Musician Janis Ian took to Facebook to tell the world that Bill Cosby once tried to ruin her career for alleged lesbianism (which, it turns out, was really just platonic cuddling with a female friend).
For you Millennials: Janis Ian is a singer-songwriter who became immensely popular in the 1960s and 1970s. One of her most famous songs is “At Seventeen”, the official crying-in-the-bathtub-because-you’re-not-pretty-enough anthem. If your mother is a baby boomer, there’s about a 90 percent chance she sang along to this song with tears in her eyes after a cute boy rejected her.
Janis Ian’s other big hit is “Society’s Child,” a song about a white girl whose community pressures her to break up with her black boyfriend. Ian wrote the song at the age of 13. “Society’s Child” grew to be widely loved, but widely hated as well. It reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was banned from many radio stations for its political message.
Ian performed “Society’s Child” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a popular (but controversial) television show known for its humor and its subversive messages about issues like race, homosexuality and the Vietnam War. That’s where she met Cosby. Cosby didn’t sexually assault her, she writes, but he still found a way to be a colossal dick.
Janis Ian was only sixteen years old at the time. She had been touring for months. On the road, away from home, the only familiar face Ian had with her was her chaperone/tour manager, a family friend a few years older than her. So, stressed out from months of dealing with strangers — audiences, reporters, and angry racists sending death threats — and nervous about her upcoming televised performance, Janis sought comfort in her family friend. The young musician held tight to her friend and took a nap in her lap. “She was earth motherly, I was scared. It was good to rest,” Ian wrote on Facebook.
After her performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Ian went back to New York. There, she learned she had a problem:
A while later, my manager called me into her office. “What happened at the Smothers Brothers show?!” I had no idea what she was talking about, and said so. “Well, no one else on TV is willing to have you on. Not out there, anyway.” Why? I wondered. And was told that Cosby, seeing me asleep in the chaperone’s lap, had made it his business to “warn” other shows that I wasn’t “suitable family entertainment”, was probably a lesbian, and shouldn’t be on television.
Bill Cosby, who drugged and raped dozens of women, tried to ruin Janis Ian’s career for a little bit of platonic same-sex cuddling.
Fortunately, Cosby’s plan to destroy the young singer-songwriter failed. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson ignored Cosby’s slanderous accusations and featured her on the show. Janis Ian went on to have a wildly successful career in music. In 1993, she came out as a lesbian.
Ian’s Facebook post ends:
Cosby was right in one thing. I am gay. Or bi, if you prefer, since I dearly loved the two men I lived with over the years. My tilt is toward women, though, and he was right about that.
But what an odd thing, that a black man who slept with so very many white women chose to take my possible lesbianism away from our one meeting, rather than the message I tried to get across with “Society’s Child.” How pathetic. How truly, truly pathetic.
Cosby’s career as a hypocritical moralist carried on for decades. At an NAACP event in 2004, he gave his infamous “Pound Cake” speech, in which he criticized the black community for what he considered to be immoral deeds such as wearing saggy pants and naming kids Shaniqua.
It was the Pound Cake speech that eventually brought Cosby down. Angered by the speech’s moral hypocrisy, comedian Hannibal Buress tore into Cosby at a show, reminding the public that the beloved sitcom dad was a rapist. If Cosby hadn’t bugged the black community about pulling their pants up, it’s likely that no man would have bothered to criticize his campaign of sexual violence, and he would still be a widely beloved figure today.
Previously published on July 30, 2015.