Twenty years after her moment in the Hollywood spotlight, the famed water-safety activist has not slowed down.
Twenty years ago, Erin Brockovich was released, and the brash, unvarnished legal assistant turned activist at the heart of the film—memorably portrayed by Julia Roberts in micro-miniskirts and vertiginous high heels—had the surreal experience of becoming a household name almost overnight. “Let me be the first to tell you that life takes an interesting turn when your name becomes a verb,” the real Erin Brockovich writes in the introduction to her new book, Superman’s Not Coming. “To ‘Erin Brockovich something’ has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up.”
The first case that Erin Brockovich Erin Brockoviched—the subject of the movie—was her 1990s battle with Pacific Gas & Electric. The power company had contaminated the groundwater in the small desert town of Hinkley, California, with chromium‑6, a highly toxic chemical used in industrial processes. In 1991, Brockovich, then a file clerk at the San Fernando Valley law firm Masry & Vititoe, happened upon suspicious medical records while sorting through a box of files for a pro bono real-estate case. She drove out to the Mojave Desert to investigate. The water was green. She saw frogs with two heads. Residents were suffering from nosebleeds, miscarriages, and cancers. She persuaded Ed Masry to take the case, and in 1996 they won a $333 million settlement for 650 plaintiffs, at the time the largest toxic tort settlement in American history. (Brockovich herself received a $2.5 million bonus.)
Brockovich, 60, is magnetic, fast-talking, and very funny, not unlike her character in the movie, a portrayal she calls “about 97 percent accurate.” On the early-May afternoon when we first speak via Zoom, she is in her home office in Agoura Hills, California, a sunny room with shelves full of framed photographs of her now-adult kids. She lives alone (she and her third husband divorced in 2015), save for her three small dogs, one of whom, a Pomeranian named Wiley, is yapping in the background. She tells me she has been working on an ABC drama based on her life, Rebel; she will executive produce and Katey Sagal will star.
Erin Brockovich grossed $256 million worldwide, a success only partly attributable to Julia Roberts’s charismatic performance, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. The movie made its namesake into a kind of American folk hero, à la Davy Crockett or Mother Jones. (Every time her name floated up on my phone, it was like Annie Oakley had texted me.) Like most folk heroes, her appeal is a populist one. Audiences could see themselves in this struggling, twice-divorced single mom who wasn’t a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, and believe that they too might fight injustice. To “Erin Brockovich something,” then, means not only to investigate an issue, but to be a regular person who takes on a corporate giant polluting the environment. The notion feels especially urgent now, as the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency fails to regulate toxic chemicals and industry lobbyists wield undue power.
After the movie’s release, Brockovich, who was already at work on another contaminated-groundwater case—this one in the Latino farming community of Kettleman City, California—was deluged with emails and letters. “I put my finger in the dike,” she tells me, “and I thought I might help stop its flow. I had no idea.” In 2005, she left the law firm to start her own company, Erin Brockovich Consulting, which she runs out of her home; she advises people on environmental-contamination issues, consults with law firms, and is a regular on the keynote-speaker circuit.
She continues to receive thousands of emails every month. “A mother writes me and says, ‘I’m concerned. I live down in Florida. My daughter was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. I have heard reports that we had a solvent chemical in our water. Do you know anything about it?’ ” she says, describing a typical email. The following week, another email from another mother. A few of these, and she searches her inbox for the town’s name: “I’m like, ‘Holy shit. Ten people from that same community have reached out to me.’ This happened to me over and over again.”
Brockovich is dyslexic and has a photographic memory; she prefers to see things laid out visually, so she started plotting the email inquiries on a map. One day, she looked at her map and counted 300 dots scattered around the country. She decided to make her work accessible to more people, so she digitized it and put it up on her website. Here, people can self-report health effects of environmental pollution, and find others reporting the same issue. “I looked at it today and there’s 13,000 dots on it,” Brockovich says. “It’s like, ‘What the fuck? What’s going on?’ ”