“My departure from VTM was a #MeToo story,” said Marlène de Wouters Viva la feta, the Play4 program in which Otto-Jan Ham and Jani Kazaltzis receive well-known guests for a short vacation in Greece. The fragment lasted no more than three minutes, but was a bomb in the media world. I haven’t read all those comments. I don’t have to convince anyone of the truth, I just want to help other victims.’
She had an exclusivity contract, was allowed to present success programs and got her own talk show. And yet Marlène de Wouters suddenly left VTM. ‘Because we were no longer on the same wavelength’, it always sounded a bit vague, until that conversation last spring Viva la feta.
Marlène De Wouters: “I never intended to talk about it on television. But I’ve known Jani for a long time, he sort of knew what happened at the time and convinced me to tell. I could help other victims with it, he said. That convinced me.”
You told how for years you refused advances from a man in a position of power. In revenge, he started to put sticks in your wheels.
De Wouters: “I thought that abuse of power was the worst. There is nothing wrong with someone making advances. But using your power to get your way, or worse, to retaliate when you don’t get your way, is sickening.
“The advances have lasted for years. That man, an executive, called me, came into my box, was waiting for me after work, asked me out to dinner. At first I responded politely – “No, thank you” – but he kept insisting. Not a hair on my head thought about accepting his advances, so I became firmer. As a result, he started boycotting me. To give an example: a program that I had submitted myself, that had already been approved and that I had been working on for months, would suddenly be presented by someone else. I looked at it for a while, but crawling is not my style, so I left. I received an offer from the then channels VT4 and VIJFtv, and I started working for them.”
That all happened long before #MeToo.
De Wouters: “I keep getting the question: why have you been silent for so long? But we’re talking about twenty years ago, it was a different time. There was no #MeToo yet, there was no hotline where you could tell your story as a victim.
“At the time I confided in a few people from VTM. They wanted to help me, but couldn’t do anything. Other executives were also informed, but they remained silent. In order not to jeopardize their own career, perhaps. That man had power, hey, that’s what it always comes down to.”
After your testimony, you were inundated with responses. Some thought you were brave, others questioned your story because you had been silent for so long.
De Wouters: “I have not read the bitter reactions. What does it bring me? By the way, I don’t have to convince anyone, I just told my story to help others in the same situation.
“I thought it was bad that a journalist tried to undermine my credibility. He started calling around, looking for someone to contradict my story. I know that from, among others, Paul Jambers, with whom I was going to make a program together and who responded very correctly to it. The only one who let anything slip was Rick Tubbax, who had negotiated a contract for me once during my VTM period. He said it wasn’t right. That he had been there during those negotiations, that he had heard himself that VTM wanted to take a different direction and that my contract had therefore not been extended. VTM confirmed those statements, they appeared widely in the press. I almost fell off my chair. Rick had not been there at all during that meeting, he was on the other side of the world at the time!”
How did you react?
De Wouters: “I was shocked. I talked about it with Pascale Naessens, with whom I had good contact. She advised me to just call Rick. He fell from the sky. They had called him while he was working in the garden, he said. The question had taken him by surprise, he had been completely mistaken and had spoken of a negotiation that had taken place years before. He apologized and sent an e-mail to the editors concerned, in which he literally said that he was in no way involved in the negotiations and that he therefore had nothing meaningful to say about it. But the damage was done: all the media had taken over the message, everywhere it was stated that a manager contradicted my story. Conclusion: ‘Marlène’s departure was not a #MeToo story.’ I asked the newspaper to publish Rick’s emails as a rectification. They didn’t. “Then we will lose face,” was their response.
“I still wonder why the then VTM management was so quick to confirm Rick’s story, while he himself said a day later that it was not correct.”
Do you know whether more women at VTM were victims of transgressive behavior at the time?
De Wouters: “I can’t confirm that with 100 percent certainty, but if it happened to me, I assume there are still victims. Who may have accepted it, because that is what happens, of course.”
It’s a delicate question, but does your story show that as a woman you also have a voice in transgressive behaviour? That you can also say no and leave?
DeWouters: “Yes. You always have the choice. ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world‘ said Gandhi. Abuse of power is sickening. But if everyone reacted as I did, such people would no longer be able to abuse their power.
“Recently there was a scandal The Voice of Holland (the program was shut down after several complaints about sexually transgressive behavior and abuse of power, ed.). I read testimonials from girls and their mothers. Then I think: if my 15-year-old daughter came home with such a story, I would never accept it, no thinking about it. I understand it’s hard when your daughter has so much talent and wants to take her chance through such a competition, but some things you just don’t allow. Never. Speaking up can have consequences. Look at me: I will never say that the man cracked my career – I was allowed to make television for smaller channels for years – but he did give it a different twist. But that’s not the main thing. I can look myself in the mirror. That is worth much more to me.
“To be clear, this is not a ‘women against men’ story. I do not want to make it seem that all men are bad, because that is obviously not the case, the vast majority reject such behavior. And of course men are also victims.”
Have you regretted your testimony in Viva la feta?
DeWouters: “No. They portrayed it respectfully and I received a lot of positive reactions. On the whole episode, by the way. People who know me said they had seen the real Marlène. That’s a nice compliment.
“The fuss does show how much there is judging and judging nowadays. And how we do not base ourselves on facts, but on emotions. The media encourages that.”
Finally: do you have plans for 2023?
De Wouters: “A lot! I started singing two years ago. I gave a concert twice for a good cause, that was great, I would like to do that more. I also started playing drums. I don’t have my own drum kit yet – every time I have to go to a friend who does have one – but I want to buy one. I also want to learn a language. Spanish or Italian, maybe. I find Italian more sensual, but Spanish will get you further, I think. I want to travel, I absolutely want to see a number of cities in Scandinavia. And I also keep working, I often do coachings and presentations for the European Council, the European Union and for companies.
“Actually, I can say that I only do the things that I like. So let me just continue with that in 2023.”