Happy 50th Birthday Brooke Shields: The Child Star Who Grew Up On Our Screens

Bushy-browed Brooke Shields turns 50 on Sunday, May 31 (can you believe it?). High50‘s Alexa Baracaia looks at her life, from starring in The Blue Lagoon at 14 and her Calvin Klein ads at 15, to her marriage to Andre Agassi and her tell-all book.

Back in the day, before Cara Delevigne was a wink in her mama’s eye, girls of a bushy-browed persuasion held Brooke Shields aloft as the goddess of the anti-tweeze.

I was seven when Shields’ bold brows came ka-powing on to the cover of American Vogue in 1980, and suddenly the glossy-maned 14-year-old was being feted as the ultimate beauty of her generation. My own brows, of course, were nascent but a peek at my parents’ substantial eye adornments made it clear which way they were heading — and it wasn’t Agnetha Faltskog territory.

Nearly four decades may have passed since then but the memory of those famous eyebrows has held firm, resisting the lure of the pluck through years of fashion’s ‘ooh, brows are in, ooh, no, brows are out’ finny-fannying.

And on Sunday, as Shields prepares to mark her 50th birthday (eyebrows intact, it is my joy to note), it’s still hard not to think of her, first and foremost, as that Vogue-era teen.

Brooke Shields And Calvin Klein

Of course, these days they’d never get away with Shields’ brand of rise to stardom, plonking a barely adolescent young girl butt-naked in the movies, and sticking her on the telly, legs akimbo, to tell the world about going knickerless under her skin-tight designer jeans.

“You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” went the breathy tagline to the infamous Calvin Klein ad, shot when Shields was just 15.

Iconic, suggestive, contentious though the ads may have been — CBS banned them, and, inevitably, they catapulted the U.S. label from a $25 million business to an $180 million megabrand — they were, as the star herself later mused, ‘like being in winter gear … compared to the things I’d done before’.

Not least appearing as a prostitute, aged 12, in Louis Malle’s Palme D’Or-nominated 1978 drama Pretty Baby. Then came the titillating coming-of-age flick The Blue Lagoon, featuring Shields and Christopher Atkins as teens marooned on a tropical island.

That film won rather fewer plaudits (‘dumbest movie of the year’) yet went on to make the top 10 biggest box office hits of 1980 and become cult viewing.

And then there were the nude images taken when she was 10-years-old, with the consent of her mother, for the Playboy publication Sugar ‘n’ Spice.

Brooke’s Famous Life

Shields herself has known nothing but fame: “I never had the shock of losing all my privacy. I started in showbiz at 11-months-old and it’s always been my reality.”

The story goes that her mother, New York socialite Teri, divorced from Shields’ aristo father Francis when Brooke was five-months-old, declared of her newborn: “She’s the most beautiful child and I’m going to help her with her career.”

And so she did, launching the baby Brooke into modeling for Ivory Soap at less than a year old, and signing her up with model agent Eileen Ford, who later claimed to have launched her children’s division just for Shields.

With Pretty Baby came fame, and overwhelming fame at that: “I remember being terrified, caught in a huge crowd, a pair of scissors appearing from the corner of my eye as a fan tried to cut my hair off,” Shields later recalled of her appearances at Cannes film festival.

By 1981, aged 16, she was commanding a $10,000 day rate as a model and soon scoring more box office success with the Franco Zeffirelli romantic drama Endless Love.

It’s astonishing to think that, despite all the feverish adoration and notoriety, she never once went off the rails.

“At work, I was always the good girl, the polite one,” she recalls in her autobiography There Was a Little Girl. “I got a good reputation early on because I was so easy to work with. I loved the responsibility because people liking me was the only real reward I sought.”

Show-Business As A Life-Saver

Perhaps it is because her mother’s alcoholism preoccupied the young girl that stardom, unexpectedly, became her life raft.

“The movie business kept me afloat and sane,” she later wrote. “My mother’s drinking superseded my stardom … In the end, I never got caught up in my growing fame or my public persona.

“My focus was always on what was going on at home … I was a caretaker to a drinker. I didn’t have time to consider going off the rails myself — all I wanted to do was to … keep my mum alive.”

Taking a step back at the height of her fame to study French literature at Princeton (her thesis was in the ‘Pre-adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle’) no doubt helped Shields avoid a dose of the Lindsay Lohans.

Regular but under-the-radar work in the years to come also helped to preserve public perception of the actress: for decades she remained simply star of The Blue Lagoon as, following her graduation in 1987, there was a steady trickle of entirely forgettable movies (Brenda Starr, Running Wild, The Misadventures of Margaret, anyone?).

Brooke’s Friends’ Comeback

In 1996 the comeback called, in the unexpected guise of a comedy turn playing Joey’s stalker in Friends. The guest appearance led directly to her casting in the hit NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, which earned the actress two Golden Globe nominations.

These days there are continued TV and theatre appearances, as well as modeling stints and, reportedly, a newfound fancy for surfing.

A handful of high profile romances in her youth (John Travolta, then Prince Albert of Monaco, and later an ill-fated wedding with tennis ace Andre Agassi) have been followed by 14 years of marriage to TV writer Chris Henchy, with whom she has two girls, Rowan, 11, and Grier, nine.

In her personal life she has been frank about the IVF battle to conceive her eldest, and the postnatal depression that followed Rowan’s birth.

Post-Natal Depression

In 2005, after fellow actor Tom Cruise pompously attacked her for taking antidepressants (“You look at, where has her career gone…? These drugs are dangerous… When you talk about postpartum… you can use vitamins to help a woman through these things”) she penned a thoughtful New York Times riposte, denouncing the actor’s comments as a “disservice to mothers everywhere”.

Now, as she prepares to mark her “half-a-hundred birthday”, that “professional child [who] looks like an adult and thinks like one”, as Eileen Ford once described her, wonders if she might finally have caught up with herself.

At last, she says, she has found self-confidence: “I struggled with it forever because I was always trying to navigate my mother, or the public, or people, or an image, or whatever.”

And, she adds: “I’m going to be hitting that big, wonderful birthday. I’m so excited. It’s taken me so long to marry how old I feel, anyway. Because I’ve been around so long I’ve always felt older than my years.”

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Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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