On Nov. 1, when the Los Angeles Times first published allegations of sexual misconduct against Brett Ratner, Sil Lai Abrams thought, “Russell’s next.”
Abrams, 47, is an author and domestic-violence activist who, like many accusers in the hectic aftermath of major exposes about Harvey Weinstein, felt an urgent need to speak out. She had already told her own story of not one but two alleged sexual assaults — 12 years apart — in her 2007 book, No More Drama. But she had not dared to use real names.
Then everything changed. Abrams felt emboldened by the #MeToo movement to reveal that “Ronald,” described in the book as “well known for only dating models and for his hard-partying lifestyle funded by his very successful record label,” was Russell Simmons, who Abrams alleges raped her in 1994. “Well-spoken B-list celebrity Ray,” who Abrams says assaulted her in 2006, was A.J. Calloway, a host on the entertainment show Extra, which is produced by Warner Bros. and airs in major markets on NBC owned-and-operated stations. Both men deny the allegations.
Events unfolded as Abrams had predicted: The Ratner stories were soon followed by claims against his close friend, Simmons. On Nov. 19, model Keri Claussen Khalighi accused Simmons, now 60, of assaulting her in 1991, when she was 17, while Ratner looked on. Writer Jenny Lumet then wrote a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter detailing her own allegations of sexual abuse by Simmons, after which he stepped down from his various businesses. At this point, more than a dozen women have accused Simmons of rape or assault.
By the time Khalighi came forward, Abrams had already made contact with a journalist. On Nov. 2 — the day after the Ratner allegations were published — Abrams approached MSNBC host Joy Reid, a professional acquaintance who Abrams knew because she had been a guest on Reid’s show speaking about domestic violence.
“I needed to tell my story, to say his name out loud, to let people know what he had done to me,” Abrams says. And she had allegations not just about Simmons but about Calloway, which she believed would dispel “this one-and-done idea of assault.” Many people experience more than one attack in their lives, she explains, but “it’s just not spoken of.”
Reid started to dig into the story. In mid-December, MSNBC’s standards and legal departments began putting Abrams through a grinding vetting process. She responded to their requests, providing documents from years earlier, including several court orders issued in New York against Calloway. She supplied contact information for sources who could verify aspects of her past, including some who had been told of the alleged assaults in the immediate aftermath.
In January, Reid taped an on-camera interview with Abrams at MSNBC’s New York studio. But a process that had begun in December dragged on frustratingly for weeks and then months. At times, Reid texted or emailed Abrams about her sense that the network was “slow walking” the story with “stupid” requests. Finally, in April, Abrams says Reid told her that the network was no longer responding to her queries as to when the segment might air.
MSNBC’s decision to pass on the story came in the midst of the Time’s Up movement, even as other publications and outlets were revealing allegations of misconduct against high-profile men at an unprecedented pace. It also occurred amid heightened scrutiny of NBC News (MSNBC president Phil Griffin reports to NBC News chief Andy Lack) in the wake of the NBC’s decision to let go of what became Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Harvey Weinstein. (Farrow has promised to reveal the backstory of his experience at NBC in a forthcoming book.)
NBC also has been criticized for its handling of the Billy Bush-Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape — a story that ultimately was broken by The Washington Post. And the network has faced questions about its own internal culture. In the wake of allegations against Matt Lauer, NBC exonerated itself after conducting its own “culture assessment” without hiring outside investigators. (Deborah Rhode, a gender expert and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, said of the probe that “experts think the best practice is to hire outside investigators.”)
Asked about MSNBC’s handling of Abrams’ story, a rep for the news division responded with a statement: “When MSNBC pursues any investigative story our mission is always to be as thorough as we can, to scrutinize sources and corroborate information before we report. Anything else falls short of our journalistic standards.” A spokesman added that NBC News had enlisted seasoned investigative journalists to assist Reid and certain aspects of the story did not meet its standards. The Hollywood Reporter has conducted its own investigation of Abrams’ claims.
The network also provided a statement from Reid. “Investigative reports like these take time, and not surprisingly, sometimes journalists get frustrated as well,” the statement reads. “I inappropriately shared that frustration privately with Sil Lai. I completely respect MSNBC’s standards and practices. Meticulous research to get the facts right was the only option, especially given the seriousness of the allegations.”
At this point, Abrams says, her story is not just about her claims against two high-profile men but about the hurdles she has faced in trying to coming forward. Despite the wave of post-Weinstein accusers and the Time’s Up moment, Abrams believes “the system is working as it always has. Stories are being silenced and it doesn’t matter how much information, how much corroboration and evidence that you have. You can do everything the right way and you’ll still be shut down because a news organization doesn’t want to take a risk and face a potential lawsuit, which perpetuates the abuse of power and empowers men like Simmons to say they’re going to be OK.”
Abrams is painfully aware that some of the choices she made in her past do not make her a sympathetic accuser.
She comes from a troubled family. Her biological mother was Chinese but she left when Abrams was 4 years old; she says she was raised by her Caucasian stepmother and a white dad, and didn’t understand why she was the only brown child in the family until her dad told her when she was 14 that her biological father was African-American. Abrams was expelled from school when she was 15 and acknowledges that by her late teens she was a “party girl,” a model who drank too much during her years on the New York club scene and eventually combated an eating disorder and depression.
She moved to New York in 1988 when she was 18 and got hostess jobs in clubs where rich and powerful men like Simmons partied. Abrams met Simmons in 1989 and a couple of years later started to sleep with him intermittently. Their relationship remained casual even as she briefly worked at his company, Def Jam Recordings, as an executive assistant in 1992. That year, she decided to move back to her hometown in central Florida with her infant son. Once there, she says, Simmons occasionally flew her to Miami when he was in town.
It was during one such rendezvous, she says, in October 1992 when Public Enemy was opening for U2, that she took a photo of Simmons and Ratner together. She had witnessed the close relationship between the hip-hop mogul and the filmmaker and the photo seems to capture that: the friends side-by-side on a bed in a suite they shared at the Marlin hotel in Miami, neither fully clothed. “It was interesting to see how enamored they were of each other,” she says. “I’m not talking romantic but it was this bro love thing.”
By 1994, Abrams decided to move back to New York with her then-3-year-old son. The two of them were staying with a friend, Carol Ingram, when she spent an afternoon and evening with Simmons. To Abrams, then 24, it was understood that they were meeting as friends. They had not slept together for some time. She was seeing someone else and she says she told Simmons explicitly that the physical aspect of the relationship was over. She says he replied that he’d respect that.
That night, Abrams says she was drinking heavily but Simmons stuck with sparkling water, saying that he’d quit drinking. As the evening wore on, she says she and Simmons went from party to party. By 3 a.m., almost unable to stand, she asked Simmons to have his driver take her home. Instead, she says, he took her to his penthouse and told her to go upstairs. She complied and says she promptly passed out, fully clothed, on his bed.
By Abrams’ account, she never imagined that Simmons presented a threat or that he might force himself on a woman. But as she drifted in and out of awareness, she says, she opened her eyes and saw him approaching, naked except for a condom. As she realized his intention, she says, she repeatedly said no. But she says he flipped her onto her stomach, pulled down the bike shorts she was wearing beneath her dress and raped her. As soon as it was over, she says, he told her to leave right away as he was expecting a call from a woman he was pursuing. Simmons, who is represented by crisis publicist Mike Sitrick and attorney Patty Glaser, denies he raped Abrams, and in a statement, Glaser insists Simmons “passed a lie detector test answering ‘No’ to questions about whether he had assaulted, raped or forced anyone to have sex, including Ms. Abrams.”
When Abrams awoke the next day at about 11 a.m., her little boy was beside her, watching cartoons. Memories of the night before overwhelmed her with remorse and self-pity. Telling herself her son deserved a better mother, she swallowed a bottle of pills washed down with wine. Then she says she got Simmons on the phone, accused him of raping her and screamed, “I hope you know for the rest of your life that you made me kill myself!” He denied raping her, she says. Simmons, via his attorney, denies receiving such a call.
Abrams says she is alive because she spoke on the phone with Ingram, the woman she was staying with. In an interview, Ingram confirms the call and tells THR that she remembers being at work when it took place. Ingram says Abrams specifically told her Simmons had raped her the night before. THR has spoken with three other sources who say Abrams told them of the alleged Simmons assault soon after it occurred.
Talking on the phone with a distraught Abrams that day, Ingram says, “I decided something was wrong.” Ingram called her estranged husband and asked him to check on Abrams.
Ingram’s former husband Emmanuel, who asked that his last name be withheld, confirms to THR that he went to the apartment, where Abrams was at one moment crying and saying that Simmons had raped her while the next moment seeming “catatonic.” Emmanuel says Simmons’ assistant also was sent to aid Abrams. (Through a lawyer, Simmons’ assistant denies being present.)
Emmanuel then accompanied Abrams to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room. There she was brought back to herself after she was dosed with activated charcoal. (It was too late to pump her stomach.) At the time of the incident, Emmanuel says, Bellevue was a bleak and distressing environment, and he hoped to get Abrams transferred to another hospital. For that, they needed money. Emmanuel says he decided to call Simmons, whom he had met once only briefly, to ask for help. “He denied anything happened and said, `I’m being advised that I can’t pay for anything, I cannot be involved with anything financial,'” Emmanuel says. Simmons asked about the cost involved and Emmanuel responded several thousand dollars. “He said, ‘That’s a lot of money for one night,'” Emmanuel recalls. “That stuck with me. It was really foul.” Simmons, via his publicist, denied speaking with Emmanuel.
Ultimately, Abrams was transferred to the psychiatric ward at St. Vincent’s medical center for several days. Two friends who requested that their names be withheld say they visited Abrams in the hospital and she specifically told them Simmons had raped her. “I did as best I could to try to console her, that it wasn’t her fault,” says one friend. “She was in terrible shape.”
A few months later, on Nov. 27, 1994, Abrams says, she took her last drink.
In 1998, she says she ran into Simmons at Moomba, a New York club, where the hip-hop mogul happened to be seated at a table with Donald Trump. Though she passed by without acknowledging Simmons, she says he followed her to just outside the women’s room and told her, “I’m sorry about what I did. I’m a different person now.” Simmons, via his publicist, says he does not recall seeing Abrams at Moomba and denies apologizing to her.
Among the documents that Abrams provided MSNBC was a 1994 receipt from St. Vincent’s hospital for $3,463. Reid talked to an attorney who handled Abrams’ transfer from Bellevue as well as friends who visited Abrams in the hospital, including a former co-worker at Def Jam. She talked to Ingram and her ex-husband. NBC still had more questions.
By the mid-2000s, Abrams had undergone a transformation into a sober activist focusing on domestic violence with a particular emphasis on the black community. (Last year, at 47, she decided to get her degree and she just completed her first year in a Bryn Mawr College program for women over age 24 who want a college education.)
During that time, in 2006, Abrams was working in New York as an event planner, arranging a fundraiser for a small nonprofit. She met Calloway for drinks one evening to recruit him to appear at the event. Calloway, who was well-known as a BET host, was married and Abrams says she was accompanied by a man she was dating at the time who was a good friend of Calloway’s. Nonetheless, she says Calloway was extremely attentive, paying her many compliments. She says she was put off but with time running short, booked him for the event anyway. She says Calloway threw himself into the project and brought in additional presenters. The fundraiser was a success.
In the following weeks, Abrams says Calloway called her and expressed interest in her dream of starting a nonprofit of her own. He occasionally tried to turn the talk to sex, she says, but she rebuffed him, still hoping his interest in her project was sincere.
The day after Christmas, she met him for a drink. When she told him it was time for her to head home, he offered to drive her. Once they were en route, he asked, “Do you see what you do to me?” When she turned, she says, she was shocked to see that he was displaying his erect penis. She says she told him, “Why don’t you do us both a favor and put that away?”
Abrams says it was late and cold and she wasn’t far from home. Calculating that he wouldn’t push things too far, she says, she decided not to bolt out of the car. But when he pulled up outside her building, she says he started kissing her and fondling her breast, and she saw he was exposing himself again. He tried to push her head down on his lap, she says, and when she pulled away, he grabbed her hand, put it on his penis and stroked himself until he ejaculated. Before getting out of the car, she says she angrily asked him why he had done it. Soon after she was back in her apartment, she says, he called to apologize.
Abrams’ friend, Carol Ingram, says Abrams confided in her shortly after the alleged Calloway assault. “She called me and told me about A.J.,” Ingram tells THR. “He grabbed her and started kissing her and then he grabbed her hand and started to masturbate.” Another friend, who asked not to be named because he works in media, confirms Abrams told him about the incident soon after it occurred and he encouraged her to go to the police.
She filed a report and Calloway was arrested; Abrams still has copies of four orders of protection, and THR has reviewed them. (These orders of protection are restraining orders issued to prevent alleged perpetrators from harassing their accusers.) The statutes cited in the “charges” section of the orders indicate that Calloway was charged under the sections of New York law related to forcible touching and attempted sexual misconduct offenses. Ultimately the case was dismissed on procedural grounds. At that point the file, including the police report, was sealed. In a statement to THR, an attorney representing Calloway confirms the New York case but says: “These decade-old allegations are false. They were false when they were first made and are false now. Mr. Calloway fully cooperated with law enforcement from the beginning, denied the allegations, and the case was completely dismissed in November 2007. After the case was dismissed, the court records were sealed as a matter of law and are no longer available.”
Initially, Abrams simply asked Reid to recommend a journalist who might work with her but she soon wanted Reid to do the story herself. (At that point, the controversy surrounding homophobic posts that appeared on Reid’s old blog, which she at one point claimed were the result of hacking, had yet to arise.) “I wanted someone with the cultural sensitivity to realize how challenging it is for a black woman to come forward,” Abrams says. She was deeply aware of the way false rape allegations had been used historically against black men. “I, as a black woman, don’t ever want to be looked at as someone who is trying to bring down one of our own — even if I myself am the victim of a black man,” she says. “It’s terrible — this sense that we need to navigate between our womanhood and our blackness, when in fact they cannot be separated.”
Reid did a preliminary in-depth interview by phone with Abrams on Nov. 15. Her plan was to write a long piece for New York magazine and pair that with an on-camera interview for MSNBC. On Nov. 29, after Reid submitted a 6,500-word article to New York, she texted Abrams that her editor loved the story and it was awaiting the digital editor-in-chief’s approval.
Then things got quiet and on Dec. 13, Abrams emailed Reid that she was becoming concerned. That day, the L.A. Times published further allegations involving Simmons. The New York Times followed the next day with still more. Reid forwarded an email from New York magazine saying the story had become more urgent.
The next day, Reid broached the story for the first time with MSNBC. She texted Abrams that New York was committing to the story and asked Abrams whether she would be able to tape an interview for broadcast the following Thursday, Dec. 21. That got pushed, but in the predawn hours of Dec. 26, Reid emailed, “We’re almost at the finish line!”
Abrams, who wanted to be with supportive friends when her story broke, was hoping the piece would get published and an interview aired before she left on a trip to Costa Rica in January. But NBC still had questions. On Dec. 28, Reid texted asking Abrams if she had the original copy of the orders of protection issued following Calloway’s arrest. “You can’t use the PDFs?” Abrams answered, to which Reid replied, “Hard copies. NBC is a bit of a pain in the arse.”
On Jan. 7, the network sent a car to pick Abrams up in the Philadelphia suburb where she now lives. She was driven to Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, where she was interviewed by Reid on camera. The plan was to air the segment on the 13th of that month.
Abrams left for Costa Rica on Jan. 11. “I was expecting the story to air that weekend,” she says. But she says Reid told her on the 12th that the interview wasn’t running. On Jan. 13, she emailed Reid: “I am sitting on pins and needles and need to know what is going on. This is torture.” On Jan. 21, Reid said NBC had more questions. Could Abrams document that she had worked as a receptionist at Philip Morris in 1991? Abrams provided the names of several supervisors. Could someone confirm her sobriety date? Where was the fundraiser that Calloway co-hosted?
On Jan. 29, Reid said she had worrying news: “NY Magazine doesn’t want to do the story separately from NBC because of the threatening nature of Russell’s lawyer’s communications with them. … They are a small outfit and feel safer rolling with the much larger NBC Universal umbrella over them. But we are on our way to the finish line finally.” Reid said in a subsequent email that the story had passed the magazine’s vetting process. (A rep for New York says that the magazine did not publish the piece because Reid withdrew it.)
Once again, on Feb. 8, Reid texted: “We are near the finish line.” But she asked for a contact who could verify that Abrams had worked as a model for the now-defunct Riccardo Guy modeling agency in 1994, adding, “At this point they’re asking me for stupid stuff.” And then: “I’m not going to let these people kill this story.” Abrams provided her comp card (a card with photos that models use when they seek jobs). Eventually, on Feb. 16, Reid texted: “They’re just slow walking the story with idiotic requests.”
After NBC received threatening letters from both Simmons and Calloway, Reid wrote to Abrams on Feb. 23: “This has gone up past the lawyers that I deal with, to NBC Universal’s lawyers. … I mean, I always deal with the head of NBC legal but this has gone to his boss.” (Asked about this, NBC did not comment.)
Reid then told Abrams she and her team had met with a standards department rep “just to figure out what the heck is going on.” Both Simmons’ and Calloway’s lawyers had sent “long, scary-sounding” letters, Reid told Abrams, adding, “They both — just to be blunt with you — disparage you extensively.”
At this point, Reid sounded less optimistic. “If my company will trust the evidence I’ve shown them, which is substantial, they will do the story.” If not, she said, Abrams was free to tell her story elsewhere.
On April 2, Abrams says Reid called to tell her that she was not getting anywhere. MSNBC had passed on the story and colleagues were not even responding to her emails. She told Abrams she didn’t want to hold her back anymore.
Abrams was still resolved to speak out. She now regards the experience with NBC as another painful part of her story. “They took away my voice,” she says. “I want people to understand how incredibly challenging this is, with a story like mine that’s highly sourced, with me doing this [advocacy] work in the public arena. And I can’t get my story out there? If I didn’t have those things, let’s be very clear, no one would know about this today. I’m speaking out for all the other women who have been silenced, to let them know it’s not their fault.”