“To me, continuing acting was about having a voice to help more people. I can't think of what else I would be able to do to make the living that I live and still be able to devote time to humanity and hopefully make a difference.” - Alyssa Milano
Alyssa Milano is an actress, fearless activist, podcast host, and unparalleled orator.
In this podcast episode with Neha Gandhi, Alyssa discusses her friendship with presidential candidate Joe Biden, the importance of leveraging social media, and being outspoken.
While the world has seen Alyssa act in TV favourites like Charmed and Who’s The Boss-- this episode shows her activist side. It all started in the eighties, when 15-year old Alyssa kissed a boy ostracized for having AIDS. In 2015, she re-launched the Me Too movement with a single message. From driving voters to polls, to discussing gun rights with Ted Cruz and Fred Guttenberg, Alyssa continues to leverage her platform for activism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alyssa: What I'm doing now is a lot more concentrated, because there are a lot more issues that we're fighting for. Besides that, the only real difference is the fact that I have a platform that I get to control. Whereas in the past, the social justice work that I did was “boots on the ground.” But also, it entailed someone actually giving me a platform. I couldn't create my own sort of megaphone. And I think that, for better or for worse, social media has given everyone their own megaphone. So I get to control a lot more of the exposure of what I do. And it's still not all of what I do, because I feel that there are certain things that are sacred, and that require a sense of privacy. There is much more. I think why it seems like I do so much more is because I'm able to put it out there. I'm not at someone's whim, to give me a platform.
Do you feel any sense of fear or uncertainty ever about just throwing your ideas out there?
Alyssa: I try to be as thoughtful as humanly possible. It can get overwhelming and I don't want to not use my voice out of fear. Having said that, I've always been a very cautious person. I think the love affair that I had with social media, in the beginning, was really about this idea of unfiltered experience, and unfiltered information. Because even to get to your living room, things go through dimensions–makeup, lights, cameras. Whereas if someone sends out a Tweet, it doesn't feel as processed. It's basically an unfiltered emotion or moment.
How did you go about educating yourself in the issues that you are most passionate about? I ask for the women who are listening and thinking “I'm passionate about that, but I don't know where to start getting the information.”
Alyssa: I think the most important thing is if you're passionate about something, you should seek out people that are either going through that issue or can speak to it personally. I've been a UNICEF Ambassador, since 2003. I've traveled the world and witnessed some hardships. My job as an ambassador is to come back and be the voice of the people that I met. It's a very personal connection. I think it would be incredibly easy to get talking points, and spew out statistics. To me, what touches someone's heart in mind is having a physical experience with someone. So all of the issues that I'm passionate about, that I've learned about, have been through other people. I think it's an important thing to remember, because we are so consumed with our devices that we have, as little human contact as possible. Human contact is an incredible education. And it's not just an education on the issues, but also a soulful education on humanity.
Alyssa: This sort of group mentality causes us to be losing not only the human element of experience and making mistakes, but also induces this sense of everyone having to react to certain things a certain way. This is why I started my podcast–to be able to have unapologetic conversations, and really get into the nuance and backbone of these issues.
To use social media effectively and be a productive ally in any sense, be open to continuing to learn, be responsive, and continue to want to make a difference.
Alyssa: Shame is a spectrum. It's on a spectrum of abusive power. Shaming someone about what they wear is very different from body shaming. But it's still that spectrum of a cultural phenomenon that we're sort of in right now. And maybe we always were in that but it's just more apparent now because of social media.
Alyssa: Real people talk about their real issues. You know, if you lived in the Twitter bubble, you would think everything that our country is facing right now is because of Russia and potential collusion. are we going to impeach or not impeach. But in the real world, people are not talking about Russia, they're not talking about collusion. They're talking about real issues– their house being flooded from a tornado, losing health care, Social Security, Medicare, education, and gun violence. I think that it is so important for people who are interested in learning more about an issue, it's got to be through human interaction. It's how we evolve. It's how we're able to move on past issues.
On your podcast, Sorry Not Sorry, your first episode was with Joe Biden. What was that conversation like?
Alyssa: As much as the Vice President of eight years of the United States of America couldn't be your friend, I feel like Vice President Biden is a friend. Here's the story that I think encapsulates who he is. He called me for my birthday last year. That should be enough of the story. But it gets better. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was in the car with his granddaughter who he had picked up from college, and the two of them were taking a road trip together. And that's Joe Biden.
We also spoke to him about “It’s On Us,” which is an organization he started to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, well before #MeToo. He put the emphasis on the men's responsibility to not be abusive, to not make dumb choices. He put emphasis on that it was not all the women’s fault. What if the girl drinks and is drunk or is wearing provocative clothing? “What if she asked for it?” And Joe Biden said, “No woman ever asks for this.”
I think he’s a special guy.
Alyssa: If someone has been accused of something, it is really important that we listen to the woman or the man that is feeling the abuse of power against them. This feeling of vulnerability, feeling that they were taken advantage of, or hurt in any way or harassed. But then what? We can't just put all these men on an island and forget about them; let them fend for themselves. I think we need to figure out how to invite them back into society, at some point.
If they re-enter society, what do women need to feel safe around those men? And I think we need to have that conversation, we need to have it in a serious way. Because mind you criminal behavior, if you’re a rapist, that’s a different thing.
But these gray areas, these cases that are, well, is it nefarious? Is it not nefarious? If we believe survivors, it is at the expense of someone's innocence? There's a lot of discussion to be had here. And we need to have it in a really public way. After Miss Flores’ accusations against Joe came out, I wondered what he was going to do. When he said that every woman should be heard, and he’s willing to learn and grow, that meant a lot to me. I felt the culture changing and shifting. It was a good example of how someone can be masculine and cop to it.
Alyssa: I really think the most important thing that we need to focus on right now is recruiting more men into the movement and holding them responsible for changing the culture and societal oppression of women. And then figure out what happens next. It's within gray situations where I think the most reflection is needed. We should be able to have a conversation and create vocabulary that hasn't been created already.
Alyssa: He was one man on a very big thing he was in charge of. He has called her. I don't know what that private conversation entailed. And we're only hearing her side. But he made sure that women were included in the Judiciary Committee moving forward because of that decision. He wrote the Violence Against Women's Act. I mean, this is a man who stood up for women, in a time it wasn’t cool to.
How did you find your own footing and how did you advocate for yourself?
Alyssa: I still don't know if I advocate myself, but it is a very interesting existence. It's all I knew. So it was normal for me. If I was an actress because of the platform, it would enable me. That goes back to my activism, which started when I was 15 years old. I kissed Ryan White on television to prove that you couldn't get HIV AIDS from casual contact. And that might be a reason why the criticism never gets to me. And it didn't matter to me because I knew that it was the right thing to do, at 15. Plus, it gave my celebrity purpose. To me, continuing acting was about having a voice to help more people. I can't think of what else I would be able to do to make the living that I live and still be able to devote time to humanity and hopefully make a difference.
I am curious about the advice that you have for your children. What do you think about what you want to pass on to them? The state of the world today, it can feel like a really frightening place to have children.
Alyssa: I'm not frightened to have children, or to raise my children right now. In fact, it is my greatest motivator. But that's something every mother can relate to. Whether it's in our own circle or fighting for social issues, I think it's important for my children to get the information from me in this climate, than to hear things elsewhere. I know how I would teach issues to my children. So I choose to do it. Because I'm fearful of how other people would teach my kids those issues. I know what I tell them. I don't know what they're getting from other people. So I'm preemptive, about how we talk about things.
Alyssa: I focus on what's right in front of me at that moment. If it's my kids, and giving them a bath, I'm really good at that. If it's doing my podcast, I really try to focus on that.
What is your best advice for someone trying to gather up their own courage?
Alyssa: Always remember the motivation behind why you want to do it, and focus on that. I find it easier to be brave or courageous, when it's not only about you, but when it's about the benefits it will bring other people.
With where you sit in your life, having accomplished so much already, what does the concept of success mean to you?
Alyssa: My concept of success constantly changes. That's what motivates me to continue to try new things. The foundation of what truly brings me fulfillment and makes me feel happy and content has nothing to do with career or being a driven woman or the need to prove something. It's just simply about love and love of the family.
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