Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Filipina-Italian model Ambra Gutierrez filed her j’accuse of Harvey Weinstein at a New York City Police Department sexual victims desk, she had no idea yet of the blowback. It was in 2015 when, having worn a wire in a hotel suite, she recorded herself, 22, terrified and struggling to get away from “a brutal man not taking no for an answer,” as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow wrote in his book on the saga: “Catch and Kill.”
After the Weinstein incident, a stressful sequence of events followed for Gutierrez: a million dollar payout and pressure to sign an NDA, then deep depression and an eating disorder, so that her younger brother Claudio came to get her in the US, taking her to Italy and eventually the Philippines to try and start anew.
Three years after the #MeToo movement, Gutierrez — whose mother is a Filipina and has roots in Calamba, Laguna — has had considerable distance from the incident itself and the news cycle, and is now working with organizations like Humanility, Models Alliance, and Safe Horizon with other women’s rights activists. On phone from Miami, she spoke to CNN Philippines Life as the city eased its quarantine restrictions. While the rest of the world was learning to love how to cook at home again, she had instead started to learn Spanish, educate herself in trading, and to make paintings in acrylic that, to her own surprise, had started selling well internationally.
You came to the Philippines after signing a NDA in 2015 that muzzled you about your allegations regarding Harvey Weinstein. How did that come about?
Marunong ako mag Tagalog po, but very limited. I had a very good memory from the Philippines when I went to visit once and I remembered the people and everything there were super nice. What happened after I signed this NDA is that I fell into a very bad depression. I gained a lot, a lot of weight, like 20 or 30 pounds, in a very, very short time. I never gained weight all my life but because I was having this anxiety I became depressed. I was eating a lot. I was eating my feelings out. That was my coping mechanism to try to stay sane, I think.
Rediscovering your cultural roots and yourself doesn’t sound so awful and yet it was still during what was essentially exile.
My brother came to get me in New York and together we moved to the Philippines at the end of 2015. So, when I was there, I joined some beauty competitions, more like a fitness competition. And it motivated me to start getting back in shape. So I was working out every day again. I was trying to get into dieting. It was just very hard but then, you are in an environment that really helps you. The Philippines is so beautiful and just the fact that people around you care about you, that started to keep my motivation up. I started surfing a lot in La Union. I found beautiful places to hike, I was going to really have adventures connected to nature. It’s where I realized that the little things really make you happy, you know? It was a beautiful experience and I met so many amazing people and I tried to get to different new things to do like hiking and motorbiking, trying to learn new things while I was there. Because as you know, I couldn't really model or couldn't really expose myself because my reputation was destroyed.
By 2017 you had gone back to New York and, as detailed in the news and in Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill” book, you had decided to violate your NDA which eventually led to the articles that exposed the huge Hollywood system of abuse. What led you back to the US?
I was already really happy in the Philippines. I put my dreams aside and I just wanted to stay and had started to create my own life there. Then suddenly because I had a bad breakup, I wanted to leave for a while. I contacted my best friend in New York and we started talking and he was like, “You know, Ambra, you should come here for a little bit.” Already people don't remember things. Because the moment that Harvey Weinstein happened, a lot of people avoided me in New York. I couldn't get into restaurants. I couldn't get into clubs. My life had been absolutely destroyed and I didn't want to go back to New York.
Sounds like it was a crucial time for you in the Philippines to gain perspective and gather your courage.
The moment that two and a half years passed, my best friend said, “People don't really remember” or like they think it's fine again. So I went to New York and I started to hang out again. Suddenly, like it was God's timing, two weeks or three weeks later, [The New Yorker reporter] Ronan Farrow contacted me. So, I was like, “Okay, maybe this was meant to be!” I was waiting for this and always praying for someone to come and help me out with this proof that I had. The motivation came out in the moment that Ronan told me there were other women involved. So I yeah, I decided to go 100% in.
That must have been a big turnaround and the chance you were waiting for?
It was a big turnaround. I always did it all with the thought that I was going to help someone else. It was never for me. My superpower was being underestimated. I really want to make people understand that even if you feel so small you can achieve whatever you want. If it's like really, truly what you want. I knew I was very small and I didn't have the possibilities, but I was just really believing in myself and it was always like God guiding me so that I was able to do these types of things. And thankfully people didn't realize that I could have done that.
Mostly because they thought they had you under their thumb and out of the way with that NDA, erasing your phones and laptop, like they did with the other women they’d bought out.
They thought I was the usual stupid model. That type. Actually, I always met very intelligent models, especially the ones that travel the world. It cannot be that someone's stupid to be doing all of that. They just watched my cover, let's say, my face or whatever I look like. That was my biggest advantage: they would not ever think that it was me to release those recordings.
Looking back now at #MeToo and how it has spread to other industries like the news and pro-wrestling, it seems that kind of gigantic sea-change you started had to happen exactly the way it did to topple the rotten Hollywood empire of Weinstein and other movie elites.
Every single thing that every woman did was necessary. The part of my recordings was also part of the voices of everyone coming out. And thankfully celebrities were also putting up on their status to say what was happening, because otherwise people will never listen. I'm glad for everyone who put themselves out there because it's not easy. I felt afraid back in the days that people would follow me or wanted to hurt my family. I know what it means to feel fear and feel unsafe even knowing that it's really the right thing to do.
Are you glad the comfort level of victims has been raised that they are now coming out to reveal the extent of the trauma and to become what many have dubbed “callout culture?”
Everybody is getting more comfortable because #MeToo happened. People are being listened to now with these types of situations. I feel that they are more safe to come forward and that's what we're trying to fight for: safety into going forward with allegations of this type. Pretty much this is what Safe Horizons and I are doing. Another organization that works for women's rights and model rights I work with is called Model Alliance. We are a group of people that are trying to really help models with their own rights, because as you know models also face a lot of different situations of discrimination and abuse. Labor abuse in long work hours, sometimes they're not even paid.
You became exposed to modeling at an early age and eventually won a beauty pageant that first opened doors for you?
I was 18 when I joined Miss Italy. Yeah, it was a great experience and it was interesting to try. I would not say it was amazing as it could have been in the Philippines, because I think Philippine beauty queens’ experiences are really over the top. Those are really when you feel great, they really test every single thing of you, not just your appearance, that's what I love! What I remember when I got there and I was doing modeling was a lot of people always wanted me to also act, or sing, or dance so you have to be a complete artist. That’s the thing I love about the Philippines, you always want to push your own limits to the max and I think that's something I also have in me.
The Italian beauty contest, it was more my mom’s idea. She was more like “oh, please can you do it?” and “it would be great!” Because she never did it and she always wanted to. And I'm like, okay, whatever! But really, like, putting myself out there trying to win a race with other beautiful women to see who's going to win in something just related to my appearance. It was a little weird for me. I always wanted people to see me for my mind.
How difficult was it growing up a mixed race child in Italy?
I knew that there were two different ways of seeing life. There were two different cultures mixed up. And yeah, like it was a little confusing sometimes but it gave me a different perspective into what I can choose to be. So I took let's say the best parts of each culture and I tried to mix them up. Like the welcoming and warm-hearted type that Filipinos are and maybe the artistic side of being Italian.
You did say you liked solving logic and math puzzles?
I love math. It’s like my favorite subject. I liked spending time doing math problems when I was younger. I don't know why. When I was a kid, I really hated it. And then suddenly, it was so weird… Like if you tell me like, oh, what's seven times eight? I still have to think about it. I cannot memorize the multiplication table, but then I would do problems that are like two hours long.
Yet not many know you took up land surveying in college to prepare for a degree in architecture.
I always wanted to do architecture or something with art, but I didn't think that a school for artists would take me far just because I had to take care of my family. I wanted to go in a direction that was a little bit more solid and so I decided to do land surveying, ‘cause I wanted to do architecture after that. But then like, there were some problems that happened in Italy, so I left and I never really continued my studies.
So you went in 100 percent and chose modeling, instead.
In modeling I tried to achieve something for my own self in a fair environment, because I knew that I was surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world and I had to really work for anything. And I loved it! I’m competitive in a healthy way, I always put myself into very hard working situations and I compete with my own self.
People do think models and those in fashion lead a charmed and globe-trotting life. But it wasn’t easy for you at all.
See, some people are thinking about me — she's had an easy life and she could have achieved everything. But actually I went to London with $600 in my pocket and I was sleeping on couches. So even when you lose everything, you don't really lose anything because you have yourself. Just keep going and believe in yourself and that's the way I grew up and I really like to start from zero. I had to go to London where I started sleeping on couches of friends, couch surfing yeah, so it was exciting for me. I love this type of adventure, I'm very adventurous as a person and I never wanted to remove myself from that feeling of “this is too easy.” I never liked easy things, so maybe that's why I like solving math problems? You know the more they were difficult, the more I wanted to solve them. It was funny. I saw that modeling was an industry that really fit my needs. So I started by moving from Italy to London, and then from London to Paris, and then from Paris to the US. I was happy because I really felt like my sacrifices were rewarded.
Now that you are doing activist work while modeling, do you look back now on all of it and feel a sense of relief or a sense of vindication?
I feel free now. That I am back to being myself. Like if I want to post [a] photo that I'm in lingerie I don't have to feel weird about it. I mean, I never really felt weird about it even before but it was really like not being sure about my identity, because as you know a lot of people said I was the blackmailer that wanted to be famous. So my wardrobe was something that became a thing to think about. I became afraid to be wearing my high heels that I love or my skirts, or like all of this type of clothing that really represent who I am. I was going to change my choices of clothing til the moment that I remembered that I passed from being the blackmailer, someone that they said was there to be famous and trying to make money, until I ended up becoming a hero. I had people writing me constantly and saying things like “you're my hero” and “you are the person that inspired me to come out with my story.”
Sounds like a lot has changed about you because of the whole experience. Hopefully for the better?
Now I try to avoid situations where I would have people just decide my future over my looks. But I’ve always believed in destiny and that things always happen for a reason. A hundred percent I wanted to inspire other people to really understand and do the right thing. And so that's why I'm really vocal about what's happening, what I did, and how I went through things.
Looking forward now, what new projects are in the works for you?
I have partnered with Eek Media for a three-part production. It will be a dramatized miniseries, a documentary series, and an educational curriculum. I am hoping to use my story to help inspire and educate others and stop future abuses.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.