by Madeleine West
"BUT ... are you suuure that is a breast?" drawled the silver fox, fat cat producer, raising one quizzical brow in the direction of the wide-screen TV upon which my nipples danced a wonky jig to the rhythm of the sex scene rolling out.
"Errrm, Yeeessss" I replied in quiet disbelief. "That's an areola right there, and a-"
"Yes, yes, yes. I know." He interrupted, eyes closed and fingers steepled primly beneath his chin. The gesture implied neither prayer nor supplication. It was impatience and condescension. "What I mean is ... it's pretty ambiguous ..."
What an a**hole.
The four other producers assembled before me nodded in enthusiastic accord. The network representative and publicist offered slightly pained smiles.
What's the collective noun for a whole group of a**holes?
This exact sequence had played out six times already during this "meeting" to discuss how the scene before us did not contravene my contract which specified "NO BREAST SHOTS".
Pretty simple legalese really - my boobs were not to be available for public consumption. Yet this lot persisted in their "um-ing and ah-ing, to-ing and fro-ing" all in an effort to justify the scene.
"Ooh, there will subtitles there!" rejoiced one. "The breast will be covered!" So finally an acknowledgment that it was in fact a breast, but coupled with a denial it would ever be seen.
"That angle shifts so quickly, no one will even notice it," purred the female producer, my ally-turned-Judas, who consoled me, offering a shoulder to cry on, convinced me to meet her without my agent present, while plotting this abhorrent trial by TV executives, persecuted for the horrendous crime of upholding my legal rights.
However brief my breasts appearance, like a fleshy Halley's comet, here and gone in the blink of an eye, that didn't change the fact that for that ephemeral slice of time, my boob was front and centre on screen.
"That's not a breast," another had asserted, straight-faced, as the camera poked beneath my fellow actor's armpit to find my lurking left mammary. My disbelief was palpable. This was my breast on screen we were discussing, not a grainy pic of Loch Ness! Despite an inevitable move southward thanks to the ravages of time and child-bearing, my breast is just that, MY BREAST!
"Enough. We have seen enough." My patience was worn to the bone.
"Let's just cut to the chase." My BS tolerance was exhausted.
"Regardless of your justifications, that scene features my naked breasts. The existence of that scene as it is, and presenting it to the public, represents a breach of a fundamental term of my contract. As such, that contract is now null and void."
Cue sound of jaws crashing to the floor.
"This leaves us with two possible solutions. 1: I return all payments made to me by you via my agent and you remove my performance from the entire series; or 2: you remove that scene.
Cue recently recovered jawlines dislocating and returning to rest on the shag pile.
For here I was, a seeming work of myth and impossible legend - a 5'3" actor with long blond hair and those D-cups currently under scrutiny. A bimbo incarnate using words with not one or two, but THREE syllables, daring to challenge their authority and judgment, and actually assert her legal rights.
There were a few belligerent stares, mutterings about me never working in the industry again (slightly muffled by those dislocated jaws), but suffice to say, they capitulated.
The scene was removed.
And those mutterings about me never working again? Well, I've had more quality work since that day than ever before, on my terms.
You may well ask: "If you so vehemently wanted your modesty protected, why were you filming a sex scene and why did you have your jugs out?"
Excellent question. Well done.
The fact of the matter is actors are at essence storytellers. Sometimes telling those stories requires an accent, a lisp, a limp, a prosthetic nose, a ridiculous wig, and sometimes, sex. Yes, it's a bit of a perv, but frequently it forms a critical part of the journey. In agreeing to perform such scenes, the only protection an actor can achieve are those stipulated under their contract. In my particular case, I knew I had to perform sex scenes, but wanted to keep my boobs for me and my partner, and so had it written in as a contractual term.
On the day the scene in question was to be filmed, I began my regular ritual of wrapping a strand of black electrical tape about the ladies. Not for extra lift, but to ensure the camera didn't drift to forbidden territory by underlining the point with a sturdy black line, not to be messed with or stepped over. On this particular morning, however, a request came in from the director to lose the tape so he could capture an uninterrupted shot of my back. I capitulated. And why not? I reasoned that I had a contract, I trusted the director, so why not? So the scene was shot as requested, and it was only the next day when, an eagle-eyed and big-hearted crew member, who had seen the rushes from the night before, put his own position on the line by suggesting I request to see the scene when I went in to the sound studio to record additional dialogue. I did just that, and alas, there lay the truth in all its D-cup glory. Eight separate breast shots caught by camera where there ought to be none. Chagrined, I called my agent, who recommended I "don't cause a fuss".
Suffice to say that agent is not my agent anymore.
Abuse of positions of power is not endemic or unique to the entertainment industry. It just so happens that the entertainment industry is frequently subject to society's gaze, frequently and voluntarily in the spotlight, drawing attention of its own volition. For too long, in too many industries across the board, those with power wield it as a weapon against those starting out, the young and most vulnerable, obvious targets for abuse. For too long, a perception has existed, fed to those beginning their career by those sitting comfortably above the glass ceiling, that if you do not toe the line, there are a thousand more young ingenues champing at the bit to fill your shoes. And so we cower, crumble to forces above, comply with things that go against our beliefs and contravene our rights.
To be fair, the foibles of youth make us as complicit in abuses of power as perpetrators. This is particularly true of actors. Our insecurities, our vanity, our ambition, make us vulnerable, and at times too willing to "sell our soul" for that cliched 15 minutes of fame. Fear and hunger for recognition sees us regularly agreeing to do things which make us uncomfortable, unhappy, or as my then-agent recommended, not "make a fuss".
We agree to "just this once" undertake activities which degrade us, go against our values, our instincts and our self-respect until eventually, we have no values left, and become someone else far removed from the person who began the journey. But "just this once" is one time too many.
It falls upon each of us to make change happen, and often all it takes is one person to say "enough" and one person to hear them. This is the catalyst for change, how movements are born, how rights become recognised, how respect swiftly becomes the rule rather than the exception.
At the end of the day, the most powerful tool we wield is self-belief. With that comes courage, gratitude, integrity and positivity. Now, as I approach each new job I am offered, and as I walk through my days in general, I strive to be very clear about my boundaries, my beliefs, my limitations, and equally clear about what I will not do, with no exceptions. We all have our insecurities, our flaws, our vulnerabilities, but if we embrace them, own them, and learn from them, they can never be used as weapons against us.
Time, experience, and making my own mistakes has taught me that the most attractive, the most powerful, the most motivating choice you can make in any career is to believe in yourself. Get that right and nothing can stop you.
Follow Madeleine on Instagram: @madmadswest