With flamboyance and charm, Erin Brockovich captivated an audience of 1,200 Thursday at the Givens Performing Arts Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
She was the first guest of the university's 2001-2002 Distinguished Speaker Series.
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The audience hushed when Brockovich emerged from the velvet curtain, dressed in her signature black bustier, black dress pants and excessively tall, stiletto heels.
"My name is Erin Brockovich. The real Erin Brockovich."
Cheers, whistles and powerful applause followed.
Brockovich became a household name when Julia Roberts portrayed her true story in the blockbuster movie bearing her name. Brockovich was a single mom whose investigation of Pacific Gas and Electric's willful contamination of ground water in Hinkley, Calif., resulted in the largest legal settlement in U.S. history - $333 million.
High amounts of hexavalent chromium in the drinking water was found to be the cause of various forms of cancer, birth defects and illnesses in Hinkley residents. At 20-24 parts per million, the readings were at least 400 times the acceptable level of 0.05.
In the movie, Brockovich's (Roberts) provocative attire landed her a job. "In reality, my skirts are shorter than Julia's."
Being portrayed by Julia Roberts in an Academy Award winning performance made a positive impact on her life.
"It still seems very surreal to me," she said. "Julia did a very good job."
Brockovich credits the residents of Hinkley with teaching her the importance of dignity and respect, and she warned students in the audience that their personal ethics would be compromised when they enter the work force.
"Doing the right thing isn't always the popular thing," Brockovich said. "Seek truth, never compromise integrity and be true to yourself."
She is currently director of environmental research for the Masry and Vititoe law firm in Westlake, Calif. Brockovich has also written a motivational book that is to be published by McGraw-Hill in November.
Brockovich entertained the crowd with personal reflections and lessons she learned from her most influential role models, her parents. Her mother's emphasis on "stick-to- itiveness" and father's "tough sh**" and "you have to" attitude were hard to accept but helped her overcome many obstacles.
The self-described "dyslexic with an attitude" stumbled through poverty, two failed marriages, a car accident and raising three children on her own.
"Persistence and determination got me through," she said. "I believe in the power of one. There is power in the individual, there is power in us as human beings."
Future speakers in the Distinguished Speaker Series include Ralph Nader (Oct. 30), Edward James Olmos (Nov. 20), Maya Angelou (Feb.26) and Sherman Alexie (Apr. 2).
Vukcevic is a junior and journalism major at UNCP.