From Fox News Host to Fired-Up Activist: Inside the Reinvention of Gretchen Carlson

How the journalist became the face of a movement and totally rebuilt her career in the process

By Billy Nilles Jan 14, 2019 10:39 PMTags
Gretchen CarlsonMichael Loccisano/Getty Images

Gretchen Carlson didn't intend on becoming a women's rights activist.

But when the journalist was fired from her post at Fox News in the summer of 2016, as her program The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson was canceled and her contract allowed to expire due to what she alleged in her subsequent sexual harassment lawsuit against the network's late chairman Roger Ailes as retaliation for rebuffing his unwanted sexual advances, she found herself in a position that seems too powerful to ignore.

With her bravery in coming forward inspiring six more woman to do the same, eventually resulting in Ailes' resignation and a public apology from 21st Century Fox, in which they admitted that Carlson wasn't "treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve," Carlson soon began receiving correspondence from women from all walks of life who wanted to share their stories, similar to her own and rife with predatory behavior and retaliation tactics. "All these women had reached out to me after my story broke and I was like, 'This is an epidemic.' It was from very profession, every socioeconomic class, every race," she told TV Insider this month.

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And so aside from working with Democratic congressmen to create bipartisan legislation intended to end the closed-door mandatory arbitration tactics major companies utilize when settling lawsuits like hers—which have precluded her from being able to speak openly about how, exactly, she and Fox concluded things in 2016—she recognized that her decades spent as a journalist left her in the unique position to shine a light on the so-called epidemic. "As I started hearing from women, I felt a duty to try and make something of it. For so long women have been silenced on this issue," Carlson told Vanity Fair in September 2017. "I felt if I didn't do it, who was going to?"

So she got to work on a book that could do just that. Released in October of 2017, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back was Carlson's first step in illuminating the pervasiveness of a toxic culture. The tome, itself a mixture of the journalist's own experiences—as much as she discuss them, legally—and the stories of women in different fields who'd similarly decided to fight back against a system that had failed them, was written with a mission in mind: "To honor those women and to move the ball forward to try and find solutions," she told TV Insider in May of 2018.

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As critics began to question how women without Carlson's estimable financial resources might be able to fight back as she was able to should they find themselves in the same difficult situation, Carlson admitted that the question began to gnaw at her. "There's no way in hell she can try and come forward," she told Vanity Fair. So, she set out to do something about it, teaming with the nonprofit All In Together to fund the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, with a mission to "bring civic leadership and advocacy training to thousands of underserved women across the country, with a special focus on empowering women who have experienced gender-based violence, discrimination, or harassment."

Now in its second year, the initiative is "a nine-city tour across the country where we provide workshops for free for underserved women to be able to come and get help on this issue," Carlson told The Daily Beast this month, adding, "To see the transformation of these women when they come to the workshops feeling not good about themselves at all and when they leave, having participated, feeling empowered and ready to take on the world, I know that my fund and my initiative is working."

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With the initiative in place, Carlson turned her attention to another institution that sorely needed some attention in the #MeToo era: The Miss America Organization. The former pageant winner, crowned in 1988, was elected chairwoman of the board of directors after an email scandal prompted the resignation of CEO Sam Haskell, with other top leaders stepping down as well. 

"Everyone has been stunned by the events of the last several days, and this has not been easy for anyone who loves this program," she said in a statement as her election was announced. "In the end, we all want a strong, relevant Miss America and we appreciate the existing board taking the steps necessary to quickly begin stabilizing the organization for the future." 

Within days, Carlson was hinting at "potentially big changes" as she planned to "make this organization 100 percent about empowering women." To that end, she spearheaded the removal of the pageant's outdated swimsuit portion, announcing in July that it would be replaced with a "live interactive session with the judges" where each Miss America hopeful would "highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America," while also shifting the evening gown portion to "give participants the freedom to outwardly express their self-confidence in evening attire of their choosing while discussing how they will advance their social impact initiatives."

"We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment," Carlson said in the statement. "We're experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement."

(It should be noted that by August, Carlson's tenure as Chair of the Board was already in a decidedly rough patch, with a vote of no confidence by 22 states demanding her and CEO Regina Hopper's resignation—a sentiment echoed in a statement from 11 former Miss Americas released shortly thereafter. Carlson, however, still retains her position.)

Chance Yeh/Getty Images for A+E

While Carlson was hard at work bringing Miss America into the 21st century, she and her crusade to rehab the culture at large caught the attention of A&E Originals, who offered her a deal to produce and host three documentary specials for the cable group that is home to Lifetime, A&E Network and History. 

"The most crucial thing to me is to move the ball forward. How do we tell everybody's stories, not just those of relatively famous people, and how do we involve men in this issue," Carlson told Variety when the deal was announced in April. "We need to focus on the role of men and how important it is for men to join us in this effort. We need men to stop being bystanders and turn into allies."

For Carlson, the deal was an opportunity to prove to women afraid that their careers might come to a grinding halt after speaking out that that isn't always the case. "This is a huge step for me personally and for all the women who were never been able to go back to the careers that they love," she told the publication. "I think it's important for women to see that there's a company out there saying ‘Yes, we're putting her back on TV.' I want to be a shining light for all of those women."

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The first special under Carlson's pact with the company, entitled Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence, debuts on Monday, Jan. 14 on Lifetime and takes a look at "stories that didn't have a chance of being heard or told in other venues," the journalist told The Daily Beast. Subject include former McDonald's workers-turned activists Tanya Harrell and Kim Lawson, as well as a former veterans home nurse's aide and a fire battalion chief. 

"A lot of people have said to me, well, what's your connection?" Carlson told the outlet. "How could you possibly have any connection to a woman who works at McDonald's in her twenties making 15 bucks an hour down in New Orleans? And the thing is, when you've experienced sexual harassment like both of us have, it's almost like you have this immediate connection. She trusted me, and I understood what she was going through."

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Vital Voices Global Partnership

As Carlson explained, her role in the doc went far beyond just relying on her skills as a seasoned journalist, getting the women to open up about what they'd experienced. "I really wanted to get answers for these women. And so you'll see me jumping out of the car to try and find their bosses, tracking down these companies to try and get some accountability here," she said. "Why is it that these women say that they complained and nothing was done? Why does that happen? Why do people not care about this issue?"

For the mother of two who's been married to sports agent Casey Close for 21 years, the time away from the daily grind of her Fox News spotlight allowed her to tap into a skill set that she hadn't been asked to use during her 11-year tenure at the news organization. 

"I love the idea of doing something different, and I had a chance to do investigative journalism at my second job back when television stations had more money and it was something that I really enjoyed, doing long-form pieces," Carlson said. "And so when Lifetime came to me, I was like, yeah, I have that skill set."

And while the world waits to see what topics she takes aim at with the two upcoming specials under her pact—"They're not necessarily going to be about harassment," she told TV Insider—she's got one massive fan rooting her on at home. 

"When she wants something, she goes and gets it," Close said of his wife to TIME in 2016, singing her praises. "She doesn't wait for it. I think there are people who might want someone as a spouse who's a little less vocal about issues, who maybe takes a more passive role, but I feel lucky to have found her and found that kind of relationship."

At any rate, expect the unexpected as Carlson continues on in this next act of her life. 

"I'm open to everything but I have to tell you, I really, really enjoyed getting back into long-form investigative kind of work.  It was great to use those skills again," she told TV Insider. "I enjoyed not having those day-to-day deadlines and I think it's always important to challenge yourself to do something new."

Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence airs Monday, Jan. 14 at 8 .m. on Lifetime.