Singaporean actress Caitanya Tan was thrilled when she saw Harvey Weinstein on the red carpet at the 5th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong in 2011.
She was with two friends, Hong Kong-based veteran American-Chinese actor Andrew Ng and Australian actress Riely Alecia Saville, when the US film mogul’s limousine pulled up.
“Andrew said, girls, that’s Harvey Weinstein, the American superstar producer who has made so many big Hollywood movies. We must get a photo with him,” said Caitanya, who was 24 then. “We were really excited to see him,” she added. She was also aware that if Weinstein liked them, or liked the way they looked, they could land up in one of his movies.
Caitanya, who was in Hong Kong on a two-year stint as a host in the Golden Mickeys show in Disneyland, knew the famous name but was not aware of what kind of person Weinstein was – this was way before the growing list of more than 50 women charging him with sexual harassment came to light. Her heart sank when the producer appeared somewhat dismissive as he shook their hands and walked on.
And then he turned back.
According to Caitanya, he asked her: “Hey, are you an actress?”
Yes, she replied, all eager and excited again.
“He said, ‘I have a couple of scripts with me,’ and I was like, gosh, even more excited.”
There was a catch: The scripts were in his room.
“Wait. What? Room? As in your office?” said Caitanya.
“He said, ‘No, they’re in my hotel room. Would you like to come up to my room to have a read’?” said Caitanya. “I told him: I want to read your script, but not in your hotel room.”
Weinstein – who was a keynote speaker at the 5th Asian Film Awards – began to walk away but turned back and said, “Are you sure?”
Then came that dreaded line:
“Do you know who I am? Do you know I can make you very famous?”
It came as a slap to Caitanya’s face. All that she had heard about actresses being sluts who had romped the casting couch suddenly became real.
“I thought: This is the industry I’m in? I was shocked at the way Weinstein had been so upfront about it, so strong in the way he delivered those lines.
“I told him, maybe it’s my ego, but I don’t want to be famous like this.”
“The man was wielding his power blatantly; he was pretty explicit,” Andrew, who has acted in films with Jean Claude van Damme and Scarlett Johansson, told The Pride. “I was shocked and disgusted. He was sure of himself and knew just how powerful he was. But Caitanya stood her ground.”
Aside from escaping unscathed from that sordid encounter on the red carpet with Weinstein, Caitanya, now 30, has not had similar experiences with producers or directors in Singapore. However, the actress, who plays Captain Goh Yilin in the MediaCorp 5 series Tanglin, believes sexual harassment is very much alive in Singapore, from what she has heard from other local actresses.
So what is sexual harassment? Where are the boundaries?
“There’s one big area of grey, but the moment the words or actions are disrespectful to the recipient, that is sexual harassment,” said Caitanya. And while talking dirty might not be uncommon, “if there is no reciprocal interest in such topics, that is sexual harassment”, she added.
The Pride spoke to women in different industries to see the kind of sexual harassment they face and how they deal with it.
Jauz Chen, 28, real-estate agent
One person who has had to put up with a lot of disrespect is real estate agent Jauz Chen. In her seven years in the business, she was taken advantage of by a senior agent and had to drop many potential clients because they wanted to deal in more than real estate.
When she was a new agent, she was eager to pick up tips from a senior agent. Taking advantage of her enthusiasm, he took her to a vacant condominium unit on the pretext of demonstrating the fine art of closing a deal. In the darkness of the empty, unfurnished unit, he tried to take advantage of her.
“I feared for my life. I was alone with him on the 40th level of the condo and I didn’t know how I was going to escape from there,” she said.
She tried to remain calm, telling him that it was hot in the unit as there wasn’t air-conditioning. He then took her to the next unit on the same level – a fully-furnished one – where he continued to harass her. She tried to resist and told him that she wanted to go home, and he finally relented.
However, she did not make a police report or report him to the management because she was, at that time, a single mother and afraid that it would affect her very young twin daughters.
“I have long since got over the episode. Now, when I see him, he is the one cowering in fear while I give him a look to remind him of what he did,” said Jauz.
As for some clients, they would come up with nice openings: I’m looking to upgrade. I want to buy a landed property. Or I am looking to sell my properties because I want to invest in something else.
“You realise that something is wrong when, after several meetings, there’s no progress. They’d say things like, maybe I should do this or maybe I should do that, or boast to me about how rich they are. There were a few instances where I pulled the brake and asked, so, are we dealing or not?” she said.
The response: There are so many agents, so why I must deal with you?
She would stop contacting these potential clients – to the point of not returning their calls and text messages. “It’s a waste of time, and it made me realise that they wanted more than a real-estate deal,” she explained.
Her main peeve today, though, is people believing that she closes deals only because she is a pretty face.
“It is more than just appearance, it is the knowledge,” she insisted. “And usually, the people who say that I’m successful because of that are guys who are not very successful at closing deals. The better agents tend to look at my physical appearance as an advantage, but they would say positive and encouraging things like, you are presentable and that will be a good headstart. Because that is all it really is. I have to work for the rest to make it a deal.”
Valerie Wang, 29, secretary at events company/model
In her two years with an events company, Valerie has not seen a single instance of sexual harassment. But sexist remarks and attitudes are quite common, she said.
“Some of the guys would make the more inexperienced female staff do chores for them, saying such things as, girls should do the admin stuff, which I feel is sexist,” she said.
“If you speak about sex and ask a woman about personal sexual matters, I would consider that sexual harassment,” said Valerie, who has worked as a part-time model.
And it was while working as model that she was sexually harassed by a talent agent who lived near her.
“We would have supper because we lived near each other and whenever we were walking together and passed a stairwell, he would push me in its direction and suggest a quickie,” she said. She dismissed it as a joke at first, but stopped hanging out with him when she heard complaints from talents that he would stay inside the changing room while they were undressing.
“There was also an instance when, while giving me a lift home in his car, he touched my thigh and tummy, making a joke that I had put on weight,” said Valerie. “That was sexual harassment.”
But she feels that sexual harassment in Singapore is not as bad as it seems.
“Sometimes, it takes two hands to clap. The best thing is not to encourage the guy to do it, though I feel that many times, some of the girls are actually doing that.”
Serene Heng, 29, financial consultant
Serene’s strategy against sexual harassment is a simple one: Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position.
Having been in the business for four years, Serene, who has to meet clients regularly, now has a set of safeguards to screen new prospects.
“Usually, I converse with my prospects over text messages to fix an appointment. Once my sensors tell me something is not quite right, I would be extra careful. I would rather lose the client rather than to put myself in a vulnerable situation in the future when I return to meet them,” she explained. “I could be wrong, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
And these are what would trigger her sensors:
1) Facebook accounts filled with female friends only
“This is extremely unhealthy. Nobody in the right state of mind would have friends of only one gender, especially if it’s a guy with only female friends.”
2) Asking you to meet at a nightclub/ bar/ pub
“It’s a meeting for business, and drinking could result in him not being in a clear state of mind to listen or to make decisions.”
3) Asking you to meet at his home
“It is too dangerous to visit a stranger’s house. I would suggest to meet at a public place instead. Otherwise, I would ask a male colleague to go with me.”
4) Tells you he is very rich
“It is bait to lure gullible young consultants. But the fact is, the real high net worth clients don’t go around telling people how wealthy they are.”
While the safeguards would lessen her risk of exposure to sexual harassment, Serene also has measures in place during the meeting.
a) He sits/ stands too close to you
“I always keep at least an arm’s length away. It prevents unwanted misunderstandings.”
b) Brushes off the serious topic and wants to chat with you instead
“I would emphasise that we are meeting for business. If he is not ready, I would schedule to meet another time.”
c) Offers to buy you a gift
“Accepting a gift is tantamount to consent. And it will get us into serious compliance issues anyway.”
Sarah K, 30, customer service officer at a fitness gym
Sarah K, who works at the front desk of a fitness gym, notices some double standards when it comes to what is seen as harassment.
“Sometimes, if it is an old man or an ugly guy making a sexually offensive remark, the person on the receiving end takes offence. But when those same remarks are said by a handsome guy, they would still entertain him,” she explained. Whatever the case, it is about the consent of the person at the receiving end.
“I haven’t seen many instances of sexual harassment in my workplace, but there’s definitely some sexism. Many guys just cannot accept that women may be better than them at work and would try to put them down,” she explained. She once altered the company processes because she felt someone – a senior personal trainer – was doing some things in violation of the company’s protocol.
“He shouted at me and said that he earned more than me and said that one day I’ll just be staying at home to look after kids. I haven’t complained because I see it as his problem with his own ego, and it really didn’t bother me.”
She said that for many of the cases that seemed like sexism or sexual harassment, she would act only if it bothered her.
“So far, it is just idiots I have to deal with at work, and I can accept most times that it is their insecurity that leads them to behave in such a sexist way. I can’t find it in myself to complain, because it really doesn’t bother me.”
If you’re a guy reading this and wondering what the boundaries are, it is really quite straightforward: Respect the women you’re working with.
In Caitanya’s words: “Take responsibility for your words and actions, whether you’re a man or a woman. And if you’re facing sexual harassment or if someone makes an indecent proposal, realise there are lines you wouldn’t cross, and nobody can make you cross those lines if you do not want to.”
And above all, behave with graciousness and respect – for those around you and yourself, because sexism and sexual harassment are the antithesis of these.