The Call from Elton John That Led to Alyssa Milano’s Lifetime of Activism

Alyssa Milano’s favorite four-letter word is something we can actually print: hope. And she’s full of it. When the prominent social-justice activist meets people in person who disagree with her, they’re respectful and gracious. Despite a lukewarm reception from critics, her Netflix dramedy Insatiable was one of the most binge-watched shows of 2018. And she even has a new children’s book series called Hope, centered on a little girl named—you guessed it—Hope.

It’s also because she’s seen firsthand the good that comes from confronting the bad. She helped change the course of history when she encouraged women around the world to bravely share their painful stories with just a simple request: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Activist Tarana Burke first coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 to raise awareness of pervasive sexual abuse and assault, but Alyssa surmises what lit the spark in 2017: “I don’t think #MeToo would’ve happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected. I think it was a direct relationship to how we were feeling, how terrified we were…I think women could see that our rights were going to…at least be attempted to be rolled back.”

Responses to her tweet poured in. A woman who had been sexually abused by her father. Another who had been groped by her boss. One who had been told “boys will be boys” after a classmate tried to rape her. And millions more. #MeToo, they said.

The most meaningful moment for Alyssa came when she received a call from UNICEF, where she has worked as an ambassador since 2003. A little girl in Ethiopia had heard about #MeToo, and, along with other girls in her class, stood up to an abusive teacher. That’s when it hit Alyssa: Sexual abuse and harassment is a global problem, but she had ignited a worldwide movement to fight back.

“It’s hard to put into words how this has meant so much to me,” she reflects now, two years later. “Not only as an activist, but also as a woman who has dealt with her own abuse. To see that it impacts women and young girls on a global scale is a testament to how prevalent the problem is, but to see this shift in dynamic is so powerful.”

Of course, her Twitter feed isn’t always filled with courageous stories. As is the case with any woman who ventures forth an opinion on the internet, Alyssa regularly fields invective from her detractors, and most of it—unlike her favorite word—is not fit for print. She’s become a vociferous critic of the Trump administration, earning ire from his fans, but she’s also taken flak from progressives. When she called for women to go on a sex strike in response to anti-abortion legislation in states such as Georgia and Alabama, some feminists criticized the suggestion that women use their bodies as a bargaining chip, and for ignoring the threat of violence some might face in response.

“It’s a firing squad these days, from the left and the right,” she says of social media, with which she has an uneasy relationship. It’s the place where her husband, talent agent Dave Bugliari, “trolls my trolls,” she says, but it’s also given her a platform that would have been unimaginable during her first foray into activism, when she was just a teen and played Samantha Micelli, the daughter of Tony Danza’s character, on Who’s the Boss?

Back then, Elton John asked her a favor, and she said yes, as you do. A teenager named Ryan White was infected with HIV from a blood transfusion and had been banned from attending school in Indiana. Alyssa kissed him on the cheek on The Phil Donahue Show to help prove the disease isn’t spread by casual contact.

“What I went through at 15 because I kissed someone on TV who was HIV positive—to not be asked to the prom because people said I had HIV/ AIDS—the trolling I deal with now is nothing,” she says of the moment, which she credits for inspiring a lifelong commitment to speaking out.

“The biggest gift he gave me was the ability to recognize what having a platform meant, and to use that platform in a way that was meaningful and substantial,” she says of White, who died in 1990 at age 18. “Growing up in this industry was very odd, but that moment put everything in perspective—it gave my acting career more motivation than just to be rich or famous. It was a really special gift.”

If she encounters a little criticism along the way, “the fight is worth it,” she says, with the caveat: “If my in-person interactions were like the troll interactions on Twitter or Instagram, I would probably feel differently about it.

“I’ve been driving people to the polls for 20 years, all over the country, and I have never had anyone come over to me specifically to be a jerk. I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t believe in what you believe in, but I appreciate that you’re here,’” she continues. “I almost look at social media as being a parallel universe. Because in real life, when I’m face-to-face with people, they’ve always been respectful and gracious and welcoming, even if our political ideologies are different.”

That’s true even when the confrontations could have been hostile, she says. “I protested the NRA convention in Houston, and there were counter-protesters who had AR-15s strapped around their back. And they were confronting me,” she recalls. “It could’ve gotten really scary, but we were able to discuss things as humans and walked away with a different appreciation than we had before.”

Alyssa is frankly more concerned nowadays with literal pests: bees, to be exact. When we chatted, her son, Milo, 8, had been stung three times recently (no allergies, thankfully). She had a rare bit of downtime at home in Los Angeles with Milo, her husband and her daughter, Elizabella, 5, having just wrapped the second season of Insatiable, in which she plays Coralee Armstrong, a tough, savvy, social-climbing Southern housewife. Alyssa, who is probably best known in her adult life for her turn as a good witch on the WB show Charmed, was drawn to Insatiable because it let her embody a “character that I’d never played before.”

That time with her family is precious—and why she’s still planning to scale back at some point. “My industry is tricky right now for moms because nothing shoots in Los Angeles. We’re on the road a lot. The mom guilt is difficult,” she explains. “The ideal would be to work hard for the next 10 years and when they’re in high school, then I’m able to be present and snooping through their diaries.”

It’s also why she involves her children in her activism, as much as possible. “I’m honest with them about the work that I do politically and for social justice, not to indoctrinate them, but because, and this might sound morbid, God forbid anything happens to me in this struggle,” she says. (She’s never come close to harm, but she’s had death threats and a fair share of tense moments—those AR-15s come to mind.) “I want them to know that I was fighting for what’s important, right and just. I want it to be a part of their mom. ‘This is just what my mom does.’”

Recently, the kids helped her put together a care package for a 4-year-old who was released from detention. “They were so excited to do this for this little girl, and they took such pride in it,” she recalls. “I think kids are innately nurturing and want to help if there is a problem.”

That’s a big reason why, she says, she joined young-adult author Debbie Rigaud to co-write a four-book children’s series about a little girl activist named Hope. “My thought was, how can we encourage kids’ innate ability to want to do good—not in a political sense, because the books are not political—but in a humanitarian sense? What does it mean to be a part of a community, to have civic responsibility, to be a part of society in a way that is not hurtful but actually helpful? And how can we do it in a way that is still entertaining?”

The books were partially inspired by their illustrator, Eric S. Keyes. A character designer for The Simpsons, he sent Alyssa an illustration of a little girl activist on Twitter. She liked the idea, but made Hope a middle schooler because that’s when kids’ struggle with their own issues can make doing good take a back seat. In the first book, 6th-grader Hope effects positive change for girls in her school. Even though Alyssa has been open about her activism, there are a couple of topics she hasn’t yet discussed with her kids: namely, her own assaults (“My kids still think babies come out of a C-section scar, so I don’t think they’re ready to talk about anything else,” she laughs), but she will one day, she says, when the right time presents itself. In the meantime, she focuses on pinpointing the most salient human elements in her political work.

“It’s amazing how once we politicize an issue, we dehumanize it,” she says, recalling a day when she traveled with Dreamers by bus around California to meet with representatives who were voting against the renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that defers deportation by renewable two-year periods to immigrants who were brought unlawfully to the United States as children, and makes them eligible for work permits. “Nobody opened their door, and it was a bummer. I got home after 14 hours, and my son, who was 6 at the time, ran over to me and asked, ‘Did you do it, Mama? Did you win? Did the Dreamers get to stay home?’ And I realized, that’s it. That’s all that this is about: people being allowed to stay in their home.”

She also talks to her kids about their own struggles: “I want them to know they don’t have to be friends with children who are mean to them.

“That has been challenging because you don’t want them to throw away friendships, but you also want them to love themselves enough to know when to walk away from toxic situations,” she continues. “I wish I’d learned that earlier. There are certain friendships I didn’t need to be in, certain relationships with men I didn’t need to be in.”

Nowadays, she says, it’s her “really good support system” (comprised of her husband, parents and close friends) who helps her stay sane amid the pressures of working motherhood, acting and social justice, which she describes as “definitely the most fulfilling part of what I do in life.” When I ask her what she does to de-stress, she tells me that she’s going to a seminar on criminal-justice reform later that evening. Oh, and yoga and hiking too.

So what about those rumors she might run for office? She hasn’t ruled it out, but she suspects she will be more impactful as an activist, where she has fewer constraints. One example: She hosts a podcast titled Sorry Not Sorry, about “social, political and cultural issues from the perspective of unapologetic guests.” Episode 2 featured Tarana Burke and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Wherever she is in 10 years, it’s safe to say she’ll be speaking out, like the women she’s inspired, because she believes the hard work will pay off. “I couldn’t do what I do and work as hard as I work if I didn’t have hope,” she says. “I mean, I would have to be a masochist to not have hope and do what I do, right?”

This originally appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of Working Mother.