Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson is opening up for the first time about the sexual harassment she says she has dealt with during her adult life in hopes that it will help other women come forward.
“We’re still in an environment where you’re not going to be believed,” she told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Amy Robach in an exclusive interview for ABC News' “20/20.” “Women should not have to face this in the workplace, period.”
Carlson said she was sexually harassed shortly after she was crowned Miss America and during her journalistic career.
In September, Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the former chairman and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, who stepped down after mounting pressure came from additional employees with similar accusations. 21st Century Fox Corporation settled the lawsuit with Carlson for $20 million and issued a public apology.
She has been adjusting to being a mom at home more, now that she’s not going to work for the first time in three decades. She and her husband of 19 years, high-powered sports agent Casey Close, live in Greenwich, Connecticut with their two children, 13-year-old Kaia and 11-year-old Christian.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to be sitting home at the start of the fall and being very sad every day because I’ve worked my whole life,” she said. “And the only day that I really felt that way was the first day of school, and it was a fleeting moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be on a conference call.’”
But she said this new chapter in her life has given her time to focus on family.
“This time period has been so wonderful for reflection on who I am and what kind of mother I can be to my children and to my family,” Carlson said.
For Carlson, it’s always been family first. She was raised in Anoka, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities, which prides itself on being “The Halloween Capital of the World.” Carlson was, by her account, a very precocious child who had an “idyllic upbringing.”
“My grandfather was the minister at the Lutheran church. My dad owned a car dealership in town. My mom was the consummate volunteer and cheerleader for me,” she said. “I grew up thinking that I could be anything I wanted to be in this world because my mom told me that every single night.”
By the time she was in kindergarten, Carlson said she had fallen in love with the violin.
“I wanted to play the piano,” she said. “[My] teacher said my hands were too small, so really it was a fluke that I ended up with the violin.”
Carlson was a natural. She was 6 years old and had only been playing the violin for three months when she said she made her first recording -- a series of Christmas songs as a gift for her father for Christmas. By age 13, she was playing solos with the Minnesota orchestra. She didn’t just excel in music, she was also a straight-A student and graduated high school at the top of her class.
“Every single quarter was like, ‘Wow, I can’t get a B,’” Carlson said. “It was so stressful ... and I think that’s just the way that I had lived my life, was trying to excel at everything that I tried to achieve.”
Her parents thought she could go to Julliard, the renowned private college in New York City specializing in music, dance and drama, but Carlson chose Stanford, where she graduated with honors.
Then she said her mother got “this crazy idea” that she should go for Miss America.
“She kept saying to me, ‘Gretchen, 50 percent of your points are based on talent. You have that,’” Carlson said.
She decided to go for it and started off small, first winning the local pageant Miss Cottage Grove, then winning Miss Minnesota. In 1989, she won Miss America at age 22, wowing the crowd with her performance of “Sarasate Zigeunerweisen” on the violin.
“Becoming Miss America was one of those things,” Carlson said. “It immediately changed what I thought I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t winning the crown but Carlson’s appearance on “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes” show with Dick Clark and Ed McMahon that charted a new course for her career.
“It was a week after I had been crowned Miss America, and it was some complicated satellite system that they dubbed Miss America and I was just supposed to be there on stage to introduce it,” Carlson said. “I get out there, and it was Gary Collins and Mary Ann Mobley, former Miss America and her husband, they had hosted the pageant. They got called off the set. Emergency phone call. Gary's microphone doesn't work. Suddenly I'm there by myself.”
Carlson said the floor director told her to start talking to fill airtime. It was all part of a joke being played to put Carlson on the spot and the pageant co-hosts were in on the ruse.
“This went on for 14 excruciating minutes of which they put cue cards up. Every word was 17 letters long, then they dropped them on the floor,” Carlson said, laughing.
After that appearance, Carlson said she started getting calls from TV agents, saying they were impressed with how cool and calm she had been on the show and asked her if she had thought about doing TV. “So I decided to give it a shot,” she said.
It was during her time as reigning Miss America when she was looking for her first TV job that Carlson claims she had her first encounter with sexual harassment.
“It was a shocking experience because with this particular man, he spent most of the day helping me. He made a lot of phone calls for me. And I thought, ‘Wow, this guy's being so nice,’” she said. “And we went to dinner and we were in the back seat of a car going to my college friend's apartment at the end of the evening. And before I knew it he was on top of me and his tongue was down my throat.
“I was like, ‘Whoa I -- this wasn't part of the deal,’ Carlson continued. “And I quickly got out of the car and I was flustered, and started sobbing ... and I remember being inconsolable -- and thinking, ‘Well, I'll never speak to him again.’ And I didn't.”
Carlson said she was sexually harassed again a couple weeks later in Los Angeles when a high-powered public relations executive grabbed her.
“Again, we were in a car and he took my head and my neck and he shoved my face into his crotch so forcefully that I couldn’t breathe,” Carlson said. “And I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is happening again.’”
Early in her TV career, Carlson said she was sexually harassed a third time by a cameraman in the field.
“I had only been working maybe three to six months,” she said. “He put the microphone under my blouse. I still remember it was a blue blouse.”
Carlson said she considered it routine until back in the news van, the cameraman began making sexually suggestive comments about her breasts.
“I thought, ‘Whoa, this is not a safe conversation,’” she said. “This was before cellphones and we were in a rural area.”
Carlson said she had the ability to go to a payphone to call for help, but she didn’t.
“I had only been in this job for a couple of months,” she said. “And I don’t want to cause any waves.”
She said she had planned to stay silent but her news director noticed she was visibly shaken.
“He was asking me many times what was wrong, and I kept saying, ‘Nothing,’” Carlson said. “He said, ‘No, I really want to know what’s wrong.’ And so I told him.
“When situations like that happen to women ... you fear that it’s going to be your fault, you’re not going to be believed, you’re going to lose your job,” she added. “You’re going to be that woman -- a troublemaker.”
When the infamous “Access Hollywood” audio tapes, which featured President-elect Donald Trump making extremely lewd comments about women, were leaked in October, and women alleging sexual assault started coming forward, Carlson thought it would be a game-changer in his run for the White House. Trump called his comments on the “Access Hollywood” tapes “locker room talk” and denied all accusations against him.
But Carlson said she would encourage women to document any potential sexual harassment situations and having evidence such as voice recordings (where allowed by law) can help their case.
“When I’ve heard that in recent weeks and months that, well, particularly strong women, they would just find another job,” she said. “Really? Because I consider myself to be a pretty damn strong woman, and finding another job is not a realistic way to solve this problem.”
Carlson’s new mission is to testify in front of Congress against what she calls “forced arbitration,” the fine print in some employees’ contracts that prevents them from taking harassment claims into public court, and instead, she said, closets them through private arbitration.
“What it technically means is that if this happens to you at work nobody will ever know about it,” she said. “We as a country have to come up with a solution for every single one of them, to feel comfortable enough to come forward and not feel like they're going to lose their job. And that's what I hope to at least start the discussion on.”
This past week, Carlson wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, saying in part that “we need men to be on board too.”
“We can't solve this by ourselves. Nor should the burden of solving this problem be only on women's shoulders,” Carlson said. “This is an issue that men also need to care about. ... We need men to want to help us in this situation.”
Carlson said she is focused on advocacy work and is confident she will return to work in television. She said she talked with her kids about respecting others.
“I've often said that I thought it was important to work more for my son than for my daughter. Because I want my son, when he gets into the workplace, to respect his female colleagues in the same way that he looks at his momma,” she said. “I don't talk to him about the nitty-gritty details ... he gets it.”
As for her young teenage daughter, Carlson said she is “not talking to her about anything negative right now.”
“I’m building her up,” she said. “That’s my goal.”
Her daughter, Kaia Close, said she would describe her mother as “a very powerful and strong woman” who “isn’t afraid” and is “very courageous.” She added that she was proud of her mother for speaking out.
“I do think my mom is a hero for many woman and also for many men in the world,” Kaia said. “She’s teaching them how to treat women and how to be with women and it’s very important not only for girls but also men.”
Carlson said she will continue to live as an example to her kids.
“They are watching,” she said. “And if the only thing I accomplished was that my children would be proud of me, that would be enough.”