She moved from Indiana “out of a clear blue August summer,” hell-bent on Hollywood. After modeling and a few music videos, her big break finally came: a featured role opposite one of the world’s biggest stars. But then, says Michael Michele, 22, the fantasy short-circuited into the tawdriest showbiz cliché. According to Michele, after spurning Eddie Murphy’s advances on the set of Harlem Nights, she was fired—by Murphy.
The average ingenue might have walked quietly—and wisely—away, clutching her severance pay. Instead, Michele forfeited that pay by refusing to free Paramount of responsibility and has chosen to go up against the full weight of the Murphy marquee. On May 9, she slapped him with a $75 million sexual harassment and breach of contract suit, alleging that his “attempt to attain a personal, sexual relationship” led to her firing and caused her “severe emotional and psychological damage.”
“It’s the God’s honest truth,” says the resolute Michele. “And when the ball hits the fence, it’s my word against his. If he’s lying about it now, I guess he’ll have to lie about it in court too.”
The elder daughter of Jerry Williams, an Evansville furniture-rental entrepreneur, and his wife, Theresa, who works for Bristol-Myers, Michele tried out for the part of Murphy’s designated African bride in 1988’s Coming to America. She didn’t get the role, but she clearly made an impression: When the time came to cast Nights, a 1930s gangster drama that marks his directorial debut, Murphy tapped her for his leading lady. After signing a contract for $27,500, Michele showed up for rehearsal at the Paramount lot March 29.
At first Murphy was cordial, says Michele, but by the second day, his attitude shifted. “I was sitting reading my script. Eddie taps me on my shoulder and says, ‘Bravo. You deserve an award for not even looking at me, Michael. Good. Real good.’ ” Michele says she laughed. “I wasn’t being unfriendly. I admired him.”
Through the rest of the run-through, she says, “he yells, ‘Speak up! Speak up! I can’t hear you!’—angrily.” Yet at the next rehearsal, April 7, Michele says Murphy “asked me out.” When he then tried to “fondle and caress” her, “I said no. He stormed off.” She soon heard that Murphy was boasting he’d fired her—a claim Paramount confirmed.
Murphy, who has never tried to hide his many romances, has called Michele’s charges “absurd and totally false. My integrity and professionalism are being attacked.” His manager, Robert Wachs, is threatening a counter-suit. “Women throw themselves at him,” says Wachs. “Why would he need to do this? Eddie felt her attitude was antagonistic. She did not fit into this movie’s healthy environment.”
Yet O.J. Simpson, who played Michele’s love interest in a fall episode of HBO’s 1st & Ten, says he’s incredulous at the uproar. “She was a very pleasant young lady,” he recalls. “A nice girl.”
Undaunted by the prospect of being blacklisted as a troublemaker, Michele vows to stick to her suit. “Everyone thinks I should allow this to happen because it’s Eddie Murphy,” she says. “But if keeping a job means lowering yourself to the casting couch, then we’re in a bad place. And if having integrity, ethics and morals means never being able to work in the entertainment industry,” she adds, “then maybe I did choose the wrong profession.”
—Susan Schindehette, Sue Carswell in New York and Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles