Keri Claussen Khalighi was a 17-year-old fashion model from a farm town in Nebraska when she met Brett Ratner and Russell Simmons at a casting call.
Ratner was an up-and-coming music video director and a protege of Simmons, the Def Jam Recordings mogul. They took Khalighi to dinner one night in 1991 at Mr. Chow in New York, and then back to Simmons’ apartment to show her a music video they’d been working on.
Quickly, Simmons began making aggressive sexual advances, yanking off her clothes, Khalighi said.
“I looked over at Brett and said ‘help me’ and I'll never forget the look on his face,” she recalled. “In that moment, the realization fell on me that they were in it together.”
Khalighi said that Simmons, who was then about twice her age, tried to force her to have intercourse. “I fought it wildly,” she said. He eventually relented and coerced her to perform oral sex, she alleged. “I guess I just acquiesced.”
Ratner, meanwhile, “just sat there and watched,” she said.
Feeling “disgusting,” Khalighi said she went to take a shower. Minutes later, she alleged, Simmons walked up behind her in the shower and briefly penetrated her without her consent. She said she jerked away, then he left. “It hurt so much.”
In a statement, Simmons, 60, strongly disputed her account. “Everything that occurred between Keri and me occurred with her full consent and participation,” he said. Much of the two days and one night he spent with her, he said, was with other people, or in public. Ratner had “no recollection” of Khalighi asking him for help and denied witnessing her “protest,” his attorney Martin Singer said.
Ratner has also disputed the accounts of four other women who accused him of sexual misconduct in this story and a previous report by The Times that included the claims of six others, among them actresses Olivia Munn and Natasha Henstridge.
Since that Nov. 1 report, which detailed allegations of harassment, groping and forced oral sex, additional women contacted The Times about Ratner, who has directed, produced or financed successful films including “Rush Hour,” “The Revenant” and “Horrible Bosses.”
In several of the accounts, the women said that Ratner, 48, surrounded himself with powerful friends, including Simmons and filmmaker James Toback, who, while sharing Ratner’s playboy lifestyle, have also been accused of engaging in sexual misconduct. Those friendships, some women said, enabled inappropriate behavior within the group, sometimes by active participation and in other cases by simply providing venues for incidents to take place.
These men and other older, controversial Hollywood friends — including producer Robert Evans and filmmaker Roman Polanski — have served as father figures to Ratner, who had a distant relationship with his late dad. Evans, the former Paramount Pictures production chief who was convicted of trafficking cocaine, explained his relationship with Ratner in a 2007 Vanity Fair story: “I was his Hollywood father. I don't know whether I should be proud of that or not."
‘Mutual admiration for beautiful women’
Simmons, who co-founded Def Jam, has often described how Ratner first curried favor by furnishing him with models after they met in 1987. Then an undergraduate studying film at New York University, Ratner seemed to know where the models lived in Manhattan, Simmons has said.
“He was willing to do anything to be of use,” Simmons wrote in his book “Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success,” published in 2007. “After he hung around a bit and figured out that I liked models, then he made it his business to take me to every model’s apartment he could find.”
Ratner, who has said his father abused drugs and became homeless, found in Simmons a willing surrogate. "He's my son, all right," Simmons told Vanity Fair.
Ratner’s introduction to a 2005 book, “Def Jam, Inc.” by Stacy Gueraseva, acknowledged that their relationship was “initially based on our mutual admiration for beautiful women.”
The men would go clubbing in Simmons’ Cadillac limo, partying all night and into the next day. At the time, Simmons was a power player in New York who helped turn hip-hop into a mainstream business and cultural force with the release of records by Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. Simmons also has founded clothing labels including Phat Farm — once a staple of the hip-hop scene — and created HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” which has launched the careers of many black stand-ups.
Admiration — and success — were not the only things Ratner and Simmons allegedly shared. In a 2005 Playboy article about Simmons’ reformed ways, magazine writer Touré described a 1994 incident in which he met Simmons for an interview at a cafe below the music mogul’s apartment. When Ratner showed up a little while later, Simmons disappeared for half an hour without explanation. Touré wrote that he later learned that Simmons "had gone up to his place and had sex with a sumptuous model whom Ratner had just finished with."
The pair’s conduct together has also been scrutinized by authorities. In 2001, a woman told Beverly Hills police that she was held against her will at Ratner’s mansion, Hilhaven Lodge, “by two males who both unlawfully touched her,” Lt. Elisabeth Albanese told The Times this month.
In that moment, the realization fell on me that they were in it together.
Keri Claussen Khalighi
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against Ratner and Simmons due to insufficient evidence.
Harland Braun, Ratner’s attorney for criminal matters, said that the allegation “was a minor thing” and that the accuser had made similar claims against others. In a statement to Variety, which first reported the investigation, Simmons said that public figures such as himself are “vulnerable and susceptible to claims that are untrue.”
In 1994, an aspiring young model said she crossed paths with the duo at a hotel in South Beach.
Tanya Reid had moved to Miami hoping to become a model. She’d dreamed of it since she was 14, taking modeling classes and entering regional modeling competitions in Caledonia, Miss., a small town of less than 1,000.
When she met Ratner, who was staying at the hotel where she worked the front desk, he was filming a music video featuring a coterie of beautiful models.
Simmons was also staying at the hotel, and, Reid said, the two men repeatedly called the front desk asking to speak to her. Simmons asked her to personally bring a toothbrush to him, but she deflected, saying a bellman would handle it. “I remember this very, very clearly, the exact words he said on the phone. He wanted me to come upstairs so Brett could hold me down and he could [perform oral sex],” Reid said.
One day, Ratner invited her up to his hotel room as she was leaving work. Spread out on his bed were photographs of models appearing in his video. Ratner asked if she wanted to be one of them, Reid recalled. She gave him her phone number. A couple of days later, he stopped by her apartment, a few blocks from the hotel. Not long after they sat down on her living room sofa, he exposed himself, put her hand on his crotch and asked for oral sex, she said.
Reid, who was an 18-year-old virgin, said she asked if they could just kiss. He then allegedly used his hand to push her head to his groin. Eventually, she said she gave in. Ratner left immediately after, and she never heard from him again.
Ratner, through attorney Singer, said he did not recall Reid or the alleged incident. Simmons said in a statement, “I mean no disrespect to her when I say I do not recall a conversation with a hotel front desk clerk over a quarter of a century ago.”
Reid's roommate in Miami confirmed that Reid told her at the time about inappropriate behavior by Ratner. Tara Garrett, her childhood best friend, said Reid told her, “I’m better off being at home.… You just don’t understand that world.”
A couple of weeks after the alleged incident, Reid packed up and moved back to Caledonia, giving up on her dream of becoming a model.
The ‘private playground’
Ratner has long sought to cloak himself in the mystique of Hollywood’s golden age. His circle of friends and his home, Hilhaven Lodge, have been a big part of his self-styled reputation as a playboy.
The Beverly Hills estate, situated on a large, leafy lot off Benedict Canyon Drive near Sunset Boulevard, was previously home to “Casablanca” star Ingrid Bergman, “Vertigo” actress Kim Novak and later “Grease” producer Alan Carr, who installed a disco. Ratner’s 2003 book, “Hilhaven Lodge: The Photo Booth Pictures,” features images of stars such as Britney Spears, Robert Downey Jr., Heidi Klum and Colin Farrell taken in a booth at the house.
He also branded a Hilhaven Lodge whiskey with a label that reads: “The lodge quickly became the private playground for those who live in the spotlight, a haven where they could be themselves.”
And for years, it has been just that. In January, Toback, the director who was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by more than 300 women during a Times investigation, called it his “second home.”
Brittny McCarthy said she was approached by Toback at a Santa Monica bookstore in 2008. He told her she had a good look for a part in one of his upcoming films.
McCarthy, then 30, said Toback “name-dropped Ratner from the very beginning of our conversation,” suggesting that they go to Ratner’s house to screen a documentary Toback had recently directed.
When they arrived at Hilhaven Lodge, McCarthy said she did not see Ratner or any other people. Toback brought McCarthy into a bedroom where he asked her to show him how she masturbated, she alleged. “I was afraid that if I didn’t do what he said, it would get worse,” she said. “I felt frozen.”
Afterward, she said he humped her leg until he ejaculated.
“It is so terrible what these men have done — and to not be held accountable for it,” said McCarthy, who recently filed two police reports about the run-in, including one with the Beverly Hills Police Department. “… There is a lot of enabling that happens.”
When asked about the allegations, Toback hung up without comment. Ratner “denies knowledge of Mr. Toback ever engaging in any inappropriate behavior at Hilhaven,” Singer said.
Singer said the claim that Hilhaven Lodge was a venue for alleged inappropriate behavior involving Toback or others “does not square with the fact that there are regularly many other people around to whom someone could voice a complaint if something objectionable was allegedly taking place.”
‘Just touch it’
In other cases, Ratner did his own entertaining — separate from his friends.
Jaymee Ong, a model and actress who became acquainted with Ratner in 2001, said she was invited to a Halloween party at Hilhaven Lodge but when she arrived with two friends, there were no other revelers. “[Ratner] said, ‘Oh, I just thought we could chill,’” recalled Ong, whose credits include the TV shows “Entourage” and “Las Vegas.”
Ratner asked her to come to his bedroom. Once there, she said, he locked the door and began groping her. “I was saying, ‘No, stop, I don’t want to,’” she said. “And he took his pants off and he was trying to grab my hand and put it on him [saying], ‘Just touch it, just touch it, come on.’”
When Ong, then 21, refused, he masturbated and then ejaculated, she alleged. She said she left and immediately recounted the experience to her friends.
“I will just never forget the look on her face when she walked out of that bedroom,” said Gina Angel, who was with Ong at Hilhaven Lodge that night. “It gives me chills to think back to that moment, because we were all so young.”
Singer acknowledged that Ratner and Ong were “very friendly around that time period,” but denied Ong’s claims. He said that Ratner recalled Ong flirting with him and asking to be in one of his films. The actress Mei Melancon, Singer said, was also at Hilhaven Lodge with Ong in 2001 and witnessed no misconduct. Melancon said Ratner and Ong were never alone together, but witnessed Ong “all over” the filmmaker, according to Singer.
“I never, never, never have done that because I always wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror,” Ong said, denying that she flirted with Ratner or asked to be cast by him.
In cultivating Hilhaven, Ratner was emulating Evans, the former Paramount executive, who had transformed his own Beverly Hills mansion, Woodland, into a party pad. Ratner lived there in the 2000s while Hilhaven was being remodeled.
Former marketing executive Melanie Kohler said in a Facebook post in October that Ratner raped her at Evans’ home (she told The Times she did not see Evans during the alleged encounter in the 2000s). After Kohler made these allegations, Ratner sued her for defamation; in subsequent interviews, Kohler has stood by her account.
As recently as January, Ratner named Evans as among his “closest friends,” but when reached for comment, Evans’ attorney said: “Mr. Evans has not interacted with Mr. Ratner for almost a decade — I think that speaks for itself.”
Singer said Ratner considered Evans a mentor, although “they have not been close” since Ratner lived at Evans’ home from 2003 to 2005.
Alleged on-set encounters
The new allegations against Ratner also include claims of harassment in show business settings.
In 2004, producer Shelly Clippard, then 29, flew to Prague, Czech Republic, with Ratner and others to tour a production facility that was offering promising tax incentives. She said Ratner traded seats to sit next to her for the transatlantic flight, and began making sexually explicit comments to her, showing her nude photographs of his famous then-girlfriend and graphically describing her body.
Clippard said she was so disturbed by the encounter that upon returning from Europe she shared details of the incident with a friend, who confirmed that conversation with The Times. (Two other women who talked to The Times described being shown nude photos of the same woman by Ratner.)
Singer said Ratner “has no recollection” of the alleged run-in with Clippard and “absolutely denies” showing her photos of his former girlfriend. “No such photos exist,” Singer said.
On the set of “Rush Hour 3,” Sarah Shahi, 37, said that on multiple occasions, Ratner approached her from behind, thrust his groin against her and made graphic sexual comments.
Fearful of looking like "one of Brett's girls," Shahi said she did her best to shun his advances. "Each time, I'd get really loud and say, 'Why are your hands on me? Don't you need to go set up a shot?'" said Shahi, who was then in her 20s.
Shahi told casting director Michelle Lewitt about the experience shortly after it occurred, which Kehl confirmed. Shahi said the encounters were also witnessed by other actors, including star Jackie Chan, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the run-ins, Shahi stayed in touch with Ratner. She emailed him, sometimes to just say hello in flirtatious messages, and in other cases to ask for favors, such as when she solicited his vote for Maxim magazine’s “Hot 100” list. In 2011, she asked Ratner to give her sister, who had interned for the filmmaker, a job as an assistant.
Shahi, who has starred in the TV shows “Life” and “Person of Interest,” said that she kept in touch for business reasons, and did so without knowing of his alleged misconduct with other women.
Now, she wonders if she did the right thing. “I was trying to be a smart businesswoman by keeping the lines of [communication open],” she said. “I played the Hollywood game like every other actress.”
Ratner, through his attorney Singer, “vehemently denied” Shahi’s claims, noting their ongoing contact and providing copies of emails referring to him as a “cutie pie” and signing off with hugs and kisses. “These overwhelming contradictions make the claims inherently improbable,” Singer wrote.
Ratner has now denied the allegations of several women. Since The Times’ Nov. 1 story first detailed Ratner’s alleged misconduct, Warner Bros. has severed ties with the filmmaker, opting to not renew a production deal with his company, RatPac Entertainment. He has also lost his office on the studio’s Burbank lot.
‘Time for the truth’
Now 43, Khalighi said her memories of her encounter with Ratner and Simmons remain vivid — even as she has worked hard to move past the incident.
A year ago, she said, she saw Simmons at the Soho House in West Hollywood, where he approached her, “poured his heart out in a really touching, remorseful apology” for his behavior and offered his telephone number — saying she should call him if she wanted to talk further.
“He knew what he had done; I knew what he had done,” she said. “That's also why it was so vindicating, because it was there, acknowledged.”
That apology, Simmons’ attorney Brad D. Rose said, was in the “context for the embarrassment and upheaval the weekend caused her” related to her “infidelity.” (Khalighi disputes the account.)
“In fact, they also shared a meaningful healing hug,” Rose said.
In recent years, Simmons has publicly spoken of his personal reformation through yoga and meditation. Formerly a man "constantly on a mission to make more money, have sex with more women, and snort more coke than the next man," he has found peace, Simmons wrote in his 2014 book, “Success Through Stillness.” He wrote, though, that he was "still working on the women part."
Highlighting his own social activism and support for the #MeToo sexual harassment campaign, Simmons said in a statement to The Times that Khalighi’s claim “does a disservice to those who have been true victims of sexual harassment.”
“Let me be crystal clear and very direct. Abusing women in any way shape or form violates the very core of my being,” he said.
Khalighi said she has told at least three people about her 1991 encounter with Ratner and Simmons: a friend in the modeling industry shortly after the incident, model Claudia Mason and another friend several years ago when she was declining an invitation to an event one of the men would be attending. All three corroborated Khalighi’s account to The Times.
“It came up when we were discussing abuse of power from men who were in powerful positions,” Mason said. “I had heard stories about these two men — who I happen to know — but had not had any of this done to me. I was horrified, because she's a good, dear person."
Simmons’ attorney provided a signed statement from Simmons’ former assistant, Anthony “Mac” McNair, who said he saw Khalighi go to Simmons’ bedroom “on her own volition and without any coercion or undue influence.” McNair said the group also went out to a nightclub later that evening. McNair said he saw Khalighi at Simmons’ house the next day — an assertion affirmed by Simmons — and did not notice “any visible signs of distress or that anything improper had occurred.” Simmons’ attorney provided two additional anonymous statements from people who said Khalighi showed no signs of distress during the weekend.
Khalighi said she did not see anyone but Simmons or Ratner at Simmons’ home and did not recall being there the next day. The Times could not reach McNair for comment.
Khalighi said she reached out to Simmons on the day The Times published a story about Ratner’s alleged misconduct, and told him she was considering publicly telling her story. She urged him to disclose his past behavior. He called her, she said, and they spoke for 27 minutes, according to phone records reviewed by The Times.
Let me be crystal clear and very direct. Abusing women in any way shape or form violates the very core of my being.
Simmons, she said, did not deny any of her claims. Instead, he apologized, mentioning that he is now the father of two daughters, Khalighi said.
After their initial call, he continued to text message her repeatedly, asking if they could speak again, according to a record of the exchange Khalighi showed to The Times.
Khalighi said she responded to Simmons after reading about the 2001 police investigation to express displeasure over his statement referencing “untrue” claims. Simmons said in a text message that the woman who had filed the police report “has made a fortune on this racket,” adding: “I’m really in very scary space if u have time.”
She did not answer, she said.
Khalighi said she also discussed the 1991 run-in with Ratner when she saw him out one night in L.A. about 15 years ago.
“He listened and he un-defensively acknowledged the truth of what had happened,” Khalighi recalled. “He said he was young and stupid and blinded by Russell's sway over him.”
Now, however, Ratner has said, via his attorney, that he never heard any "alleged protest" from her. Ratner also has “no recollection” of Khalighi discussing the matter with him 15 years ago, Singer said.
“They are publicly denying these allegations, which implies that the women who come forward are liars,” said Khalighi, who is 38 weeks pregnant. “So I'm coming out because what I've experienced privately is not matching what they are saying publicly and hypocrisy to me is repugnant and it's time for the truth to come out.”