Brooke Shields has just got back from a lunch at the Lincoln Center, to mark the opening of New York fashion week. At the event, Whoopi Goldberg honoured American designer Thom Browne with an award, and as Shields settles on a pink sofa in the all-white photographic studio where we meet, she tells me she can’t get Goldberg’s speech out of her head,
“I don’t know how old Whoopi is, but she’s got to be 60 or something… She said that it wasn’t until a few years ago that she started feeling comfortable in her own skin,” Shields says. “She’s standing up there and telling an entire room of Fashion Institute people, and Anna Wintour, ‘Think of all the time we waste not feeling good about ourselves.’ You know? It’s exhausting.”
At 52, Shields is in great shape, her athletic 5ft 11in frame maintained with daily workouts and sessions of ashtanga yoga. When the American luxury publication Social Life magazine asked her to pose in white Calvin Klein underwear for a photoshoot this summer, the resulting cover image went viral, setting the fashion world abuzz with rumours that Shields was about to appear in a new campaign for the label she had made famous back in 1980. Attending the Calvin Klein show at New York fashion week in February this year, Shields was mobbed by people wanting selfies with her. Among the guests at the Lincoln Center lunch was Martha Stewart, who marched straight up to Shields and told her, “I can’t wait to see you in Calvin Klein underwear.”
“I said, ‘Well, thank you, but that sort of happened as a fluke.’” In the original Calvin Klein ad, the one that launched a thousand imitations and became the gold standard for controversy-courting ad campaigns, Shields had asked, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” So the underwear shoot, she says, was “kind of an in-joke. You know, what answers that question?” Besides, she says, “I thought, I’d never done underwear – it might be kind of a good message to be a 52-year-old being proud of everything, and being a mom, and working hard at staying in shape… We were just enjoying ourselves.” She gives a look that is at once dismissive and amused – a kind of what-can-I-do-if-I-still-set-the-fashion-world-ablaze shrug.
In person, Shields is filterless and funny, hamming up the same vein of self-parody that proved so winning in her more recent comic outings on TV, in Suddenly Susan and Lipstick Jungle. She has just signed on to do five episodes of Law And Order: SVU – “Maybe more if I manage to stay alive,” she smiles. But despite the headlines, she hasn’t agreed to appear in any new campaigns for Calvin Klein. She was approached by the label’s new creative head Raf Simons last year, for her permission to use the 1980 image, shot by Richard Avedon, to be printed on shirt labels.
“I can show it to you,” she says, fishing out her iPhone and bringing up the iconic shot of her, scissoring her feet in the air in jeans so tight they look painted on. (Some stores provided sofas so that customers could lie down as they shoehorned themselves in.) In the TV commercial, Shields memorised and recited an excerpt of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, only to find the subject popping up in a quiz in her science class at school the next day. She got an A.
“I was 15 – it was 37 years ago. You know, it was a lot of work. And I wanted Dick [Avedon] to be proud of me. You just wanted a gold star, you know?”
Long before Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, Shields was the most famous teenager on the planet. A shampoo model at the age of 11 months, she appeared in her first film at the age of nine, lit a blaze of controversy when she played a pre-teen prostitute in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), and went on to appear in The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love (1981) – teen films sweet enough to give you toothache. In 1981 alone, Shields graced the covers of more than 30 magazines. A chaste pin-up, she peered out from her lustrous mane of hair, exotic but innocent, a lip-glossed naïf in a culture that has long sought to reconcile competing strains of libertarianism and puritanism. Shields’s virginity, proudly proclaimed in her autobiography, On Your Own, published when she was 20, was something of a national obsession. As was its eventual loss to her college boyfriend and future Superman star Dean Cain, at 22.
“I was famous from the neck up,” she jokes. “All the focus was on the eyebrows or the cheekbones, so you can imagine how easy it was to become a virgin.” She catches herself and laughs. “To stay a virgin, there was something very safe in that. It was a really interesting disconnect. You sort of desensitise yourself to anything sexual. In Blue Lagoon, I’m using a glue gun, taping my hair, anything I can so my body doesn’t show I have boobs… And I didn’t realise I was doing it, because I was a kid. I was in a cocoon with my mom. You know, we were one summer away from Grey Gardens.”
Shields detailed her enmeshment with her mother Teri, who was also her manager, in her unusually candid 2014 memoir, There Was A Little Girl. Her parents had divorced when she was five months old, and Teri raised her daughter alone in Manhattan. A glamorous, life-of-the-party alcoholic, “she drank and cursed like a construction worker” and would sometimes drunkenly haul Brooke out of bed in the middle of the night for a heart-to-heart or a dressing down, or interrupt journalists in the middle of interviews because her twentysomething daughter needed to “go tinkles”. Guarding her daughter’s virtue around the clock, she took control of her career, fending off agents and suitors alike, fearing that it would spell the end of her control over “little Brookie”. “I didn’t know where my mother ended and I began,” wrote Shields, whose immaturity was part of the “brand”. When the Brooke Shields doll rolled off the production line, her mother insisted that they alter the torso to represent her flatter chest. Yet she also pushed Shields towards sexually risque material – commissioning a photographer to take nude photos at 10, the role in Pretty Baby at age 11. Wasn’t she playing with fire?
“She tapped in to that, but by the same token, she wanted it to go away. It was a really interesting disconnect. I didn’t know she was so broken until later in life. She was so amazing on the one hand, but she was so broken.” Now, says Shields, whose mother died in 2012, she looks back and wonders: “Did I want it easier? No. I never wanted anything easier. I do sort of regret having hairdryers with my name on them and a Brooke doll and all these failed endeavours that were cool to do in the 1980s. I mean, what kid says, ‘I love my hair so much that I’m going to create a hairdryer with my name on it?’ Never once was I thinking, ‘I really want to do my own line of clothes.’”
Shields lost herself in her work. “If not for the entertainment industry, I would have been a train wreck,” she writes in her memoir. “The movie business kept me afloat and sane.” On movie sets, at least, her mother could be counted on to behave. Shields’s fame felt bigger than her mother’s addiction. She herself was notably abstemious. Hanging out at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and Grace Jones, she stayed drug-free and was always in bed by 10pm. She platonically dated George Michael (“Nobody had ever been willing to move so slowly. It must be love,” she later said) and was friends with Michael Jackson. When the roles started to dry up, Shields headed to Princeton, where she earned an honours degree in Romance languages. After graduating and ending her relationship with Cain, she briefly dated Liam Neeson, before meeting Andre Agassi in 1993. The pair married in 1997 but the relationship ended two years later with the revelation that he’d spent part of it hooked on crystal meth. A classic co-dependent move, I suggest: marrying the man who reminds you of your alcoholic out-of-control parent.
“Yes. Perfect. And no matter how you try to therapy yourself out of it, there’s clearly something on a cellular level that needs to work through. I think I got out pretty unscathed. Yet I also think I couldn’t have even been with my [now] husband had I not been in that relationship with Andre.”
She’s spent so much of her life running after other people’s chaos, cleaning up: does she wish she had come off the rails more herself?
“Oh yeah. I mean, I’m sure there’s still time, but somehow I didn’t become a tragic figure,” she says. “If I had I would’ve been celebrated. I could’ve come back from the brink and then they’d be like, ‘Oh wait, she seriously wants to be an actress’ or, ‘She’s really got talent.”’ Shields married television writer Chris Henchy in 2001 and has written about the postnatal depression she suffered after the birth of their first daughter in 2003. “Was that my going off the rails?” she asks herself now. “Not really, because it wasn’t a choice. I think my version of addiction was fear of losing control.”
A compulsive cushion-arranger, Shields says she fights a losing battle with her neatnik instincts in the Manhattan town house where she lives with Henchy and their two daughters, Rowan, 14, and Grier, 11. Both girls are now roughly the same age Shields was when she first started playing teen Lolitas – a milestone not lost on her. “I want to put a chastity belt on my girls, I get it,” she smiles. She’s finding it particularly difficult with her older daughter. “I’m going psychotic about what I’m dealing with, with men looking at her and looking at her body… I mean, this is my 14-year-old! At the top of the stairs I can see her rolling her skirt up. I’m like, ‘Unroll your skirt.’ It’s a constant negotiation.”
Yet, she says, her relationship with her own daughters couldn’t be more different from the one her mother had with her. “It’s like, ‘What do you mean you don’t think I walk on water? How dare you be so independent? Why are you so healthy?’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I raised you like that?’ All of a sudden I’m jealous of my own kids because I’m thinking, ‘How dare you be so normal?’ You know?”
She and her daughters were watching Miley Cyrus perform on The Voice recently (Shields once played Cyrus’s mother in the Hannah Montana film), and she marvelled at the artist’s transition from Disney tween to sexually uninhibited pop icon. The assurance of today’s child stars is startling to her. “To see what she’s done with this princess, basically, adding this explicit, explosive depth to her persona. To see her just get up and start dancing – you watch it and you think, ‘That’s so cool. How did you do that? Where is my version of that?’”
She pauses to think.
“It came in comedy for me,” she says, with satisfaction. “I’ve got zero censorship. There’s something that takes me over physically and I don’t remember a lot of it. Maybe I substituted a little bit of that sexual energy there.” She laughs. “Well, isn’t it chocolate, laughter and sex all release the same endorphins? I love making people laugh. It gives me such joy.”
Cast as a quirky magazine columnist on the television show Suddenly Susan in 1996, Shields earned two Golden Globe nominations and a producer credit; and in 2008 played a movie executive in the alpha-female comedy Lipstick Jungle, adapted from the Candace Bushnell novel. She also played Joey’s delusional stalker in an episode of Friends – which involved maniacally licking Matt LeBlanc’s hands and giving him a passionate kiss, which she later wrote enraged Agassi so much that he smashed up his trophies. Comedy seemed to free her – the chaste teenager whose innocence was a national institution had turned into a blowsy comedian va-va-vooming it across the screen, complete with Lucille Ball-like pratfalls and double-takes. In comedy, she got to perform a kind of voodoo on the Brooke Shields doll.
Shields says she was in Starbucks recently when a young woman asked her, “Can I show you a picture?” and brought out a photo of a for-sale maroon two-door 1983 Mercedes SEC she had recently taken in Jersey City. There was a bumper sticker that read “I ♥ Gstaad” and at the bottom of the sign, in parentheses, were the words “Previously owned by Brooke Shields”. It was the car Shields had bought for herself, two years after making Endless Love.
“Can you believe that? It’s dumb. You’re going to sit on a seat that I sat on? It’s creepy. It’s weird, right?”
She tracked down the seller and rebought the car. Her brother-in-law repainted and repaired it, and Shields now drives the Mercedes around on Long Island, where she has a house. Take it as a symbol of her reclaimed identity. These days, she will sit in meetings with companies who are interested in working with her, and keep hearing the word “brand” – “Well, it’s your brand, it’s your brand!” – and she’ll realise with some pride that, for the first time, her brand is bound up with her and her longevity, not her hair, or chest, or youth.
“I can sit at a lunch today and not think, ‘Oh, I’m so lucky to be here.’ I can think, intellectually, I can have a conversation with anybody. I’ve been around so long, I’m not scared to go and talk to Anna Wintour or whoever. And then I can also say, well, you did have an impact on the fashion industry. And I’m a mom, and I’m a businesswoman. I can go into these meetings now, and I’m not looking over my shoulder saying: is somebody on to me?”
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Styling: Bobette Cohn, assisted by Katherine Askerova. Hair: Dominick Pucciarello. Makeup: Meredith Baraf, both at Bernstein & Andriulli. Digi tech: Joseph Bourduin. Above: dress by Sonia Rykiel. Necklaces by Fruzsina Keehn. Top: sweaters by Sonia Rykiel. Rings by Ayaka Nishi and Kalevala Jewelry