She’s gorgeous, talented, and one of the most sought-after young actresses in Hollywood. You’ll probably know her from any one of her hit movies – 10 Things I Hate about You, Bring it On, Two Can Play That Game, Deliver Us from Eva, Bad Boys II, Breakin’ All The Rules, The Honeymooners, Daddy’s Little Girls, Running with Scissors, The Perfect Holiday, Cadillac Records – or her appearances on television shows like Moesha, 7th Heaven, Ugly Betty and FlashForward. But did you know that before 38-year-old Gabrielle Union became a star, she was a rape victim?
Makings of a Great Future
Gabrielle was born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in Pleasanton, California along with an elder and younger sister. She enjoyed a comfortable life growing up in upper-middle class suburbia. During her years attending Foothill High, Gabrielle established herself as an athletic star, excelling at soccer, track and field, and basketball, and she even made the dean’s list for her academic performance. She had all the makings of a great future, supported and encouraged by her parents Sylvester and Teresa, who also came from affluent hard-working families. Her father, especially, kept her motivated. Gabrielle once quoted him in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying:
” ‘You are the only black person in your whole class. You’re gonna have to prove to them every day that you’re just as smart, if not smarter. Just as good, if not better. Just as fast, if not faster.’ So not only am I trying to beat all my classmates, I’m trying to prove to my dad that I’m living up to his expectations.”
She attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln after her high school graduation, but switched out after one semester to attend Cuesta College in Southern College, where she dropped out, unsure of what to do with her life. Taking the summer off, Gabrielle decided to work at a Payless shoe store. There, she was attacked.
It was during one of her late evening shifts when a man and his gun entered and robbed the store, then forced Gabrielle and her co-worker into a back room, ordered them to strip, and raped them both. Gabrielle described the ordeal in another interview with Teen Vogue:
“As he was raping me, I felt as though I was floating over myself, thinking, ‘This isn’t happening,’ and ‘I’m perfect, I’m a good person, I’m a good student’.”
Once the rape was over, she grabbed the man’s gun and tried to shoot him, but was too shaken up by the assault. Her attacker responded by beating and punching her, and once she gave up the fight, he asked for directions on leaving the store – instead of shooting her dead. She was 19 years old at the time.
Gabrielle found the strength to tell her family and close friends, and they supported her through a difficult recovery. She also began counseling with a group of other sexual assault victims, and sued Payless when she found out that her attacker had actually been a former employee of another Payless store which he had robbed, and where he had also raped another employee. The man was charged criminally and finally sentenced to 33 years in prison, and Gabrielle won her negligence lawsuit against Payless.
Making a decision to try studying again at the University of California in Los Angeles was the first big step for Gabrielle back into the world, and she graduated with a degree in sociology 4 years later, hoping to become a lawyer. She worked as an intern at a modeling agency and was offered a modeling contract shortly after her graduation, which she accepted thinking the money could help to pay off her tuition loans. Instead, modeling propelled her to stardom. Gabrielle was sent to acting auditions after appearing in Teen Magazine, landed a guest role on Saved by the Bell: The New Class, and she switched career paths for good.
To me, Gabrielle Union is one of the best examples of what I think it means to survive and thrive after rape – or really, any traumatic experience that one might suffer in life. If she ever had anyone tell her that she was “damaged goods” because of what she went through, or that she had to resign herself to a life of depression and self-loathing, Gabrielle clearly didn’t accept that for herself. Maybe she even worried at one point that being raped would cast a shadow on her future, but she kept going ahead with life. I love that she has a fighter’s spirit. I love that Gabrielle took a stand against her rapist and did whatever she could to have him face the consequences of his crime. Today she is still a vocal advocate for women’s issues and sexual assault victims, occasionally touring across the country to speak to young girls and women about her experiences. Just recently, she spoke her mind about Rihanna’s music video “Man Down” (which I actually found out about while researching for my post on the controversy surrounding the video)! Even though she moved on to success, Gabrielle seems like a humble and down-to-earth lady. It looks like she knows and believes that she has the biggest say in her own destiny – no one else, and certainly nothing from her past.
I’d love to be just like that.