Brooke Shields on Her Mom & Aging

She talks about her mother’s health, her wrinkles and more.

By Jancee Dunn
Photograph: Photo by: Ruven Afanador

The way a celebrity arrives for an interview can be very telling. In Brooke Shields’s case, she alights with a friendly wave from a New York taxi. No limo. No hovering handlers. No BlackBerry. No giant sunglasses, no makeup (she is fresh from a Spinning class). Just Brooke, who strides over with a big grin and an outstretched hand. This is going to be fun.

Of course, despite the lack of fanfare, Shields’s arrival causes a ripple of excitement at the New Museum, on the Lower East Side of New York City, where we are spending the afternoon. After all, this is a woman with one of the most recognizable faces in the world, someone who has spent all 43 of her years in the spotlight, from her debut as a baby Ivory Snow model to her most recent gig on TV’s Lipstick Jungle. But she’s cheerfully oblivious to the whispers, preferring to focus on the exhibition of work by American abstract artist Mary Heilmann. “I’ve been meaning to come to this museum forever,” says Shields, as she studies a vibrant pink and black painting called Tomorrow’s Parties. Six feet tall, slim and toned, she is wearing a simple and chic outfit: Earnest Sewn jeans, black Prada turtleneck, black boots. Her trademark lush hair, still wet from the gym, spills in waves down her back. Her face is as striking as ever, accented by slight creases at the corners of her eyes; Shields is clearly going the European age-with-dignity route rather than opting for the Hollywood plasticized model.

Life after Lipstick Jungle
Today she is happy to be distracted by a museum, as the fate of Lipstick Jungle hangs in the balance. The show, based on a novel by Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell and starring Shields, Kim Raver and Lindsay Price as high-powered New York friends, had a shortened first season due to the writers’ strike and struggled to pick up viewers in its second year, even as its story lines became richer. Hearing rumors of cancellation, a phalanx of fans protested by mailing tubes of lipstick to NBC. Shields and her costars “talk every day” about how they hate the uncertainty; she adds that she just sent NBC Entertainment cochairman Ben Silverman an e-mail asking, “What the fuck?” (She mouths the obscenity; it’s strange, somehow, to see Brooke Shields using the F-word.) She’s gratified by the women who have written to say how much they identify with her character, Wendy, a film executive who tries to juggle work, marriage and caring for two kids. That isn’t too far off from Shields’s real life: For eight years, she has been married to TV writer and producer Chris Henchy, with whom she has two daughters, Rowan, six, and Grier, three.

At press time, the show’s future looked bleak, although NBC refused to confirm cancellation. Shields, with her usual equanimity, doesn’t view the show as a failure. “There’s so much I’ve reaped from it, both personally and professionally,” she says. She’ll do what she has always done: pick herself up, dust herself off and tackle a new venture. Indeed, few stars have been as resilient in their careers. Along with television (before Lipstick Jungle, she proved herself a gifted comedienne on   Suddenly Susan), Shields has acted in films (Pretty Baby and Endless Love are her favorites) and on stage ( Grease, Cabaret, Chicago, Wonderful Town), and she’s tried her hand at writing (most recently, her best-selling postpartum depression memoir,   Down Came the Rain, and two children’s books).

Learning to be fearless
For her, the fear of missing out on an exciting experience trumps the fear of failure. “I have to jump in and worry later,” she says. “Sometimes that just means going for it, even if the end result isn’t what’s usually termed successful. If I come out of it learning a skill or being really proud that I subjected myself to something most people would be afraid of, then that’s a reward. You just keep going where there’s a new challenge, and you surprise yourself. It’s the only way I’ve been able to survive.”

She points to her stage work as an example of “something that in your right mind you really shouldn’t do.” Almost every role she stepped into had yielded a Tony award or nomination for the first actress who played it. As she contemplated taking her own turn, says Shields, “I just had to weigh it and think, well, no, I’m not going to be that person, but I can be the best version of me in that. The confidence I gained—to me that was a win.”

“Brooke is fearless,” says Kathleen Marshall, who directed her in Wonderful Town. “She played one of two sisters, and her character was the less outgoing one, more sarcastic, more uncomfortable in her own skin. And she was completely convincing. It was fascinating that this glamorous woman could make herself seem awkward.”

Marshall, like so many of Shields’s colleagues, extols her professionalism: “When you star in a show, you’re leading the company onstage and off, and she’s wonderful that way, because she’s kind and gracious and hard-working. The wardrobe department loved her so much that they made a replica of one of her costumes for Rowan for Halloween.”

Shields’s latest endeavor is her just-published second children’s book, It’s The Best Day Ever, Dad!, the lighthearted tale of two little girls who have a day out with their father. She was surprised to discover that writing for kids—a dream harbored by seemingly every other person in America—was quite difficult. “It took me more time, relatively, to write my first children’s book [last year’s Welcome to Your World, Baby] than it did Down Came the Rain,” she says. Every sentence had to be simple, crystal clear and short, which is harder than it looks. “For me, it’s much easier to be verbose,” she says. “I was like, ‘god, it’s easier writing about depression.’ ”

This sort of forthright admission is typical of Shields. For someone who has been famous practically since birth, she’s remarkably open. “Brooke is incredibly approachable,” Bushnell says. “She’s gone through a lot in her life and come through it being a very empathetic person. Despite the fact that she’s beautiful and brilliant, she’s also the girl next door. If you go anywhere with her, there’s a constant flow of people coming up to her and saying things like, ‘You met my sister 20 years ago!’ And Brooke is always like, ‘Oh, yes! How is your sister doing?’ ”
   
Shields and her mother: "It was us against everybody"
Shields has worked hard at being normal. Her father, Frank, a longtime Revlon executive who died of cancer in 2003, and her mother, Teri, an ex-model, divorced when she was a baby. Teri raised Brooke in Manhattan, and became intensely—some would say obsessively—involved in managing her daughter’s career. Teri came under fire for, among other things, allowing Brooke at 12 to star as a prostitute in Pretty Baby, and, at 15, to announce that nothing came between her and her Calvins in the famous jeans ad. At the same time, she was constantly on her daughter to mind her manners and to be scrupulously professional.
   
With adult eyes, Shields can now see the roots of her mother’s micromanaging. “She came from Newark, New Jersey, from the opposite side of the tracks,” she says, standing with perfect posture in front of another painting. “My dad came from the upper-crusty side of the tracks. The tracks weren’t even in his neighborhood.” She laughs. “And my mother was always adamant about being perceived as having class, not having been born into it. It plagued her, and I think she didn’t want me to know the insecurity of being rejected. She didn’t want me to grow up as the daughter of someone from Newark. The flip side, though, is that she would constantly throw it out at me. She wanted me not to forget where I came from, and how she was a street fighter.”
   
The two formed an extremely tight bond (“It was us against everybody”), but Teri was also an alcoholic, so their insular little world always threatened to slide into turbulence. As a kid, Shields would tell herself, if I do this, or if I do that, maybe she’ll stop drinking. “I always felt loved,” she says, “but it’s never enough. You’re like a hamster on a wheel.” The duo never quite fit in anywhere (“We weren’t Newark, and we weren’t Upper East Side”) until they found a haven in the entertainment world. “Those are the people we sort of got adopted by,” Shields says. “They became our Thanksgiving.”
   
As a preteen, Shields mixed with a vast array of artists, photographers and filmmakers, including Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. “Not many people know this, but Brooke was in Annie Hall,” Allen says via e-mail. (Shields says she played a pilgrim in a Thanksgiving Day play scene that was cut.) “I’ve been a fan of hers since the night she came up to Diane Keaton and myself at a Martha Graham benefit performance, to which I’d also escorted Betty Ford,” Allen adds. “Brooke was a little girl, very beautiful, very poised, very charming, and there was no doubt in my mind that big things were in store for her.”
   
Feeling divorced from her sexy image

Her fame grew, and so did her sultry image. When Shields was still a teenager, she was besieged by international suitors (reportedly, the son of Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi sent her a diamond necklace and a nephew of Jordan’s King Hussein dispatched a diamond and sapphire ring). She also became a lightning rod for the issue of teenage sexuality. Conversely, in real life she was “kept so naïve,” she says. “My mom was probably so afraid it would change me. My brain was doing one thing, my body another, and I really became paralyzed by it. It was awkward, sexually, because I felt cut off from the neck down.” (Indeed, while she was attending Princeton, she wrote an advice book about college life called On Your Own, which included a section titled “What My Virginity Means to Me.”)
   
While others lavished time and attention on her looks, she felt “complete detachment,” she says, as we take a seat in the museum’s café for tea and gingersnaps. She recalls being in a jazz dance class and falling whenever she tried to turn. The teacher chided her that she never watched herself in the mirror. “She said ‘Look at yourself,’ and I didn’t want to. What if I didn’t like what I saw? What if I didn’t look like I did in magazines?”

It took her first pregnancy to make her finally want to face the mirror. “It seemed important to me all of a sudden,” she says. “It was life, and my body had this purpose so far beyond just being there to look at, or tan or shave. Suddenly I realized how good it had been to me over the years, and what it had sustained.” She shakes her head ruefully. “And I was in my thirties at the time.”
 
"I wish I had the face I had a decade ago, but I don’t"  
Now she tries to celebrate her body as it is. “I’m more proud of my longevity than anything else,” she says. “There’s a lot to be said for endurance. I’m trying to find the beauty in the whole picture rather than the crow’s- feet.” She laughs. “Sure, I wish I had the face I had a decade ago, but I don’t. People say, ‘I love my wrinkles.’ ” She rolls her eyes. “I don’t love my wrinkles—come on! But when you see certain women that we knew when they were younger, like Anjelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini, and they’ve grown older in the public eye, what you’re responding to is their whole life imprinted on them.”
   
Ironically, although she too has grown older in the public eye, she is just now realizing that fact when it comes to her career. “For years, I’ve been the youngest person on the set, and it occurred to me recently that I wasn’t 26!” She throws back her head and laughs. “I’d read a script and say, ‘Oh, that’s a great character, that’s something I’d love to do.’ And they’d say, ‘Um, no, we’re thinking of you for the mother.’ And then I’d say, ‘Oh, of course! Of course! I knew that.’ ”
   
She feels as if she’s in a “middle place” in Hollywood at the moment. “There aren’t a lot of movies out there for my age,” she says with a sigh. “They’re still stopping at the mid-thirties. Then you’re Diane Keaton or Glenn Close.” She has noticed that this forty-something limbo extends to advertising as well. “I always find it funny that so much skin cream advertising features, like, Jessica Alba,” she carps. “She’s gorgeous, and 12! OK? They’re all that age! I don’t care how much La Mer I put on my skin, I’m not going to have Jessica Alba’s face! And then it goes from that to ‘age defying.’ And you’re kind of like, what happened to the middle here? You’re nubile or you’re age defying!” For the record, she favors La Mer and “the one made by the monks, from Fresh” (Crème Ancienne), but she says that no cream is going to work miracles if she’s sleep-deprived or on too many airplanes in a row.

On caring for her aging mother and reconciling with the past
In other ways, her life has come full circle. Her mother, once the tough negotiator for her daughter, is now 75 and in declining health. During her time off from Lipstick Jungle, Shields has been caring for her—bringing her DVDs and cleaning up her cluttered house. “She’s unable to do it; she’s shifted into a more incompetent place,” Shields says. “I have the energy, I’m the only one that can do it, and it’s my . . . burden? Blessing? I don’t know. Somewhere, karmically, there’s a reason for this.”
   
And so Shields finds herself part of the so-called sandwich generation, looking after both her daughters and her mother. “I’ve spent a huge portion of my life taking care of my mother anyway,” she says. “As an only child of an alcoholic, you’re the caretaker; it just happens. Then you think you’re done with it, you have your family and priorities, and all of a sudden, I’m doing it a hundred percent all over again.” She shrugs. “There’s no martyrdom—it’s a pain in the ass, but it has to be done. I just think, you’re only given what you supposedly can handle.”

As she has sifted through her mother’s possessions (“She never got rid of anything”), Shields recently discovered old letters that her parents had written to each other long ago, before their split. “I never saw my parents together,” she says, “so to see any correspondence between them is really . . . ” She trails off, then adds that reading their words has been an intensely emotional experience. “My husband says, ‘What are you doing that to yourself for? Throw it away!’ ” she says. “But I can’t throw away me, or what led up to this. I love pieces of a puzzle, and knowledge gives you understanding. I’m trying to have empathy for my mother. Hers was an era without self-analysis, self-affirmation. Our generation doesn’t stand for that.”
   
Reconciling with her past has given her a clear idea of what she’d like to have in the future. “I wanted a two-parent household and all of that, and I basically got it,” says Shields, who was married to tennis star Andre Agassi for two years before tying the knot with Henchy. “I’m in a healthy relationship; I have two extraordinary kids. I’ve spent a good portion of my life with the goal being ‘husband, family—if I get that, then I’m normal and healthy and I won’t become a Hollywood casualty.’ And now that I can sort of check that off my really big list, I want to keep working and growing.” She’d love, for example, “to do a period movie. I haven’t done one in more than 25 years!” And offscreen, she is the spokesperson for Tupperware’s Chain of Confidence campaign, which celebrates women’s friendships and, through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s SMART Girls program, encourages young women to build their self-esteem.
   
As Shields gathers her things and gets ready to pick up Rowan at school, she winds up our chat with what could well be her life’s philosophy. “I just don’t want to miss out on anything,” she says with a smile and a hug. 

Jancee Dunn has interviewed Ellen Barkin and Karen Allen for MORE .

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2009.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-20 11:05

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