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It's hard not to stare. Brooke Shields and I are sitting at a restaurant near her home in downtown Manhattan. She's just dropped off her kids at school and she's got a big pile of knitting on her lap. "Doesn't it look like I'm trying to impress you with my domestic skills?" she asks cheerfully. "But I swear, I knit a lot." She wears not a drop of makeup. She has crow's-feet and shadows under her eyes like any other 44-year-old human being, but unlike any other human being she is Brooke Shields, which means you can't take your eyes off her.
To look at that face is to flash back to indelible moments in the last few decades of popular culture. Shields as an achingly beautiful prepubescent in Pretty Baby. Shields at 15, when nothing could come between her and her Calvins. The cheesy '80s movies (Endless Love) and popular '90s sitcoms (Suddenly Susan).
But for all her fame we have always been able to identify with Shields's personal struggles: her fraught relationship with her mother, her need to be a "good girl" (before Britney, Brooke was America's most outspoken virgin) and her inexplicable starter marriage (Shields and Andre Agassi?). Then there was her very public -- and brave -- battle with postpartum depression chronicled in her best seller, Down Came the Rain. And now she is facing a heartbreaking experience common to so many of us: caring for an ailing parent. Often it's a time when we first truly see ourselves as adults, a period of great transition. Certainly it has been for Shields.
Last May the National Enquirer outdid itself in tackiness when a reporter from the tabloid, claiming he was Teri Shields's friend, checked her out of her assisted-living facility in New Jersey and drove her around. Brooke threatened to sue the newspaper and reportedly got an undisclosed settlement (which she says will be donated to Alzheimer's research), but the incident forced her to acknowledge her mother's dementia publicly.
"I've dealt with her alcoholism for many years, but this is so new to me," Shields says. Because her mother was a lifelong drinker who denied her addiction, it wasn't initially clear to Shields whether Teri's increasing confusion was booze or something more organic. But then a few years ago the police in the New Jersey town where Teri lived found her outside a local school without her shoes. She didn't know where she was. That's when Brooke knew this was something different.
Recently Shields moved her mother close by, to an assisted-living facility in Manhattan. The illness has affected not only her but also her daughters, Rowan, 6, and Grier, 3. "My oldest is uncomfortable because she knows more," Shields says. "One day she said, 'Mom, are you gonna be crazy like Toots when you grow up?' I was like, Oh, God." When Shields speaks of her mother today it is with both profound exasperation and profound love. She suggests, without a shred of self-consciousness, that all she has, she has because of her mother.
Teri Shields came from a working-class family in Newark, New Jersey. Determined to improve her station in life, she read Miss Manners and began hanging out at the see-and-be-seen New York clubs in the '60s. Soon she was involved with a Park Avenue swell named Frank Shields. Given the differences in their backgrounds, "he was ashamed he was in love with her," Brooke says. And when his girlfriend became pregnant he insisted she "take care" of the problem. Teri refused. He felt compelled to marry her, though the couple divorced five months after Brooke was born.
"When I was little my mother would wait outside his building with me in my stroller. He'd be like, 'Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?' and she'd leave me with him, saying, 'Just hang out with her.' Talk about balls -- Mom had a huge set," Shields says, laughing. "But she never got alimony. She just asked that my father pay for my education, which he did."
Of course, early on, when 11-month-old Brooke got her first modeling gig (as an Ivory Soap baby), Teri didn't need money; she was Brooke's manager, and Brooke was well paid. As the years went on Teri gained and lost Brooke's earnings many times over. If Brooke is resentful today she doesn't show it. Quite the opposite. She remembers her mother's fierce love ("she slept with me on her chest because she was afraid of sudden infant death syndrome") and her epic fights on her daughter's behalf. She seems able to look back on the darker times -- like her mother sitting in the kitchen, getting plastered -- with perspective. "She was charismatic, but she was like this flame...you got too close and you got burned."
Shields was not allowed to be a child, so it is not surprising that in her early relationships she was drawn to men who shared that experience. And who shared it more than her friend Michael Jackson? When Jackson died last June, Shields again found herself in the news. Her eulogy was the highlight of his memorial service. "Both of us needed to be adults very early," she told the mourners as she wept. "But when we were together we were two little kids having fun."
Shields never believed the rumors that Jackson was a child molester. Those sleepovers with boys, Shields suggests, were really sleepovers, though she would tell him, "Michael, the world's not going to get it." And Shields was devastated but not surprised by Jackson's death. "He thought he was dying already," she says. "They were killing him, the people and the press."
Shields and Andre Agassi bonded over dysfunctional childhoods as well. They met in 1993, when Agassi was 23 and Shields was 28. Agassi, like Shields, had an overbearing parent who decided he was going to be a tennis star. Their courtship took place largely by faxed letter, since Shields was out of the country making a film; when she finally returned to the United States she had to have a serious operation on her feet, and Agassi camped out on the floor of her hospital room.
"With Andre it was like, 'Please be the adult. Please take care of me,'" recalls Shields. "And he did."
Though their two-year marriage was annulled in 1999, Shields still speaks with good feelings towards her ex -- which is surprising, considering what he had to say about her in his recent autobiography, Open. The book is a fascinating vein opener in which he discloses not only his hatred for tennis but also his distaste for his first marriage, to Shields. He paints an unflattering portrait of a shallow starlet who was career-obsessed.
She brushes off much of it with a wave of her hand. There is a scene in the book where Shields, guest-starring on Friends (where she stalks Matt LeBlanc's Joey), is required to lick LeBlanc's hand. Agassi, watching off-camera, becomes so incensed he runs home and smashes his Wimbledon trophies. The story ends there.
"Does he mention I spent the next three years replicating those trophies?" Shields says. "He doesn't say that, does he? Of course not. That'll be in my book!" Still, says Shields, Agassi helped her break away from her mother. And she needed that help. Sometimes -- even with her mother as sick as she is -- she still does.
"Her approval is still so important to me. I'll see her and think, She's going to say my hair's too dark. She's going to ask if I've gained weight. I might as well be 10. I'm confident in my own mothering, I've been making all my own decisions for a long time, but after all these years, I want my mom."
Still, this year has been the definitive break with her childhood. And she sees Teri more clearly than ever. "Now my mother lives in the past," Shields says. "She wants to talk about the trip we took to Manila when I was 15 and what Imelda Marcos said to her. I'm like, 'Mom, how about just today?'"
Shields's past is informing her present and helping her shape her future. She has found her intellectual and emotional partner in Chris Henchy, the writer and producer she married in 2001. And this month she'll star in her first major movie in 10 years, a fun family flick called Furry Vengeance. For a woman who had such a painful relationship with her mother, she is remarkably confident as a parent. Interestingly, she is also unequivocal in her desire not to see her daughters go into show business. "It's a high like you can't imagine," Shields says. "It's like a drug. But no, I don't want them involved. Every day you're told what you are not: You're not short enough, you're not thin enough, you're not pretty enough. You're always losing out."
Shields can't help but be aware of the problems of being a famous beauty in her 40s: She knows she is expected to keep up appearances with the usual nips and tucks. She's tried Botox, but beyond that she stays away from plastic surgery. "I want laser treatment because I'm not a fan of my wrinkles," she says, "but I have to find someone with a light touch. I'm scared I'll end up looking like the Joker."
Given the trials of the last year, how has Shields managed to find balance in her life? "I haven't," she says. "I don't know if you ever do feel balanced. People who say they do are lying.
"I'm not an innately positive-only person," she continues. "I can get dark really easily." But because she doesn't relish feeling like a victim, she seeks the light -- even if she doesn't always find it. There is this natural sweetness to Shields, a desire to please born partially of having a difficult parent and partially of being, quite simply, a working mom with a dose of Catholic guilt.
"I'm greedy," she says conspiratorially. "I want it all. I want to be able to do the projects I want to do and be the kind of mother my daughters want. We were walking to school yesterday and my daughter said, 'Mom, I want you to be a class mom.' I laughed in her sweet little face and said, 'You want me to be a class mom?' I said, 'I'm a classy mom. Isn't that enough?'"
After all she's been through, we definitely think it is.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2010.