At 80, Philly Expat Gloria Allred Is Still Every Predator’s Worst Nightmare
Here, the Girls' High and Penn grad talks her humble roots, abortion, and taking on R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein.
Raised in Southwest Philly and educated at Girls’ High and Penn, Gloria Allred went on to become one of the nation’s highest-profile attorneys. And over the past four decades or so, when men like O.J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and Rush Limbaugh have been accused of harming a woman, she’s the person, more often than not, fighting to make them answer for their deeds. Here, Allred talks growing up in Philly, $58 million verdicts, and why, at 80, she’s still hard at work.
Hi, Gloria. Thanks for meeting me here on Zoom. I’m looking at your home setup, and I have a sneaking suspicion that you have an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean from where you’re sitting.
I do. I look at the Pacific Ocean every single day. I’m very blessed to have a home here in Pacific Palisades, and I also have a little vacation home in Malibu. I don’t actually take vacations, but being there is like being on a vacation.
I apologize for not having my camera on. Bad hair day.
Ha. Can’t be any worse than mine.
You’d be surprised. The truth of the matter is that I’m over Zoom.
It’s just the way of the world now. I had a Zoom from Europe before you. And later today, another Zoom. Constant Zoom.
What’s your caseload like these days?
Busier than ever.
Given the nature of the cases you tackle, that’s depressing.
It’s not depressing. It’s empowering. More and more women are coming forward because they feel empowered to do so. And I feel very fortunate to be able to help them. But this is by no means a nine-to-five job. It’s constant. I have so much passion for this now that I realize how much injustice there is. There’s not less. There’s more. But the good news is that we are winning. And those who have hurt women are paying the price and the consequences. Big-time. Victims used to be shamed and blamed. Now, the men are being shamed and blamed. The victims used to have to live in fear. Now, who is in fear? The predators. They are finding out what real fear is. And this — this is how we win change.
But you said yourself: There’s not less injustice. There’s more. So is what you’re doing having any effect on the overall problem?
Look. The fact that we can’t bring every wrongdoer to justice doesn’t mean we can’t bring as many as we can to justice. We need to bring in as many as we can. Look at R. Kelly. He thought he got away with it after he was acquitted in Chicago years ago, and he kept doing it. Now, in criminal court, he’s been found guilty. On all counts. He could get life in prison. In addition to this recent conviction, he’s facing other cases. Many people in the entertainment world are now understanding that the arrogance and the sense of entitlement, that status as being “untouchable,” their ability to do whatever they wanted and get away with it — these people are now understanding that those days are gone. They’re gone. We will get you.
In terms of names we’re familiar with, what cases are you working on now?
Well, I’ve made three different trips to New York recently because I represented three of the five victims who testified in the R. Kelly trial. We just filed a case against Dr. Phil. We have also represented 20 victims of Jeffrey Epstein. We have filed a lawsuit on behalf of our client Mimi Haleyi against Harvey Weinstein. She was a Weinstein victim and the lead witness in the criminal case against him, and he’s now in prison for 20 years. And we have a civil case against Bill Cosby set for trial in Santa Monica in April, alleging childhood sexual abuse at the Playboy Mansion in 1974, when the accuser was 15.
What kind of money are we talking about in the civil cases you handle?
Do you know Alki David? He’s not a celebrity, but he’s a billionaire, or at least he’s been called one. We went to trial against him at the end of 2019 for sexual harassment. We won $58 million. For one victim. That’s one of the largest awards in a case like that in the entire country — ever.
Do you only get involved when the accused is a big name?
Not at all. We have many, many cases where there’s not a celebrity involved. Most of my cases are not high-profile. They are no-profile. I also handle cases against institutions. For example, we recently filed a case in North Carolina against the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where we allege that many of the students in the school were abused by certain members of the faculty.
I do want to talk more about your work. But I’d love to hear about your roots here in Philadelphia.
I grew up in Southwest Philly, on Springfield Avenue. My parents had an eighth-grade education. We had no car. It was a one-new-dress-a-year situation. I almost dropped out of Philadelphia High School for Girls.
I didn’t have the confidence. I was told that the best girls in the city were chosen for Girls’ High, and I felt I just couldn’t compete. So many of the girls had parents who were doctors, lawyers, elected officials. And then there was me. My dad was a door-to-door salesman. My mother was at home. I told my guidance counselor I wanted to leave, and she asked, “Who is the smartest girl in your class?” I told her: Sandy Wolkowicz, the president of our class. She pulled out some folders from a drawer and said, “Well, Gloria, I have your file here and I have Sandy’s file here, and Sandy’s IQ is only five points higher than yours. You belong.” And I stayed. Girls’ High was such an important institution in my life.
I wonder if anybody would know who Gloria Allred is today if you had dropped out of Girls’ High.
I received so, so much encouragement there from so many women teachers. They helped me believe in myself and realize that I could make a difference. You know, I was actually a cheerleader at Girls’ High for the basketball team. And I remember this boy from Central once laughed at me, saying he couldn’t believe there were cheerleaders for girls. What’s there to cheer about with girls? He was wrong. Girls have value. Women have value. We matter.
Do you keep in touch with your friends from Girls’ High?
Oh yes. I’m looking forward to our next reunion in what is now, hopefully, the City of Sisterly Love. We made it that by having so many women now elected to office in Philadelphia. Justice RBG was once asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough, and she said nine. The person who asked was shocked — and yet, as RBG pointed out, nobody was shocked when there were nine men.
Other than the reunions, do you still get back to Philly?
Absolutely. My grandson is in law school at UPenn, and I came back in September to take him and some of his law-school friends out to dinner for his birthday.
I’ve heard you’re a fan of Parc. Is that where you went?
Couldn’t get a reservation! [laughs] I took the Acela from New York. Met my best friend from Girls’ High for a brief get-together and then took my grandson and his friends out to La Famiglia.
So after Girls’ High, Penn?
Right, and then after the University of Pennsylvania, I was a single mom and moved back into my parents’ little rowhouse in Southwest Philly. I was an assistant buyer at Gimbels department store. Then I became a substitute teacher at Shaw before becoming a full-time teacher at Ben Franklin High.
And at some point, you moved to California, where you taught for a few years before deciding to pursue a career in law.
I got my master’s in English education from NYU in 1966 and my JD from Loyola in 1974. And I decided if I was going to be poor and raise my daughter as a single parent, we ought to at least be poor in the sunshine in California.
I read your autobiography back in 2007 –
[Interrupts] I feel sorry for you! [laughs]
I’m wondering if we can discuss your own sexual assault, which you wrote about in the book. How much of a factor did that attack play in your becoming who you are, a defender of women?
I am a feminist because of my many life experiences. No woman is spared from the experiences and injustices that women face, whether she was raped or sexually harassed or unable to collect court-ordered child support or if she was discriminated against at her job. Or maybe it’s pregnancy discrimination or she was battered by her significant other or she’s a single mom suffering from credit discrimination. I could go on. But yes, I was raped in Mexico in my 20s by a person I thought I could trust who confronted me with a gun. I didn’t report it to the Mexican police, because I didn’t think they would believe me against the man who raped me, who was a Mexican doctor.
And my understanding is that you became pregnant as a result of that rape.
Yes. I came back to the United States and wasn’t able to get a legal abortion in California, so I had an abortion by a back-alley abortionist and was left in a bathtub, hemorrhaging, and had a 106-degree fever. I had to go to the hospital, where I was packed in ice and a nurse said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” And this is why I continue to speak out in support of Roe v. Wade. This is why I keep fighting for justice. Nobody gives us justice. We have to fight to win it. That’s why it always disturbs me when people say that women were “given” the right to vote in 1920. Nobody gave us the right to vote. Women fought for it. And it’s the same now. We have to fight for our rights. Predators count on fear. We must be fearless.
Young women today seem so much more empowered and ready to fight.
Do you know who Paxton Smith is? She’s the high-school valedictorian from Texas who tore up her “approved” graduation speech in June, instead replacing it with a speech about a woman’s right to choose abortion. She warned what would happen to women. And of course, that law was passed. When I turned 80 in July, somebody asked me who I would most like to meet for my 80th birthday, and I said Paxton. So we made it happen. And now we are working together — a teenager and an 80-year-old. She has a book coming out on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22nd, and I have a chapter in it.
As skilled an attorney as you are, you are also the absolute master of the press conference. How did that come to be?
In the late ’70s, feminist judges in California came to me and said, “We need more women judges, but we can’t speak out about it ourselves, because we’re judges.” So they asked me to do it. I knew nothing about press conferences, but I did it. I told the press that Governor Jerry Brown promised to appoint more women judges, but he didn’t after getting elected. Well, guess what? After that press conference, he appointed more. A little while later, I did it again. And he appointed more. At some point, I ran into him, and he asked me why I was going after him for this and then rattled off the names of five women judges he appointed. I told him: When you can’t name all the women you’ve appointed because there are so many, that’s when I’ll stop. And I learned the power of publicity.
You’ve been a lawyer for 47 years and have gone after countless men for predation in various forms. Has it gotten any better?
It sure seems like it hasn’t. Violence against women is still pervasive and severe; harassment and discrimination are still pervasive and severe. But here’s the difference: The victims are now coming forward. They are courageous. And courage is contagious.
A couple of years ago, two journalists at the New York Times criticized you for negotiating confidential settlements with non-disclosure agreements with people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly and Larry Nassar. And we all know what happened in those cases. You called the journalists “ignorant.” Why?
Because they were ignorant, as I explained in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. What they didn’t explain was that any victim with a confidential settlement can still go to the police and ask that their case be prosecuted. They can still testify in court, if subpoenaed to do so.
But it’s reasonable to think — and in some cases, we know — that men with whom you’ve negotiated confidential settlements with non-disclosure agreements have gone on to victimize more women. Do you see how somebody might have a hard time matching up that Gloria Allred with activist Gloria Allred?
Listen. I realize that you — the press — want to know everything about everybody. And in this internet age, there’s so much information out there. But not everybody wants the world to know what happened to them. I have to do what is best for my client. She doesn’t have to be a sacrificial lamb for the cause. I proudly do these agreements. I don’t hide it. I’m doing them every single week. Some women don’t want their moms, their friends, their neighbors to know what happened to them. And that is their right. It’s not my job to tell them what is best for their lives. Adults get to do that: make choices.
Gloria, you’ve seen it all. You have a daughter. I have a daughter, who is 14. What piece of advice does 80-year-old feminist Gloria Allred have for my 14-year-old feminist daughter?
Nothing can stop you. Be willing to stand up for yourself and fight the battles you believe are worth fighting for — and know that this won’t be every battle. I invite you to become a leader in the women’s movement and help us work to improve the status and condition of women all over.
Finally, why the heck are you still working? You’re 80. You’ve helped so many people. You’re fabulously wealthy. And there are plenty of people ready to fight the good fight.
[Laughs] I’m 80? Thanks. I feel as though I am 14 — the age of your daughter. You know why? Because I wake up every day and read about what happened to women the day before or the night before, and I say, “WHAT??!!” And I go slay dragons. Do you realize how much energy there is in that? There’s no stopping me.
Published as “Dragon Slayer” in the January 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.