On a frigid Manhattan afternoon, playwright Eve Ensler strides into the offices of her publisher, Random House. All in black, she wears dark glasses and, pulled over her glossy black bob, a knitted ski cap emblazoned with “Vagina Warrior” in hot pink. Handing over her ID, Ensler casually flirts with the security guards. “Hey, warrior,” one of them shouts as she heads for the elevator. “Don’t cause a ruckus!”
Too late: At 50, Ensler has made a career of creating a stir, most spectacularly with her one-woman show about female sexuality, The Vagina Monologues, which began as a small Off-Off-Broadway production in 1996. Since then, the show has been staged in about 1,500 cities around the world and has spawned a global movement: V-Day, a campaign to fight violence against women that began as a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser in 1998 and is now an annual two-month season of Monologues benefit performances. V-Day has raised more than $20 million and funded such projects as a secret girls’ school in pre-war Afghanistan and a safe house in Kenya for teens fleeing female circumcision. In February and March Monologues will be staged in more than 1,100 communities worldwide, and a documentary chronicling the success of the movement will air on Lifetime Feb. 17. Boasts Ensler: “We now have the potential to become a real political force.”
A meeting with Ensler, though, is more pajama party than political rally. Soon after arriving at Random House, she has 10 publishing executives in hysterics as she simulates coitus in the conference room during a discussion of The Good Body, her upcoming play lampooning women’s fixations with Botox, Ab Rollers and anticarb dieting. “While we’re obsessing and fixing our bodies,” she tells the group, “men are running the world. It’s genius!” By the time the laughter subsides she has secured a 100,000-copy print run for the play and a hefty donation to her cause.
Such is the power of Ensler’s overwhelming personality. “Her vulnerability and her honesty are part of her charisma,” says her friend, actress Rosie Perez. Her partner of 14 years, Israeli writer and director Ariel Orr Jordan, 57, agrees: “Eve never loses an opportunity to have a big feeling.” Ensler, who allows herself what she calls “grieving days,” when she can spend five hours in bed sobbing, makes no apologies: “I don’t want to live in beige.”
Ensler has always lived in a Technicolor world. The second of three children of a food-industry executive and a homemaker, she grew up a self-described social misfit in Scarsdale, N.Y. Her father, who died about 15 years ago, sexually abused her from age 5 until she was 10, she says. “The way I kept my sanity was through writing and believing I could help other people get better,” she recalls. In fifth grade she created a club for unpopular girls. By the time she went to Vermont’s Middlebury College in the mid-’70s, she was a militant feminist. But she soon fell into an alcohol-and drug-fueled pattern of self-destruction. “I wanted to change the world,” she says, “and I simultaneously wanted to die.”
At 23, Ensler met her first husband, bartender Richard McDermott, who helped her sober up. However, it was his son, actor Dylan McDermott, who had an even greater impact. “He taught me how to love,” says Ensler, who adopted Dylan when he was 15. She split from Richard in 1988 but is close to Dylan, now 42. “She opened my eyes to literature, plays, politics,” he says. “She blew the doors right off my consciousness.”
Ensler continued to battle depression until 10 years ago, when she confronted the aftermath of her abuse with the support of Jordan, a former psychotherapist. Real confidence, she says, only came with the success of Monologues. “When you get to feel a sense of your worth in the world,” she says, “it changes your life.”
Ensler still lives in the two-bedroom apartment she moved into 27 years ago, but thanks to royalties from Monologues, she doesn’t have to sweat the bills anymore. Still, she’s as ambitious as ever. In 2000 she aimed to stamp out all violence against women by 2005. The timing, she admits now, might be off, but she remains optimistic. “I still think it’s possible to end violence against women,” she says. “I see it.”