Brooke Shields: "My mother loved me, but the bottle always won."

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Erin O'Dwyer

Brooke Shields and mother Teri in 1981.

Brooke Shields and mother Teri in 1981. Photo: Getty Images

A few months after her mother died, Brooke Shields bought a beach house in the Hamptons. In a strange and tragic tribute, she spent three days decorating it with her mother's most cherished possessions. Teri Shields had kept a storage shed the size of aircraft hangar, jammed with furniture, antiques, art, Hollywood memorabilia, designer handbags (real and fake), tools, bikes, jewellery and toys, for fantasy homes she never bought.

As soon as the decorating was done, Shields realised she had made a mistake. "Suddenly, I hated it," she writes in her new memoir, There Was a Little Girl. "I hated the old-fashioned style, I hated the smell. I hated her hoarding it and us waiting and waiting for a dream house and a place in which we would be happy and at peace with one another."

The next day, Brooke sold everything to an antique dealer. "I had needed to go through the entire process," she writes. "Cleaning out the storage space, seeing everything that was there, placing it all in our new home, paying tribute to what my mom and I had collected and the path it had taken and then being done with it. It was a liberating process and a telling one."

With her former husband, tennis player Andre Agassi.

With her former husband, tennis player Andre Agassi. Photo: John Kuntz/Reuters/Picture Media

Brooke Shields' memoir centres on the complex relationship between her and her mother, who died from dementia-related illness in late 2012, aged 79. At the heart of the story is Teri's alcoholism. Apart from a short stint in a rehabilitation centre, which Brooke engineered when she was a teenager, Teri never sought help nor admitted that she had a drinking problem. Yet Brooke describes alcohol as the "third person" in their relationship. "Anybody who lives with an addict knows that there is damage done all around," she says.

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As a child, she became familiar with her mother's glassy eyes and dry lips when she came to pick her up from school. When Brooke came home to find their apartment empty, she would go looking for her mother at her favourite bar.

"I was preoccupied with her drinking," Brooke says. "I understood I needed to take care of her. She was my life source and it made me be less concerned about myself and therefore less confident. I was always trying to anticipate situations and be ahead of the game. It took away the ability for me to ever really relax."

With Teri on the day she married Chris Henchy in 2001.

With Teri on the day she married Chris Henchy in 2001. Photo: Lara Porzak/Courtesy of Brooke Shields

Brooke had no plans to write another memoir. In 1985 she published her autobiography, On Your Own, and in 2006, she wrote a best-selling memoir about her battle with postnatal depression, Down Came the Rain.

When her mother died, she penned a brief obituary for The New York Times. A subsequent unflattering article published by the newspaper painted Teri as a desperate single mother who pushed her daughter into modelling and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute in the movie Pretty Baby when she was just 12.

Brooke wanted to set the record straight. She also wanted to explore the complex relationship between mothers and their daughters. "My life always existed somehow in relation to hers," she writes. "She was at the apex of it all. Nearly everything I did was for her, in response to her, because of her, or in spite of her. I was either emulating her or trying to define my independence from her. I was either trying to escape from her or crash into her."

Aged 12 in <i>Pretty Baby</i> in 1978.

Aged 12 in Pretty Baby in 1978. Photo: AFP

The only child of a single mother, Brooke's life was intertwined with her mother's from the beginning. But Teri was also Brooke's manager – setting her on an inescapable trajectory when she signed her up for an Ivory soap ad when she was 11 months old.

The money started rolling in, but every job was tainted with controversy. Pretty Baby was rated R in Australia and banned in Canada, sparking claims of exploitation. The still images from the movie, which depicted the 12-year-old Brooke naked and in a seductive pose, caused outrage. R-rated roles in The Blue Lagoon and Franco Zeffirelli's Endless Love followed, and the critics called Teri's judgement into question. The catcalling continued when Brooke, at 15, starred in a series of provocative ads for Calvin Klein jeans. "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins," she purred.

Shields says she never felt exploited as a child. Both she and her mother believed they were creating art. And neither of them caught the double entendre in the Calvin Klein slogan until it was too late. In response to the criticism, Teri would ask her daughter if she was proud of her work. When Brooke nodded, Teri would say: "F... 'em if they can't handle it."

With co-star Christopher Atkins in <i>The Blue Lagoon</i> in 1980.

With co-star Christopher Atkins in The Blue Lagoon in 1980. Photo: Getty Images

But in 1981, a New York Supreme Court justice took it upon himself to give Teri a lecture. Justice Edward Greenfield dismissed a lawsuit filed by Teri and Brooke over Playboy photographs that were taken of Brooke when she was 10, with Teri's permission. The judge accused Teri of trying to be "maternally protective but exploitative at the same time" and of "living for her child, but also living through her". He added, "She cannot have it both ways."

Brooke is adamant she would not allow her own daughters – Rowan, 11 and Grier, 8 – to be photographed naked or even topless. "It was a different time," she says. She will also not allow them to watch The Blue Lagoon. "Too weird."

Brooke's own charge against her mother is far simpler: she did not provide a steady hand on the rudder. Teri was no pushy stage mother. But she gave her daughter little guidance.

Signing autographs for fans in 1980.

Signing autographs for fans in 1980. Photo: Getty Images

Even from its earliest days, Brooke Shields's career was a mismatch of high art and low rent. She did ads for dolls and snack foods, she did fashion shoots, she spruiked for a weight-loss company in Japan. She won a role in Woody Allen's Annie Hall but her work ended up on the cutting-room floor. There were "creepy producers and shitty directors on independent films where my name procured the finances", she writes.

She had an opportunity to sign with a top Hollywood agent but her mother vetoed it, effectively torpedoing her chances of a respected film career. Brooke says her mother, who grew up in working-class Newark, New Jersey, was motivated by the need to provide a lifestyle for herself and her daughter.

"There was no focus on creating a body of work," Brooke says. "It was a haphazard way of approaching a career. Usually you think, 'I'm going to find the people who are excellent and take my cues from them.' And that was something she never did. She didn't believe anyone knew better than she did for her baby girl."

Modelling for Calvin Klein at age 15.

Modelling for Calvin Klein at age 15. Photo: Big Australia

Alcohol made things worse. When Teri was sozzled, she went AWOL, leaving her young daughter with neighbours or friends – and, later, home alone – while she hit the town. Wine and spirits were her poison. By the time Brooke was in her 20s, her mother was either binge-drinking or maintaining a constant low hum of drunkenness throughout every day.

On the set of The Blue Lagoon in Fiji, Teri found eager drinking companions in the mostly Australian crew. "The Aussies knew how to party, so my mom fit right in," Brooke writes.

Despite the drinking, 14-year-old Brooke was able to relax during filming, as the confined set on Turtle Island meant she didn't have to worry about her mother constantly disappearing. She swam, cracked open coconuts, drank kava and alternately flirted and fought with her co-star, Christopher Atkins.

With husband Chris Henchy and their daughters Rowan and Grier.

With husband Chris Henchy and their daughters Rowan and Grier. Photo: Getty Images

But the anxiety resurfaced as soon as they wrapped filming. "We took off for the mainland," she writes. "Dread began creeping back into my stomach. Without the containment of the island and the protection of the crew, I would be alone with her alcoholism yet again. Mom and I had been in somewhat of an unrealistic bubble in the middle of nowhere but once back in New York City she would be on the loose again ... I was going back to square one in the battle to survive my mother's disease."

Brooke ticks off a list of important events marred by her mother's drinking over the years: her first marriage to tennis champion Andre Agassi; her second marriage to writer and TV producer Chris Henchy; the birth of her first child. Brooke had hoped that grandchildren might slow her mother's drinking, but by her 70s, Teri had begun a slow decline into dementia. Her daughter, who had always believed her mother's liver would give up first, was devastated.

"It was shocking and nothing could have prepared me for it," she says, still clearly traumatised by the experience. "The person literally disappears. They are there in front of you and you can't reach them. And there was absolutely nothing I could do."

With daughters Rowan, at left, and Grier.

With daughters Rowan, at left, and Grier. Photo: Courtesy of Brooke Shields

It is a great irony that behind one of the most famous faces of a generation – the 1980s pin-up girl for sex – was a young woman who was strait-laced and studious. She avoided drugs and alcohol and lost her virginity to her long-term boyfriend, Superman actor Dean Cain, at 22.

The book is full of delightful anecdotes detailing where Teri drew the line. She insisted Brooke have a body double in The Blue Lagoon (Australian diver and shark expert Valerie Taylor, then aged 30). She also refused to allow her daughter's hair to be dyed black for the 1978 film King of the Gypsies. School came first, work second. So when Brooke won a place at Princeton University, it was with her mother's blessing. She graduated with honours in French literature.

When we speak, Brooke has just got off the phone to her former college roommate. She recently went away with her best friend from high school. When I ask what she is proudest of in her life, she points to these relationships. "Those are 30-year long friendships and they sustain me," she says. "I'm proud that I didn't become a statistic, that I got a degree and really embraced my university years. I have a really good husband and a healthy existence and it might not have gone that way."

Brooke adores being a mother, too. Both daughters Rowan and Grier were conceived via IVF and she savours every moment of being with them. She is teaching them their grandmother's sense of fun and good manners. "I'm proud that when my kids go on play-dates, the other mother calls me and says, 'Your daughter cleared the table and said please and thank you and she can come back whenever she wants,' " she says.

"The biggest difference is, my children don't have to take care of me. They're not preoccupied with my well-being and they're confident in their own selves. My mom thought she was nurturing me but she didn't; I wasn't able to find faith in my own hypotheses. My kids have very strong opinions, much to my chagrin."

At 49, Brooke is still heart-stoppingly beautiful. Although a stellar film career eluded her, in the 1990s she found success with the comic television series Suddenly Susan and has had major roles on Broadway – Grease, The Addams Family, Cabaret and Chicago. But she remains best known for The Blue Lagoon. And she's still doing ads – for toothpaste, milk, fertility treatment and a limited-edition lipstick for MAC cosmetics. "I gotta put my kids through school," she protested to UK talk-show host Graham Norton in 2010.

"Nice school," Norton retorted.

She says now, "On the one hand, I have this vision of myself as a certain type of film actress. On the flip side, I'm so proud of how eclectic my career is. Whatever the task, I can attack it and I will succeed to the best of my ability. If I hadn't been forced to be so eclectic growing up, I'm not sure what sort of longevity I would have had."

Brooke counts herself lucky that her life was not subsumed by addiction, like so many other child stars. She says good therapy and an obsession with healthy living channelled her type-A personality into productivity. "Over the years, I've gotten better at going with the flow," she says. "I've learned to be silly with my kids and teach them that it's okay to make mistakes, because that's when they learn."

It's true that Brooke is a survivor. To put things in perspective, her Endless Love co-star Martin Hewitt runs a home-inspection business in California and The Blue Lagoon's Chris Atkins owns an outdoor equipment store. Suddenly Susan was crucial – it gave her an identity separate from her mother. So, too, her marriage to Agassi, who encouraged her to take control of her own business and financial affairs. The professional split from her mother fractured their relationship, but ultimately set Brooke free.

"There is a lot to be said for honesty but it's hard to do while they're alive," she says. "I tried at times and I'd think I could do it, and within five seconds I'd be unable to have a conversation because my blood pressure would rise. You have to keep doing your best."

I wonder aloud if Teri's death has yet to sink in. Whether writing the book raised more questions than it answered. And how Brooke will put the pieces back together.

"I think it's not going to catch up with me for a while," she agrees. "I thought I knew her better and it was only in delving very deeply into our relationship that I realised all the contradictions. I've been writing about her and talking about her, and to a certain extent she is still part of my every day. When all the book stuff dies down, I anticipate that will be the beginning."

 

PAIN BEHIND THE SMILE

My mother loved me, but the bottle always won, writes Brooke Shields.

High school basically continued with bouts of [Mom] getting drunk and then stopping for a day. There was not one major moment or birthday celebration during which she could remain sober. I learnt how to plan my joy. I would front-load my birthdays with breakfast activities or plan to be with her for only the beginning of an event. Then I would go off to be with friends and know that that would be the last I would see of my mother's real facial expressions.

She still managed to get up every morning and get me to school. She was never the kind of drunk who passed out at the dinner or party or who stayed in bed all day with a hangover. She slept little, drank a lot, and had found a way to continue through each day. Plane rides were the worst, however, because even if she'd start off the flight with soda, she would end highly inebriated and needing help off the plane. This was before TMZ waited at the airports for celebrities, and I could usually get her through baggage claim and into a waiting car without too much fuss.

She had her drinking down to a science and switched her methods whenever she needed to do so. Sometimes it was red wine at dinner and an endless slide into a boozy, sad, wanting‑to‑sing-soprano drunkenness. Then there was the "I'm only drinking diet soda" (aka rum and Coke) at parties where people knew her issue. She had bartenders all over New Jersey who knew what it really meant when she ordered her Diet Coke.

Then there was her new favourite: vodka bottles hidden all over the house and garage. She hid bottles everywhere and sometimes even forgot where she had hidden them. I'd find empty bottles in cowboy boots, behind cereal boxes, in purses at the back of her closet, and wedged in between folded sweaters.

There were times when I thought I had gotten her into the car and out of the house drink-free. But just after the engine was started, she'd tsk and say she forgot something in the house. She would put the car in park and run inside to retrieve some item and make a quick pit stop for a slug of something. I'd demand to smell her breath and she'd either already have a mint at the ready or perform her go‑to open-mouth, held-breath move.

She claimed she could drink socially and I guess that was not a lie. She was like a girl who claims, with all honesty, that she did not "sleep with" a certain boy because, in fact, they had had sex all night. Mom could absolutely drink socially. She drank and was social. She could just as easily drink while out and then go home and finish off half a bottle of vodka while getting ready for bed.

I ran out of ways of asking her to quit. Tears didn't work, rage didn't work, pleas when sober didn't work, and letters didn't work. Other people tried and I prayed.

On the day of graduation I decided to finally get drunk myself. I was at a party and we were all in the pool. I wanted to show my friends that I could be "cool" and drink like they all did. I took the screw top off a bottle of [Italian wine] Riunite and opened up the back of my throat. I poured as much as I could down my open gullet while standing in waist-deep water and enjoyed the gasps and applause.

I then looked around and knew I was going to be sick. I called my mother and asked her to come get me right then. She chuckled and I knew she was actually sober. In the car I sat in the back seat and put my forehead on the headrest in front of me.

"Are you mad at me, Mom?"

And she actually came out with, "No ... I'm just disappointed."

I was unaware of the cliché and she was unaware that she was a hypocrite. Her rules didn't apply to her. Unlike me, obviously, she could handle drinking.

 

Edited extract from There Was a Little Girl by Brooke Shields, published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright 2014 by Brooke Shields.