The Guardian-Emine Saner
Brooke Shields: ‘I feel more empowered now than I ever did.’ Photograph: Guy Aroch
From Hollywood movies to naked photoshoots, the actor spent much of her youth in projects that now look more than a little creepy. She talks about her alcoholic mother, her new romcom and the happiness she has found in her 50s
How, I wonder, is Brooke Shields so sorted? She has survived a childhood with an alcoholic mother, some disturbing early films, a nation’s creepy obsession with her, a divorce and severe postnatal depression. She even came through the 90s’ overplucked-eyebrow trend unharmed. And here she is, radiant through my laptop screen, in her beautiful New York townhouse kitchen, with a dog at her feet, husband milling about in the background, one teenage daughter upstairs, another successfully packed off to college, and her sense of humour very much intact. She has, she says with a smile, when I point out how together she seems, “been going to therapy for 35 years”.
Shields is in a Christmas romcom, for Netflix, which is the gift you didn’t know you wanted. “There’s dogs, castles, knitters, pubs!” she says, laughing. I don’t need convincing. The plot of A Castle for Christmas may be as predictable as gift-wrapped socks, but sometimes you just need preposterous cosy escapism. Shields is great as bestselling American author Sophie Brown, who, suffering with writer’s block, escapes to Scotland to trace her roots and ends up acquiring a stately home. And, despite the film’s many conventions, a middle-aged romcom still feels quite radical. There are lots of women in their 50s like Sophie, she says, “who are taking their life in their own hands. They’ve raised kids, they’re moving on to this next phase and there’s a lot of power that comes with that.”
Shields has seen it in her friends, and in herself. “There’s a level of confidence, a level of ‘I don’t give a shit’. My friends are moms who are starting new careers, who are empty nesters, and who are saying: ‘I’m this age but there’s so much more for me to do. And I’m capable of it, and I’m independent.’ We love the men in our lives, but we’re not reliant on them. We’re not defined by this, this or this – and that includes motherhood. And I think that’s very appealing.”
Shields recently launched her own company, Beginning Is Now, an online platform for women, which came out of this newfound confidence. “I feel stronger, I feel sexier, I feel less burdened by: ‘Oh, what do they think of me?’ I’m not encumbered in the same way that I spent a great deal of my youth in. I still care about people, but I don’t put myself in this position to feel ‘less than’. And all of a sudden, I was like: ‘Why am I not represented?’ Why am I told: ‘You’re over because you’re not in your 20s’? I’m 56 and I feel more empowered now than I ever did.”
Shields has been famous almost all her life. She appeared in a soap advert when she was 11 months old, and famously as a prostituted child in the film Pretty Baby at age 11. As a teenager in the 80s, she was everywhere. There were the blatant cash-generators – there was a Brooke Shields doll and she put her name to a range of hairdryers – and also highly sexualised adverts for Calvin Klein, and the film Blue Lagoon, in which, not yet 16, she spent most of the time naked. Then Shields escaped it all and took up a place at Princeton University, which she says now perhaps wasn’t the best timing in terms of her career, but probably saved her sanity.
Hollywood is littered with the broken careers, and lives, of child stars. “I don’t know why I didn’t,” she says when I ask why she never hurtled down that path. “I talk about it a lot in therapy, but I think because I was so …” She pauses. “I had to keep my mother alive. The focal point for me was keeping her alive, because it was the two of us alone in the world, in my opinion.”
Shields’s mother, Teri, was a working-class girl from New Jersey who, through her wit, beauty and force of personality, had turned herself into a Manhattan socialite. She had become pregnant with Brooke after a brief relationship with a man from a wealthy New York family; they divorced when Shields was five months old. Shields then spent a strange childhood shuttling between her father’s affluent Long Island life and her mother’s penniless bohemia.
Shields was then – as now – beautiful, and Teri recognised this, shepherding her daughter’s career. “She had this baby that looked this way, and that’s how we survived,” says Shields. “My looking a certain way paid the bills.” Did that feel like a big responsibility? “I just loved the approval. And I loved working and I loved being on a set. We had fun, we travelled everywhere. So it wasn’t as if I felt the responsibility as much as: ‘Oh my God, we get to get a car. Oh, we bought a house. We bought another house.’ Like, if I do this, we get this. That’s the way it went for decades.” There was never a plan, she says, and she stresses Teri wasn’t pushy. “As long as I was happy, we kept doing it. I never did something I didn’t want to do.”
But some of the things Teri consented to on her daughter’s behalf – or even set up herself – seem so damaging. When Shields was 10, Teri commissioned a photographer, Gary Gross, to take nude photographs of her for the Playboy publication Sugar’n’Spice (later, Tate Modern removed an artwork based on the photograph, made by the artist Richard Prince, from an exhibition). When Shields, then 11, appeared in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, playing a child who grows up in a brothel and is then auctioned off to the highest bidder, she was filmed naked. Teri got a storm of criticism for allowing her daughter to be in the film – and for Blue Lagoon a few years later, in which Shields and her co-star Chris Atkins are marooned on an island as children, go through puberty and develop a sexual relationship. Shields had a body double for the sex scenes, but the whole thing is uncomfortable (off-screen, Shield wrote in her memoir, she and Atkins were being encouraged to fall in love for real; she was 14, he was 18). There is a misogynistic inevitability to the extent to which her mother was blamed, rather than the men who actually made these films, but still, you have to wonder what Teri was thinking. Would Shields have let her daughters do a film like Pretty Baby? “In 1977, probably,” she says. “Now, I don’t know if I would. It was a different era.”
Does she look at the film with different eyes now? Shields, who wrote a thesis on Malle’s work at college, is proud of the film (through her mother, she grew up with an appreciation for European arthouse films). She talks for a while about its “cinematic portrayal”, but acknowledges: “I just don’t know if you could make that movie today. I guess you’d have to have an actress who was older, playing younger.” She adds: “I’m not quite sure what the rules are now”, as if it’s an HR issue, rather than a societal one. “But I also wasn’t personally scathed by it.”
Did she not feel it was damaging even being exposed to those themes? “Not when you grow up in New York. I mean, it just takes five minutes to see – on the old 42nd Street – what prostitution was. And also I was very sequestered from all of it in my real life. I was a virgin till I was 22, so it was all pretend in my mind. I was an actress. I didn’t suffer privately about it.” But more widely, does she look back – at the films, the photos, the ads – and think how damaging it is, as a culture, to sexualise young girls like that? “I think it’s been done since the dawn of time, and I think it’s going to keep going on,” she says. She seems a little detached and academic about it, saying: “There’s something incredibly seductive about youth … I think it just has different forms and it’s how you survive it, and whether you choose to be victimised by it. It’s not in my nature to be a victim.”
If Teri was controlling, an upshot was that it was protective. Shields never “had a #MeToo moment”, she points out. Her mother would even come with her to nights out at Studio 54. “I could just dance and have a really good time, and she would make sure I got home,” says Shields. “I had school the next day. She protected me, like, nobody got near me.” For all their unusual situation, Teri tried to maintain a degree of normality for her daughter – they stayed in New York, rather than moving to Hollywood, and Shields attended normal schools – which probably explains why she seems grounded today. Teri, says Shields, “had her issues, but I felt loved by her”.
She thinks her mother’s alcoholism – in her memoir she writes painfully about Teri’s erratic behaviour – probably steered her away from drink or drugs, inadvertently rather than consciously. “I think that it seemed like a waste of time. Being not present, to me, seemed like a waste; she missed out on a lot.” Shields writes in her book that her career would have gone differently – or at least there would have been a solid plan – had she had a proper agent, rather than her mother’s scattergun, moneymaking approach (at one point Meryl Streep’s agent wanted to take Shields on, so long as she left Teri and committed to being an actor, rather than a celebrity; Teri refused to let her do it). “I think my talent would have been more forward than my fame,” she says now. Then again, she adds brightly, “the fame trajectory” – the one that relied on the products, and magazine covers, and gossip about dating Michael Jackson – perhaps explains her longevity. “So on the one hand, I think it would have gone differently, but I’m not sure I would still be here, or relevant or working.”
It must be so strange to have never really known anonymity. Did she feel able to become her own person? “I don’t think I became my own person until I got pregnant with my first kid,” says Shields. That was in 2003. “I finally now am my own person. It’s taken this many years, because if you grow up being accountable to a persona, accountable to the public, there’s so many different things that we are encapsulated in. And then I had my first kid, and no one could tell me really how to do it. Like, I’m responsible for that person. I’m doing this with this kid, and you just hope you don’t fuck them up.” She laughs.
It is also about getting older, she says. “For the past almost 20 years, I’ve been coming more into my own. I don’t spend time with people I don’t want to spend time with any more. I don’t spend time doing things I don’t want to do. I don’t make movies that don’t make me happy.” How much of it was breaking away from her mother? “I was like a summer away from being Grey Gardens with my mom,” says Shields of the 1975 documentary about a reclusive mother and daughter, both named Edie, who lived together. She says her first husband, the tennis player Andre Agassi, who she got together with in 1993, “really helped me sort of individuate from my mother and take ownership of my career in a proactive way. I think that that started me understanding that I could take control of my career, that I could focus on things that I wanted to do. So the individuation process from my mom was a lot later than most.”
Her marriage to Agassi broke up in 1999. In 2001, Shields married the screenwriter and producer Chris Henchy, with whom she has had two daughters. In her career, she found a home in comedy; her starring role in the sitcom Suddenly Susan brought her two Golden Globe nominations. Her ability to send herself up is obvious on her social media accounts, and A Castle for Christmas would probably have been awful without Shields’s comic charm. Comedy, she says, “is where I am the happiest”.
Was it a reaction against the teen sex-symbol image? She insists not, more that she’s part of a long tradition. “The visual of a pretty girl falling on her face somehow is really appealing. That’s been in comedy for a long time; Lucille Ball was a beauty queen. My image went through so many different machinations. I mean, it was like, I was the Lolita, then I was the most famous virgin. Whatever anybody wanted to label me as, they did. Now I’m the depression person, because I spoke about postpartum depression.”
Shields wrote a book, Down Came the Rain, about her experience of depression following the birth of her first daughter, at a time when few women, particularly movie stars, spoke about it. “I just set out to be honest, because I was suffering and I saw other people suffer, and nobody was talking about it, and that angered me,” says Shields. “I was like: why should I be made to feel like I’m not a good mom when no one told me about this? So I decided to be accountable and talk about it, because the shame surrounding it is really unfortunate. And it did help, which I’m told quite frequently. I wish that there had been something that I could have read. I wanted to give people forgiveness from it, I needed to be let off my own hook.”
In a career that has spanned more than 55 years, Shields – grounded, sensible and with a willingness to see the ridiculous in things – takes the long view. She realises that to try to keep her teen success going would have been a huge pressure as well as impossible, and that careers, if you’re lucky enough to have a long one, go up and down. “Nobody really can maintain it, but I learned that at a young age,” she says. “I’m not chasing it.”
A Castle for Christmas is on Netflix from 26 November