Alyssa Milano’s political awakening
How the star of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Charmed” became an A-List activist of the Me Too era
In the midst of the Harvey Weinstein maelstrom, Alyssa Milano fired off a nighttime tweet. She thought, “Let’s just try this.”
Ten minutes of her attention, tops. Then she went to sleep beside her young daughter.
This was October 2017. You probably saw it. Everybody saw it.
“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
She recalls thinking, “At least it puts the focus on the victims in a way that they didn’t have to tell the story of their accusers.”
Milano awoke to 53,000 replies. Within 24 hours, MeToo appeared 12 million times across Twitter and Facebook. Within two days, the phrase was trending in 85 countries.
Milano, 46, has been bedroom-poster famous since she was a tween on “Who’s the Boss?” yet felt “like I was in over my head,” she says, sitting in a tony Manhattan hotel lounge over lunch last month. “But I realized that this collective pain could be transformed into a collective power.” She also went back into therapy to deal with two assaults and the resulting panic attacks that she had endured for years.
She was named one of “The Silence Breakers,” Time’s collective Person of the Year. Outspoken and ubiquitous, Milano went into overdrive. She appeared on Capitol Hill during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and protested in front of the White House. She visited Parkland, the border and Flint, Mich., launched an activist collective challenging the NRA’s political influence, campaigned for Democratic candidates and against Georgia’s abortion bill.
Alyssa Milano calls out Georgia lawmaker over abortion bill
In April, Alyssa Milano delivers a letter to the office of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) asking him to veto a bill that would ban most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into pregnancy. In the reception area, she speaks with Georgia state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia (R).
Of all people, it is a star of anodyne television who became one of MeToo’s leading voices, pushing it to the forefront more than a decade after Tarana Burke founded the movement. Milano gained enduring popularity from that comfort-food programming, and she has harnessed it — and her abundant social media skills — to become an A-list activist.
She’s the Jane Fonda of the current era — if Fonda hosted “Project Runway All Stars” and appeared in a continuous loop of “Charmed” reruns.
[Tarana Burke, the woman behind ‘Me Too,’ knew the power of the phrase when she created it 10 years ago]
Perhaps that’s the point: The acting never detracts from the activism, which has assumed primacy in her work. In more than three decades of working on television, 77 credits, Milano has not once been nominated for an Emmy. She currently stars in Netflix’s critically reviled “Insatiable” (“a ghastly dramedy” wrote The Post’s Hank Stuever). Yet here she was in New York to accept another major philanthropic honor, possibly her 35th since that tweet, she has lost count.
Milano has never appeared on “Saturday Night Live” — her shows don’t generate that sort of heat. But in September, a cardboard cutout of her top-bunned likeness made an indelible cameo while Matt Damon, as Kavanaugh, barked “You just want to humiliate me in front of my wife and my parents and Alyssa ‘Freaking’ Milano.”
Alyssa Milano calls acting her “day job.” Her passion for activism started when she was 15 and met Ryan White, who had HIV and was fighting to attend school in Indiana. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)
The past year and a half has been one sustained Alyssa “Freaking” Milano moment, which isn’t about to stop.
This week, and this being 2019, she launched a weekly podcast, “Sorry Not Sorry,” with guests such as Joe Biden and Burke. In October, Scholastic Books will publish the first volume of her “Hope” series about an African American middle schooler, which is intended to empower children age 8 and older to forge social change.
For the 2020 election, Milano plans to raise $1 million, and another $1 million through matching funds, for grass-roots voter turnout efforts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
As an actor, she’s adored by fans — Samantha Micelli! Phoebe Halliwell! — who may loathe her politics. In Alabama, where she campaigned for Democrat Doug Jones, Republican voters mobbed her for selfies. She’s relentless on social media to her 3.5 million Twitter followers — more than Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg combined. Milano’s largely impervious to criticism and threats, while receiving plenty of both. “I feel like they’re screaming in the wind,” she says of her trolls.
“I can’t believe it doesn’t bother her. It bothers the hell out of me,” says her husband, Dave Bugliari, an agent and co-head of CAA’s motion picture talent department. “I spend far too much time trolling her trolls.”
Alyssa Milano watches a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 27, 2018. The hearing included testimony by Brett Kavanaugh, then a Supreme Court nominee, and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assaulting her. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Milano often enlists her relatively apolitical best friend, Alaa Khaled, to accompany her to protests. “When she’s determined to do something, there’s no talking her out of it,” says Khaled, brother of performer DJ Khaled. Milano insisted on his presence in the delivery room for the C-section birth of her daughter. (Elizabella is 4 and Milo is 7.)
“Boots on the ground” is Milano’s motto, pointing to her black Doc Martens (ever-ready, stashed in the car). She has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2003. Being present and empathetic are key to her activism. She’s become the sitcom confessor, the repository of MeToo stories from strangers, whom she welcomes with hugs and her cell number, asking them to text and stay in touch. And she frequently disarms critics by being someone they don’t expect her to be. “I’m not trying to take away your guns,” she tells firearm owners while, on her website, threatening to “sue the pants off” the NRA. “We’re actually a two-gun household.”
Filming “Insatiable” in Atlanta became a political opportunity. “There’s a lot of good trouble to get into in Georgia,” says the actress, who has a professor come to the house monthly to teach her constitutional law. Milano is “a committed, passionate fighter and advocate for reproductive rights in Georgia and nationally,” notes former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in an email. “Her activism has centered on the people of Georgia.”
After the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Milano contacted state attorney general Josh Shapiro via Twitter offering to help survivors. “Now we talk or text several times a week,” says Shapiro, who enlisted the actress to campaign for Democratic legislative candidates. “She understands the power of storytelling to affect change.”
None of this is new, Milano says. Though activism “has been part of my life forever, having social media has sort of shifted and magnified the work that I do,” she says. “And also made it so I could create the opportunity and not wait for it to come to me.”
In the 1980’s, Milano played Samantha Micelli, the daughter of Tony Danza‘s character, in “Who’s the Boss?” (Sportsphoto/Alamy )
Milano played Phoebe Halliwell on “Charmed” from 1998 to 2006, starring with Holly Marie Combs, front, and Shannen Doherty, right. (Frank Ockenfels/WB)
Milano’s activism began at age 15, kissing Ryan White on national television. Which was fitting because “I grew up on television,” from ages 11 to 19, as Samantha, America’s big-haired girl next door, as she tells an avid early-morning crowd of Scholastic staffers. She’s sitting in a subterranean auditorium for a sales conference event for the “Hope” books, her daughter and Khaled in the audience.
“So I’d gotten a phone call from Elton John,” she continues. “Just to show you how surreal my life is.”
The pop legend wanted a favor. Ryan, also a teenager, was infected with HIV from a blood transfusion. The White family had entered a protracted battle over his attending school in Indiana. This was during the early years of the epidemic, when fear was rampant. Ryan had a crush on Alyssa — so many boys did — and her kiss on his cheek on “The Phil Donahue Show” was to demonstrate that the disease couldn’t be spread through casual contact.
Nothing she ever did on “Who’s the Boss?” created so much attention. “Everything after meeting Ryan made more sense and was put in the right place,” Milano says. “It had greater purpose.” White died in 1990 at age 18.
Since she was in single digits, Milano has never not worked, an achievement amid the miserable track record of child actors. She saw “Annie” on her seventh birthday, and decided acting was what she was born to do. She soon booked the national touring company, one of four girls chosen from 1,500. Milano worked eight seasons on “Boss,” eight on “Charmed.” She did “Melrose Place,” and so many TV movies. She still makes them. Lifetime’s “Tempting Fate,” the story of a woman caught — where else? — between two men, debuts June 15.
A sports fanatic, Milano launched an apparel line for female fans, which she operates with Khaled. She dated three pitchers but didn’t marry one — “I’m smarter than that” — but the passion abides. “I love everything about baseball,” she says. “There’s a quiet and a stillness and a rhythm to it that leads to these unbelievable moments — a home run or some incredible play — but it’s also about what goes on in between those moments.”
Acting “is, literally, my day job,” she says, in a hotel room with her daughter, her aunt, Khaled, makeup and hair people, the movable circus that is her life. “It’s kind of like my office work.” On Twitter, her trolls claim that philanthropist George Soros funds her activism. Nonsense. Her acting does.
The panic attacks only occurred on set, sometimes lasting for days. “My stomach in knots. It’s brutal. The walls are closing in, and I can’t catch my breath,” she says. “It’s sort of primal, and volcanic.”
After MeToo, Milano spoke openly of her first assault at age 19, at a concert, she says, by a stranger, his hand up her skirt, punching her repeatedly in the vagina.
She came to terms with the later assault, which she says happened during a shoot when she was 24. At the time, “I told a lot of people. Nobody did anything,” she says. “I had to work with him for another six weeks.”
She finally shared the story with her husband, her parents, her therapist, though not publicly, a departure for a performer who lives so much of her life out loud. “I don’t know when that will be,” she says. “I’m not really ready to expose that human.” But she says she hasn’t had a panic attack in almost a year.
Milano speaks to the press in April after delivering a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office detailing her opposition to the state’s abortion bill. Milano is in the Netflix series “Insatiable,” which films in Georgia. “There’s a lot of good trouble to get into in Georgia,” she said. (John Bazemore/AP)
In a brilliantly colored, full-length gown, in a packed Midtown hall, Milano accepts the Voice of Empowerment Award from Safe Horizon, which assists victims of violence.
“Until women around the world who are not safe from their intimate partners at home have a safe haven in our nation, I won’t stop fighting,” says Milano, her hands clasped on the podium. She understands that by showing up, she helps fill chairs, raise funds and awareness, her glamorous image splashed across the glossy weeklies and New York tabs.
Despite filming the second season of “Insatiable” on the opposite side of the country from her husband and young children, Milano keeps adding causes and events to her schedule.
“Part of the reason I don’t want her to slow down is that I see how many people she’s helping,” Bugliari says.
“The times in my life where I’ve felt most fearless have been in those moments of activism,” she says, “whether it be walking through an active minefield or sharing my story of sexual assault with other women.”
She prefers these moments over the sundry Lifetime movies and Netflix series that allow her to pursue them.
Even the trolls are helping. “There’s an element of almost satisfaction, maybe being emboldened, that I must be doing something right because they are really angry. If I wasn’t so impactful, would they need to be as vicious? Are they trying to silence me, trying to hurt me?” she asks, tapping her Docs. “Because, like, none of it’s working.”
“The times in my life where I’ve felt most fearless have been in those moments of activism,” Milano said, “whether it be walking through an active minefield or sharing my story of sexual assault with other women.” (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)