Amy Nicholson – The Guardian
The model and actor talks about her films, marriage to Sylvester Stallone, the devastation of failed IVF, and the benefits of being a mother later in life
In a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, a beaming Brigitte Nielsen pulls out her phone to show me a video of a dark-haired baby girl. This is Frida, the child Nielsen and her husband, Mattia Dessi, had last year, after more than a decade of failed in-vitro fertilisation attempts. The couple, who this year celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary, had been told they had only a 2.5% chance of success, but Nielsen gave birth at the age of 54. “I was always like: ‘I want to do it until there are no more embryos left,’” says Nielsen. “Somebody has to win the lottery.” And she did.
IVF is not a process everyone could cope with, she says. “You’re on a lot of medication. It is very expensive. Hormones will do different things to different women … you always think you’re going to get pregnant, but most of the time, the phone call comes and it’s: ‘I’m sorry.’ It is devastating. The partner you’re with has to be onboard as much as you, unless you’re a woman who wants to have a baby on your own. You have to stay realistic and, if you’re older, the odds are against you.”
The couple first saw Frida’s heartbeat five weeks into the pregnancy, and went for checkups every week. “My doctor said: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t tell anyone until you’re 27 weeks pregnant.’” At that point, the doctor told her: “They have a 98% chance of survival, though they will have to stay in the hospital.” So, until 27 weeks, she kept her pregnancy a secret, even from her mother.
“I get a lot of letters and emails from women, so excited that I’ve given them the courage,” says Nielsen of the reaction to her being an older mother; although in certain sections of the media the response was quite unpleasant. “Some find it ridiculous, some find it awful, and some love it. I don’t really think it’s anyone’s business. It’s my husband and my life and we love what we do.” Besides, she says: “When people say you were 54 – yeah, well, what about all the men who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s? I saw Jeff Goldblum recently” – who just fathered his second son at 64 – “and I said: ‘Jeff! How are you doing, old daddy?’”
“As for Frida, she’ll say: ‘Mom, you’re an old hag.’ And I’ll say: ‘Frida, I’m the best mom you ever had.’”
To Nielsen, the unusual is ordinary. Growing up in Copenhagen, she wore a corset to correct her scoliosis and orthopaedic shoes because her right leg was longer than the left one. She was 6ft 1in (1.85m) tall and so skinny that she wore three pairs of trousers to school; the kids called her “giraffen”. Nielsen planned to be a librarian, like her mother. But the awkward bookworm was spotted by a modelling scout, and ascended to become a muse to the designer Helmut Lang.
Modelling came with unexpected risks. Most notably, she was running an errand before a shoot in the Seychelles in 1981 when she was accosted by mercenaries with machine guns who had just stormed the islands in an attempted coup. The men – one of whom she recalls as a red-headed Dutchman – hustled her and 40 other hostages into a cramped room at the airport, where she was held for more than 12 hours until the military retook the airport and Nielsen managed to flee. “I feel like I can smell the moment,” she recalls. “The gunpowder and the heat and the humidity. People were very ill. There was glass everywhere.” When she made it back to the set, the photographer yelled: “Where have you fucking been?!” She can still remember his “disgusting” breath.
“Men were terrible,” says Nielsen of her modelling years. “They thought if they bought you flowers or a drink in a club, that you would go home with them. I would have no problem going: ‘Ew!’ if I thought they were gross. But I saw a lot of girls, you could tell they didn’t want to, but they were afraid to say no and they would go home with these playboys.
“The situation with men was just as bad as it is now,” she says. “I don’t think men are going to change, ever. Some men are wonderful and some men are animals.” In her autobiography, You Only Get One Life, Nielsen describes herself as a creature Frankensteined into fame by two men, the modelling agent John Casablancas and the film producer Dino De Laurentiis. “They kind of chose me,” she says. “In my next life, if I get a next life, I would definitely not be an actress or a model. I would be a singer or my dog.”
Casablancas invented her image, chopping and bleaching her hair (and afterwards, she says in the book, escorted the teenager to his hotel room so she could express her gratitude). De Laurentiis flew her to Hollywood to star in his fantasy epic Red Sonja, where she made her film debut as a barbarian who shuns the male touch, and he gave Gitte, as she was then known, a new name: Brigitte. This identity gave her the brash alter ego she had secretly craved. It gave her the confidence, for instance, to pay a bellboy $20 to deliver her headshot and phone number to Sylvester Stallone’s hotel room, even though they were both married to other people. Stallone divorced his wife.
“It was a horrible marriage,” she admits with a shrug. Stallone was nearly twice her age, and would rather tuck into a long meal with his battalion of bodyguards than take his 22-year-old bride dancing. (He did, however, etch her face on a $20,000 glass dining room table.) The press dubbed them Beefcake and Cheesecake.
Stallone’s most priceless gift to her was the role of Ludmilla Drago, the Russian wife of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, a jingoistic distillation of the cold war to a boxing ring. Her chiselled features were well cast for an Olympic swimmer turned Soviet spokeswoman. She could have silently stalked across the screen once and made an indelible impression. Yet Nielsen is empathetic in a scene where Ludmilla defends her husband after he accidentally kills Apollo Creed. Unfortunately, afterwards, Hollywood couldn’t think of anything to do with an angular blonde who towered over her male co-stars. Ordinary characters were out.
“Everybody looks at you as a villain,” says Nielsen, and once she divorced Stallone, even the villain offers dried up. “After I left Sylvester, I kind of felt like I was blacklisted for a long time,” she says. The paparazzi hounded her about romantic conquests. She was tied to an NFL player, a blockbuster director and her female assistant. Some rumours were true, some weren’t. “I am almost positive that had I not been in the public eye with this famous man, that would never have happened. But they always thought: after Stallone, who is going to be next?”
“I was so angry at the time that I cut up my green card,” she laughs. “I was pissed off. I said: ‘I’m not an American – screw that, I’m out of here!’” She moved to Europe for nearly two decades, working as a singer and picking up acting gigs. She had two more husbands, bore three more sons, and made a few films she is proud of, including Lamberto Bava’s five-film Fantaghirò franchise, in which she played Strega Nera, the Black Witch.
During her fourth marriage, Nielsen began drinking. As that relationship neared its end, she took an overdose. “You don’t really want to die, but in that moment, you are so far out, you are literally ill, and you are drowning,” she says. “That’s why it happens – and that’s why I choose to talk about it so people don’t feel alone.”
Reality TV was, oddly, her salvation. Starting with 2003’s Danish Big Brother VIP, Nielsen spent years getting drunk on The Surreal Life, Strange Love and Celebrity Rehab. It wasn’t pretty – but it allowed her to see her addiction clearly. Plus, reality TV continues to hold her accountable. When she has relapsed, the tabloids notice.
She credits her current happiness to her fifth husband, Dessi. When they got together, she says: “Everybody was laughing in a bad way at us, because he was 25 and I was almost 40, so I was a joke. It’s always the woman that has to pay for the jokes.”
When the producers of Creed II asked her to resurrect Ludmilla Drago last year, she said yes – she was eight months pregnant with Frida, and they had to shoot around her belly. On set, says Nielsen: “Sylvester and I kind of buried the hatchet. He was in his American corner, I was in my Russian corner. We were very professional, and it worked out just fine.”
Perhaps Hollywood is finally ready for her return. “What’s good for me now is that the Marvel Universe is open to a lot of things, so I fit right in,” she notes. “And they’re redoing Red Sonja.”
It’s an opportune time to bring back a heroine who snarled: “No man may have me, unless he’s beaten me in a fair fight.” Although not if the studio insists on hiring the alleged sex offender Bryan Singer to direct. “We’ll see if Bryan Singer is going to stick with the project or not,” says Nielsen, neutrally.
Her focus, for now, is firmly on Frida. “I’m going to really have to protect her,” she says, mentioning her fears around social media. “You see a lot of solitude and loneliness … I want to empower her. I want her to travel, and have responsibilities; a little bit of the upbringing I had.”
Being a mother in her 50s definitely has benefits, she says: “I love having her now, because I had no idea what I was doing when I had my first baby at 20. I was all over the place. Work first, travel first, love first – it can wait. Although you don’t have to wait until you’re 54.
“I wonder why this all happens now,” she says. “I think the reason is I’ve been doing very well for years now, psychologically and physically. I wish I’d always been like this – but better late than never.”
- This article was amended on 11 February 2019 to clarify details of Nielsen’s experience during the Seychelles coup attempt.