Women in Entertainment: One Year Later...
12 inner-city girls and 12 of Hollywood's leading ladies taught each other some powerful lessons.
In a dark basement office at the fringes of a high school way east of downtown Los Angeles, three girls are huddled together, waiting nervously to be interviewed by an editor from The Hollywood Reporter and an executive from nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters.
The girls are all 16 or 17 years old; each is an academic standout at Roosevelt High, one of the toughest schools in L.A. They’re among 16 finalists from this school alone who hope to become part of the Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program, launched a year ago by THR and BBBS.
Tension is in the air, so it’s understandable that one of the girls, brought in for her interview, starts to cry.
“My dad’s sick and hasn’t worked for a year,” she says. “We’ve all been living in a tiny apartment. I just want the chance to be somebody and change my family’s life.”
She’s not alone. Throughout Los Angeles — and New York, where our program is expanding to this year — there are girls like her: diamonds in the rough, longing for opportunity.
This year, 15 girls will be paired with mentors selected from THR’s annual rankings of the top 100 women in the entertainment industry, along with the publisher and editorial director of this magazine. Each mentor has agreed to spend one afternoon every two weeks during the next year with her mentee, guiding her career.
As the girl at Roosevelt tells us about her life and aspirations, it’s impossible not to be moved. Like the other finalists, she somehow has managed to maintain a 3.0 GPA or above, despite living in an environment riddled with drugs and gangs.
“Memories of moving from shelter to shelter stain my mind,” one girl wrote in her application essay. “At the end of the school day, I would take the bus to Skid Row. I stayed in a shelter until my mom was able to rent a cheap apartment. We’re living off of food stamps. It’s not easy to sleep at night, knowing my mother hasn’t paid the rent.” But, she says, “I’m resolute to make this [a success].”
She will: She’s been selected for next year’s program.
The problem is, there are so few openings and so many girls. Other candidates from Belmont, Crenshaw and 450 North Grand high schools — as well as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School and Humanities and the Arts High School in New York — are competing for the 15 slots.
It costs about $5,000 annually per mentee to cover transportation, insurance and a social worker who will supervise the girls. That has been provided by THR’s parent, Prometheus Global Media, along with Lifetime, the Nielsen Co., the Gersh agency, Spanx and L’Oreal.
It truly takes a village: Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal Pictures and one of our inaugural mentors, didn’t just have the help of deputy mentor Kori Bernards, her senior vp media relations, but also of everyone from Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson to Universal Studios senior vp corporate affairs Cindy Gardner.
Have their efforts been worth it? Yes, say all those involved.
“At the beginning of the program, [mentee Tanisha] was quite happy to apply to community college,” says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, an executive producer of American Idol. “Now she’s applying to some of the best universities in the country.”
“Honestly, this is one of the best opportunities and experiences of my life,” says Karla, 17, who has spent the past year paired with CBS Films president Amy Baer. Without it, “I would still be the indecisive girl, dreaming of a job.”
Several mentors — like former MGM movie chairman Mary Parent — are sticking with the girls at their own expense.
Here at Roosevelt, a teacher begs us to take on more. “You have no idea how much it’s changed their lives,” she says, tears in her eyes.
“I have conquered my old, shy self,” says Georgina, 17, paired with Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who paid for tuition that has helped raise her SAT scores by 300 points. “Without her, I would be a whole different person.”
CLASS OF 2011
President, Dick Clark Prods.
Publisher, The Hollywood Reporter
COO, DreamWorks Animation
President and GM, History and Lifetime Networks
Worldwide head of marketing, DreamWorks Animation
Partner, Lichter, Grossman, Nichols, Adler & Feldman
President of production, Universal Pictures
Editorial Director, The Hollywood Reporter
Partner, Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Richman
President and CEO, A&E Television Networks
President of distribution, Universal Pictures
Partner, Dell Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano
Jennifer Rudolph Walsh