Brooke Shields Reflects on Her Sexualization as a Young Girl: ‘There Was So Much That Was Accepted That Would Not Be Accepted Today’

Brooke Shields came up in a different time. The model and actress has been working since infancy, and when she shot to superstardom in the ’70s and ’80s, she became a lucrative commodity whose own opinion was rarely heard, but became the focus of many other people’s opinions.

This is all explored in her two-part documentary, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” which hails from ABC News Studios and launched on Hulu earlier this year. Produced by Ali Wentworth, George Stephanopoulos and director Lana Wilson (Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana”), the doc that received rave reviews out of its premiere at Sundance uses Shields’ story of being sexualized as a child to paint a bigger picture of the treatment of women in society.

Speaking to Variety, Shields says that she hopes to be a “conduit” for a larger conversation. She believes things have improved in the industry, and hopes the public will learn lessons through her very public treatment by the press. In 1978, when Shields was 12, she received immense backlash when she starred in “Pretty Baby” as a young prostitute. In 1980’s “Blue Lagoon,” she became a teenage sex symbol, and in “Endless Love” in 1981, she describes not feeling comfortable on set with a male director. At 15, she ignited a slut-shaming media firestorm when she became the face of Calvin Klein’s controversial denim commercials.

“I’m an actress. I was playing parts,” Shields tells Variety. “Behind the scenes was the real issue, but with all these interviews, it was so interesting that people were so much more obsessed with the topic of the movie — how can I play a prostitute? — but no one had a problem with how I was being addressed with regards to the press or the director’s treatment of a young girl.”

Here, in conversation at Variety’s TV FYC Fest, Shields speaks about her documentary.

I’m sure you’ve had many offers to do a documentary on your life before.

I’ve been asked many times to do a doc. It was nice that I didn’t have to wait until I was dead to do a documentary on my life. But I wanted it to be about something bigger than just all me the whole time. So I’m very pleased and thankful the way it came out.

Why was now the right time?

I think it was a combination of the team that was assembled. Ali Wentworth, and George Stephanopoulos, they are our closest friends. And when Lana [Wilson] was brought on…it was the whole team of people. I started to get to know the ABC and the Hulu team, and I knew that they were not interested in just creating an E! “True Hollywood Story,” or a “where are they now?” I just felt safe with the people with their intelligence. And knowing Lana’s work and knowing her films, I knew that it would be handled appropriately and focusing on the right things.

I read that you did not get to see the final cut. Is that right?

I did not. I provided the material — and thank God my mom saved up absolutely everything — so I just handed over this hard drive, and I said, “This is my entire life as it’s been documented, and I trust you.” I needed to trust them. I just didn’t want to be a part of dictating any of the narrative because otherwise, I think it gets it gets slanted. I wanted to be able to sit here and say I had nothing to do with the cut and I had nothing to do with the edit. I gave them a list of people that they maybe would want to talk to, and that was it.

Watching the documentary, it doesn’t seem like anything was off limits, but I don’t want to assume — so was anything off limits?

No, I don’t think you can have anything off limits if you’re making yourself available like this – then it’s not authentic. I think I’ve proven myself over decade that nothing really is off limits. Because I’m in the public eye, I have found myself in this position for decades. And it’s my choice to be as honest as I possibly can. It’s not pretty, it’s not always glamorous — very little of it is.

There’s an interview that didn’t make the cut of the documentary — it would have been like an eight-hour movie — but I think I’m 13, and this interviewer keeps asking me the same question over and over and over, and she just wants a different answer. I know she wants a different answer, and I say to her, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you want my real answer. But this is my truth.” And I remember watching that video back as an adult and thinking, “Thank God at least I’ve been tied to my own truth throughout all of this.” And whatever you want to do with it when you watch it, that’s up to you.

In watching many of those interviews and seeing the archival footage in the doc, you have men leering over you when you are a child and you are being asked all of these inappropriate questions. You can see in your eyes that you stayed in your truth, but you handled it and were able to brush it off. How do you think the media has evolved now?

I think it has evolved. I think we’ve all evolved. At that period of time, it was controversial to reject a question or stick to your guns. I think today, people are at least more open to voicing their truth and the press, in, particular, is having to be accountable to that… I do think it’s improved.

The doc does a good job of laying out how different it was when you were coming up. Back then, women’s narratives were ruled by the tabloids. Now with social media, you can reclaim your narrative.

Can you though, really? I don’t know if you can. This is a fraught topic. I have two daughters…and they are under the impression that they own their narrative, but they don’t quite understand the nuance of it. And I think it’s very difficult. I’m not sure I could have survived social media. I was in a bubble. I was very sequestered from the negativity with regards to the press. I didn’t read a lot of it until I was much older, and in reading the vitriol and the attacks, because my nature was sweet, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it. But I think it’s a very different landscape. It’s a very different environment. And it’s really hard to know who really is owning what.

We started this conversation with you saying the whole reason you did this doc was to send a bigger message. What do you hope that viewers learn from this documentary?

I actually have been seeing the reaction. Everybody is identifying with a different element of the doc for their own selves personally, and to me, if I have any value, it’s to be a conduit to people being able to understand their own selves better. I’m no guru — I’m just one person who lived with this crazy stuff. It was my life. But we’re all much more similar in our human experience than we think… I hope I’m the conduit because otherwise, it’s just about this person, this actress, and who really cares? I’m not the important thing here. I’m the conduit to being able to talk about and initiate conversations about things that are difficult in life.

Speaking of being a conduit, in the doc, we see the treatment of women on-set in this industry through your treatment in a few of your movies. When you were filming “Endless Love,” we see how difficult it was for you, and you talk about not feeling seen or heard by the director. Today, there are more women behind the camera and in executive positions, which really was not the case at all during that time.

No, not at all. It was a very male dominated… It was a very different era for me, and there was so much that was accepted that would not be accepted today, and I appreciate that that’s now the dialogue that’s happening. Broadening the scope of who are the creatives actually creating these films, I think there’s going to be more of an appreciation and understanding of the nuances of what it means to be female.

My biggest problem in that era was not being allowed to grow as a talent. I didn’t have to. I was pretty, I showed up, I had a good work ethic. I did what they needed from me. I was box office, and that was it. And that, I think, is changing… It’s just hard to put into words, [but] I think not being able to grow and being taught was the thing that I have the biggest issue with because I was capable of more.

In the doc, you use the word “transactional.” You say that you showed up, you did a job, you left. At what point in your career did you start to find the work more fulfilling where you were no longer just walking through the motions?

Definitely when I found comedy. I was able to actually do what I what I love… I was given the opportunity and given the freedom to still look a certain way — which evidently you’re not supposed to be funny if you look a certain way — and I was able to be just dorky and in my body. That type of freedom really came from Broadway, and it came from comedy and television. It was the first time that I realized where my talent was the most comfortable.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Longevity and enduring talent. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in an industry that I happen to love. I love what I do. Even just watching the documentary, I get excited because I think, “I’m gonna get to do more of what I love,” and it’s really that that simple, career wise.

What are you hoping to do next?

I want to keep going. My girls are growing up, I’m going to be an empty nester and that’s not easy… And I just finished a film for a different network and that’s going to be coming out within this next year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *