When Ben Vereen held auditions for “Hair” at a community theatre in Florida in 2015, the Tony winner said he wanted to break new ground with the rock musical.
But in a sickening twist, several young actresses cast in the show claim the Broadway legend’s sexually abusive behavior nearly broke them.
The women — part of the Venice Theatre production outside of Tampa — say Vereen forced unwanted kisses, hugged them aggressively, stripped naked during an acting exercise and made degrading comments about their weight, sex appeal and personal lives.
Two of the actresses told the Daily News that Vereen lured them to his Florida rental home on separate occasions in September 2015 under the guise of “private rehearsals.” Then he pressed his erect penis into their legs without warning.
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Kaitlyn Terpstra was 22 years old at the time. The other actress, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Kim, was 23 years old.
Vereen was weeks shy of his 69th birthday.
In a lengthy statement to the Daily News Thursday, Vereen did not deny the accusations.
“I would like to apologize directly to the female cast members of the musical ‘Hair’ for my inappropriate conduct when I directed the production in 2015,” he said.
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The women, who first provided statements to Chris Peterson of the blog OnStage before speaking to The News, said they had no idea until recently that Vereen used the same lines on both of them to get them naked in his backyard hot tub.
“He gave this whole speech about how nudity was not inherently sexual. ‘That’s not what it’s about.’ He made me feel that if I wasn’t mature enough to understand that, I wasn’t mature enough to be in ‘Hair,’” Terpstra told The News.
“He basically told both of us, ‘Get over yourself. Nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.’ If we asked questions or hesitated, we were the ones making it weird,” Kim said.
The women said once they got into the hot tub, Vereen began breaking them down with probing personal questions allegedly aimed at reaching creative breakthroughs. This was the same technique he used during rehearsals when he made different cast members, usually women, sit in the center of a circle and discuss their emotional triggers.
“He was acting as my mentor, asking me about my parents, then that same night, he put me on his lap while I was crying, and I felt his erection,” Terpstra recalled.
“He asked me, ‘Feel that?’ It was terrifying. I said, ‘Feel what?’ I wanted to act like I didn’t. I pushed myself off with a laugh. Then later, he asked, ‘Do you think I want to f–k you?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and he got angry. He said, ‘Well, I don’t, and that’s unfortunate.’ He made me feel like I had my mind in the gutter.”
Kim said during her time in the hot tub, things went even further. He asked her to perform oral sex on him. She passively obliged, feeling “confused,” she said.
“I just think at the time, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I didn’t want to do it, but I was intimidated and scared. He was being very intense and angry. He seemed very angry and offended. I had seen him behave this way toward others in the tribe during circle,” she told The News.
“I just felt powerless because I thought I really needed his help and guidance. And when he said nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, I was like, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t even sexual,’ ” she said.
“Now I understand it was a power play. It was so calculated. It was like we were putty in his hands.”
In his statement, Vereen said he gained new perspective on his behavior in the last two years.
“While it was my intention to create an environment that replicated the themes of that musical during the rehearsal process, I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here. So I am not going to make any excuses because the only thing that matters here is acknowledging and apologizing for the effects of my conduct on the lives of these women,” he said.
“Going forward, my having come to terms with my past conduct will inform all my future interactions not only with women, but with all individuals. I hope these women will find it in their hearts to accept my sincere apology and forgive me,” his statement read.
The musical “Hair” first debuted in 1967 and portrayed the hippie culture and sexual revolution of the 1960s. Its nude scene was a sensation.
Cast members say Vereen, who played Claude in the original musical from 1968 to 1972, used the artistic boundaries of the show to take advantage of the star-struck, volunteer cast at Venice Theatre.
Terpstra said she was asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, even though she didn’t have a lawyer present, and that the document propped up Vereen’s aura of power.
The Broadway icon gained more influence over the group with his repeated claims he wanted to take their little production on the road, Kim said.
The prospect of a traveling show stoked the cast members’ hopes they could earn their highly sought-after Actors’ Equity Association cards, she explained. The elite union provides everything from health insurance to a guaranteed minimum wage and is often viewed as a springboard to a professional acting career.
“He mentioned all of us getting our Equity cards. He said if we went on tour, we would all get our cards,” Kim told The News. “There were lots of those kinds of promises. He was painting glorious pictures.”
Kim willingly admitted she became involved in a relationship with Vereen, saying she convinced herself it was more spiritual than sexual. She recalled being at Vereen’s home one night trying to sleep when he started to have sex with her. He asked if it was OK, and she gave a resigned “uh-huh” response, she recalled.
Eventually, she started crying and asked him to stop, she said.
“You said it was OK,” he allegedly scolded her, according to Kim.
A third actress, Ariella Pizarro, said Vereen pressed himself against her one night as he hugged her goodbye and later texted her, “Yo (sic) felt so good tonight.”
The News obtained a copy of the text message sent by Vereen and confirmed the number was listed in his name.
Pizarro said Vereen also randomly kissed her on the lips in the first few weeks of rehearsals, when she was 22 years old.
“We were in a music rehearsal, and he was just walking around, and then he walked up and kissed me on the lips. It was so weird. We all knew ‘Hair’ was going to be a different kind of production, like in the 60s, but he didn’t even ask first. He just kissed me. I was shocked, for sure,” Pizarro said.
“He didn’t shove his tongue down my throat, but it gave me an uneasy feeling. Then he moved on. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “From that point on, I kept myself at arm’s length with Ben.”
An actress who also asked to be identified by only her first name, Vera, said she, too, was bombarded with hugs and an overwhelming invasion of space by Vereen.
Vera, who was 27 during “Hair,” said in a statement first shared with the blog OnStage that she went to Vereen’s rental home for a rehearsal with two male cast members, but Vereen held her back in conversation while the other cast members left — allegedly as an attempt to get her alone.
“(Vereen) proceeded to wrap his arms around me and lay me down on the couch. I was shocked. I had never been in a situation like that before,” she said in the statement she also shared with The News. “He kept whispering things into my ear like ‘relax’ and ‘Give yourself to me.’ After the initial shock wore off I stopped his advances. He was never pleasant to me again.”
Several cast members also recalled one particularly uncomfortable day when they had to strip for a rehearsal exercise related to the show’s big nude scene. Vereen decided he should also get naked, they said.
“It was uncomfortable, to say the least,” Pizarro said.
Kim recalled being “shocked” at all the scars on Vereen’s chest and abdomen. He was in a terrible accident in 1992 where he crashed his Corvette into a tree in Malibu, Calif. Later that day, he was struck by an SUV driven by music producer David Foster on the Pacific Coast Highway and thrown 130 feet.
Kim said after Vereen presented himself naked to the group, he made a point of whispering something to her before she left.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” he allegedly asked, according to Kim.
Stunned, Kim asked him to repeat himself.
“Oh, nothing,” he responded with a giggle, she recalled.
In a series of statements to The News, Venice Theatre officials said they finally became aware of the full extent of the allegations against Vereen after Terpstra posted about her experience on Facebook in November.
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The theater attempted to contact every member of the 32-person “Hair” cast in the last few months and reached all but about six, a spokeswoman said.
“We have learned recently that during our 2015 production of ‘Hair,’ more than one female cast member was asked to join Mr. Vereen at his residence. Some of those visits resulted in compromising situations for at least two of the actresses,” Executive Director Murray Chase said in a statement to The News.
“We are working to strengthen our sexual harassment policies and procedures, including the reporting of them, to prevent any future occurrences,” he said.
Pizarro said the theater invited her to speak to the board about her experience with Vereen, which she plans to do at some point.
Terpstra said her final breaking point happened during the last night of rehearsal in November 2015 when the cast was required to put on robes in preparation for the big nude scene.
“(My robe) was very short. I had mine on, I was one of the last ones to grab a robe, and he said in front of several members of the cast, ‘Yours is very short. Everyone will see your cooter, not that everyone hasn’t seen it anyway.’ I got really mad,” she recalled.
Later, during the warmup, Vereen asked if she had something to say to him, and she shouted, “Don’t ever flirt with me again!” she recalled.
“Flirt with you? Why would anyone want to flirt with you?” he allegedly responded, she said.
Vereen motioned her to talk to him in the hallway, she said, and it was there the two got in a heated argument.
“He backed me against the wall. I started to walk away and he grabbed my arm so hard, it made a slapping noise,” she recalled, adding that she shouted “don’t f–king touch me.”
She said Chase had to step in, walking with her outside and listening as she sobbed. Terpstra said she’s not sure exactly what she told him, but she thinks she mentioned at least one forced kiss. She said Chase later sat in on the final dress rehearsal, but Vereen was not banned from the building.
Chase told The News he remembered the hallway incident but thought it was isolated.
“While we were aware of an altercation between Ben Vereen and Ms. Terpstra, we have now learned of additional situations,” he said.
Terpstra said she was moved to speak up on Facebook by the scores of women who stepped forward to say Harvey Weinstein used his power as a movie industry gatekeeper to prey on young actresses, she said.
Fellow cast member Zach Wasson responded to her post in November, saying he clearly recalled Vereen’s inappropriate treatment of women in the show.
“During warmups … he would meander through the group, totally ignoring the men, but groping and kissing on the women, ogling their bodies in a really obvious way. The women who demurred would inevitably be humiliated in the circle later,” he wrote.
Another cast member, Brian Finnerty, recalled the final blow-up between Vereen and Terpstra, saying the entire rehearsal froze as the screams bellowed from the hall. He witnessed Chase get between them that night, he said.
“‘Don’t f–king touch me!’ and ‘I said get off!’ were comments I heard from Terpstra against Vereen as he was trying to put his hands on her,” Finnerty said in a statement to The News.
Around the time Terpstra shared her story online, Chase and the theater’s president Laura Kopple reached out to apologize in a letter, she said.
“First and foremost, our staff and board want to say, unreservedly, that we are truly sorry what happened to you with Ben Vereen,” the signed letter shared with The News read.
“We are deeply sorry for not truly realizing the extent of what happened, or the impact of his actions,” it continued. “We are deeply sorry for not responding in the way we should have.”
The theater also offered to pay for Terpstra to seek counseling.
Both Terpstra and Kim said their experience on “Hair” had lasting effects. Neither has acted in a production since. Terpstra said she moved to New York thinking she would rediscover her lifelong passion, but she gravitated to burlesque instead, saying it gives her complete creative control.
“Acting was part of my identity since I was 8. So maybe it’s a pretty big deal. But if I expect I’m going to have to work around people trying to abuse me, of course I will find it less appealing,” she explained.
Kim said the idea of auditioning makes her think of Vereen. After she ended their relationship over the phone once the production ended, she went to live on a vegan farm in Hawaii to work on “loving’ herself again, she said. Later, she returned to a job at Venice Theatre to “re-define that space,” she said.
“This summer I cut my hair really short, almost pixie cut length,” she said. “I did it as a symbolic act of moving on from ‘Hair’ and from Ben Vereen, starting fresh.”
She was still at Venice when Terpstra began posting about Vereen on Facebook. “It was deeply upsetting,” she said. “I started to feel completely unhinged.”
Kim said she finally mustered the courage to tell Chase what happened. She said he apologized and said the theatre would pay for her to see a therapist as well. It was her first experience with counseling, and she went twice before moving to New York in the last two months.
“I’m really thankful he offered that,” she said.
Kim was adamant Vereen should never be allowed to work with young people again. He tore down her self-esteem and she’s been trying to build it back up, she said.
When she heard that Vereen’s statement to The News included an apology, she wasn’t convinced it was genuine.
“It’s nice, but I’m not sure I believe it. Those words aren’t going to take back everything he did. I confronted him in that last phone conversation (in 2015), and he was like, ‘How dare you say that,’” she recalled.
“I’m just happy he actually apologized and didn’t deny it,” Pizarro told The News.
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