On the Tuesday morning before the Oscars, LSA senior Fabiana Diaz woke up to an email with the subject “Confidential — Academy Awards.” She opened it skeptically, positive it was spam.
Five days later, Diaz was standing on the Dolby Theater stage at the 88th Academy Awards with 50 other survivors of sexual assault as Lady Gaga sang “Till it Happens to You,” the Oscar-nominated ballad from “The Hunting Ground,” the song reverberating powerfully around the theatre to an immediate, thundering standing ovation.
At first Diaz wasn’t sure she wanted to be a part of Gaga’s performance. As amazing an opportunity as it sounded, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stand up in front of millions of viewers and “come out” as a survivor.
But her trepidation evaporated after she talked to her parents, her fiancé and her friend Andrea Pino — Pino was a primary subject of “The Hunting Ground,” and had nominated her for this event — all of whom convinced her this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
A few hastily constructed excuses to professors later, Diaz found herself sitting on a plane to Hollywood, getting classified email updates from Gaga’s team about itineraries.
“We got there Friday and I didn’t really think about all my emotions, you know, because there was just so much adrenaline,” she said in an interview with The Michigan Daily, adding that she was thinking about the possibility of meeting Leonardo DiCaprio on the airplane. “It was a bit of a starstruck moment.”
But once the plane touched down, meeting the other college kids who were there to participate in Gaga’s performance brought her back to reality. The conversations naturally turned to discussing their experiences; “Oh, that happened / happens to me too,” was the most common thing you’d hear throughout the day, Diaz said. Hearing about how other schools across the nation were dealing with assault cases, if at all, was sobering and led to immediate and deep emotional connections within the group.
“And that’s when I got on a rollercoaster ride that I wasn’t really prepared for,” Diaz said.
She said Lady Gaga was emotionally “a mess” when she first came out on stage to meet the college students.
“She was just like, ‘I just want to hug all of you.’ She was very emotional. She was like, ‘It’s been so hard to get out of bed, I didn’t want to come to practice … but you all being here with me is giving me the strength I need,’ and I think that showed us that we didn’t have to pretend we’re fine,” Diaz said. “This is when we first realized this isn’t easy, and it’s not going to be easy. And as exciting as this weekend sounds, it’s also very triggering.”
The formation of the participants for the show was three lines behind Gaga and her piano; they entered after the second chorus.
“We were just supposed to float in and all walk in together, and honestly when the song first started to play, this girl next to me, we just both started to cry,” Diaz said. “Gaga was talking to us constantly, she would not stop talking … it was an all-around good practice because it was just so personal.”
Towards the end of Friday night, one of the survivors suggested they all get matching tattoos. She brought it up to Gaga, who agreed — so they did. Stanford University student Jackie Lin, one of the survivors, designed it, using a symbol for unity and Lady Gaga’s favorite flower on fire. Gaga got the symbol tattooed on her back later in the week, but all of the survivors had the tattoos when they were on stage Sunday night. The tattoo itself is “kind of going viral,” Diaz said, with hundreds of requests daily from survivors who want to know if they can use the tattoo themselves.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday morning, the news of what Lady Gaga’s performance was incorporating started to leak; eventually people began to figure out what the 50 of them were there for, even though they weren’t allowed to talk about it on social media. While people were respectful, they often kept their distance.
“There was definitely an element of ‘oh, the survivors are coming through,’ ” Diaz said, even sometimes among Gaga’s team. It was an attitude that they understood, but didn’t appreciate.
“My name is Fabiana. I’m more than just a survivor; that’s not my only identity,” Diaz said. “I don’t want this awful thing to be the only thing I’m recognized for.”
Sunday morning, the group had a suite to themselves, complete with what Diaz called “the most bougie brunch.” There were kale chips, coconut water and some sort of non-fat bacon chocolate popcorn. Everything was non-GMO or vegan. Then they went straight into practice, after which they had to change into different clothes; they then had until 5:00 p.m. to do whatever they wanted. Gaga’s team wanted them in their own clothes on stage; they were college students, and the team wanted that to resonate with the millions of viewers. Being in jeans at the Oscars was weird, Diaz said, but before getting ready for the show, they all got dressed up for the red carpet.
“That’s when it started to hit you, like, ‘whoa, we’re at the Oscars,’ ” Diaz said.
They had a nice lunch and got their pictures taken, including some that “The Hunting Ground” will be using on social media. It was fairly overwhelming, Diaz said, as there was no time to digest. But that part of the day was also filled with laughter and fun. At one point, Diaz saw Ryan Seacrest and turned to her friend to try and convince her to go with her to introduce themselves. But her friend was too busy laughing hysterically at a pair of puppet hot dogs being filmed saying “Live from the Oscars.”
Once they were in holding — meaning they couldn’t leave until they were called to the stage — Gaga’s choreographers Richie and Lacey taught them the choreography to the song “Telephone” to calm their nerves. Then they got their hair and makeup touched up — all of which was minimal — and watched the first part of the awards ceremony on TV.
Gaga came backstage to talk to them before going on, telling the group “ ‘I want them to feel your pain,’ ” according to Diaz. After the performance, Diaz saw celebrities crying; while she appreciated their sympathy, she noted that she didn’t want them to forget about the people they saw on stage that night.
“For them, it’s a moment.” Diaz said. “I’ve cried for four years.”
When the survivors heard Vice President Joe Biden’s speech from backstage, it suddenly hit them that this wasn’t practice anymore. Then the lights turned off. It was so dark Diaz couldn’t see the person next to her. All 50 of them waited in silence, listening to each other breathing. When Gaga started singing, it immediately brought her back.
“Freshman dorm, second day,” Diaz said.
The survivors holding hands when they walked on stage wasn’t planned, Diaz said; neither was holding their arms up at the end of the song. Several were crying. They all had words or phrases written on their arms, like “survivor,” “we believe you,” “it happened to me,” or “not your fault.” For many of them, this was the first time they were public about their assaults.
As they were going off stage, Brie Larson (“Room”) hugged all of them, and several Oscar attendees thanked them. They watched as “Till it Happens to You” lost to Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” for Best Original Song. While everyone was surprised — they had been expecting Gaga to win — in the end, Diaz said, although it felt wrong, it also felt like it didn’t matter.
“She didn’t win, but she won, you know?” Diaz said. “She won the night.”
When Lady Gaga talked to them afterwards, she reiterated that sentiment. She spoke powerfully and graciously, Diaz said, and then posed for pictures with all of them.
Even though it sounds like a golden weekend in Hollywood, Diaz said, “I would give it all back.” And she added that’s also what she felt upon arriving back on the University of Michigan campus — that people didn’t understand. Everyone wanted to hear about the Oscars; she fielded constant questions about celebrities, the red carpet, awards, etc., but the people asking the questions didn’t seem to realize that expressing friendly envy was insulting. Diaz often felt like she had to remind people of the reasons she was there in the first place. Her phone was flooded with messages Sunday night, even from people to whom she hadn’t spoken in years, with messages like “I’m so proud of you!” and “We should meet up over break!”
“I wish I had turned my phone off that night,” Diaz said.
The thoughtless comments she dealt with prompted her to write about her experiences, sharing with Facebook friends and on other platforms that as cool as it was to share a stage with Lady Gaga, hug Joe Biden or hold Brie Larson’s award, none of that mattered nearly as much as the real reason she was there. Being a survivor of sexual assault doesn’t just mean you had a singular horrible experience.
It’s an “exhausting process,” Diaz said, and “there’s no guidebook to living” with it.
Over the past four years, Diaz said she has seen a change in how sexual violence is talked about and handled at the University, but added that there’s still a long way to go.
When she arrived on campus as a freshman, “Rape wasn’t talked about, unless it was a rape joke,” she said.
When she went to the administration about her own assault, she said, they handled it poorly. Even though her assailant wasn’t found guilty, she said, the administration promised he wouldn’t be in any of her courses. However, upon walking into her first class, she saw the back of his head, sitting in the front row. Four years later — weeks from now— he will be standing on the same graduation stage.
Going to the Oscars, Diaz said, was amazing. She got her picture taken on the red carpet, met interesting and quirky celebrities, made life long friends, ate bougie food and watched in person as Leo DiCaprio won his first Academy Award. And she’s happy that Lady Gaga’s team gave survivors a place to stand tall and be acknowledged.
“But,” Diaz said, “even though we deserved to be heard, and we were … this is an issue we want to continue to bring to the stage.”