Thanks to singer Joy Villa’s commitment to toeing the MAGA party line, the red carpet of late has seen gowns emblazoned with Trump’s name and his “Build the Wall” slogan. Exactly 10 years ago, however, it was then-President Barack Obama who made the red carpet rounds when actress Victoria Rowell — best known for playing Drucilla Winters on The Young and the Restless — wore a self-designed dress featuring No. 44’s face to the Primetime Emmys on Sept. 20, 2009.
At the time, Obama was just eight months into his first term, and had yet to grow the gray hairs that he’d later jokingly blame on his White House role. And while MAGA hats and Twitter feuds had yet to dominate the political landscape, Rowell’s decision to eschew the glitzy gowns in favor of a bold sartorial show of support for Obamacare remains one of the most memorable and daring red carpet moves.
To mark a decade since her Obama dress debut — the 2019 Emmys take place this Sunday, Sept. 22 — Rowell is speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle about the activist intentions behind the look and why the garment will “always speak for justice.”
Rowell purchased the Obama-print Ankara fabric during a trip to South Africa to raise awareness about youth in foster care, which is how she herself grew up.
“I had a completely different dress that I was prepared to wear,” she reveals. “And during the time there was a huge struggle and tug of war with Congress over Obamacare. And I decided I'm just going to wear — I’m a designer, I designed the dress — this Obama dress as a statement to the tremendous need of healthcare for all, especially for indigent and low-income Americans.”
Her personal history also influenced the decision.
“People would ask me, ‘Well, what inspired you to do this?’ And I said, I spent 18 years in foster care. I understand being turned away. I understand what that is like, not to have healthcare, basic dental. And a lightbulb went off in people. I could see people understanding. ‘I get it. I didn't know that you were that close to this cause.’
“Not that I should have to be,” she adds. “Everyone should care, right? That there are millions of people that do not have any healthcare or have never seen a doctor or have never gone to a gynecologist, never been to a dentist, etc. And so I found that this was a signature moment.”
Rowell, who was also a cast member on Diagnosis: Murder and starred in films like The Distinguished Gentleman and Dumb and Dumber, says her scene-stealing fashion moment also let her call attention to other important issues, including the “lack of inclusion in soap opera, in daytime drama television.” In 2015, she filed a lawsuit against CBS, Sony and the producers of The Young and the Restless alleging racial discrimination and retaliation; the case was settled in 2017.
Rowell says that she had to “push” for the soap opera to hire its first black writer; she also lobbied for a black hairstylist and was dismayed when her request to direct an episode, which other actors on the show had done, was allegedly denied. And while in April Rowell took part in a Young and the Restless tribute to former co-star and onscreen love interest Kristoff St. John following his death, she claims that “Sony told my representatives that they have no intention” of bringing her character back on the soap.
Though Rowell had yet to file her lawsuit at the time of the 2009 Emmys, she says her Obama dress inspired her to speak out.
“Obama stands for justice, equanimity,” she says. “And it gave me an opportunity to talk about these glaring disparities in a multibillion-dollar industry and to hold the ownership — CBS, Sony, Bell Dramatic Serials — accountable. And to beg the question, why won't you include the rest of America in your hiring practices behind the camera?
“Unfortunately, as much as I love being an American, it's always been rather daunting being an African-American in America, because ‘separate but equal’ still exists,” she says.
Rowell still owns the dress, which she keeps stored. Busy working both in front of and behind the camera on the Urban Movie Channel series The Rich & the Restless and filming the drama Birdie, the star has no plans to attend this year’s Emmys — though she’s still very much committed to using the red carpet for a cause.
“I've been known to use my entertainment platform, not to walk down a carpet and vapidly show up in a fancy dress and shoes and answer these questions,” she says. “But to use the red carpet as an opportunity to talk about this seminal moment and to talk about the importance of healthcare, #TimesUp, sexual harassment, economic inclusion and entertainment for women.”
Calling the current political climate “daunting” and “alarming,” Rowell adds that, were she to rewear her Obama dress these days, it would carry a new sense of urgency.
“My message, very loudly, would be: Get out and vote in 2020.”
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