Our US correspondent Catherine Mcgregor watched the brave, televised testimonies of Bill Cosby’s victims in the A&E special The Women Speak, and recounts some of the most affecting evidence against the entertainer. (Trigger warning: this article discusses sexual violence).
As a broad-strokes telling of the Cosby story, the A&E special Cosby: The Women Speak didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know: Bill Cosby, one of the most popular and politically important entertainers of the 20th Century – and here, because I’m heavily invested in the continued existence of The Spinoff and have no idea how far US libel laws can reach, I’m going to say “allegedly” – drugged and sexually assaulted women throughout the 1970s and 80s.
So far over 50 women have come forward to publicly accuse him, and it’s highly likely there are more to come. A&E interviewed a dozen of Cosby’s victims for The Women Speak, including fashion model Beverley Johnson, journalist and music publicist Joan Tarshis, and Barbara Bowman, one of the first to speak out back in 2006 (as she says about the Hannibal Buress bit which reignited interest in the case, “Why did it take a man saying it before we were believed?”).
A dozen is an impressive number, but it’s a lot fewer than the 35 women New York magazine brought together earlier this year to tell their stories and pose for an already iconic cover: rows and rows of black-clad women staring down the barrel of the camera, daring us to disbelieve them now. New York also recorded video interviews with some of the victims – but there’s an online multimedia package, and then there’s television. Seeing those women bravely appear on national TV to give their testimony, one after another, after decades spent feeling ashamed and alone – it was a powerful thing indeed.
For the most part, the details were eerily, deadeningly similar – the false promises, the Quaalude in the drink, the forced penetration, the guilt and shame that lasted for years – but each woman had her own unique story. The most heart-breaking was Chelan Lasha, who was a naive 17-year-old when Cosby turned her head with stories of non-existent modelling contracts and a possible appearance on the Cosby Show.
What happened in that hotel room damaged her for life. The happy and ambitious teenager became a woman with multiple criminal convictions for offences including disorderly conduct, prostitution and theft. “I hate that I met him,” she says, fighting back tears. “My life changed when I met him for the worse. I lost me. I got a piece of myself back, but it took a long time.”
What follows are some of the most arresting elements of their testimony.
Tarshis was a 19-year-old aspiring comedy writer when she met Cosby in 1969.
“Suddenly I felt very groggy and the next thing I know he was taking off my pants. I thought very quickly and said I had a vaginal infection, which was a lie. So he stuck his ‘manly parts’ into my mouth until he was finished. And then I was given $10 and a cab to take me home.”
Valentino, a former Playboy Bunny, met Cosby shortly after the death by drowning of her six-year-old son.
“He knew that my son had died and I was very depressed. He leaned across and put a pill next to my wine glass and said ‘Here, take this, it will make you feel better. And I thought, ‘Great!’
“I could hardly walk or talk. He unzipped his fly and had me perform oral sex then he stood me up, turned me backwards and did me doggy style, OK? And then he walked out.”
“And if there’s any question about why women don’t report rape it’s because it’s so damned humiliating. You don’t want to ever talk about it again.”
In November 1971 Cosby and Moritz were both about to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. They had never met before that evening.
“He didn’t give me any drugs. He just went for it. All of a sudden this person from hell comes in and puts you through this disgusting episode which you don’t even have a chance to… I might have yelled. I might have, but I knew better because I was waiting to go on the biggest show on television. He said that I was so cute and that he definitely wanted to be my manager. And this was all while he was unwrapping his penis that he would stick in my mouth. I tried pushing him away. I tried pulling his pants up…
“As he was leaving and zipping up his pants, he said ‘Don’t forget, don’t make me mad. I’m going to be your best friend.’ I went on stage after that. I must say that was the hardest job I’ve ever done.”
Bowman was a 17-year-old aspiring model/actress when she met Cosby.
“I had one glass of wine and the next thing I knew I was coming to slumped over the toilet, throwing up. And he was looming over me in a white robe and I was in my panties and a white t-shirt. I was sick, I was confused, I was foggy, but I knew something had happened.”
Later on there was another incident in a hotel in Atlantic City.
“He attacked me. He came after me like a wild animal and tried to rape me. And I was coherent enough to fight and scratch and scream and cry and try to wrestle my way out of there. He had me pinned to the bed with his elbow under my chin and was ferociously trying to remove his belt buckle and pants while trying to get down my pants. And it was not going to happen. I fought so hard that he eventually just threw me away, off the bed.
He looked me square in the eye and he said: ‘I’d better never ever hear your name or see your face again’.”
Cosby invited Lasha to his Las Vegas hotel room, telling her she would be meeting a representative from the Ford Model Agency. She was 17. “I was so excited. It was Bill Cosby!”
He offered her a pill, saying it was an antihistamine to help her allergies. Within minutes she was catatonic.
“He was pinching my breasts and grunting. And I kept saying to myself ‘Dr Huxtable, Dr Huxtable’. And I remember something warm… I passed out and I woke up to him [clapping] and saying ‘Daddy says wake up. Daddy says wake up.’ And there was about $1500 on the dresser.
“I thought I was going to be on the Cosby Show. I thought he was going to help me. And he didn’t help me, he hurt me. He made me feel like nobody. I felt like nothing. This is a person who is all over the television. Every time you turn your face he’s there. Who is going to believe me? I’m just a high school student.”
Pictured is Angela Leslie, one of the accusers, with a photo of herself around the age she claims to have been attacked by Cosby