Power of Women [New York] 2019
New York Restoration Project
STORY : RAMIN SETOODEH
PHOTOGRAPH: JAMES WHITE
”It makes people feel good about themselves. They feel like, ‘Oh, somebody does care.’ It’s not just some dump.”
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Bette Midler moved back to New York. But when she got there, she was unsettled by the garbage that she spotted everywhere. “It was unbelievable,” says the Tony-winning actress. “There were couches in the trees. There were burned-out cars by the road, and it just seemed as if the city had given up. And I’m not the kind of person that lets things go. I always feel like it’s up to me to fix it.”
Midler picked up a shovel and went to work.
“At first, we cleaned Fort Tryon Park, which was desolate,” Midler says. “It was a drug haven. They said we would not finish that for about 10 years, and we finished it in about three years. And it’s glorious now!”
It wasn’t too long until Midler realized that she had a new calling beyond the stage or screen. In 1995, she founded the New York Restoration Project to clean and restore green spaces in the five boroughs. Since then, the nonprofit has helped plant 1 million trees in underserved areas, replenish 80 acres of parkland and protect 110 community gardens.
Midler hasn’t been afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s even pitched in to help pick up the trash — 5 million pounds of it — that volunteers have cleared from public spaces.
“It’s astonishing to see what a little care and attention can do,” Midler says. “How it can change the neighborhood. How it can change people’s lives. It’s very rewarding.”
Research shows that this kind of work isn’t just good for the earth. Neighborhoods with gardens and parks have lower crime rates, because residents feel a sense of ownership over their communities. For example, according to a study, after the NYRP added 1 million square feet of green space in East Harlem, there have been 213 fewer felonies there per year.
“First of all, it’s an activity,” Midler says. “It makes people feel good about themselves. They feel like, ‘Oh, somebody does care.’ It’s not just some dump.” The website for NYRP features before-and-after photos, to showcase how volunteers have radically transformed such beloved landmarks as Highbridge Park in Manhattan, Mildred T. Rhodebeck Garden in the Bronx and Essex Street Community Garden in Brooklyn.
And don’t forget to visit a special place in the Bronx that bears Midler’s name. “For my 60th birthday, my board of directors took one of the lots and called it Bette’s Garden,” Midler says.
“It’s a rose garden, because they think of me as a rose.”
She earns that name based on the two fundraising activities she hosts a year: a spring picnic and a Halloween party.
“It’s called Hulaween, because I’m from Hawaii,” Midler says of the gala, where she’s been seen dressed as Winifred Sanderson, her deliciously spooky witch from “Hocus Pocus.”
She’s enlisted her A-list friends, including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Sheryl Crowe, Patti LaBelle and Jon Bon Jovi, as entertainers. “Most of the money that we raise for the work comes from that party.”
It’s not lost on Midler how important it is to care about the environment, given that Donald Trump doesn’t believe in global warming. “Climate change is real,” Midler says.
“It’s actually the most important story of the age. I think about it every day. I worry about the oceans and the fact that there’s so much plastic now and people are so wasteful. That’s a terrible sin to me.”
STORY : RAMIN SETOODEH
PHOTOGRAPH: CLIFF WATTS
”Within a camp, I’m no one,” Hadid says. ”I’m there to share a smile. I’m there to share a moment with someone.”
Gigi Hadid traveled to Bangladesh last summer to meet with refugee women and children. To help spread awareness about their plight, Hadid — one of the fashion industry’s highest-paid supermodels — recorded an Instagram live video that she shared with her more than 40 million followers.
“I think the most powerful part of meeting the refugees was their willingness and openness to learn how they could better their situation,” says the 23-year-old. “They wanted to have conversations. They wanted to share their stories. They wanted the education and tools to better their lives.”
Hadid’s trip was organized by UNICEF, the nonprofit started in 1946 that provides emergency healthcare, nutrition and education for children in more than 190 countries and territories.
According to the organization, UNICEF has helped save the lives of 122 million children between 1990 and 2016. In 2017, it treated 4 million severely malnourished children and funded 2.4 billion vaccinations to prevent life-threatening illnesses.
After Hadid decided she wanted to partner with UNICEF, she met with Caryl Stern, the president and CEO of UNICEF USA.
“I never had a specific area or crisis in mind,” Hadid says. “I wanted UNICEF to send me wherever they needed.”
Stern was impressed with Hadid’s willingness to use her celebrity to shine a spotlight on those in need.
“I think she truly has a desire to do something about making our world better,” Stern says. “She came in talking about the fact that every child should have a childhood. She had done her homework and was attracted to UNICEF because of our impeccable record.”
Hadid went to Bangladesh on the one-year anniversary of the Rohingya people being forced to leave their homes to avoid religious persecution by the Myanmar army. She sat in a circle with women and children, listening to how they had kept themselves safe from violence. And she chronicled her observations at the Jamtoli refugee camp by taking selfies, generating international press coverage with every step she took.
Hadid knew that social media would be an important tool in telling the story of the resilient people that she met.
“Within a camp, I’m no one,” Hadid says. “I’m there to share a smile. I’m there to share a moment with someone. When I would leave and get in a car, all I wanted to do was take everything I soaked in my brain and put it into my phone so I could get that information to the world. I wanted people to experience it with me.”
She recently demonstrated her activist side in other ways. In 2017, Hadid marched with her younger sister, Bella, in New York to show her opposition to Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban. She said it was important that she participate “because of my parents.”
Her father (real estate developer Mohamed Hadid) and mother (model Yolanda Hadid) both immigrated to the United States.
“I saw two people that came from nothing and were given the opportunity to come to this country and be great,” Hadid says. “This country was built off immigrants. It’s great because of immigrants. I think that the march was so special to me because New York is such a melting pot of so many worlds in one. That’s what America should be, to me. It should be a place that’s shared with whoever wants to explore and learn and grow.”
STORY : CHRIS WILLMAN
PHOTOGRAPH : JAMES WHITE
”I know there are so many kids that have such raw talent that needs to be nourished.”
Kacey Musgraves would like young people to follow their arrow wherever it goes, as her signature song says, and if she could provide just a little tailwind to help those arrows land in the bull’s-eye that is music, all the better.
“Music education has long been an interest of mine,” says the country-pop star. “It started when I got to hold a benefit concert for my hometown” — a 2015 show in Mineola, Texas, that raised more than $100,000 for local school arts programs as well as a nature preserve.
“I felt proud to be able to give money to my own high school and see the direct benefit of kids getting to have a bigger choir department and musical instruments.”
So when it came to choosing a charity for her Variety Power of Women honor, she easily settled on the Grammy Museum, which, beyond its hall of exhibits, offers education-focused programs like an annual Grammy Camp for teen prodigies and the Music Educator Award.
“Especially coming from a very small town in Texas where I’ve seen firsthand that that is the first department to take a hit when there are budget cuts, I know there are so many kids that have such raw talent that needs to be nourished.”
Musgraves fell more in love with the Grammy Museum (which has locations in Los Angeles, Newark, and Cleveland, Miss.) when she stopped by the L.A. branch’s Clive Davis Theater in February for a benefit Q&A and performance.
It was five days before she would pick up four Grammys across the street at Staples Center, including what many consider the evening’s most prestigious honor, the all-genre album of the year prize, for “Golden Hour.”
While she was at the museum, “I had a chance to peruse the wonderful Dolly Parton memorabilia [in a current temporary exhibit] and I was just so enamored by all of her beautiful gowns and dresses.”
Not that she needed much education on Parton before she took to the telecast with former tour mate Katy Perry to join Parton on “Here
You Come Again.”
Having her own exhibit in the Grammy Museum “would be bucket list,” Musgraves says. But if you can’t wait, another institution for which she’s done benefits, Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, will be opening a Musgraves exhibit this summer.
“I just went home and made sure to pull out some really embarrassing photos for that. I have definitely always had my own idea of style, and sometimes it did not serve me well,” she says, presumably referring to her childhood days, when she embraced full Western wear with less of a sense of irony than she did later on.
Needless to say, in 2019 she’s a fashion icon. When she sits down with Variety wearing a black track suit with rhinestone rainbow stripes up and down each side, she describes her garb as “my best Elton John homage” and notes that her favorite style is “when something comfortable meets something very … extra.”
In clothes as in her music, she says she likes when “two opposite worlds come together.”
For Musgraves, a collision of worlds is a recurring theme, both in a fan base that runs the gamut from rednecks to RuPaul and in a rejiggered sound that emphasizes blissed-out folk-pop at least as much as country.
She’s carrying that genre-blending forward, saying her wish list for co-writers on her next album includes Tame Impala, Sufjan Stevens and the Shins.
TARAJI P. HENSON
The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation
STORY : ELIZABETH WAGMEISTER
PHOTOGRAPH : CLIFF WATTS
”We’re walking around broken, wounded and hurt, and we don’t think it’s OK to talk about it”
Taraji P. Henson’s foundation is named after her late father, Boris Lawrence Henson, who returned from the Vietnam War with mental health issues. For the Oscar-nominated actress, ending the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community is a deeply personal cause.
In 2003, Henson’s high school sweetheart and ex-boyfriend, William Lamar Johnson, who was the father of her son, was brutally murdered. Two years later, Henson’s father died. After experiencing two major deaths in the family, the “Empire” star was determined to find a therapist for her son. She found the task nearly impossible.
“When we started doing research and I started looking for a therapist that at least looked like him, so he could trust them, it was like looking for a unicorn,” Henson says, explaining there’s only a small percentage of black therapists and psychiatrists in the workforce because the taboo in the African-American community creates a lack of awareness regarding careers in the mental health space.
Henson is hoping to break that cycle.
”We’re walking around broken, wounded and hurt, and we don’t think it’s OK to talk about it,” she says. “We don’t talk about it at home. It’s shunned. It’s something that makes you look weak. We’re told to pray it away. Everyone was always asking me, ‘Do you have a charity?’ Well, dammit, this is going to be my calling, because I’m sick of this. People are killing themselves. People are numbing out on drugs. Not everything is fixed with a pill.”
Henson is not just another celebrity who’s slapped her name on a charity. In the middle of the press tour for her next movie, “The Best of Enemies,” she spent her lunch break with struggling young girls at a Washington, D.C., school, along with her childhood best friend, Tracie Jenkins, the executive director of her foundation.
“I know she’s tired, but for her, this work is so important that she’s willing to find any sliver of a moment that she can,” Jenkins says.
While her stardom has given her the platform to be the face of her charity, Henson’s fame has brought unexpected pressures.
“It was fun at first, but the older I get, the more private I want to be,” the actress says. “I think there’s a misconception with people in the limelight that we have it all together, and because we have money now and are living out our dreams, everything is fine. That’s not the case. When they yell ‘Cut’ and ‘That’s a wrap,’ I go home to very serious problems. I’m still a real human.”
Henson reveals that the constant attention that comes from being on a hit TV series has contributed to her own mental health issues.
”I suffer from depression,” she says. “My anxiety is kicking up even more every day, and I’ve never really dealt with anxiety like that. It’s something new.”
To handle her depression, Henson stepped back from social media and she regularly sees a therapist.
“That’s the only way I can get through it,” she says. “You can talk to your friends, but you need a professional who can give you exercises. So that when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off that ledge and past your weakest moments.”
Henson’s mission is to get more therapists into schools. “We have to reverse these kids going straight from school to prison,” she says.
Committee to Protect Journalists
STORY : HENRY CHU
PHOTOGRAPH : DAVID VINTINER
”More journalists are kidnapped, taken hostage, wounded and killed. And this is not by accident. This is a deliberate assault on journalists around the world.”
Christiane Amanpour knows plenty about danger. The veteran CNN host and correspondent rose to fame with her intrepid reporting of the 1990s wars in the Balkans, including the siege of Sarajevo, where snipers in the hills played bloody sport with civilian lives.
The experience taught Amanpour the importance of solidarity with her fellow journalists, some of whom were killed not just in the crossfire but as deliberate targets. Reporters from rival news outlets banded together to minimize risk, share footage and information, and keep each other safe.
Concern for her colleagues’ welfare has carried over into Amanpour’s support for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which promotes press freedom worldwide. It is work she believes is more important than ever.
“We need a protective force around us, because journalism gets more and more dangerous every single year,” Amanpour says. “More journalists are kidnapped, taken hostage, wounded and killed. And this is not by accident. This is a deliberate assault on journalists around the world.”
At least 34 journalists were murdered last year in reprisal for their quest for truth, almost double the previous year’s number, according to the CPJ. Another 19 died in combat, crossfire or while covering volatile situations. More than 250 were jailed.
Amanpour has served on the CPJ board since 2005, lending her expertise and her star power to train a spotlight on the plight of imperiled journalists who don’t enjoy the name recognition she does.
“You couldn’t ask for someone who’s more dedicated,” says Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director. “Both through her journalism and her reporting and commentary, she’s always raising the profile of these journalists … who are under threat. She’s always there for the organization.”
To Amanpour, it’s no surprise that violence against journalists has grown. This is a world where the man with the biggest bully pulpit of them all, President Trump, actually uses it to bully, denouncing the news media as the “enemy of the people.”
Last year, a gunman killed five people in the newsroom of Maryland’s Capital Gazette, propelling the U.S. into a tie with Mexico as the fourth-deadliest country for journalists.
“When you have the president of the United States attacking free and fair and independent journalists in the United States, which has a constitutional amendment that protects freedom of expression, ... that has a knock-on effect in all the other countries where they’re run by authoritarians or dictators, and where they have no duty to their journalists or to any other journalists,” Amanpour says.
“They would much rather lock us up or have us silenced, and it gives them a pass. So in that regard, danger has increased exponentially as well in the last couple of years.”
Amanpour is also alarmed by the rise of the phrase “fake news” as a way to reject something a reader or listener doesn’t like, without regard to the actual truth of the matter.
“It’s very dangerous, this assault on the truth, the assault on facts, the assault on empirical evidence,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, the difference between democracy and freedom and dictatorship and imprisonment is truth and lies. We absolutely have to be clear where the boundary is.”