As Lady Gaga‘s arms shot above her head, clasping hands with the fellow survivors of sexual abuse on stage alongside her, the Oscar audience Sunday night applauded with a standing ovation. Kate Winslet and Rachel McAdams cried. Leonardo DiCaprio clapped fervently. And Brie Larson, Oscar winner for best actress, hugged each and every one of the survivors as they walked off stage. For many, the performance proved to be both surreal and cathartic.
Maya Weinstein was less than three months into her freshman year of college when she was raped by a fellow student back in 2012. Now, three-and-a-half years later, after a long college hearing and months of “multiple traumatic events — one was the assault and one was everything after that,” and after spending “a lot of Saturday nights inside my room,” Weinstein, 21, says she’s found some peace. That peace is evidenced by a resume even the most overachieving of millennials would find difficult to rival: she recently graduated a semester early from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., currently has a full-time job as a paralegal while studying for the LSATs, was president of her sorority and, oh yeah, she also performed at the Oscars.
Weinstein was one of the 52 survivors who participated in Lady Gaga’s live Oscar performance of her song “Til it Happens To You”, co-written with fellow sexual assault survivor Diane Warren for the documentary The Hunting Ground, which exposes the prevalence of sexual assault and rape on college campuses. Billboard spoke to Weinstein, who was also featured in The Hunting Ground, about standing onstage alongside Lady Gaga (“she’s probably the most genuine person I’ve ever met”), meeting Vice President Joe Biden and finally finding closure. “I’m sure my perpetrator chose not to watch The Hunting Ground. But it’s [harder to avoid] watching the Oscars.”
How did this all come about?
In November 2014 I was filmed for The Hunting Ground and I flew out to L.A. in November with my mom and we filmed together. When the movie premiered at Sundance in January 2015, we had no idea where any of it was going to go. I didn’t even know if I was going to be in it at all because they interviewed so many people. But I was, and the first time I actually saw it was at the White House — they had a screening in the Executive Office Building.
What was it like watching yourself in The Hunting Ground for the first time?
I feel like I didn’t take one breath the entire time. And it was so emotional, but I wasn’t crying. I was just frozen.
Lady Gaga and Diane Warren co-wrote “Til It Happens To You” specifically for The Hunting Ground, and then you were asked to participate in the performance of the track. What was it like meeting them?
We were all on stage, her choreographer and creative director were positioning us and we looked up and Lady Gaga is just standing there in front of us sobbing. She was really emotional, but also so grateful and thanking us for our support. And then she came through and hugged each of us, commending us on being able to come out and do what we did. She was crying, we were crying. Diane Warren is like losing it. And this was only Friday.
What did they say to all of you at the first rehearsal?
Diane Warren shared her experience, Lady Gaga shared hers and they explained how everyone involved in the performance has a connection to the issue. It was difficult for her because it’s personal. She kept referencing how many people this could impact directly and statistically, just from us being there. She clarified saying, “You’re not set decoration. I need you here.” And I believe it. She was so genuine, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person so genuine. And she is a celebrity, you know?
So then rehearsal started and in the years I’ve heard her sing, I had never heard her sing like that before. I didn’t know anyone could sing like that. It was so raw and real, and at that point I was like, well, I could just go home now! I don’t even need to stay for the Oscars.
Then the night of the Oscars, what did you do right before you went onstage?
Lady Gaga came up to us and we circled around her and held hands backstage. There were so many of us who all felt the same thing… she was thanking the universe for this opportunity and talking about the energy she felt and the potential this performance had and then it hit me: The whole point of this was to — and I think that’s what it visually conveyed, as well — come out of the darkness, come out of the shadows and talk about the abuse. To bring other people into it and to inspire other people from it. I think we were all in disbelief, and I don’t think she was an exception to that.
How did you calm your nerves?
I actually wasn’t that nervous. But when we were backstage right before, Whoopi Goldberg looked at me and said, “Hello, dear”. And that’s when I realized how insane everything was. But she was so calming. It was just so surreal I couldn’t even be that nervous about it. I got really emotional, but I didn’t cry.
How did you keep your composure?
I was emotional walking on stage, starting backstage. I didn’t cry but my face was rapidly twitching. My body was just freaking out. And then as the song was ending I cried. When we put our arms up, that’s when I lost it. And everyone around me was also losing it. I don’t remember her singing, but I know it was happening. And I remember looking at Matt Damon so that was crazy. Then when I walked off the stage I looked at Leonardo DiCaprio and just cried. Everyone there has such a platform and these are people I pay money to see on a screen and they were a captive audience to us. Then I saw the standing ovation, and that was really powerful.
And then Brie Larson hugged you.
Yeah. She just kept saying “Thank you. Thank you. You’re all incredible. You’re all amazing. What you’ve done is amazing.” And the stage managers were yelling at her because we were taking too long to get off the stage and she was like “Ahhh Sorry! Sorry!”
We saw her again backstage after she won the Oscar, and she was with Leo and started jumping up and down, pointing at us saying, “This is because of You! Because of your good energy!” Then she passed her Oscar around and took selfies with us. She’s great.
And THEN you met Joe Biden…
We went back to the holding room, our coordinator came in and was like “hey guys, if you want, the Vice President would like to meet you. But it’s up to you.”
So we went into the auditorium and he spoke to us as a group about It’s on Us, what his goals are and how men really need to get involved. And then he spoke to each of us individually. I think Secret Service was like, “OK come on, there’s 50 of you….” But he kept talking.
What was he like?
He was like a grandpa. Like a nice grandpa except he’s the Vice President.
What’s it like knowing that all this positivity has come from a very painful experience?
It’s something I struggle with. For a little [while] I felt guilty for going to the Oscars because I didn’t want to feel like I was being rewarded for such a bad thing. We’re talking about sexual assault, we’re talking about rape. I don’t want to take joy in anything that came from it.
But I realize now that that doesn’t make sense. I’ve kind of changed the direction of my life because of it and I think I’m more self-aware and aware of others. I’ve met amazing people because of it who will be in my life forever. And there are still days where I’m like — I would give all of that back. But at the same time, if it didn’t happen then, it might have happened another time. So now I’m trying not to spin it, but reframe it.
And participating in this performance, did it help you?
It was like releasing the breath I was holding back when I saw The Hunting Ground for the first time. It felt like a complete closure of a circle. Whatever the difficult stuff was is off to the side now. Everything became so real in that moment on stage and then I was able to let it go.