How I Protected My Kids from Sexual Predators in the Entertainment Industry
"Watch out for the men in this town. They like the young girls." This piece of advice came from a checker at a grocery store when we moved to Malibu in 2010, just as my daughters were about to sign a record deal with one of the iconic Universal Music labels as the singing group Cimorelli. Welcome to Los Angeles and the entertainment industry.
It certainly wasn't a secret that there were predators in Hollywood. Even the checkers at the grocery store knew.
"Don't be naive! Those people aren't being supportive; they're out to exploit you!" This jarring comment came from our agent at CAA about a month later. I thought maybe he was just jaded from being in the business too long, but I learned otherwise as time went on.
Less than a year earlier, in 2009, my five daughters had put up a video on YouTube of themselves singing "Party in the USA" acappella, which went viral overnight. We immediately got a call from a high-powered manager in London, who at the time was managing Jessie J, one of the writers of "Party in the USA". She sent one of her employees up from Los Angeles to our home in northern California to meet us, and then she said that she wanted to work with us to get a record deal.
Our first viral video, a cover of "Party in the USA"
As my daughters put up more and more videos, their channel grew exponentially (they now have over 1 billion views). They were soon known for their clean acappella arrangements of pop songs; they were the true "girls next door", aged 11-19. "Cimorelli" quickly became the most popular YouTube girl group.
Three months after that first phone call with the London manager, we found ourselves in LA doing a couple of songwriting sessions booked in the studios of two of the hottest writers at the time. That manager knew how to open all the right doors, ones that we could never have opened on our own.
The first eye-opener for me came at one of those very first sessions, when one of the writers pulled me aside and said, "Your girls are amazingly talented, and such a breath of fresh air! Most of the artists I work with want to write about sex and drugs, so my mind ends up in the gutter all day, every day. That is not what I thought I was signing up for when I came here to be a songwriter. I just want to write great music!"
At a different writing session soon after that, I was talking to one of the writers while he was on a break, and he voiced his frustration about the difficulty of being a Christian and making a living as a songwriter in pop music. He told me that an A&R guy from one of the labels came by to check out their writing group's new songs as potential material for that label's artists, and the rep told him, "Before we get started, let me just say that if the song isn't about sex, drugs, or alcohol, I don't even want to hear it." In my opinion, the fact that the music and film industries immerse themselves in putting out so much content that glamorizes sex, drugs, and alcohol, just sets the stage for an atmosphere of sexual harassment and abuse by those in power.
I managed my daughters' career since they had started performing as a band, which was a couple of years before their videos started going viral. Having heard stories for years about what a cesspool the music industry was, my husband Mike and I made a pact that we would never leave any of the girls alone with anyone in the industry for any reason. For every meeting and every recording session, there were the six girls (my sixth daughter, Dani, joined the group when she turned 10 years old in 2010), me, and sometimes Mike, too. That setup is obviously not conducive to lewd behavior, harassment, or abuse, and that is exactly why we did it. We didn't allow any questionable situations to even arise. In Catholic theology we are taught "to avoid the near occasions of sin", which in Hollywood takes on a whole new meaning.
Cimorelli performing in Madrid, Spain, for 15,000 people at the Coca Cola Music Festival
I can't tell you how many studios we were in that stunk of stale pot and had drug paraphernalia and bottles of whiskey lying around. The norm in LA is to start recording sessions at night and then record all night until 6am or so. Obviously, there was a lot more than just recording going on in there. I often had a difficult time getting producers to work with us during more normal work hours, as there was no way we were going to do all-night recording sessions. Most of the time I was lucky if I could get a producer to show up as early as 2pm (many of them were just waking up then), and then we would finish recording by midnight. Most of my girls were exhausted by 10pm; these were very difficult working hours for my 10 and 12 year old girls in particular.
When we had to film official music videos for the label or go to red carpet events or photo shoots, we had different teams of stylists that would do the girls' clothing, hair, and makeup. They always brought clothes over to try on a couple of days in advance of the event, which was fortunate, because rarely was there anything acceptable to choose from. Everything was too short, cut too low on top, and the shoes were all stiletto heels. How is any of that appropriate for a 10 year old (or any minor, for that matter)?? I told the girls from the start to not be afraid to tell the stylists that they were uncomfortable with clothing like that and that it was off-brand for them, as they had built their huge fan base off of clean covers and good, clean fun. It was a good lesson for my daughters to learn to stand up for themselves and their values, and of course, I was standing right there behind them if anyone were to give them any grief about their stance. The stylists would then return with a new haul of better choices (although sometimes only slightly better), but this scenario happened time and time again, so clearly there was an industry norm or a directive in there somewhere that ran toward the inappropriate, even for minors.
Amy, Lisa and Katherine Cimorelli getting styled and made up at their first photo shoot
When we did our first professional music video with the label, I received an email asking if the older girls would wear something a bit more revealing. I showed the email to my daughters, and they were horrified. They wanted to sell their music on its own merits, not based on showing some skin. We put our foot down, and the outfits finally chosen were ones that my daughters were comfortable with.
Cimorelli's first professional music video, "Believe It"
We also did some work in the world of television and film: we spent a month filming a pilot for a reality show with a big production company, the girls starred in a scripted comedy web series sponsored by Subway for our YouTube channel called "Summer with Cimorelli" that was written and directed by people from "Hannah Montana" and "Pretty Little Liars", they were featured in some commercials for Subway, all six girls had roles in a movie that was filmed in Chicago last year that hasn't been released yet, and they also did a reality web series for the Verizon platform go90 called "Life as Cimorelli". Once again, we kept the same policy in place; I was at every meeting and every film shoot. I think the people we worked with were all good people, but even if they weren't (and honestly, you can't tell by looking at them), there was never a window of opportunity for approaching my daughters in any sort of inappropriate manner.
Cimorelli being filmed for a reality show pilot at Wango Tango 2011 in Los Angeles
Episode 1 of the scripted comedy "Summer with Cimorelli"
Cimorelli filming a Subway commercial
We had numerous meetings at hotels, but most were at the hotel restaurant or in one of the conference rooms there. One meeting was in the hotel room of a label head, which seemed a little weird to me. He was staying in a suite, so the meeting was in the living room of the suite; apparently it's not unusual to set up meetings like that. Obviously, as we've seen in the Harvey Weinstein stories that have broken, there is enormous potential for abuse in doing meetings in hotel suites. For this reason, Mike and I both went to that meeting with the six girls. Personally, I would never go to a meeting like that alone, and I definitely would never allow my kids to go alone. Although the person we are meeting with maybe be totally fine, there's no reason to take that risk. Also, if that person is purely interested in the artistic talent, they won't take offense at asking to have the meeting in a more public place or in an office (and if they do take offense at a request like that, then that's probably not anyone we would want to work with anyway).
I will say that in general, everyone we worked with was very nice to us, and if they were predators or abusers with others, they didn't show us that side at all. One of the biggest music producers at the time (one that Kesha later sued for abuse) was at our house in Malibu twice, meeting with my daughters and me. He was the nicest guy in the world to us, but when people from the label showed up to talk business with him, he was suddenly a very different guy: rude, arrogant, and extremely abrasive. Total Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The second time he came over, he brought with him the director/producer behind most of the biggest kid shows on Nickelodeon, who was also the nicest guy in the world to us. Nothing came of the meeting, and later on when I read the rumors about him being a pedophile (which I have no idea if those are true or not), all I can say is that I certainly didn't pick that up in our meeting, but I'm relieved nothing worked out, as obviously, that's not a situation I would want my girls working in if there were any shred of truth to the rumors.
Probably the creepiest thing that happened to us was at the movie premiere of "Maleficent". We were working with Subway at the time, and the face of their commercials was Jared, who was later arrested and convicted as a pedophile and massive child porn consumer. We met him at that movie premiere (which makes me shudder just thinking about it) and even had the girls' picture taken with him. Yikes! Once again, he didn't do anything weird, he kept his hands to himself, and he seemed like a typical nice, nerdy guy. You can't tell by looking at these sickos.
Cimorelli at the "Maleficent" premiere. I'm not posting the picture I have of them with Jared because, well, who wants to post a pic of their daughters with a convicted pedophile??
Many times, the label heads and other high level decision-makers that I worked with told me that they had kids of their own who were pre-teens and that they really appreciated the good role-modeling my girls were putting out in their music and videos. Every time I heard this, I was thinking, "Hello! You are the final decision maker on that trash that your label/studio produces! You are the one in charge of releasing the promotional dollars! Why don't you put out music/movies/TV shows that you would be proud to have your own children watch? How the heck do you sleep at night?" I naively thought that their comments meant that they would actually put serious promotional dollars behind our stuff and start putting out more family-friendly content, but that wasn't what they were thinking, unfortunately. We eventually got out of those deals, moved to Nashville, and went indie.
My daughters' latest album release, coming out Oct 27
When the stories of Harvey Weinstein broke, I asked my daughters if they had ever seen anything like that in their own experience. I couldn't imagine that they had, since I was present at everything they did, but I asked just to be sure. They said that no, they hadn't, but they were relieved to have moved to Nashville where the men they deal with now give them respectful handshakes instead of creepy hugs like the ones in LA (we're not talking about normal hugs between friends, but lingering hugs that are a little too close and a little too tight and therefore cross the line). I'm sure it exists here in Nashville, too, but we haven't personally run into it yet.
When we lived in northern California, I had a friend who worked in the District Attorney's office. We were at a community kids' event together once, and she said that she recognized many of the men at the event as registered sex offenders, and that they are always in attendance at events like that. Many of them look and act like the All American guy next door, which makes it really difficult to trust anyone, unfortunately. It was a good lesson, however, that this stuff is pervasive and not limited to the entertainment industry by any means.
As far as my advice to anyone who is thinking of putting their kids in the entertainment industry? Don't do it unless you are willing to go to every meeting, every recording session, every audition, every movie shoot, every single thing they do, and don't trust anyone to be alone with your child, no matter how nice they seem (there are even managers and agents who have been convicted of sexually abusing children, so be careful there, too). It's not worth the risk. You don't have to be the Momager from Hell (which won't serve you well anyway), but you do need to be present as their advocate and protector. My saving graces were a few things: a) we had a group of six, which significantly cut the risk of anyone in power trying anything, b) we told the girls to never go anywhere, not even to the bathroom, without at least one of their sisters with them, and c) we had already built a fan base on producing clean entertainment, so it was easy to reject inappropriate songs that were pitched to us, inappropriate movie and TV roles, and inappropriate clothing the girls were asked to wear.
Obviously, the victims of people like Harvey Weinstein are not to blame. The people at the top who are so drunk with power that they think they can use and abuse whomever they want are 100% to blame. It's wrong, it's evil, and it always has been. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior by anyone in any industry, and it's unacceptable on every level. Because it is so pervasive, however, you need to know what you're walking into and watch your back at every turn.
On the flip side, with the advent of pirating and streaming, the old Hollywood studio model is becoming less relevant by the day, just like it has with the music industry. You no longer need to rely on the gatekeepers of Hollywood to get your creative content out to a worldwide audience, and the younger generation isn't relying on Hollywood for what they watch and listen to (note the falling box office sales and the rise of streaming services like YouTube, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, etc). If you have a video camera (even as simple as the one on your smart phone), you can put whatever you want on YouTube and build a huge audience on your own. In fact, I have heard over the last few years from several sources that when some of the major record labels sign new artists, they tell them to go out and build a massive international fanbase online, and they point to Cimorelli as the example to be followed (over 1 billion views).
Bottom line? If you do decide to pursue the entertainment industry route, I believe that the majority of people there are good people, but it's hard to tell who the bad guys are, as they don't walk around with flashing lights on their heads. Build your own social media base (they will make you do that anyway, and it also gives you some leverage), know who you are and what you're willing and not willing to accept before you get there, know what you're walking into so you're not caught unaware, err toward being a little paranoid, and don't take any meetings alone in hotel rooms or anywhere else.
Music and film aren't going away; everyone listens to music, and everyone loves to watch a good story. Hollywood, however, is a cesspool that needs to be drained and cleaned up. By being careful and vigilant, it is possible to navigate your way through and come out relatively unscathed on the other side.
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