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Brooke Shields: Why Now?

She played a hooker at 11, then built a virtual career as a professional virgin. Now with ‘Suddenly Susan,’ NBC is betting that the actress really is America’s sweetheart

Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields on the set of SUDDENLY SUSAN, 2005

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

“Choosing a career is a decision you don’t want to rush.” –
From the “Career and Success” chapter of “On Your Own,” by Brooke Shields

Lost somewhere in the Brooke Shields cinematic oeuvre –– an easy place to go missing –– you’ll find Speed Zone!, a justifiably forgotten 1989 Cannonball Run retread with an all-star cast that also includes Donna Dixon, Shari Belafonte, Jamie Farr, Eugene Levy, boxer Michael Spinks and the late John Candy. In this mirthless romp –– which should have been titled It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World! –– there’s a moment that resonates for the Brooke Shields scholar. Seemingly hours into the forced high jinks, Shields pops up as a flight attendant on a Vegas-to-L.A. shuttle. She’s uniformed and permed but still recognizably, beautifully Brooke. After giving a comically brusque safety spiel, Shields gets called over by two passengers played by –– who else? – the Smothers brothers.

The following exchange takes place.

Shields: Was there something I can do for you gentlemen?
Tom Smothers: Excuse me, I’ve seen you before. Aren’t you … um … ?
Shields: Still am.
Another passenger: Oh, Brookes!
Shields: It’s Brooke, lady, not Brookes. Brooke! There is only one of me!
Dick Smothers: Brooke Shields. That’s Brooke Shields!
Tom Smothers [amazed by her presence]: Wow! If you don’t mind my asking… but… why… but you work… I mean… what are you… ?
Shields: After four years of Princeton, my professors suggested I seek higher goals. So I figured what better place, you know, to keep my face in the public? Besides, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing bit parts in movies.

Once upon a time when she was but a Lolita-ish lass, Brooke Shields appeared on the cover of Time billed as the face of the ’80s. There is, of course, one problem with being the face of the ’80s –– it’s called the ’90s.

As much as anyone, Brooke Shields has grown up in public. She has reaped the benefits of premature attention and paid its price. “Fame probably inhibited my growth,” Shields, now 31, tells me in one of our many soul-baring conversations. “It definitely slowed things down.” Being the hardest-working kid in show business, Shields got rich and spent her school vacations traipsing around islands making movies like Endless Love. But, and this is a big but, the pop-culture fishbowl is an unnatural place to live, much less grow up. Even Chelsea Clinton has more breathing room than Shields ever did.

If Plato –– a guy she probably met at Princeton –– is correct and the unexamined life is not worth living, then Brooke Shields has lead an overwhelmingly worthwhile life. Over the course of two decades, she’s acted in more than 20 movies, starred in a groundbreaking Calvin Klein jeans campaign (“What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”) and even shared some of her life experiences in 1985’s woefully out-of-print On Your Own. When she took a sabbatical from showbiz to attend Princeton, People magazine went, too.

In recent years our viewing has largely been restricted to paparazzi photos, Bob Hope specials and family-members-box shots during the tennis matches of her fiance, Andre Agassi. We’ve all watched so much of her life, but the million-dollar question remains: Just what the hell were we seeing?

Indeed, as Shields says in Speed Zone!, there is only one of her. She’s a sexy enigma inside a pure paradox. She spent her wonder years being professionally provocative but remained an impenetrable-fortress celebrity. Decades before Alanis Morissette declared herself so, Brooke Shields was Miss Thing: a distant object of desire, a hot puritan in tight jeans. She was the first beautiful nymphet to give us a collective forbidden hard-on –– assuming Shirley Temple didn’t do it for you. Nothing came between Shields and her jeans except our prurient obsession with America’s best-loved jailbait.

We can measure our own lives by hers and discover she got a hell of a head start by going to work right out of the womb. Or at least I can. Shields and I grew up living just an exit apart in New Jersey. Before she turned one, Shields started modeling. I’m 34 and have yet to book my first shoot. At 11 she gave a remarkable performance in the late Louis Malle’s artful Pretty Baby, in which she’s initiated into the world of New Orleans prostitution. I was preparing for my bar mitzvah. That same year, she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. Now I work there. Weird.

She’s been an adolescent sex symbol and a spokeswoman for virginity despite being linked in the press with everyone from John F. Kennedy Jr. to Michael Jackson. She grew up with, perhaps, the mother of all stage mothers. Yet there Shields stands tall before us, a bright, sweet, seemingly well-adjusted model citizen and proud survivor of the shit storm of modern celebrity, a condition fatal to many adults.

“I’m not sure healthy is a word I would use to describe my childhood,” she says. “It was what it was.” What it was –– enough worldwide attention to stunt anyone’s growth and land her on some Danny Bonaduce talk-show panel discussion –– could have made Shields a full-on psycho. (“She’s been around enough of them,” says Agassi.) Yet, remarkably, the closest she got was playing one on Friends. When Shields guest-spotted earlier this year on the show’s post-Super Bowl episode as a crazed soap-opera fan of Joey Tribbiani, she churned up a tidal wave of buzz. That buzz, which came on the heels of a successful Broadway run as bad girl Rizzo in Grease!, helped persuade Warner Bros. and NBC to build a sitcom around her, the much-promoed Suddenly Susan, and to schedule it between Seinfeld and ER in the network’s powerhouse Thursday-night lineup. “This is the way NBC tells you they love you,” says Warren Littlefield, NBC’s entertainment president. “We could have just sent flowers, but somehow it didn’t seem enough.”

Such network affection also meant that when the pilot was judged to be good but not great, the money was anted up to make the vehicle Must See-worthy. The show was radically reworked –– Susan suddenly went from editing books in Pasadena, Calif., to writing for The Gate magazine in San Francisco –– totally recast and handed over to a new production team.

Beating a press ban, I’m allowed to watch the final rehearsal of Suddenly Susan‘s second pilot. As I enter the soundstage on Warners’ Burbank, Calif., lot, Shields and her co-star Kathy Griffin, a gifted L.A. comedian, are dueting on a drunken version of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” The feeling on the set is like that of freshman orientation: slightly tense but full of expectations. “I had fingernails before,” says Judd Nelson, who plays Susan’s boss. “I do not have them now.”

The unspoken truth is that this educational experience could potentially go on for more than four years, and here they pay you for matriculating –– a daunting prospect for Shields. “It’s thrilling but a bit terrifying,” she says. “Everything has been transient in my life, except my education. You do a movie for a few months, build intense relationships and leave. There’s something addicting about that. I’d never worked on one project for more than six months. You say five years to me, and I feel the shackles go on.”

Watching Shields film the episode in front of a gaggle of publicists and a peck of agents, one can’t help rooting for her. She’s been through a few of Dante’s circles of showbiz hell: She’s had Princeton roommates hang a Shields doll in loving effigy. She’s done Italian movies that were shot in Iowa and discussed with Larry King but never seen in a theater near you. She’s faced down the possibility that she may have peaked as an actress before she was a teenager. She’s been the hot young thing –– “the operative word being thing,” she admits –– and run the risk of becoming the world’s best-educated game-show celebrity.

This time around, Brooke Shields wants her rekindled heat to mean something. Something more than just making somebody else happy. More than just being Brooke Shields for a living. She has, rather late in the game perhaps, decided she wants to be an actress. Suddenly this pretty baby with a past is working her ass off to become a woman with a future. And if that means spending time with one more inquiring mind pressing her about her crazy childhood, her famed virginity and her doubles partner for life, Andre Agassi, then so be it.

Because nothing comes between Brooke Shields and her dreams.

***

“I sometimes wish that I could just say, ‘What do adults know?’ and rebel. But I’m not that arrogant. Who am I to disregard years of experience?” –
From the “Parents” chapter of “On Your Own”

It’s the next afternoon, and Brooke Shields arrives at her publicist’s Beverly Hills office, a location that feels like a homey dentist’s-office waiting room and thus the perfect place to start pulling teeth. Despite being up until two in the morning shooting Suddenly Susan and then taking her ailing kitten to the vet, she’s game to talk. She’s looking casually beautiful today; the less made-up that Shields is, the more approachable and radiant she appears. Still, showing no mercy, I’ve started with a tough one.

“So, Brooke, why aren’t you a total wack job?”

“Luck,” she answers. “I think I’m lucky. I have my own manifestations. As a little kid you either seek approval or you just don’t want to fail. I thank God I had school, because those years, no matter what happened in my life, that stayed consistent. I didn’t have time to go off the deep end because I didn’t want to fail in school. I didn’t want to not be liked.

The world sure got an early shot at liking Shields. Her mother, Teri, a former model and cosmetologist, and father, Frank, a Revlon executive, split soon after she was born, in 1965. Apparently an ambitious toddler, Shields did her first Ivory soap commercial at 11 months. She says her earliest memories are of modeling in New York, living like a gypsy with assorted makeup artists, hairdressers and photographers: “Thanksgiving was always at Bruce Weber’s house with a bunch of eclectic people.”

Her dad –– whose father was a tennis champ and later a contract player for Paramount –– disapproved of his daughter’s career. “He rejected it all,” she says. He was so bent on protecting her from the spotlight that he would even tell her not to pose in family pictures.

Soon Shields was posing everywhere. First there was modeling work, then films like Pretty Baby and Endless Love. There were Brooke dolls. “There was tan Brooke, smiling Brooke, regular Brooke,” Shields says. “I hear the dolls are pretty valuable, but no one’s going to replace Barbie for me, certainly not me.” Artistically there were mostly diminishing returns. Wobbly star vehicles like Wanda Nevada and Just You and Me, Kid became vehicles that went nowhere like Sahara and Brenda Starr. When asked how many comedies she’s done, Shields says, “That’s a matter of opinion.”

Still, unlike other kid stars, she stayed on the straight and narrow. “I saw so many young people lose their way,” Shields recalls. “They’d become overnight successes, buy cars and forget about going to college, take driver’s ed and end up in rehab.” Shields spent her formative years in school, with vacations and summers on movie sets, never moving to the “hamster treadmill” of L.A. “Those late nights that you’d go to Studio 54, I had to be home at 10 anyway,” says Shields. “Alcohol was offered to me, but I’m from a half-Italian family, so alcohol was everywhere. But I was never offered drugs.”

Sounds like a strange way to grow up.

“When I look back at the past 30 years, it’s amazing to me that that kid did survive the first 10,” Shields says. “I don’t know how she did it. I can’t say it was healthy, but we did the best we could within these circumstances thrown at me. OK, my parents were divorced. But I don’t remember being unhappy. I was a kid. You don’t labor through what’s not fun.”

Then again, if it wasn’t fun, you might not admit it. “It used to be that no matter what interviewers asked,” she says, “I’d say, ‘Yes, I love what I’m doing. It’s so much fun, and I can stop anytime I want to.’ That was always the quote of the day.”

Shields refuses to strike a victim posture. “It would be easy to be angered by the undoing that I feel I have to face,” she says. “But once you allow yourself to accept being a victim, where do you go from there? I don’t look back at being forced into doing anything. But when I analyze myself now –– where I am in my life, where my insecurities are –– there has to be a reason. Whether it’s a father issue or it’s a mother who has to compensate for everything. I look back and think, ‘Wow, I guess I did miss having a father.’ No wonder my mom tried to be everything.”

I remind Shields that in On Your Own, she defends her mother passionately: “We are mother and daughter, best friends, and a terrific professional team all rolled into one.”

She pauses before answering: “When you’re 18 and it’s the only thing consistent in your life, you say, ‘This has saved me. This is fine.‘ When you’re 31 and thinking of having your own kids, and you’re feeling that blue confusion and pain and separation from that omnipresent, omni-whatever person, you know people can’t be everything. I look at my future and the family I want to create and say to myself that I want my kids not to need me so much.”

In case you haven’t noticed, Shields speaks like no one else. Talking about her past, she drifts into the third person and at times uses her impressive vocabulary as a protective shield. She can also be eloquent, almost poetic. “I lived on an island,” she adds in a tone that makes clear she’s not talking about that idyllic place in The Blue Lagoon. “I lived on an island, and nothing else could penetrate it. Then before you know it, you’re 30 and thinking, ‘Wow, why does this hurt?‘”

Shields’ independence from her mother’s management came last year, around the time Shields turned 30. “Something didn’t feel right,” she recalls. “I had hopes and dreams, and I wasn’t doing anything to go toward them. All I had were obligations. As an actress, I never had a chance to grow. The focus was on creating a persona rather than a talent. I was spinning my wheels. It didn’t seem worth it. So what do you do? Give it all up and just sort of get married?” Instead, she severed her professional relationship with her mother and went into therapy.

Shields still talks to her mother often, but when I look over my transcripts, I realize that she has almost entirely avoided the words “mom” or “mother.” And when she talks of their relationship, she becomes tentative, if not down-right enigmatic. “I needed to not write in a diary and picture it being read by somebody who steals it,” she says. “I needed not to put all of this stuff on my mind. And I can’t ask her to be everything and then all of a sudden throw sand at her. This was not fair to anybody in the room – and we were the only two people in that room.”

At Princeton, Shields wrote her thesis on the voyage from innocence to experience in the films of Louis Malle. She has clearly meditated upon that journey herself. “Every time I went in front of the camera, those were the subjects I was dealing with,” she says. “But the media machine upheld this pure image while celebrating the sexuality. Never once did anyone say, ‘What’s going on here?’ To this day, it’s hard to respect that. But I can’t answer to any of it, because I didn’t think of any of it.”

Have you ever asked, “Mom, what were you thinking?”

“I will probably ask that in the near future,” Shields says. “I don’t know how much thought went into it.”

Shields claims that she didn’t even get the double meaning of her infamous Calvin Klein jeans ads until many years later. “I loved doing those ads,” she says. “But it was not in my nature to immediately go to the gutter. Now it’s an easier step for me to take.”

Because you’re a fallen woman?

“Yeah, suddenly sinful,” she says.

One imagines that posing nearly nude as a teenager might impact on one’s own sexuality.

“I think sexuality did get sectioned off,” Shields says. “It was this persona you only lived out in front of the camera.”

Whereas now she can do a wholesome TV show and have sex during the breaks? “Yeah, that’s why they put me in every scene,” she says with a laugh. “They don’t want me going back to the dressing room. No, I don’t know what kind of sexual being I am. I think it takes time and trust to really be secure in your sexuality.”

Especially when you’re an icon.

“Does an icon know?” she responds. “I spent years just not paying attention. What was I going to do with that information?”

I ask Shields if she has any regrets about having been a poster girl for chastity. “I never needed to be a poster girl for anything,” she says. “I was trying to be honest. It was a paragraph in this book along with what to wear on a weekend.” She’s referring to the six-paragraph passage in On Your Own charmingly entitled “What My Virginity Means to Me.” The book also features helpful hints on being the family diplomat and dealing with oily skin.

“There’s a spoon trick in there for puffy eyes that still holds up,” she says with a laugh.

Would an updated edition have a chapter on how to say yes?

“Forget about just waiting to be asked,” she answers. “I’ve turned in a completely opposite direction.” She smiles and says, “I guess I’ll just have to write another book.”

***

“The only thing you can do when you’re new, alone, and afraid is to hold firm, knowing that in time you will meet people and make friends.” –
From the “Friends” chapter of “On Your Own”

The next morning the cast of Suddenly Susan assembles to bond further and take their class –– oops, network –– photos. Shields arrives first, dressed in bluejean overalls. As she’s being made up, I ask if she has any idea of how many photo shoots she’s done in her life. “No, it’s probably too devastating a number,” she says. “But this is fun because I’m not alone.” In the old days she wouldn’t look in the mirror when her makeup was being done. “Everybody else was focused on what I looked like,” she says. “It was all about that.”

Judd Nelson arrives, bearing a gift candle for his co-star. Shields and Nelson have been friendly for years; they met at a charity ski event “back in the ’50s, before we were both blacklisted,” as Nelson puts it.

“We’ve both been around,” adds Shields.

Suddenly Susan is very much Brooke Shields’ show. But not so much that it deviates from sitcom formula. Like Friends, the show opens with a beautiful young woman breaking an engagement and heading out on her own. Of course she’s not so on her own that she doesn’t have the support of a talented ensemble cast, which includes Nelson, Barbara Barrie as her crazy-coot grandma, Kathy Griffin as her sharp-tongued co-worker, Nestor Carbonell as the Antonio Banderas-like photographer and David Strickland as the Chandler Bing-like rock critic. They are a bright, amiable bunch. Though it was not a prerequisite, all the young cast members are prep-school graduates. They politely decline to say whether they have better SAT scores than the Friends cast. “I think [Lisa] Kudrow could kick my ass in that department,” says Kathy Griffin.

“She’s a homegirl,” says Griffin of Shields. “I just want to look at her ’cause she’s famous and tall.” A few minutes later, while Griffin is in makeup, I ask if she has any questions for Shields. “I just want to get all the dirt,” she ‘fesses up. “Remember when she went out with John Travolta when she was like 12 –– that’s the sort of thing I want to talk about. What is that? She’s gone out with some freaks, let’s face it.” Suddenly a look of horror comes over Griffin’s face. “She’s not here, is she?”

Actually, she is about 10 feet away getting her hair done. I ask what the biggest surprise about Shields is.

“That she was sitting behind me for the last 15 minutes,” says Griffin. “Other than that, everything’s gone as planned.”

Strickland explains that he’s no Shields neophyte. “I sat next to Brooke at a Princeton football game when I was, like, 10,” he says. “It was an amazing moment –– there was an Oliver Stone quality to it.”

“She was on peyote?” asks Griffin.

Strickland says he was star-struck at his audition. “You see so much of her, especially with that boyfriend of hers –– what’s his name? Pete Sampras? Roscoe Tanner?”

In true ’90s style, Shields met her tennis-playing boyfriend by fax. They got each other’s numbers through the wife of mutual friend Kenny G. Finally, in 1993 the relationship took a retro turn when she and Agassi met in person. They were engaged this past March, as that huge diamond ring on Shields’ hand reminds us.

Later I talk to Agassi at home in Las Vegas and ask if Shields gives good fax.

“Does she give good what?” he asks.

I spell it out.

“I was about to hang up on you,” Agassi says with a laugh. “Yeah, she gave great fax.” Agassi and Shields discovered early in their fax writing that they were both in the same place in their lives. They were tired of not taking steps in a direction that led to the future. Once the first few faxes had gone back and forth, Agassi says, he knew that “this was a person it’s an honor to even have in your life.”

Still, he couldn’t be sure it would work out until he actually met her. He confesses that it wasn’t easy to “take this person you feel like you know so well and stick this person inside the face of something you’ve seen for so long. It was very uncomfortable. I will say I handled it better than she did. I didn’t get much eye contact for the first hour, but I got some blushing cheeks. So I felt like my chances were good.”

And now you’ve progressed and get eye contact?

“Yes,” he says, “definitely eye contact.”

***

“It’s very difficult for me to have a romance, or even to experiment with romance, because I have very little privacy.” –
From the “Dancing and Romancing While the World Is Watching” section of the “Boyfriends” chapter of “On Your Own”

Brooke Shields and I are shopping in a bookstore on the Venice boardwalk when I suggest that we try to dig up a copy of the hard-to-find On Your Own.

“Let’s try the fiction section,” she says with a grin.

We’ve been walking down this famously tacky and fun stretch of seaside property for half an hour, past all the cheesy attractions, and despite tourists being everywhere, no one recognizes Shields. This turns out to be primarily because she’s wearing sunglasses. As soon as the glasses come off, a Canadian couple runs over to take a picture.

“Sometimes I can blend in completely,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I have a sign on my head. In the past it was just about recognizing me, it was never about any of my work. A lot of times people will congratulate me on something Andre’s just won.”

As we pass a man who for a few bucks takes your photo with his pet python and iguana, I inquire about her relationship with Michael Jackson, perhaps her most unlikely suitor. In 1993 the singer told Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the world that he and Shields had dated.

“I think it was a surreal moment for the country, to be honest,” Shields says quietly. “And I was one of the people watching.”

Was it a great romance?

“Hardly,” she says. “But I kind of don’t want to talk about this. With all these people in my life, it’s important to detach myself from the publicity of it. These are people I have known, that I have met. But it’s hard to talk about because no one gets it.”

Thus we don’t even get to John John, Michael Bolton, Liam Neeson, George Michael, Christopher Atkins –– her Blue Lagoon co-star –– and Bon Jovi’s Tico Torres. As we pass a basketball game, I press her further about splitting professionally with her mother. As gracious an interview subject as Shields is, she’s had enough.

“In the past, nothing I’ve said has been printed correctly,” she says as she looks out at the ocean with crowds Rollerblading behind her. “I don’t want to rehash this. I will say, deciding to take the chance and not have that sort of support I’ve known for so long, that was the hardest thing. That was going into uncharted territory –– all of the mistakes that were going to be made were now mine.

How did you tell her?

“I’m choosing not to go into that,” Shields says. “There are a few areas where no matter what I say… ” She’s at a loss for words.

Perhaps feeling guilty for bumming her out, I offer to buy her a couple of books. Initially she’s overwhelmed by the “plethora” of choices. The range of her tastes is considerable. She pauses before offerings by Richard Bach, Sam Shepard, Charles Darwin, C.S. Lewis and David Mamet. In the end she picks up titles by Mamet and Shepard, and recommends Lewis’ Mere Christianity for me.

A self-described “functioning religious kid,” Shields enjoys going to church. “I like that ritual in my life,” she says. “I appreciate that time.”

Time, of course, is running out, and so we make our way to the Rose Cafe, a groovily low-key Venice joint where her assistant is to pick her up. It’s the sort of place Susan might hang out in had she not been relocated up north. Soon after we arrive, Shields once again takes off her glasses. A nice middle-aged couple spots her immediately.

“The show looks really great,” the man tells Shields. “We love the promos.” His wife wishes her “lots of luck” with Suddenly Susan and remarks about what a great cafe this is.

Shields agrees but also offers a little helpful advice: “Don’t come here Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. You should be home watching your television!”

***

“So far I’ve led a glamorous and exciting life –– one filled with rare opportunities.” –
From the introduction to “On Your Own”

The next day, after filming more NBC promos, Shields heads back to New York, where she still feels most at home, for a little vacation before Suddenly Susan goes into production. Apparently forgiving my pushiness, she leaves a phone message kindly inviting me to observe her at “a very funky New York jazz-dance class,” something she feels is “more me” than Venice Beach. With regrets I have to pass on this chance to see Brooke in the ‘hood.

A few days later she calls from a car phone somewhere in the blasting Las Vegas heat so we can wrap up some loose ends. Among other things, I want to confirm that she won’t be married before this issue hits the streets. Intriguingly, she asks what day that will be, then gets off the line for a second before promising, “Yes, I’ll still be engaged then.”

I ask her how much help Agassi –– whom sports fans recall grew up with quite a tennis dad –– has been in her ongoing evolution.

“His encouragement and endorsement of me so unconditionally has helped me be more fueled in any fight that I have,” she says. “He’s not so overt, he would never give me a lecture. But through it all he’s definitely encouraged me finding my own answers in my own struggles.”

Asked if they are a support group for each another, Shields says no, then asks, “What would you call that support group? Children With a Past? And a Future?”

Agassi sees more of a connection. “Whatever she’s been through,” he tells me, “Brooke’s a person who strives to better herself and doesn’t settle for living on a standard that is beneath an ideal.”

Listening to them, it strikes me that Shields’ is very much a continuing education. “I feel that implicitly,” she says. “I think my education began in most of my struggles. A few years ago, when all the changes began to happen, I really feel that discovery of self began, inclusive of fears and drives and insecurities and strengths.”

In the context of such growth, how does it feel having people like me focus on her virginity? “It never ceases to amaze me,” she says. “You think, ‘Where does it end?’ I guess no one’s exempt from it. It’s these little tag lines from the ’80s that have so little to do with anything today.” As we chat away pleasantly, it strikes me that while we dissect her past, she is as much a participant as an observer, like her youth were not just hers, but ours, too.

Still, I press on. “So virginity is a thing of the past for you?” I ask pitifully.

She laughs and says nothing for a while.

“The irony of it is, think about what we’re talking about –– that’s a surreal concept,” she says. “You’re a man sitting in an office, I’m an actress, and that’s what we’re talking about. I mean, what planet are we on?”

It’s called Earth. And suddenly, Brooke, we’re extremely excited to have you aboard.

In This Article: Brooke Shields, Coverwall

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