Brooke Shields: The role of a lifetime

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The more you learn about Brooke Shields, the more you marvel that her life has not turned into a one-way ticket to yellow press hell. Much of her story has pointed precisely in that direction: the nightmare of a stage mother who dominated her early years, the precocious exposure to fame and fortune, the sudden collapse of her film career, her subsequent struggles with wrenching unhappiness, the odd taste in boyfriends (Michael Jackson, Prince Albert of Monaco, George Michael), the disastrous celebrity marriage to Andre Agassi and - most recently - a very public lapse into post-natal depression.

The more you learn about Brooke Shields, the more you marvel that her life has not turned into a one-way ticket to yellow press hell. Much of her story has pointed precisely in that direction: the nightmare of a stage mother who dominated her early years, the precocious exposure to fame and fortune, the sudden collapse of her film career, her subsequent struggles with wrenching unhappiness, the odd taste in boyfriends (Michael Jackson, Prince Albert of Monaco, George Michael), the disastrous celebrity marriage to Andre Agassi and - most recently - a very public lapse into post-natal depression.

She has been stalked, hounded by the media and ridiculed as the cheapest kind of pop-culture icon, the teenage seductress. She's written one confessional book about her life after another, the first of them published when she was just 12. She's tried, and failed, to suppress the publication of nude photos taken when she was a child. To add insult to injury, one tongue-in-cheek Hollywood outfit nominated her a few years ago as the worst actress of the century.

All in all, it has been quite a rollercoaster ride for a woman who was once the world's most glamorous teenager but has had to learn the hard way that everyone - even Vogue cover girls - has to grow up and face the chill of adult life.

On this side of the Atlantic, one could be forgiven for losing sight of her altogether. Those bushy eyebrows and finely chiselled cheekbones of hers carry with them the unmistakable aura of a bygone era, right alongside shoulder pads, big hair and Filofaxes. Who could say what Shields has been up to, aside from the occasional regal appearance at Agassi's tennis matches, since she cavorted both chastely and nakedly (quite some combination) around a desert island in The Blue Lagoon 25 years ago?

London audiences, though, are about to get a taste of a very different Shields from the one they might remember, as she prepares for a nine-week stint as Roxie Hart in the long-running West End production of Chicago. At first blush, it seems a bizarre piece of casting. What, after all, does Brooke Shields know about getting up on stage and singing and dancing her heart out? The answer, which might come as a surprise to anyone who has lost sight of her in the past decade or so, is that she knows a tremendous amount. Not only has she done musical theatre before; it is probably the arena in which she has enjoyed the greatest critical and commercial success in recent years. Ever since she stunned Broadway audiences with her gloriously against-type turn as bad girl Rizzo in Grease in 1994, it has become apparent on the other side of the Atlantic that this woman can both sing and act. Better still, she can be drop-dead funny when the mood takes her.

Since Grease, she's done Cabaret to equal acclaim, and last year she took the lead in a revival of Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town. The New York Times critic who reviewed Wonderful Town confessed his heart sank when he heard Shields was taking top billing, only to acknowledge that she turned out to have a real talent for physical comedy. He even compared her to America's television sitcom darling Lucille Ball.

Ever since Shields has slapped on the greasepaint and trodden the boards, in fact, her professional life has taken a marked turn for the better. The rave reviews for Grease led to a guest slot on a special edition of Friends in 1996 which aired on Super Bowl Sunday - the day the whole country is glued to the small screen for the climax of the American football season - and that, in turn, led to the launch of her very own comedy show, Suddenly Susan, in which she played a magazine reporter struggling to make sense of her life. The show earned her a Golden Globe nomination and attracted more than respectable critical notices.

The work is almost certainly what has protected her from the disasters of her personal life. Shields has told interviewers very frankly about how prone she is to depression, and how the best way to ward off her demons is to keep as busy and fulfilled in her work as possible. As she told one television programme a few years ago: "It's the down time that I'm the most terrified of because that's when everything seeps in." From an extraordinarily early age, Brooke Shields was exposed to the limelight of publicity. And from an equally early age, she seemed well-nigh destined to become one more child star turned showbiz screw-up. She was just 11 months old when she was selected as the face of Ivory baby soap. By the age of three, she was already modelling on a catwalk. Her parents had divorced almost as soon as she was born, and it was her mother, Teri Shields, who took it upon herself to advertise her daughter's beauty as widely as was humanly possible. Living in Manhattan, she was certainly in the right place.

Many years later, when Brooke was a teenager and already an international movie star, Teri was asked on national television whether she hadn't deprived her daughter of the joys of childhood. She replied: "Well I think any parent who was given the opportunity would do the same thing... I think Brooke is sort of like a work of art. And like any beautiful painting, I think the world should enjoy Brooke and view her." Later, it emerged that Teri had battled on and off with alcoholism. Brooke finally mustered the courage to fire her as her manager in 1995 - when, at 30, she was a 29-year veteran of showbusiness - and her professional prospects have improved vastly ever since. One thing Teri Shields did insist on, however, was that Brooke continue to work hard at school. Her education, as it turned out, became another source of salvation.

But first came superstardom. She appeared in her first film role at the age of nine and then hit the big time - and an ocean of controversy - when Louis Malle cast her as a pre-teen prostitute in turn-of-the-century New Orleans in his film Pretty Baby (1978). The subject matter, and Shields' moments of nudity, provoked a puritan hue and cry that marked yet another taboo-breaking moment in the 1970s and, more importantly from Shields' point of view, turned her into a household name.

Shields continued the seductress theme in her next two big movies, The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Franco Zeffirelli's Endless Love (1981). Artistically, however, both of these were walking disasters - turgid, underwritten and, unforgivably, completely lacking in the sexual passion supposedly driving their storylines of forbidden teenage love. In The Blue Lagoon, Shields taped her long brown hair to her breasts to make absolutely sure nothing naughty would show, and much of the time another actress's body appeared on screen anyway. Endless Love, meanwhile, was quickly redubbed "Endless Drivel" by unkind critics and audiences reduced to tears - not of emotion, but of sheer boredom.

These films highlighted a curious paradox about Shields: that for all her beauty and physical perfection, she was always strangely unsexy. Her come-ons - never more famous than the Calvin Klein jeans advertisements in which she hinted suggestively that she wasn't wearing underwear - were never truly subversive because her presence seemed just too safe. Perhaps that, paradoxically, was what gave her mass appeal in the United States. Like Julia Roberts after her, she was a sex symbol nobody really dreamed about having sex with because she oozed almost no sensuality whatsoever. She was more like a good-looking sister than a prospective lover.

The off-screen Shields was, by all accounts, equally inaccessible. In her autobiography On Your Own - her second, written at the age of 20 - she proudly proclaimed her virginity, even as she complained that her college classmates were too intimidated to come near her. Some of her boyfriends in this period had reputations for distinctly questionable sexuality. At the same time, she complained of tremendous loneliness.

She went to Princeton University - all that dedication to schoolwork paid off - where she specialised in French and wrote her dissertation on the films of Louis Malle. She graduated with honours, giving the lie to all the sceptics who saw her only as a bulge of vital statistics. Her career, though, was badly stalled. She continued to appear in films but they were all bombs ( The Muppets Take Manhattan, Speed Zone and Backstreet Dreams, to name a few). At the age of 26, she told one interviewer: "I get depressed and cry a lot. I worry about everything. And everything feels so heavy. In the past I used to throw myself into schoolwork or films, but I don't have those any more. I guess I feel this way because I'm finally growing up." The modelling work never dried up, though, and she certainly did not have to worry materially. Once, when she was a child, she asked her mother how much money she had and Teri told her to think of two Rolls-Royces. By the time she was in her mid-20s, her mother - still taking charge of the purse strings - told her to think of lots of Rolls-Royces.

As she entered her 30s and her stage career began to bloom, she fell in love with Andre Agassi and they married in 1997. It was never a comfortable match, though. He was constantly on the international tennis circuit. They hardly saw each other, and separated barely two years after the wedding. The Vatican annulled the marriage, clearing the way for Shields to go back to the Catholic church when she married husband number two, television writer Chris Henchy.

Here, too, she suffered, when she was knocked sideways by post-natal depression after the birth of their son Rowan in 2003. Shields chose, as she had so often in the past, to make her anguish public. Her book about her experience, Down Came the Rain, was published last summer.

Clearly, the impulse to reveal herself to the world, instilled in her by her mother, has never gone away. If she has reservations about her childhood, she certainly doesn't express them, and indeed she is often highly defensive of her mother. And she has, in some sense, followed her maternal example. Almost as soon as Rowan was born, she signed herself up as a spokesperson for Bright Beginnings, a new line of baby formula.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 1965 in New York City to Frank Shields, a executive with Revlon, and Teri Shields, a former model.

Family: Married to Chris Henchy, a television writer. Divorced from the tennis player Andre Agassi.

Education: French literature at Princeton University.

Career: At 11 months made first TV appearance in a soap commercial. Cast by Louis Malle as a child prostitute in Pretty Baby aged 12. In 1981 modelled jeans for Calvin Klein, boosting sales by 300 per cent. Best known films are The Blue Lagoon (1980), and Franco Zeffirelli's teen romance Endless Love (1981).

She says...: "When you're younger and single and an actress, there's a kind of angst about it all ... And then when you have a child you realise that your life really begins there, and that this is all just a bonus."

They say...: "An unpretentious delight." - New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley.

"The Russians love Brooke Shields because her eyebrows remind them of Leonid Brezhnev." - Robin Williams, actor.

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