By Heidi Stevens
Their life stories are miles, both literal and figurative, apart. But the story they collectively told at the recent Monday night awards event was one of unity and optimism.
Glamour magazine feted 10 honorees at the annual Women of the Year awards at Carnegie Hall: activist Chelsea Clinton, actress Laverne Cox, “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts, fashion designer Sarah Burton (she created Kate Middleton’s wedding gown), “The Mindy Project’s” Mindy Kaling, Russian model Natalia Vodianova, United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, deep sea explorer Sylvia Earle, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and, in a move that technically bumps the number of winners up to “countless,” “every girl, everywhere, who defies the odds to go to school.”
In the house to celebrate the winners: comedian Stephen Colbert, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, director Shonda Rhimes, actress Jodie Foster, actor Bruce Willis and Huffington Post creator Arianna Huffington, among others.
Notably absent: pessimism, passivity and a willingness to accept the status quo.
“I didn’t know I could care more about (women’s rights) until I became a mother of a daughter,” Chelsea Clinton told the packed auditorium, noting it was her first night out since giving birth to baby Charlotte in late September. “I want Charlotte to grow up to be whatever she dreams to be, wherever she dreams to be it and however she chooses to become it. And that’s not the world we live in today. And so for Charlotte, for the girls up in the rafters, for girls everywhere, I’m going to continue to push forward.”
Clinton, 34, was honored for the launch of her “No Ceilings” project, an initiative she created through the Clinton Foundation to advance the full participation of women and girls around the world, as well as her work in Africa, notably the championing of a fertilizer initiative to improve crop outputs and her work to lower the cost of diarrhea treatments, which is projected to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. “Chelsea’s family history is the least impressive thing about her,” U2’s Bono said in a video tribute.
“I won’t talk about diarrhea,” Clinton said from the stage.
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“But find me afterward and I’m happy to.”
The event was equal parts reverence, advocacy and levity.
The prolific producer/director Rhimes (“Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) presented the evening’s first award to Roberts, noting that if she’s ever allowed to “take over” another night of television she’ll devote it to the morning news anchor’s life story.
Roberts, 53, who inspired millions by going public with her back-to-back breast cancer and myelodysplastic syndrome diagnoses, followed by the acknowledgment of her longtime, committed same-sex relationship, told the crowd she lives by the advice of her mother: “You make the mess your message.”
The 79-year-old Earle, who has logged more than 7,000 hours undersea and discovered tens of thousands of species as an oceanographer, highlighted her mission to establish “hope spots,” marine protected areas, in the Earth’s oceans. “Let’s start treating nature like our lives depend on it,” she said. “Because they do.”
Foster, who was honored by Glamour in 1991, presented the award to “Orange is the New Black’s” Cox, the first transgender person to grace the cover of Time magazine, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy. Cox, 30, thanked her mother from stage “for loving me, and for the fierce example of womanhood you set for me.”
“The issues of transgender women are women’s issues,” Cox told the crowd, who gave the actress a standing ovation.
Nyong’o, 31, who earned an Oscar as Patsey in 2013’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” also brought the audience to its feet, sharing the story of her grandfather in Kenya who believed girls and boys deserved an equal education and raised his children to believe the same.
“I’m here because my grandpa and my grandma raised my father to espouse the belief in the value of women,” she said through tears. “And he in turn joined forces with my mother, a woman raised free of gender restrictions. And they raised me with the same beliefs, that to be a woman is to be human. And to be human is to seek perfection and to find joy in never obtaining it. It is this idea that keeps me going.
“I am still a work in progress and hope to always be,” she continued. “I stand here not knowing what is next. What I do know is I am standing here in this moment because I was raised in a family of unconditional love and support, in an environment that assumed my strength, my ability, my power. I want to express how grateful I am for that, while also understanding that women around the world are not yet always taught by their immediate environment that they are strong, powerful, beautiful. And equal. I want to honor the legacy of my family and help us create a better future for young women around the world.”
She wasn’t the only one crying at the end of that speech.
Other highlights from the evening:
Colbert, who called the evening’s events, “the Kennedy Center with perfume inserts,” congratulated writer, actress and producer Kaling for turning stereotypes on their heads. “She’s also broken the age-old cliche that glamorous, attractive women do not eat,” he said. “I follow her on Instagram and I know that she has eaten burritos that weigh more than Keira Knightley.”
Kaling, 35, joked, “That I’m up here is appropriate. I’m kind of a big deal.” Then she told the young girls in attendance, “It’s Monday. It’s a school night. If you want to get up here, go home and do your homework.”
Comedian Amy Schumer, who offered a tribute to the late Joan Rivers, remarked that everyone could tell she was a local at first glance. “These are New York arms, right?” she said, grabbing and jiggling her upper arm. “In L.A. these register as legs.”
United Nations ambassador Power, 44, honored for her efforts to fight such global scourges as ISIS and Ebola, remarked upon receiving the award from a Hollywood A-lister: “I must say, though, that when I labored six or seven years on a long, dark book about genocide, it wasn’t entirely obvious to me that that would lead to my being introduced by Bruce Willis.”
Power also offered the clearest takeaway from the evening, particularly for those of us who left the event feeling uplifted, if a little underachieving.
“There’s no (need) to try to change the whole world at once, but just to do simple acts of kindness,” she said. “You don’t have to win an Oscar or go down into the water quite that far or to run an Ebola clinic or any of the wonderful things that these amazing women are doing around the world tonight. You can just be good to someone. Speak out against an act of injustice. Tutor. Find food for hungry people. Just try to change your little slice of the world and the rest will follow.”