THE COMING OF AGE ISSUE
Brooke Shields epitomises coming of age in the public eye. She started modelling at 11 months old; Eileen Ford even stated that she started a children’s division of her agency exclusively for Brooke. Aged 11, she was cast in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby as a child prostitute in 1917 New Orleans to public outrage — columnist Rona Barrett condemned it as child pornography. More recently, in 2009, police from the obscene publications squad removed Richard Prince’s appropriation of Gary Gross’s infamous images of a prepubescent Brooke from the Tate Modern in London. She was at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol before she finished high school, shooting Vogue covers and Calvin Klein campaigns at the age of 14, provoking profound indignation and angst among conservative audiences.
We were delighted to get the opportunity to hear Brooke’s side of the story, to find out what it was actually like on set and how her atypical experiences played into a typical coming of age narrative of navigating teenage identity. Almost three decades after photographer Richard Avedon shot Brooke in the infamous and controversial Calvin Klein jeans campaign and 12 American Vogue covers, we asked her to sit for portraits in New York with his grandson, photographer Michael Avedon.
Olivia Jasmine Singer: Brooke, it’s so fantastic to have you on board for the coming of age issue! We’re looking at people who are seminally involved in coming of age film and art, and when we first thought of the issue, you were one of the names that came into our heads straight away.
Brooke Shields: It’s a topic that I’ve always been fascinated by; I even ended up writing my university thesis on coming of age, on the voyage from innocence to experience. And I feel like I’m continually coming of age… I guess that’s what happens!
One of the things that strikes me most about you is how you’ve been in the public eye throughout your entire life: growing up as a child model and starring in Pretty Baby, to recently publicly speaking out about pregnancy and motherhood. It’s really interesting how you’ve negotiated an entire journey to maturity in the public sphere…
I think that there’re two ways to go about it when you’re in the public eye from so early on: you can either become a victim to it, or you can learn how to adapt. It’s been a long journey of working out how to define myself within my own context. But, once I got older — particularly when I started to look at the topic of maturity intellectually — I started to feel like less of a victim. Because I was in the public eye, I could choose to speak or write about things that were firsts for me, but not unique experiences, and open up a dialogue around them. Before I knew it, I wasn’t alone with those experiences, but rather people were saying, “oh, that happened to you? I felt that way, too.”
That makes sense because what you’re saying about learning how to define and empower your own identity as you grow up isn’t uniquely a ‘celebrity’ experience. I read that Susan Sarandon, speaking about Pretty Baby, said that what was so distressing for the audience was in the film, Violet specifically wasn’t a victim, she owned her own image and sense of self, and how unsettling that was, how disorientating for people…
Well, the way [Louis Malle] did it cinematically was a fascinating thing — at the end of Pretty Baby, when Violet turns back around and looks directly into the lens, he’s making a very clear statement — he’s saying that she wasn’t the victim. Violet seemed to exist on her own terms. And it was because Malle left a lot of the decisions about Violet with the audience that makes the film so interesting. The responsibility for how one chooses to see Violet falls upon the audience, the eroticism and sexuality is our imposition rather than her truth. I got very spoiled at a very young age! I have to say, to start off with that movie — well, it’s downhill from there! I look back and think, “my God!” It was a blessing and a huge curse only insofar as everything else would pale. [Laughs]
How was it filming that, so young? The sexual scenes with an older man… it must have been bizarre, confusing…
You know, if I had been savvier… well, I wouldn’t have gotten the part! Louis was often quoted as saying he didn’t want to hire Lolita. There was a place for that, but in his story, in this particular depiction, he wanted to make sure that his focus was truly innocent and naïve. I was the juxtaposition of this innocence and this seeming maturity, and I don’t know what I can attribute that to, per se. I was a naïve child and that naïveté was very upheld. I don’t know whether that’s because my mother protected me from the business and really buffered me, or whether there was some innate piece of me that maintained this naïveté — whatever it was, I feel like a great deal of it is a through-line of me. I still have this sense of a wonder of things, even at my age now. I don’t think he wanted this knowledgeable, experienced, coquettish person and I wasn’t those things anyway. So, for me it wasn’t shocking, it wasn’t disturbing. We were making a movie, we weren’t doing a documentary. His creative license, his creation of the sets and scenes, and recreation of that period in the red light district — well, there was a beauty to it and a lusciousness to it and an art to it. And because I was in that context, I didn’t feel compromised. I mean, I was 11! I’d go to the bathroom with the door open and talk to people. I had no shame. I was very innocent, and they protected that. Nothing was creepy, I never felt unsafe and everyone on the movie was very kind and quiet with me. Louis didn’t direct lasciviousness into it.
I think that really came through — you were an 11 year old girl, not a sexually active 18 year old playing a child. It’s that naïveté and ‘wonder of things’ that permeates the film — or your depiction of Violet, at least.
Well, that’s what’s interesting — when you regard the criticism of it, it ended up being far worse than the actuality of the filming. On set, I wasn’t told anything was sordid, so I didn’t feel like anything was sordid — we were in this extraordinarily set decorated house, all the costumes were real, we were in this environment where even our undergarments were authentic. You walked into this world, this beautiful world. I understand how the press machine would jump on it because the topic is fraught — but what was interesting from my perspective was that I didn’t feel these things, so I couldn’t understand the criticism. It doesn’t make for exciting journalism; people want to hear that I was tortured, that doing the film was my loss of innocence. I understand that, but it’s a very interesting thing when the press and the media surrounding it, the banning of it in Canada and all of that, made it so much worse than my own experience. Maybe it’s something in my character, but I left that experience feeling unscathed. Every single person on that crew and cast went to the nth degree and it was a swamp out there, and the heat… well, those were the kinds of things I thought people should comment on. Filming during summer in New Orleans! That was shocking to me… loss of virginity? Nothing. [Laughs] And y’know, I was a virgin — and for years after that! But that’s what he wanted, the mix of innocence with knowledge. The knowledge came from a very deep place within Violet, and that was probably where I identified the most. I couldn’t tell you why I had that, that understanding of human nature.
It must have been bizarre to go from the media sensationalism around Pretty Baby to the Calvin Klein ads where you were received as hugely sexualised by the media. How did you maintain a protected space doing those jobs and receiving the media attention so young? I mean, you were being labeled as this scandalous Lolita figure and yet you were barely even a teenager…
The thing is, you can be labeled as anything if you happen to be the first. We’re talking about a decade where I was at the forefront with these creative teams. Nobody at that time was making a commercial that was a minute long, to be shown in movie theatres, and that’s what [Richard] Avedon wanted. And I do think there is something to be said about being the first and getting labeled outrageous. I mean, I’m sure there were other sexier, more beautiful people, but they weren’t at the right place at the right time. To me, the scene set in those Calvin Klein ads was a sense of openness. In the same way that I was shocked by the reaction to Pretty Baby, I was appalled by the media response to the ads because I didn’t understand how people didn’t see their artistic merit. They decided to take one sentence out of all the commercials we did and turn it into an ejaculation comment… well, I remember coming back from Europe and seeing it in the papers and I just thought, “oh, how narrow!” Actually, I probably couldn’t articulate it then how I can now, I would have said, “oh, that’s dumb”, but now I say, “how narrow minded, what a lack of insight.” People were primed to attack, when if they had just looked at how revolutionary the advertising was… it was the first time anything like that had ever been done. It was all art based, it was quoting and singing songs from great writers and artists and drawing upon things that were so in-depth and beautiful and they chose to take and misquote one sentence from the commercial. After that, I just thought, “these critics don’t get it. They’re not willing to look at all we’ve put into it.” I was shocked and insulted that our creativity was just cast aside. And they were sexy commercials, yes, that was what Calvin wanted, but he also wanted them to be smart. He was doing the opposite of objectifying women, he was putting a woman in a very powerful position in his commercials because the minute you add intellect to something in the way that he did, it changes the rules.
It seems, then, like you had victimhood thrust upon you by the media, something that you don’t seem to have identified with?
And that’s been perpetuated. I understand why, it’s an easy hook. To this day, people still try to tell me, “your mother’s love wasn’t unconditional” and get a response — but I have never doubted for one second that my mother’s love was unconditional just because she was an alcoholic, or because of the conversations we have just had about my work. People just want to turn it into something. Because it’s not exciting enough otherwise, it’s not a story.
It was really interesting when you spoke out about your post-natal depression after you had your children — the fact that you didn’t allow yourself to be a victim, and spoke so openly and bravely about something that affects a vast number of women. It’s so often obscured as something shameful, when it shouldn’t be.
Anything that is terrifying, you can easily become a victim to. The real courage is in the willingness to ask for help. I was lucky because I had a few people around who pushed me towards asking for help, made me ask for help. A lot of people don’t have that around them; it’s down to just them and they are told “you can do it on your own,” because you’re told that, as a mother you should feel this natural thing and feel glorious. Again, I was not a first in reality, but I happened to be one of the first to speak about it publicly. I didn’t set out to be the first, but my timing was such. I just knew that I was going through it and had to be accountable for it, not only for my kids but for anyone else who might not have been as lucky as I was in having so much support.
It was an incredibly brave thing to be so honest about….
I appreciate that! I’m a bit speechless, but I really appreciate that. I think that it takes a huge amount of courage for any of us to admit fear or to make mistakes and fail. I recently spoke at my alma-mater school and one of the things I said was, “please make mistakes and be okay with that”, because it’s what you do after the mistake that defines you. Bad things are okay, it’s how you decide to grow from them that really distinguishes you. Every time something devastating happens to me, I have to ask myself how I want to respond, because it’s in my capacity to decide. And yet, we’re not taught that, we’re taught that failure is bad and mistakes are wrong, but you can’t grow without making these mistakes.
You have been so strong and assertive in the public eye, even as an adolescent, and yet everyone experiences insecurity growing up. Was there ever a contradiction between your reality and your public persona?
Well, the duality of it all, the constant living within the paradox rendered me even more insecure. Because what do you do with being ‘the most celebrated virgin’, but also being called this sexy woman? Really, I was celebrated from the neck up. There was a disconnect between the neck up and the neck down and I didn’t know how to reconcile that — I think a lot of my insecurity stemmed from that stuff. These things are confusing — for the public, for the press, and also for me. Was I an actress, or was I a celebrity? Was I the epitome of innocence, or the epitome of sexuality? There was a constant duality, which became a topic that I decided to focus on during university, because it helped me reconcile it. I still dabble with negotiating that duality; on the one hand, I maintain a sense of responsibility with the public, but where does the freedom to act out come from? Thank God that I have a great husband! I also think that, to a certain extent, so many of us feel the impact of that duality. Whether acting as a schoolgirl by day and vixen by night, or choosing how I want to be at home with my partner, but also wanting to be respected in my industry, and as an intellectual, and an equal, and also still wanting to be female on top of it all… there’s a lot to decide. I think that multiplicity of identities is especially complicated for women, and it’s confusing. I think anything that’s confusing can make you vulnerable and therefore feel insecure. I
I think that’s a very developed way of looking at it… negotiating contradictions in one’s identity is something complicated and therefore often avoided. It’s very easy to label someone as sexy or as a virgin, but far harder to bring the two together as two halves of a whole.
I think that women have been taught that we have to pick, that it’s duplicitous if you don’t. And the more we start to acknowledge and harness the coexistence of both sides, the stronger we can become. It’s like good and evil, you can’t have one without the other and yet we’re taught that we have to pick a side. But then when we choose one, we’re criticised for not being the other. And I think that’s where Louis Malle was so developed. Look how long ago Pretty Baby was! And he was exploring these ideas then!
It’s sad that we’re still trying to solve the same problems that have been an issue for so long, that things that you wrote on at Princeton are still questions that have to be asked of society. It should be obvious that women should be able to exist as more than one thing at any one time!
But I think it’s threatening to people. It stirs such emotion; people were unsettled by the topic of Pretty Baby, but they were unsettled on a deeper level than that, yet nobody was willing to explore it. So they attacked it. But we were talking about that duality way back when. It’s a feminist question. Louis was a feminist.
I think that the reason the film has such longevity is that it speaks to broader questions about growing up and understanding oneself. It isn’t just about the time, or the situation it’s set in, it’s about more than that.
I also think that politics have changed and the world has changed, and we have a different eye to look at the film with. Could we have all been this articulate back in ‘79? Well y’all probably weren’t born. But, you know what I mean. Hindsight is 20/20 and has a broad perspective. We have a freedom now to talk about things differently, and that’s how the film endures. And the language changes — discourses of empowerment and feminism have shifted and evolved massively in the past 30 years. And become accessible to women! We finally have access to these things and the ability to analyse in every way.
Thank God! On a slightly lighter note, I wanted to ask you about being at Studio 54 when it was all kicking off; you were so young but it seems like the ultimate place to grow up quickly…
The theme continues! It’s been so fascinating talking about it. It was funny — I used to get invited, I got to take pictures with everyone at 9pm. And by 10.30 or 11pm, I went home. I went on the early side for the red carpet, to take a picture with [Andy] Warhol or [Mick] Jagger or whoever, and they looked at me like I was a mascot, or a pet. Then, I would dance for a few hours until I was a sweaty mess, with whatever boy would dance with me — and they were all gay, so there was no threat there — and then I was gone. I was like the child of the proprietor, I was off limits in ways I can’t explain. It’s nothing but the antithesis of that today, but I was extremely lucky. Alcohol wasn’t offered to me, they gave me orange juice and it wasn’t spiked because it wasn’t cool to spike a kid’s drink back then. Somebody like Andy [Warhol] would just look at me and laugh because I was able to be a kid, bounce in and bounce around. I don’t know what I symbolised to them, but I didn’t bring down their mojo, or whatever you called it back then; I didn’t threaten anything, and then I left.
And, you know, you see those pictures of me with all of those celebrities, but you don’t see the ones of me sitting alone, like that poor, sweet photo of Drew Barrymore sitting alone at that table. But, there was something about that era that was still fresh. We were just at the forefront of everything changing with AIDS, and everything was still fun and playful. I would invite my friends to go to Xenon or The Red Parrot, my mum made sure that my friends were invited! And that was unheard of. They wanted Brooke Shields, that’s all they wanted. And she said, “You want Brooke? You’ve got to have her class.” That’s what it was! My 7th or 8th grade class! It was unique. When I went abroad, it was three first class round trips. Non-negotiable. One for me, one for my mum and one for a girlfriend. It was unprecedented, and it was fun. You could whisper about somebody, you could say, “oh there’s so and so!” and giggle about it like entertainment with a girlfriend. It was safe, somehow. It separated me just enough. I was lucky.