In 2034, don't be surprised if Alyssa Milano runs for U.S. Senate. But right now, the actor and activist is fending off attacks from the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.
How does a celebrity tick off the head of a massive government regulatory agency? Although Milano is best known for her roles on the television shows Who's the Boss?, Melrose Place, and Charmed, she is also a social media powerhouse. Her Twitter bio warns her more than three million followers "I get political/personal here," and encourages those who only want career updates to go elsewhere. The past few weeks, Milano has been using her platform to advocate for net neutrality, calling Pai's proposed dismantling of the Obama-era regulations a threat to our democracy.
In response, Pai mocked Milano and other celebrities, including Cher and Mark Ruffalo, who have also advocated in favor of net neutrality. During a speech at the R Street Institute, a conservative organization that describes itself as a "free market think tank," Pai reportedly told the crowd:
I'm threatening our democracy? Really? If this were Who's the Boss? this would be an opportunity for Tony Danza to dish out some wisdom about the consequences of making things up.
Rather than hit back at Pai, Milano unleashed a torrent of tweets on the merits of the policy.
The #MeToo Moment Wasn't The End — Or Even The Beginning
Those who doubt the power of online activism need look no further than the #MeToo movement. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein news, a friend shared with Milano a screenshot encouraging women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to share "Me too" as a status. Milano tweeted it out, writing:
If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write "me too" as a reply to this tweet.
Then, she went to bed.
"I woke up, seven hours later to 53,000 tweets," Milano says. "The dams just broke." (At the time, Milano was unaware "Me Too" was created by the work of Tarana Burke, an oversight that she then acknowledged and sought to remedy.)
Since mid-October, #MeToo has taken on a life of its own: millions of interactions across social media platforms, intimate conversations shared among friends and family, and legislation by the same name aimed at tackling sexual harassment in congress. It has become what New York Times gender editor Jessica Bennett calls "a lens through which we view the world, a sense of blinders being taken off."
How A Child Actor Became An Activist
Milano has spent almost her entire life in the spotlight: "I'm the eternal cousin," Milano says with a laugh. "I grew up in people's houses." Over the course of her long career, her motivation for maintaining her celebrity has evolved. In 2000, while shooting a mini-series, Milano lived in South Africa. On the days she wasn't on set, Milano explored the country, still recovering from apartheid, and volunteered at a children's hospital.
"It changed my life forever," Milano tells Bustle. "I realized who I was. And I realized how what I did for a living was a complete contradiction to who I was. There was an awakening that happened at a cellular level."
"I realized how what I did for a living was a complete contradiction to who I was."
Not even 30 years old, she had what many would consider a mid-life crisis. She sold her house in Beverly Hills and moved to the country, rescuing eight horses. "I dedicated a good portion of my life to nurturing that side of who I was that didn't have the opportunity to be awakened before that trip," Milano explains. Milano, who has been acting since she was seven, continued to act, but also decided that she would use her platform to affect change.
In 2003, UNICEF named Milano a Goodwill Ambassador. The following year, she campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
"I went to every single swing state, with a bullhorn in the back of a pick-up truck," Milano says nostalgically. "People don't understand how small politics can be. I really fell in love with the process of campaigns being run out of someone's garage in Colorado."
"My philosophy is that if you can educate and empower, and give people the tools to make a difference, they will want to."
A few years later, Milano took that bullhorn online when she joined Twitter. "Throughout the day, I check in with Twitter," Milano tells Bustle. "I follow a lot of people who are putting good information out there." Milano refers to Sundays as her "tweet storm night." At the beginning of each week, she picks a topic on which she hopes to raise awareness, and unleashes a torrent of tweets. "My philosophy is that if you can educate and empower, and give people the tools to make a difference," Milano tells Bustle, "they will want to."
Milano's interests and passion points are wide-ranging. In a given week, she may tweet about net neutrality, the GOP tax plan, sexual harassment, the famine in Yemen, and North Korea's ballistic missile test. On another week, it might be immigration or women's rights.
Why Politics Has Never Been More Personal
At a time when the president of the United States, himself a former reality TV star, uses Twitter to insult the press and foreign leaders, it should not be surprising that an outspoken celebrity's tweets would rattle some political cages. These are strange times, and the idea that anyone has to stay in their lane seems antiquated.
Earlier this year, late night host Jimmy Kimmel used his opening monologue to rail against Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. It was a dramatic and emotional pivot away from Kimmel's usual apolitical fare, inspired by his newborn son's congenital heart defect. In response to critics who suggested that the comedian should stay in his lane, Molly McNearney, co-head writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! (and Kimmel's wife), tweeted:
It would be irresponsible knowing what we know and experiencing what we experienced to "stay in our lane." Move over. We're merging.
"The celebrities that are really speaking out against this administration in a fearless way, were always fearless."
Milano pushes back against the idea that there has been an uptick in celebrity activism in the wake of Trump's presidency, and argues that many of those same celebrities were advocates before. Milano points to fellow actors Ruffalo, Debra Messing, and America Ferrera as examples of those whose activism predates the Trump administration.
"The celebrities that are really speaking out against this administration in a fearless way, were always fearless," Milano says, "They just didn't have so much to fight for or against."
When Bustle asks Milano if she'd ever consider running for office, she doesn't hesitate — "Yes, but not until my children are grown," she says, definitively. "I'd like to be a senator. I can age gracefully and still make a difference." It will be fifteen years until her youngest child, a three-year-old daughter, will be eighteen. So for now, Milano will focus on the unique platform she's built and reaching as many people as she can.
"If you break these stories down so that people can feel something from them, and it's not just numbers or statistics and you're telling the individual stories, there's not a sane human that wouldn't want to help."