One might forgive Gretchen Carlson right around now if she’s experiencing an ecstatic rush of schadenfreude over the suffering and sacking of accused sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly, to say nothing of the tribulations of his alleged enablers in the executive suite at the Fox News Channel.
But former Fox News anchor Carlson—whose sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit last July against O’Reilly’s friend and protector, Fox News founder Roger Ailes, resulted in Ailes’s abrupt resignation along with withering scrutiny of the channel’s corporate culture—can’t discuss her former employer under the terms of a $20 million settlement agreement.
But that doesn’t stop her from smiling.
“Obviously, I can’t talk about the details of the case, but my goodness, I don’t need to,” a beaming Carlson told The Daily Beast in an interview about her life and career since her world-shaking lawsuit, and her budding vocation as a champion of women’s empowerment and sworn enemy of workplace harassment.
“The benefit for me,” said Carlson, who declined to discuss the various allegations about O’Reilly or the Fox News culture, “is that I can be an advocate for this issue. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I never expected to be the face of this issue. Who would?”
She’s toiling away on a book, to be titled “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back,” due to be delivered May 15 and scheduled for publication Sept. 26 by Hachette’s Center Street imprint.“This has never been done before, where women are able to have a guide book if they find themselves in a prickly situation,” Carlson said. “It’s based on the women I’ve heard from, thousands of them, and when you ask a room full of women, ‘Who has a story?,’ by gosh, it still turns out that every woman has a story. Why is that? It’s crazy. It’s 2017. And we think we’ve come so far…”
She said she has been poring through stacks of printed emails from women—and men—who reached out to her in recent months to share their own harassment experiences. Carlson, who said she has responded “to every single email,” has also been speaking to prominent experts on the subject.
One expert she is unlikely to have consulted is Ailes’s combative attorney Susan Estrich, a former Democratic operative and Fox News contributor who wrote a groundbreaking book about rape—drawn from her own harrowing experience as a young woman of being sexually assaulted—and, until now, enjoyed a sterling reputation as an effective opponent of workplace sexual harassment with unquestioned feminist bona fides.
“You know I can’t comment on that,” Carlson told me with a side-eye glance. “Trust me, there are plenty of other experts out there.”
Carlson, no surprise, is hardly thrilled with the idea of having a president of the United States who not only has been accused in press accounts of harassment and sexual assault, while claiming to the New York Times that O’Reilly “didn’t do anything wrong,” but was also caught bragging on the infamous Access Hollywood outtake that because he was a rich celebrity, he felt entitled to “grab [women] by the pussy.”
“That was a teachable moment for my husband and I with our children—and I think there were thousands of parents around the country using it as a teachable moment,” she said about Trump’s remarks.
What did the teachable moment teach her kids?
“Human dignity, how to show respect for each other’s differences and gender equality,” Carlson answered, noting, however, that she wasn’t “going to get into a discussion about politics.”
She remains equally alarmed by the suggestion—made by presidential son Eric Trump during last year’s campaign—that a strong woman, like his sister Ivanka, would simply find a new and better job if she was sexually harassed at the office.
“Why should the woman be the one that has to leave?” Carlson demanded. “For people who have children, nieces and grandchildren, do you want this to happen to them? Because in so many cases, it’s life-changing, career-ending, with dreams suddenly blown up.”
How did Carlson escape this outcome?
“A lot of things I’ve done in my life have taken incredible mental fortitude,” she said. “I’m a huge believer in visualizing achieving the task before it happens. And so I have a desire to achieve and fire in my belly, and it takes the mental capacity to be able to carry through on that. I wish some days that I didn’t have as much drive as I do. I’d sleep better.”
On Tuesday, as Carlson sat across from me in the plush corner office of celebrity publicity doyenne Cindi Berger, who has been helping her navigate the aftermath of Ailes, O’Reilly’s once-impregnable position as cable news’s top-rated personality was rapidly deteriorating, while Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters, half a mile away, was being targeted for a second time by chanting, sign-waving protestors on the sidewalk, demanding O’Reilly’s head.
“I’ve always been an incredibly strong person, and I’ve also been underestimated,” Carlson said—by outward appearances serenely above the fray, though no doubt still coming to terms with the ordeal of last summer.
She wore slacks and a denim jacket, an illusion of laid-back casualness that was belied by heavy earrings encrusted with big diamonds, along with a blinding multi-carat rock on her ring finger. (Also, a trio of thin silver bracelets on her right wrist engraved, respectively, with the words “FEARLESS,” “BRAVE,” and “CARPE DIEM”—the latter of which Carlson described as her personal motto.)
“I have blond hair. I’m from Minnesota. I’m short. I’m 5-foot-3,” Carlson continued, “And I think sometimes, by having these characteristics, people might put you in a certain category, wrongly.”
Carlson didn’t bother to mention her impressive academic credentials—a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a year’s study at Oxford—that might have surprised Fox News viewers who heard her make occasionally outlandish assertions on the air (often concerning President Obama’s supposed “war on Christmas”) that once prompted Jon Stewart to accuse her of dumbing herself down for her audience.
“Even today,” Carlson went on, “I think it’s difficult sometimes for people to see women who happen to be smart, talented and attractive, but think, ‘Oh my gosh, there must be something wrong with her.’”
O’Reilly was among a small army of Ailes loyalists—including Brit Hume, Greta van Susteren, Geraldo Rivera, Jeanine Pirro, Kimberly Guilfoyle and others—who suggested that something was indeed wrong with Carlson. They were quick to dismiss her legal complaint as either sour grapes because her contract wasn’t renewed or—in O’Reilly’s case—“frivolous” and an unworthy attempt to shame and coerce money out of a respected public figure. (Rivera later publicly apologized to Carlson.)
“You’re a target, I’m a target. Any time, somebody could come out and sue us, attack us, go to the press or anything like that. And that’s a deplorable situation,” O’Reilly told Seth Meyers on NBC’s Late Night program the week after Carlson’s court filing against Ailes.
O’Reilly then recommended, regarding litigation like Carlson’s: “If you file a frivolous lawsuit and you lose, the judge has a right to make you pay all court costs. Until we adopt that very fair proposition, we’re gonna have this out of control, tabloid society that is tremendously destructive…I stand behind Roger 100 percent.”
Carlson, 50, has yet to resume her quarter-century-long television career, aside from one-off gigs in January co-hosting the third hour of the Today program and an episode of The View.
After her reign as Miss America in 1989—winning the crown, in part, with a display of violin virtuosity—she graduated from local stations to CBS News to a dozen years at Fox News, where she hosted an eponymous afternoon show and, before that, was sandwiched on the Fox & Friends couch—often abusively, according to her lawsuit—between Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, whom Carlson accused of regularly undermining her on and off the air.
It has been nine months since Carlson has had a TV job. Did the lawsuit against her boss prompt news executives at other outlets to be wary of her?
“No,” Carlson insisted, although she declined to comment on any conversations she might be having with Fox News’s competitors. “Honestly, I have been so overwhelmed with what has been going on in my life. I’m just sort of determining where I might want to be, and I really want to be in a place where I really look forward to going to work on a daily basis. So, I’m not worried.”
She said she has been busy juggling being a mom to her 12-year-old son, Christian, and teenage daughter, Kaia, and working on her book and pursuing her advocacy, which includes putting what she described as a “significant” amount of her own money into a tax-deductible charitable fund, titled “Gift of Courage,” that has already begun dispensing grants to groups that help women and girls.
Carlson has also been working with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to enact legislation to remove forced arbitration clauses from employment contracts, like the one she had with Fox News, that hinder lawsuits and require secret settlements. She hopes to testify on the subject before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley.
And Carlson, a registered Independent, doesn’t dismiss out of hand a future of political office for herself, maybe even the U.S. Senate from her home state of Connecticut, where she lives in the gilded suburb of Greenwich with her sports-agent husband, Casey Close, and their kids—and where the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Chris Murphy, faces reelection next year.
“That was incredibly flattering—I’m glad they see diverse possible talents,” Carlson said about a recent press report that the Connecticut GOP might want to draft her to run against Murphy. “My life has worked in such mysterious ways. I was supposed to be a concert violinist. That was my career as a kid. I didn’t end up doing that. Gosh, the idea that I would ever have been Miss America? That wasn’t on my radar screen. I was gonna be a lawyer. And I ended up going into television. And look who I am today.”