If there’s a lesson to be learned from Variety’s Power of Women luncheon, it’s to always be prepared. A teleprompter malfunction during Friday’s event put the presenters and the honorees to the test, and to their credit, all managed to sail through their remarks despite some initial trepidation.
“Do you know how already nerve-racking this is for me to see ‘No signal’ on these mirrors?” said Awkwafina, the first honoree to arrive at the podium. “Do you think I should wing it? I don’t think I should wing it,” the “Crazy Rich Asians” actress said before asking for her phone, from which she could then read her remarks.
Ellen DeGeneres, next onstage to introduce Jennifer Aniston, simply asked for music, summoned a technician and then proceeded to dance as he attempted — but failed — to make repairs. “I was going to dance until they fix it,” she said before adding jokingly, “Jen is freaking out back there.” However, Aniston had nothing to fear. She had her speech in hand.
Variety’s Power of Women celebrated an A-list of female luminaries for their philanthropic achievements: Awkwafina, Aniston, Mariah Carey, Brie Larson, Chaka Khan and Disney Television and ABC Entertainment Chairman Dana Walden.
Natasha Lyonne, DeGeneres, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Natalie Portman, Niecy Nash and Ryan Murphy introduced the honorees to an audience of 600 guests, who included Roma Downey, Joey King, Molly Sims, Rachel Zoe, Diane Warren, Ali Wong and Jessie Mueller and from Variety, publisher Michelle Sobrino-Stearns and co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller.
Held in partnership with Lifetime Television, the luncheon began with a cocktail reception in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Taking turns at the podium, honorees spoke about their favored charities, which included Building Beats (Awkwafina), St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Aniston), the Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Mariah (Carey), Equal Justice Initiative (Larson), Little Kids Rock (Khan) and UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (Walden).
“It’s not that often that we are surrounded by people who found their voice and are using it to hold people up and bring people together,” said Aniston, “and that to me is power.”
“The Morning Show” star continued, “I’ve never actually thought about myself as powerful. Strong, yes, but powerful, not … Which got me thinking about my early associations with my own sense of power, something I believe comes from using our voice.”
She then recalled an incident at a dinner party, when she, at age 11, was excused from the table, having been told “I didn’t have anything interesting to add to the conversation. Ouch .… It stuck with me like painfully worded sentences can, and if I’m being honest … I carried that sentence with me into adulthood.”
She then spoke of messages we send to “young kids, little girls especially, how the things that we say and do can either build them up or tear them down, and make them feel like maybe their voices don’t matter,” she said. “It wasn’t until ‘Friends’ took off that I started seeing myself in a different light .... Every child deserves to know that they are seen and they are powerful. And they are loved and that they deserve a seat at the table.”
Carey also talked about the effect of a childhood incident. For her, it was when she spent a summer at a performing arts camp. “It was the solid ground beneath my feet, fresh air to breathe, sky above my head, but most importantly it was an opportunity for me to invest time and training into my dream to be a singer and songwriter, a vision I’ve held since I was 4 years old,” she said. “I even got a leading role as Hodel in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I was thriving until the racist choir director saw my black father, and then I never got a leading role at that camp again.”
The five-time Grammy winner now funds a camp that empowers children from inner cities. “You don’t have to be defined or confined by your environment, your family’s circumstances and certainly not by your race or gender,” Carey said. “I’ve been blessed to witness thousands of kids have a space to breathe, run through fields of green grass and believe in who they can be. And that is one of the greatest honors of my career.”
“I got here as the result of a YouTube video, a song I made when I was 19 years old,” said Awkwafina, confessing that sometimes she doesn’t feel power — instead feeling like an impostor.
About to star in Comedy Central’s “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” she said, “But I’ve come to realize that the true power we possess comes through our stories and how they influence others to believe in their own. The power of my story, a girl with the voice of a pro wrestler and a body like Pikachu, and the fact that I’m standing before you means that someone else can do it too.”
The last word
After thanking Walden for her support and guidance in creating a “half-initiative” to ensure half of their television shows are directed by women, Murphy, co-creator of “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Pose,” “9-1-1” and more, said that 65% of all episodes are now helmed by women.
Said Murphy, “I’d like to live in a world where women are the majority — because I will say this: Women are just better.”