Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Accuser Disgusted by ‘Cosmos’ Return: I Was a ‘Sexual Object’ to Him
“I was reduced to nothing more than a sexual object from the person who was supposed to be my mentor,” says Tyson’s former “Cosmos” assistant Ashley Watson.
Last week, I sat down with Neil deGrasse Tyson in his office at the Museum of Natural History. The talk was timed to the return of his acclaimed National Geographic series Cosmos. After exchanging some pleasantries, and probing the famed astrophysicist’s thoughts on the rapid spread of the coronavirus, our discussion shifted to the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct that have been made against him. That’s when things got tense.
Tyson was indignant, repeatedly claiming that he’s grateful for “due process,” that I’m “not the investigator”—and therefore have no right to question him on the matter—and that “investigations were conducted” that essentially cleared him.
Our back and forth mainly concerned the case of Ashley Watson, a former assistant on Cosmos assigned to Tyson who accused him of sexually harassing her during the final days of production on the series, which premiered Monday, March 9.
Speaking to Patheos’ David McAfee, Watson alleges that Tyson was prone to making “misogynistic comments,” but it was one encounter in particular that left her shaken, and was evidence, she says, of his “predatory tendencies.”
One night during the summer of 2018, Tyson invited her over to his apartment at 10:30 p.m. to “share a bottle of wine” and “unwind for a couple of hours.” Watson says she accepted because she felt she had to please her boss. Once there, she recalls Tyson undressing to a tank top; playing romantic music and replaying “the most graphic parts”; gesturing toward her with a knife in “a weird power move”; saying every human needed physical “releases” whilst away from home, which he had been for several months; and that, as she was leaving, he held her hands and gave her what he called a “Native American handshake” involving heavy eye contact and the feeling of her pulse, which she broke off when it made her uncomfortable; and then, that he placed his hands on her shoulders and said that he wanted to hug her, but if he did he’d “just want more.”
The next day, Watson says she confronted Tyson about the inappropriate overtures, and in that meeting he told her over and over that she’d never rise to the level of TV producer because her looks were too “distracting.” Watson proceeded to report the behavior to a supervisor, and resigned from her post.
Tyson, for his part, released a rambling screed on Facebook defending himself from three of the four allegations against him—which included one other allegation of inappropriate touching by Katelyn Allers, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell, and Thchiya Amet El Maat’s accusation that Tyson drugged and raped her while the two were grad students at the University of Texas in the ’80s. He argued that Watson was known for giving on-set hugs, that his “Native American handshake” was a common practice of his, and that his intent with the “just want more” line was to “express restrained but genuine affection.”
After The Daily Beast published my contentious interview with Tyson, Watson reached out to thank me for pressing the scientist on his past allegations, and took issue with Tyson’s insistence that he’d been cleared by the investigations conducted by Fox, National Geographic, and the producers of Cosmos. (When asked to provide any information on the results of their investigations—which they have yet to do—or to address the following claims by Watson, all three declined comment for this story.)
According to Watson, the so-called “investigations” Tyson was referring to consisted of the following: “I had one 30-minute sit-down with a Fox HR representative and a 45 minute-hour sit-down with a man from a private company. I gave them both lengthy lists of extremely reliable people who could corroborate my story, text messages from that time, emails NDT had sent to me, etc. None of the people I gave contact info for were ever contacted by these companies.”
“I never expected the ‘investigation’ to vindicate me from being called an attention hungry liar who had ‘asked for it’—Cosmos was a multi-million dollar production and I was a lowly local assistant who made $800 a week. I always knew ‘the show would go on,’ and that ‘due process’ in this case would be a steaming pile of bullshit.”
Coming forward wasn’t easy for Watson. She’s since been subjected to heaps of ugly online “vitriol” from strangers, and was saddled with “the guilt of tarnishing the reputation of a show which employed a ton of good-hearted people who put honest work into the project, along with tearing something down that's supposed to be educational and progressive.” But she spoke out, she says, because she believes Tchiya Amet and felt she was “the closest chance she had to having a reliable ‘character witness.’”
She was also deeply troubled by Tyson’s so-called Facebook mea culpa. “My first thoughts were, ‘Wow, he’s gaslighting me,’” says Watson. “Keep in mind, this is a self-proclaimed ‘science guy’ who all of a sudden wanted to establish a ‘spirit connection’ by feeling each other’s pulses and staring into each other’s eyeballs. ‘Press your whole palm into mine, extend your two fingers, find my pulse.’ He had taken off his boots and was wearing a wife beater. He talked about how ‘as human beings we all need releases in life... whether they’re emotional or physical.’ He repeated the Nina Simone lyric over and over—‘Do I make you quiver’—that was playing on his speaker because he ‘just loves that line.’ He claims he only touched me once, but when I stood up to leave after the handshake that seemed to last an eternity, he stood up too, placed his hands on my shoulders and spoke down to me the line about, ‘I want to hug you so bad right now but if I do I’ll only want more.’”
“He had also made several troubling comments to me about women throughout production, all of which I willfully brushed off because I was so blinded by his celebrity. Everybody loved him. Every single person on the crew, every person at the grocery store, and therefore, I let so much slide.”
The release of the third season of Cosmos—which Watson worked on—was delayed a year while the networks and producers investigated Tyson. And seeing the show return with Tyson as its host has left her “numb.”
“It would’ve been nice for him to have been replaced on Cosmos. Crazier and more expensive production changes have been made throughout history,” she offers. “It would’ve been nice for MasterClass to have not signed a deal with him. It would be nice if Joe Rogan, who is someone I admire a lot, would’ve actually confronted him about the past and present allegations.”
Watson feels Tyson hasn’t received the “due process” he leaned on throughout our interview, and that he is “a fraud and a master of manipulation.”
“I was reduced to nothing more than a sexual object from the person who was supposed to be my mentor,” she says. “When I quit the next day, which again, is something I absolutely would’ve never done had I not genuinely felt violated, I told him that he had made me feel uncomfortable and I had to leave to maintain some semblance of self-respect. I was shaking and sweating profusely and we were alone in his office. He nervously attempted to convince me to stay and even offered to talk to the producers to see if he could secure me [a] job higher up the ladder. I declined the offer.” [The Daily Beast reviewed emails from Tyson dangling jobs to Watson after her resignation.]
Fortunately, Watson’s story has a silver lining.
“My career has fully recovered and I’m doing well,” she says. “The day after that horrible night with NDT he said to me, ‘You’ll never make it as a producer because you’re too distracting,’ yet months after the story broke I landed my first field producer job on a big TV series. My literal dream job.”