Well before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Rose McGowan was already, in her words, a “feminist whistleblowing badass.”
For months, the actress had warned of a powerful Hollywood figure who had allegedly raped her. She railed against a casting call that asked her to wear a tight tank top “that shows off cleavage (push up bras encouraged).” She was subsequently dropped by her talent agency, and tweeted: “I just got fired by my wussy acting agent because I spoke up.”
Few people took notice. Many dismissed them as the rantings of an actress relegated to the fringes of Hollywood. Now, in the wake of Weinstein’s spectacular fall from grace, everyone is listening to Rose McGowan.
As multiple women have come forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment by the embattled studio head, McGowan has emerged as the fiery voice and unexpected heroine of a movement that has swept beyond Weinstein and beyond the entertainment industry.
In a series of sharply worded tweets, she has targeted other powerful media figures, circulated a petition calling on the Weinstein Co. to dissolve its board and urged women to speak up and fight back against sexual harassment.
“You lie,” she told Ben Affleck, alleging that the actor had known about Weinstein’s behavior for years. She attacked NBC, which quoted Weinstein saying he hoped for a second chance, for “being complicit in rape culture.” She demanded that Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon Studios has worked with Weinstein, “stop funding rapists, alleged pedo[phile]s and sexual harassers.”
Her crusade has resonated with women, who have used the hashtag #ROSEARMY to share their own stories online.
“She’s been raising this red flag for a long time,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and co-executive director of women’s advocacy group UltraViolet. “Everything about this story, every positive thing that will come of it, is a direct result of Rose and the other survivors being willing to come forward.”
Actress Stephanie Allynne, who stars on the Amazon show “One Mississippi,” said McGowan’s “energy and approach speaks to my soul.”
“I’m so with her,” she said. “It’s not a bunch of safe, well-constructed statements that are just a snoozefest — it’s anger, passion and justice. I love how she is naming names.”
Those who know McGowan, 44, described her as a strong-willed, passionate individual unafraid of authority or the status quo.
“She has one of the strongest voices I know,” Alyssa Milano, who co-starred with McGowan on the WB series “Charmed,” told The Times. “I am so proud of the resolve and leadership Rose has shown throughout this vile situation.”
McGowan declined to be interviewed, but in a 2015 Buzzfeed profile, she said: “I was born with a fist up.”
She was, in fact, born into an unconventional situation: Her parents were members of the polygamous Children of God cult, and McGowan was raised in the cult’s Italy chapter until escaping through a cornfield when she was 9. After moving to the U.S., she ran away at 13 and lived a transient punk lifestyle until she was “discovered” on a curb in Los Angeles.
McGowan is perhaps best known as the petite, raven-haired actress who played Paige Matthews for five seasons on “Charmed,” which ended in 2006. She made waves in 1998 when she wore one of the most memorable red carpet outfits ever to the MTV VMAs: a barely-there beaded dress with a leopard G-string. Her boyfriend at the time, goth rocker Marilyn Manson, coordinated with a shiny leopard-print suit.
Still, she struggled with that seductive image. In her upcoming memoir, “Brave,” McGowan details her life as a young Hollywood starlet grappling with the “personal nightmare of constant exposure.”
“The Hollywood machine packaged her as a sexualized bombshell, hijacking her image and identity and marketing them for their profit,” according to publisher HarperOne. “Hollywood expected Rose to be silent and cooperative and to stay the path. Instead, she rebelled and asserted her true identity and voice.”
That voice is finally being heard. McGowan has received an outpouring of support and admiration in the entertainment industry, including from Jessica Chastain, Mark Ruffalo, Lena Dunham and Amber Tamblyn, who tweeted: “I see you. We all do.”
In a follow-up interview with The Times, Tamblyn said, “Now that we have collectively spoken, we can never go back.”
McGowan even sparked a 24-hour Twitter boycott among women and a slew of celebrities on Friday, after the microblogging platform temporarily suspended her account the day before for violating its rules. Twitter later explained that the suspension was because McGowan had tweeted someone’s phone number.
Within a few hours, McGowan’s account was reinstated and she continued her rapid-fire tweets, a move that UltraViolet’s Thomas called “strategically valuable.”
“She’s willing to keep fanning the flames of it. These stories die typically without escalation,” she said. “She’s willing to do the hard work of keeping this story in the headlines so it’s not a flash in the pan, he goes for therapy and comes back and gets to revive his career.”
McGowan is doing so at a potential cost. The New York Times reported that she received a $100,000 payment from Weinstein in 1997; the settlement included a confidentiality agreement prohibiting her from discussing the incident, which allegedly occurred in a hotel room at the Sundance Film Festival.
Debra S. Katz, a Washington, D.C.-based employment attorney who has dealt with sexual harassment cases for three decades, said McGowan was taking a risk by speaking out against Weinstein.
“She’s been extremely brave,” she said. “And other women are coming forward as a result.”
Katz said Weinstein could legally go after McGowan, but said he would have a difficult time arguing that his reputation was further harmed by her decision to talk.
“Harvey Weinstein has much bigger problems than this woman breaching the agreement,” she said.
As for McGowan, she joined the rest of #ROSEARMY by remaining quiet on Twitter on Friday. But that silence is almost certainly temporary.
“Ever seen a movie where one person takes on a corrupt, powerful system all by herself?” film critic Scott Weinberg asked on Twitter. “That’s @rosemcgowan & it’s not a movie.”
Times staff writers Amy Kaufman, Victoria Kim and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.