Nicolle Rochelle streaked topless past Bill Cosby on the first day of the disgraced comedian’s second sexual assault trial, more than a week ago. In that hot window of time, she’s been stalked on social media and called an opportunist, a traitor to her race, and a washed-up, has-been actress.
That’s not all.
Like most women who attract ire in the public sphere, haters drew all kind of nutty conclusions about Rochelle based on her looks.
Yes, Rochelle is a black woman, but her light skin, critics say, is clearly why she hates black men. (Insert major eye roll here.) Other folks referred to her as a coon. And there were several people who poked fun at Rochelle’s breasts. Too saggy, they said.
But if the 38-year-old actress, who is a member of the international women’s group Femen, could do it all over again, she said, she certainly would.
“This was especially personal to me,” Rochelle told me from her home in Paris. In the early 1990s, Rochelle had a recurring role on The Cosby Show as a friend of Rudy, the youngest Huxtable daughter. “I thought he was a great man. But if I had just been a little older … that could have been me.”
Rochelle had been following the case closely from her home, and knew that in Cosby’s second trial on charges of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, the accusers — six in all, including Constand and former model Janice Dickinson — would have their say. As the trial drew closer, Rochelle became more convinced that these brave women needed her support, and that of Femen.
So Rochelle, who was already in the United States visiting family, planned her naked act of defiance with another protester. But when the second woman dropped out, Rochelle, who has been arrested twice in Paris for similar protests, forged on. A friend painted Rochelle’s breasts with 40 names of Cosby’s alleged victims, and on that cool Tuesday morning, she ran past Cosby just as he arrived at the Montgomery County courthouse screaming, “Women’s lives matter.”
She was arrested and released within three hours after promising to never return to Norristown.
“The point was to bring attention to what Bill Cosby did by sacrificing my body to symbolically give strength and voice to victims that were silenced and literally disempowered,” said Rochelle. “They were [allegedly] drugged. They could not move. Their bodies were used by this man.
“This had nothing to do with calling attention to myself,” she continued. “I’ve been called a liar and a whore so many times now. But they called Cosby’s victims liars and whores, too. People never want to believe women. …”
Listening to Rochelle discuss her feelings about Cosby — whom she referred to as America’s Dad several times — so candidly made me sad.
Growing up in the 1980s, I was such a big fan of The Cosby Show, part of the reason I went to New York University was because Theo, Cosby’s fictional son, went there. These days, however, the image of Cosby, a perpetually smiling dad who fancied colorful knit sweaters, has been replaced with that of a smug old man. And much like Rochelle, I wish I could go back to the days when Cosby was synonymous with Jell-O Pudding Pops and Fat Albert instead of rape.
“He betrayed us,” Rochelle said. “He betrayed us all. We believed him. He showed people we could be better. But he wasn’t better. This is why people can’t let it go. It was our childhood.”
Rochelle was born Nicolle Rochelle Leach, the daughter of two North Jersey teachers.
She landed her first acting job when she was 7 on PBS’s Shining Time Station, starring Ringo Starr. She also acted in HBO’s adaptation of popular YA series The Baby-Sitter’s Club before landing a recurring role as Danielle on The Cosby Show.
She acted through her teens and went to Brown University, where she majored in linguistic anthropology and studied French, Spanish and German. After graduation, she resumed acting in New York and taught French. In 2006, when Rochelle was 26, she moved to Paris, dropped her surname, and took the role of Josephine Baker in a stage production.
It was during this time Rochelle joined Femen, a group known for protesting topless to turn women’s bodies from sexual objects into political weapons.
“Josephine Baker was also my hero,” Rochelle said. “Like her, I wanted to marry activism with my work, Femen gave me that outlet.”
Rochelle, a contemporary singer who will release an independent album in May, brushed off most of her viral attacks. At this point, she said, she’s immune to colorism. And, she said, she will fight for victims of sexual abuse even when she gets called a whore.
But to be forced to defend Cosby just because he’s a black man? She won’t do it.
“Just because I’m against a rapist doesn’t mean I’m against black people,” Rochelle said.