“Mom, would you let me pose nude?”
It’s a question that most of us will never ask our parents—but most of us are not Grier Henchy, the daughter of Brooke Shields. The newly-signed IMG Model makes an appearance in the new Hulu and ABC News documentary Pretty Baby, which splays out her mother’s life and legacy thus far, and shares its name with the 1978 film that fast-tracked Shields to stardom…and infamously featured her, at age 11, stretched naked on a divan.
“You couldn’t do that movie now, obviously,” says Shields. “And you know, people ask if we should have been able to do it then. But my view is, we did it. Past tense. It happened. So now what?”
If you’re Shields, “now what” includes a 40-year career turning the collision between beauty and power into Hollywood’s version of nuclear fusion. In the beginning, that spark was entirely out of Shields’ control. Pretty Baby traces that dichotomy of major earning power and emotional powerlessness from her teens through a young adulthood in the ‘80s and a new career stride in the ‘90s, when suddenly Shields became Suddenly Susan. “For a long time, I thought I didn’t have a voice because I was me,” Shields says. “But as I grew, I realized this loss of agency happens to so many women, whether they’re in the public eye or not, whether they’re 16 or in their 40s for that matter.”
For the record, Shields is 57. She’s also a Gemini—the only zodiac sign represented by two people instead of one—which might explain why she credits “compartmentalization” as key to her survival. “To me, being sexy was just a job. Being fashionable was just a job,” she says. “I could, I would, literally go in, do the shoot, go home, and get back to my real life.”
“What you have to understand about Brooke,” says Lana Wilson, the film’s director, “is that she never even looked in the mirror until she was pregnant. She hated feeling like she was reduced to her appearance and not really seen as a multi-dimensional human being.”
But there’s no denying that Shields’ appearance was indeed the catalyst for her early success, and her beauty—while sometimes inconvenient, and often weaponized by forces outside her control—led to more visibility and more money. In any mirror you look at, that’s power, and it’s one that not every woman can access. Will Pretty Baby hold up when viewed through eyes that aren’t moneymakers?
“There is a huge amount of privilege that comes with being considered beautiful,” admits Wilson when I ask how audiences beyond the model / influencer crowd will respond to the work. “But I would argue that that power isn't real. If your power comes from others desiring you, those other people are the ones who hold the power. It’s a trap! I’m not a model. My whole life is behind the camera,” she adds. “But as a girl, and a woman, I know what it feels like to be flattened into some idea of what I look like. Brooke’s story can resonate with anyone who’s been judged like that, which, unfortunately, is basically all of us.”
Wilson previously embedded with Taylor Swift for the Netflix documentary Miss Americana, so she knows her way around a pop culture dynamo. When she first met Shields, the actress said, “Wait, I’ve got something for you.” It was a hard drive of digitized footage from Shields’ entire career, beginning with her Ivory soap commercial (age 11 months).
“I found clips of her around 12 or 13 getting grilled by talk show hosts—first, she’s being praised by these adult men for being so beautiful and so sensual and getting applause. Then she’s being criticized and condemned and interrogated about why she’s being too sexual and participating in these exploitative works,” Wilson says. “I felt a little chill when I saw it, because it’s so uncomfortable and also, it still happens. Girls are taught there’s an invisible line, which keeps changing. They have to be sexy but not too sexy.”
“I’d never looked at any of that footage,” Shields says. “To see my whole life, in order? I realized, ‘Actually, that's a lot.’ I wasn’t able to linger on it at the time. I just went onto the next thing. That was my version of protection.” Like Shields, the film credits her time at Princeton University with planting the seeds for her future independence. For her senior thesis, she interviewed Pretty Baby auteur Louis Malle about the very traps of adolescent sexuality that he’d laid for her. She realized she wasn’t just smart, but also funny—a secret superpower that helped propel the second half of her career, thanks to breakout gigs on Friends that led to her own sitcom.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, Shields’ professional comedic triumph has been re-shaped by countless headlines as the reason her ex-husband André Agassi smashed all his tennis trophies. (He was furious she licked Matt LeBlanc’s fingers on Friends, though Shields speculated in a recent New Yorker profile that his addiction to meth at the time may have influenced his behavior.) Likewise, her sexual assault at the hands of an unnamed film producer has been treated as a tabloid headline instead of continued proof of a broken Hollywood power structure. Still, Shields insists it’s all fair game. “I can’t make a documentary about my life and then be mad when people ask me about my life,” she says. And yeah, fair play—but just so you know, this might be the last time the actress and podcast host is putting it all up for discussion.
“I don't want to be bogged down with guilt, or fear, or regret—any of that,” she says. “Self-pity is a useless place to stay. Martyrdom doesn’t get you anywhere. So [Pretty Baby] is my way of saying, ‘This is my truth. There's nothing else to say about it. And I'm moving on now. There’s so much more now that I want to do.’”
Shields’ to-do list is pretty packed, in fact. She’s the host of a popular podcast, Now What, that asks celebrity guests about make-or-break moments. She’s also the founder of Beginning Is Now, a web community for women over 40 that just closed its first round of outside funding. And she’ll soon leave for Thailand to film Mother of the Bride, a rom-com with Benjamin Bratt and Miranda Cosgrove. “I think she's going to do her best and most challenging creative work in this next phase,” says Wilson. “It’s going to be very exciting to see.”
Shields may be fixed towards the future, but I’ve got one more question about her past. In a 2010 episode of Who Do You Think You Are, the actress discovered she’s a near-direct descendent of King Louis XIV. On a separate episode, Cindy Crawford discovered her roots go back to the French emperor Charlamagne. Does this mean that Brooke Shields and the supermodel—and her daughter Kaia Gerber, for that matter—are all related?!
“I can’t believe you saw that,” Shields laughs. “I don’t believe my line and Cindy Crawford’s line connect directly, but you know, there was a lot going on in those French courts that nobody knows. And people do think I’m Cindy Crawford sometimes. Several Met Galas ago, when Rihanna was just coming up, we ran into each other in the bathroom. She was very young and she asked if I was Cindy Crawford. I was like, ‘No, but also? Thank you for thinking that!’”
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is now streaming on Hulu.