I had been looking forward to a productive creative meeting. Gene Simmons, founding bassist of the rock band KISS, was scheduled to visit the animation studio where I worked as a senior producer and head of development to discuss a children’s cartoon series inspired by his family life.
It was 2002, so I knew all about Simmons’ sleazy rock-star reputation. The man rose to fame in the 1970s with outrageous messages like, “I’ve slept with thousands of fans!” and “Look at my long, sexy tongue!” His new cartoon series, titled My Dad the Rock Star, was pitched as an antidote to all that, a way to showcase the family man behind the stage persona. Simmons was just a regular guy devoted to his children and longtime girlfriend, we were told. He was ready for the world to see him in a different light.
I fell for the pitch and was eager to meet the real Simmons. When the day of our meeting rolled around, I half expected a savvy businessman to show up.
I should say that having a celebrity come to my workplace wasn’t a big deal. Throughout my career, I’d had the opportunity to collaborate with some wonderful stars, including Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, Betty White and George Carlin. I prepared for the meeting with Simmons as I would for any other. We had a mere 45 minutes on his busy schedule, I was told. I wanted things to go as efficiently as possible.
I felt frozen—inferior, disrespected and dirty. […] This wasn’t a music arena or a TV appearance; this was a closed-door meeting at my place of employment.
From business meeting to #metoo
That wasn’t to be. I learned just beforehand that Simmons’ handlers had called ahead and asked that a group of “fans” swarm the bassist when he rolled up to our offices. My superiors obliged, assembling a modest crowd of autograph seekers. When Simmons finally greeted my team, we had just 15 minutes remaining in our time together.
I tried to kick off the meeting, but Simmons clearly had other ideas. Moments after we settled in, he pulled out a stack of Polaroid photos and encouraged us to look. I glanced down and was startled to see that the snapshots depicted half-naked women. Simmons explained that he had slept with the women the previous night, then went on to share great detail of his escapades. Setting aside the fact that the photos seemed old and worn—clearly not taken the night before—I was repulsed.
I did my best to remain businesslike and move on with the agenda, but this only brought unwanted attention my way. As I stammered through my notes, Simmons stood and strutted over to me. He leaned over close and scolded me for being “too uptight.” When I bristled uncomfortably, he placed his hands on my shoulders and began massaging me, causing me to tense up with anger. “Loosen up,” he said. Several people in the room laughed. Others looked down. I felt frozen—inferior, disrespected and dirty.
I suppose this was the Gene Simmons most people would have expected. Indeed, his inappropriate behavior seemed stagey, a schtick he had been proudly performing for years. But this wasn’t a music arena or a TV appearance; this was a closed-door meeting at my place of employment. This was my body.
The rest of the “meeting” passed in a blur. There was no real discussion of the TV show except for Simmons’ question as to whether we would cast his girlfriend as the mom. (We didn’t.) When the meeting concluded, I felt dazed. I joined my colleagues in gathering with Simmons for a group photo, our tongues lasciviously hanging out, KISS-style. Why did we do that? To this day, I’m embarrassed and ashamed for participating.
I went on to become a supervising producer on My Dad the Rock Star, did my best to keep my distance from Simmons and moved on to another job as soon as I was able. The show was canceled after two seasons.
A safe haven from sexual harassment
That experience—along with several other unrelated incidents of sexual impropriety at work—affected me deeply. So several years ago, I decided to take action. It was time to create some protections for myself and other women who are faced with bullying or sexual intimidation in professional settings.
First I set a new ground rule for myself: No more working with anyone who makes me uncomfortable, period. I’d rather lose out on a project than have another Simmons experience. I began to educate younger women entering the field, by teaching college classes, taking on interns and mentoring. In 2014, I founded a group called Women Drawn Together, a mentoring and educational network aimed at advancing women in the animation industry. Today we have over 1,000 members in five major cities, with more chapters to come in 2018. I’m proud to be providing a place of inclusiveness and support.
For me, there’s no question that today’s #metoo movement has opened old wounds. But it’s also bolstered my optimism. I have hope that finally women’s stories will not just become banter at water coolers—or, like mine, come to light years after the fact. I have hope that more women will feel supported enough to speak out about their ordeals. I have hope that business leaders in my field and others will join me in pledging zero tolerance for sexual impropriety, so fewer women will confront it in the first place.
I know we can do better. Let’s start today. Meeting adjourned.
Gene Simmons did not respond to heymama’s emailed request for comment.
Michelle Melanson Cuperus, a mother of two, lives in Toronto, Canada, and was most recently president of Radical Sheep Productions, a family entertainment company. She is expected to announce details of her next venture—a company she’s launching—in April. Women Drawn Together has chapters in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax.
Illustration by Brighten Made.
Previous #metoo coverage on heymama: What being an assistant was like at Harvey Weinstein’s media company