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Brooke Shields Bravely Confronts Her Own Childhood Sexual Exploitation - Rolling Stone

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to say that Brooke Shields was objectified during her early years would be the understatement of the century. It’s hard to understand how this all happened, or how anyone thought it was okay, through a contemporary lens – nude modeling at ten years old, labeled “the world’s youngest sex symbol” at 12, appearing nude in a large Hollywood movie at age 15. That she was able to gain any semblance of normalcy, let alone graduate from Princeton and become a powerful voice for mothers everywhere, is extraordinary.

“You know, my work life is a life force inside me, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Shields says in a new documentary. “Sometimes I am surprised that I survived all of this.”

At the Pretty Baby: Brooke Shieldsa two-part documentary premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and releasing later this year on Hulu, the former child star looks back on her commodification and coercion with clear eyes, finally allowed to control her own narrative.

Shields began modeling as a baby, appearing in an advertisement for Ivory Soap. As she grew older, though she was still a child, cultural forces began to sexualize her in disturbing ways—a response, the film’s cultural critics suggest, to second-wave feminism. When she turned 11, Shields was cast as a child prostitute in Cute baby, directed by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. A scene in the film shows his character on a literal tray and auctioned off to the highest bidder. In another, she kisses actor Keith Carradine, a grown man.

“We had a first kiss scene. I had never kissed anyone before,” recalls Shields in the film. “I felt, oh my god, I should know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this. Every time Keith [Carradine] I tried to kiss, I kneaded my face. And Louis was upset with me.

Brooke Shields and her mother and manager, Teri Shields, in 1981.

Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

This was a common theme: men controlling Shields at a very young age. At age 15, she appeared nude in the film. blue Lagoon, a sort of wicked fantasy film about two teenagers who fall in love on a deserted island. Shields, who was not having sex with a man at the time, describes it as a “reality show” where they “wanted to sell my real sexual awakening”. That year she also shot Endless Lovedirected by the late Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who got so frustrated with Shields during the movie’s sex scene for not giving him what he wanted that he started spraining her toe.

“Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and, like, twisting it so I looked like… ecstasy? But it was more anguish than anything because he was hurting me,” she recalls.

Shields was guided by her mother Teri (her parents divorced when she was young), a bohemian “force of nature” from Newark, New Jersey, who struggled with a serious drinking problem throughout her life. Shields’ childhood friend, actress Laura Linney, describes in the film how the two would hide out in Shields’ bedroom as children while Teri was drunk and out of control.

“I didn’t revel in that success in the ’80s. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I did it.’ All of these things that were associated with being these ‘sexy’ personas just didn’t feel like who I really was,” says Shields. “I didn’t blame my mom, but I wish she had a little more, ‘Oh, let’s see what this is going to mean. And would it come back to bite us?’”

Director Lana Wilson (miss american) chronicles Shields’ entire journey over the course of the film’s 136 minutes, from his highly publicized relationship with Michael Jackson (“It was very childish… we were just friends”) to his sitcom success with Susana suddenly and serving as a public advocate for mothers suffering from postpartum depression, much to the chagrin of a certain high-ranking Scientologist.

One of the most gruesome parts of the document concerns an episode involving photographer Gary Gross – an apt name, if there ever was one. When Shields was ten years old, Gross, who was considered a friend of the family, took nude photographs of her in a bathtub that were published in a book by Rizzoli. When she turned 16 and became a global superstar, Gross tried to sell the photos. Then, Shields and her mother sued him in New York court.

Shields, who again was just 16 at the time, was cross-examined on the stand for two days and reduced to tears. At one point, Gross’ attorney even asked her, “You’re having fun posing nude back then, aren’t you?” (She was 10 years old.) To make matters worse, the court sided with Gross, holding that he owned these nude images of a child and had a right to do with them as he pleased.

“I was more hurt by the breach of trust and friendship than I was ever uncomfortable with the nature of the photo,” said Shields. “It was the way I was treated by the men associated with the whole thing. It was so cheap, low class – there was no integrity to it, and for me that was so irritating and painful. I mean, my whole life, over and over and over again, was, ‘She’s a pretty face.’ “She’s a sex symbol.” And that always stuck with me because the nerdy kind of idiot person who was creative and smart was at the core of who I was.”

Brooke Shields attends the Twelfth Annual MoMA Benefit Film Presented by CHANEL in Honor of Laura Dern on November 12, 2019, in New York City.

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for MoMA

By the time she graduated from high school, Shields had regained some control of her life. She went to Princeton (where she got her degree), wrote books, and became a spokesperson for teen girls.

“It didn’t really occur to me to have my own opinions for a long time. I thought, just listen to everyone and accept what they say,” says Shields. “I spent my life owing people things and doing what they wanted. Finally, I asked myself: who will I be if I don’t allow this anymore?”

After graduation, however, she found that film roles had dried up. She says she was “vulnerable” and around this time she was sexually assaulted by an unnamed film producer under the guise of meeting for a role. It’s a story she’s never shared publicly before.

“I just froze,” she shares. “My single ‘no’ should have been enough. And I just thought, ‘Stay alive and get out.’ And I just deleted it. And God knows I knew how to disassociate myself from my body. I had practiced it.”

She continues, “I wanted to erase everything from my mind and body and just continue on the path I was on. And the system never came to help me, you know? So, I just had to get stronger on my own.”

And she did. Shields discovered that she had a talent for comedy, first with a cameo in Friends as Joey’s stalker girlfriend and then with her own hit NBC series Susana suddenly, which ran for four seasons. She fell in love with tennis star Andre Agassi, who proved to be jealous and controlling, and then found true happiness with comedy writer Chris Henchy, whom she married in 2001.


After the birth of her son, Shields became the public face of postpartum depression, writing a book and going on talk shows to discuss it, giving a voice to mothers around the world who have gone through similar issues. Shields even helped pass the Mothers’ Act – an important piece of legislation that devoted additional resources to helping mothers with postpartum depression. Hers is, overall, a remarkable story of resilience.

“I guess I decided to say, ‘You all think I can’t do this, but watch me,’” says Shields. “And I think the same thing was happening in college as well. You know, ‘She won’t be serious’. ‘She won’t be as bright.’ But I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not just going to surprise them, I’m going to surprise myself.’”