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Brooke Shields Bares All

By Ruchel Louis Coetzee
Posted On May 13, 2016
Brooke Shields Bares All

Much of Brooke Shields’s life has been spent wrestling the realities of early-onset fame—particularly the ways it affected her mother, Teri. In recounting this tumultuous yet tender relationship, Shields unveils revelations aplenty while highlighting ways for anyone to identify and heal.

Brooke Shields feels it’s time to set the record straight. Her latest book, There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me ($26.95, Dutton Adult), is the result. Yes, she admits she was the codependent in her much-discussed relationship with her mother, Teri Shields. Yes, she wishes her mom had tried to stay sober for her birthdays or graduation. But whatever demons invaded her mother’s spirit, Shields credits her mom for helping her be the gracious woman she is today—one who learned never to take “no” for an answer, or allow defeat to define her.

The intimacy and laughter Brooke shared with her mom during the sober times always helped heal the sad times, and carry the love forward. We may never completely understand what compelled Teri Shields to reach for the vodka every day, but we do know she loved and protected her only surviving child with the ferocity of a caged lioness. Undoubtedly, Teri’s struggles were forged from tragedy—the loss of a son before the birth of Brooke, the fiancé who was killed while crossing the road, the pointed snobbery of Brooke’s father. After decades of assumptions by the press—including a not-very-complimentary version of her mother’s obituary in The New York Times—I sit down with Shields to talk “truth.”

Today, Shields is nursing a swollen knee from a tennis game but her infectious laugh makes her discomfort disappear. She always holds her head up high and does her best. Her mother taught her well.

NEW YOU: Brooke, why did you feel it necessary to write a book about your relationship with your mom, now?

Brooke Shields: Because it’s my turn. There was so much to say. I think it will satisfy people who were fans, people who were naysayers, and people who have lost their mothers or who have had interesting relationships with their mothers. Everybody will say, “Oh, that happened to me,” or “I get that,” even if the context is different.

NY: Did you feel your mom was always hovering over you?

BS: I didn’t feel her as over me, as much as I felt her ready to catch me if I fell. She wasn’t on top of me as much as she was buffering and just trying to keep me buoyed.

NY: What she also taught you was graciousness. Your mind was clearly churning on a Bill Boggs interview that you did with her alongside you… yet you remained so poised and gracious at age 14. What were you thinking?

BS: It’s funny because I just re-watched that. It’s usually extraordinarily positive and doting, but I’m much more embarrassed by it, and I didn’t want to be rude. What was funny about that interview is that I was trying to be like, “OK, this is my mom’s turn,” and I just kept looking down so it didn’t look like I was watching her. The camera kept going close up on me, so it looked like I was either embarrassed, angry, judging, or thinking it wasn’t true. It was interesting. Truthfully, I was really just trying to disappear. But I loved when I heard my mom say Blondie’s version of punk is different from Sid Vicious. I thought, Hey, my mom is kind of cooler than I thought.

Brooke Shields- New You 1

NY: You’re very candid in your interviews and books. Do you think you matured early because of your exposure to great artists and locations at an early age?

BS: My daughter, Rowan, is far more mature than I was at that age—but in a very different way. There was so much access to my life and nothing seemed off-limits. That lends itself to my propensity to not be scared of anything. It’s all been said. I’m not afraid to be honest. It’s the only thing I can claim as my own.

NY: What’s the most important lesson you learned from your childhood that you would like to pass onto your daughters?

BS: Never give up. Especially, don’t give up on yourself. Everybody’s going to try and give up on you, so you might as well be there for yourself. A lot of the time, it’s not because people are intentionally trying to be cruel. It’s just that we’re all trying to survive. It’s self-preservation to a certain extent. And it’s OK; people are human and that’s fine. But that shouldn’t make a victim of you.

NY: What is the lesson you learned from your childhood that you are making sure your daughters don’t learn?

BS: Insecurity. I struggled with it forever because I was always trying to navigate my mother—or the public, or people, or an image, or whatever. Somewhere in there, my own self-confidence  began to waver.

NY: When did your voice arise?

BS: When I had my first child. It took that long. Prior to that, I may have acted in my own interest, but I felt like I was getting away with something. I wasn’t one to rebel; my version of rebelling was actually deciding to be happy and having a different take on it all. It was all-bets-off when my best friend, David Strickland, died and my daughters were born. When that happened, I thought, Well, it’s all a waste of time and I don’t have the time to deal with other people’s bullshit. When I had Rowan, all of a sudden I was alone in my journey.

NY: Did guilt wind up playing any part in your mother-daughter relationship?

BS: No. Guilt grew from when I had postpartum depression. That was my biggest source of guilt. And then there was guilt that came just by living with an alcoholic parent. But I was an overachiever and always a perfectionist. That comes along with it. As an only child, there’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself.

NY: You were the one that was the caretaker of your mom, with a lot of responsibilities. How did you do it?

BS: I took it on willingly. And do you know why? I knew that I could. I have always known that I am strong enough.

NY: How did you care for her during her struggles, when you were so young?

BS: Survival. It’s funny, I’ve adopted different dogs, and the only time they ever became slightly dangerous was when I would try to take their food away. I know it’s weird to look at one’s self as a dog, but there’s something very primal going on. This one dog I rescued under the Hudson River wouldn’t let me out of her sight, and one day she went after me. I was heartbroken, as I thought this dog was being so loyal. I asked the trainer and she said, “The dog is not in love with you. She’s in love with her food source.” To a certain extent, that speaks to a similar notion: “I have to keep my mom alive.”

NY: You say you had this codependent relationship with your mom. Do you sometimes feel a loss now that you are not playing the role of the strong caretaker to her?

BS: Without my mom to care for there has been a real adjustment, because there is a void

NY: What stands out about your mom?

BS: Like she said on Barbara Walters, she wasn’t going to change. This was her.

NY: What compelled your mom to always insist that you have a friend accompany you on shoots as a teenager?

BS: It was unheard of in those days. You never got free tickets, but my mom was insistent. She was like, “Well sorry, she’s 14. She needs to have another 14-year-old.” She knew I needed someone to be in cahoots with when the world seemed so adult and big. Even as adults, we’re like pack animals. We gather a lot of our strength from our relationships with friends, if they’re comfy.

Brian Bowen Smith
Brian Bowen Smith

NY: Do you have an item of clothing in your closet that acts as a barometer to whether you should diet or not?

BS: No, I do it the opposite way. Instead of saying, “Oh God, oh God…” I have a too-tight section and keep adding to it. I’m like, “Maybe one day it will fit me. Yeah… maybe it won’t.”

NY: That’s a very healthy comment. Do you think we’re sending the wrong message to children sometimes?

BS: I’d have been lying if I made that statement when I was skinny-skinny. We all fall prey to it. Each time I do Broadway, I get skin, bone, and muscle, and I feel on top of the world. There’s a power and control that you feel. Plus, you get rewarded for it. Everyone is like, “Oh my God, you look so great!” So I fall prey to it, too. It’s just, I can’t live at that level. I can’t work out, dance that much, eat that little, and go on fumes today. I could when I was in my twenties.

NY: You’re turning 50 next year, a big milestone. Who is Brooke Shields at 50?

BS: Happier, but still trying to be OK with me when I think I’m not my best. There’s a double-edge to it, because having an injury—like my swollen knee right now—devastates me. I’m not used to being stopped by anything physical. I have to be a big girl about. I can’t have it both ways. I want to drink wine and not just live on air. I love enjoying food, so I don’t get to crucify myself because I don’t fit into my size 6.

NY: Do you still have your inner child?

BS:  Oh God, I hope she never goes away. She can’t even go up for adoption. It’s how I have fun; how I take myself not-too-seriously. A lot of people may interpret it as weakness but I think it’s just a willingness to be vulnerable—youthful, but not necessarily immature.

NY: What do people not know about you?

BS: People may think I feel satisfied with where I am in my career. And yes, I do feel blessed  and thankful. But I have no intention of stopping. People think because you’re a certain age, or at a certain level of something, they tend to ignore you. Meanwhile I’m perpetually going out there, seeking to learn more and become better through new opportunities. It frightens people to see that because it makes them look at themselves and adds pressure to them.

NY:  How is your self-image these days?

BS: It’s more well-rounded than before. I have less patience for putting myself down, and I’m bored by complaining. I still give myself a pretty harsh time, but I’m working on that.

NY: What is the most endearing thing someone has ever said to you?

BS: It’s probably my husband saying, “I’m proud of you.” Yes, the kids say many things that make me cry, but my husband saying he’s proud of me and believes in me is the most endearing.

NY: How do people perceive you?

BS: I just spent a few days in Los Angeles, in these executive business meetings where I usually wear a different hat. There was this overriding feeling of shock in the room, like, “Oh, she’s really articulate and educated and knows what she’s talking about.” What did they think I have been doing for the past 49 years–sitting there and eating bonbons? People get comfortable with how they’ve decided to view somebody. People have imprinted an image of me in different ways, at different, very profound periods in their lives—perhaps their childhood or when they were teenagers. I just happened to be a prominent person in that zeitgeist, so I can’t fault them for it.

NY: You say your mom was always ahead of her time. Was that to her detriment?

BS: The problem with being ahead of your time is that you don’t always catch the wave. I perpetually watched my mother be just a little too far ahead, then forage the path so that other people could go through it. There’s a lot to be said for that. I don’t know what it felt like to my mother. I don’t know if it felt like failure or über-success. What I do see now, especially in Hollywood, is that you have to be willing to think ahead of the curve, but still be aware of where the wave is coming in. So when you’re on the wave, you can use the vision of what’s ahead of you. My mother wouldn’t let anybody be a confidante. She didn’t ask for one.

NY: Your mother was insistent that you always write thank-you notes to people. Do you make your children write thank-you notes?

BS: Excessively! They can’t stand it, but they still do it. It’s funny… In this one interview, Merv Griffin asked me about my 17th birthday and all the nice things I received. I told him in this high voice that I got some very nice jewelry and that I’m still writing my thank-you notes. So, yes, I tell my daughters to be sweet like that.

Photo Credit: Brian Bowen Smith