting on public policy. She was accused by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show of “stashing her IQ in an offshore account.” But Carlson claims that she did not dumb herself down for TV. “Of course I knew what those words were,” she says. Feigned ignorance was merely part of her repertoire.
It was while Carlson was studying abroad at Oxford University that her mother, still sore that her daughter had given up her dreams of a career in violin at 17, suggested that she enter the Miss America pageant, which had just announced that 50% of its judgment of a young woman’s worth would be based on talent. Carlson is not statuesque, nor, she says, was she very thin. She hadn’t been playing much music and had lost some dexterity. Most of the consultants she and her mom hired told her she’d need four years minimum to have a shot. Nevertheless, a year after she entered her local pageant, there she was, Miss America.
Ironically, few things prepped Carlson better for having people diminish and dismiss her as that year in the tiara. “After I became Miss America, I found out overnight that people just automatically don’t like you,” she says. “It’s like your résumé just falls into oblivion and everything you’ve accomplished in your life has been erased.” She suggested to her college newspaper that the negative reaction from her fellow Stanford students might have been jealousy.
The slights she experienced that year still gnaw at her. And she’s not one to let things go. The first story in her 2015 memoir Getting Real is about Penny Crone, a brash New York City TV reporter who questioned her virginity and intelligence during an early press conference. Carlson never forgot it. Many years later, she saw Crone, a local reporter still, at a sports game. She reintroduced herself, reminded her of their first meeting and observed, “I’m a CBS News correspondent … and you’re not.” (Crone, now a real estate agent, remembers the news conference but not the confrontation.) Apparently Carlson likes her revenge like other Swedes like their aquavit: icy cold.
After a tour of duty in a few smaller markets, in 2000, Carlson scored a national spot at CBS, where she was eventually promoted to anchor of the Saturday-morning news show. “She was kind of a model employee,” says Andrew Heyward, CBS News’ president at the time. “She was ambitious in a good way and she was serious. She did not play the beauty-queen card at all.” Another Miss America, the woman Carlson handed off to, Debbye Turner Bell (special talent: marimba), worked a few steps down the hall. “She outworked everyone else,” says Turner. “The anchors get these big packets of information for every segment. It was dozens and dozens if not in the low hundreds of pages of reading, and I’m sure not one word went unread and digested by Gretchen, because that’s just the kind of workhorse she is.”
In 2005, she moved to Fox. She says she would do the same thing today, adding, “It was an opportunity to do what I loved, which was a morning show, and do it five days a week. In my mind it was an opportunity to grow.” It also meant that she could talk on the air about her beliefs. “My faith is something I don’t question,” she says. “It’s one thing that I don’t lay awake at night wondering about.”
But she doesn’t question her commitment to feminism, which may surprise some. “I’ve been for women’s empowerment my entire life. It’s not like it’s just happened in the last couple of months,” she says. Carlson claims she has often called out discrimination, saying, “I’ve been very outspoken about it. For decades. I’d tell my mom something that happened at work, and she’d be like, ‘Well, why do you have to harp on that all the time?’ Then she ended up running a corporation and she called me up and she goes, ‘Oh. Now I get it.'”
And Carlson, a registered Independent, is cautiously supportive of some forms of gun control. After the mass shooting of elementary-school kids in nearby Newtown, her daughter, heir to Carlson’s musical proficiency, played a benefit concert of classical piano pieces for some of the victims’ families. Just weeks before Carlson was fired, she had begun to speak out in favor of an assault-weapons ban on Real Story.
Levinson, Carlson’s former violin competitor, thinks Carlson should take her settlement money, “buy a Strad and start practicing.” So far, though, she hasn’t committed. “I haven’t picked it up yet,” she says. “But it’s made its way from the closet to a bench in my room. It’s traveled.” She can’t bear to play at the moment—even if nobody except the babysitter is home—because she is so out of practice.
Elsewhere, she’s not afraid to make a racket. That includes before Congress. She’s aware that a lot of women who suffer discrimination can’t take on the corporations they work for. “These attitudes thrive when good people don’t speak up, enablers excuse the hateful or disparaging remarks as funny, and surrogates lie about the culture,” she says. Carlson seems to be mulling where her voice is best used. She says she has received several unsolicited calls about TV jobs, and she’d love to go back on the air.
One of the Carlson’s first onscreen appearances was on a bloopers show. The setup was to leave the newly minted Miss America alone with a complicated piece of technology—known, in an attempt at jocularity, as the M.I.S.S. America. As the cameras rolled on the purportedly live segment, everyone was mysteriously called away from the set so that the pageant princess had to talk about the contraption alone.
The hope was, no doubt, that she would produce some kind of babbling nonsense, or tears, or expressions of utter terror, or something equally diverting. But she declined to be rattled and, no matter what producers asked her to do, fairly nailed it. The segment is still watchable on YouTube, a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they’ve got Carlson pegged.