Sharon Stone: Blonde bombshell

Here's a paradox that sums up all you need to know about modern celebrity. In 1992, Sharon Stone opened her legs, and became an overnight superstar; last week, Sharon Stone opened her mouth, and in 60 seconds turned her brand into a junk stock that sensible Hollywood investors won't touch with a 10-ft ice pick.

When the historians of tomorrow sit down to identify the point at which the US surrendered its cultural supremacy to China, their quill pens may just hover over the moment when Stone tiptoed up a red carpet on the French Riviera and launched an extraordinary verbal assault on the government of the People's Republic, and its international policies.

The scene was La Croisette, bustling hub of the jamboree that is the Cannes Film Festival, and natural habitat for a moderately successful actress who at 50 remains adept at the art of self-promotion, and still lives in Beverly Hills, where she can pound the party circuit at an age where many stars have moved into semi-retirement up the coast in Malibu.

The occasion was a casual TV interview with Hong Kong's Cable Entertainment News, whose reporter wondered idly if Ms Stone had any words of support for the friends and relatives of 80,000-odd victims of this month's earthquake in Sichuan.

"You know, it's very interesting," came her response. "Because I am not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else... And this earthquake and all that stuff happened, and I thought 'is that karma – when you're not nice and then the bad things happen to you'."

As public responses to a natural disaster go, it was straight from the textbook of PR howlers. Not only did Stone appear disrespectful to the many victims of the earthquake (most of whom had never set foot in Tibet), but she also succeeded in poking the hornets' nest of Chinese nationalism in their Olympic year.

On Wednesday, UME, one of China's biggest cinema chains, banned Stone's films from its houses. On Thursday, amid mounting public anger, Christian Dior, the cosmetics firm for whom Stone is the multimillion-dollar "face", dumped her from its advertisements in the Far East, saying: "We don't agree with her hasty, unreflecting remarks and we deeply regret them."

Stone herself was swiftly forced to issue a grovelling apology. "My erroneous words and deeds angered and saddened the Chinese people, and I sincerely apologise for this," it read. "I'm willing to participate in any earthquake relief activity and to do my utmost to help Chinese people affected by the disaster."

But by then, the damage had been done. And as the dust settles on what the Los Angeles gossip pages dubbed "the Karma controversy", Hollywood pundits may reflect that the comments which put Stone at the heart of this diplomatic crisis were, at the very least, true to form.

Here, let us not forget, is a woman whose mixed film career peaked 13 years ago with Casino, the only performance for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Today, she is handsome, rather than beautiful, and at 5ft 8in often looks a touch gaunt. But she retains an unerring ability to generate headlines and spout epigrammatic, controversial remarks.

"Women might be able to fake orgasms, but men can fake whole relationships," she famously once commented, discussing her ex-husbands. "If you have a vagina and an attitude in this town, then that's a lethal combination," reads another Stone contribution to the dictionary of modern quotation. More recently, in a typically bullish attempt at self-analysis, she noted: "I've got the biggest balls in Hollywood."

Yet behind her feisty headline-grabbing, there is also a woman who in middle age has discovered a social conscience. She spent her early career playing up to a screen siren image and posing in Playboy. Indeed, she really achieved fame and fortune only because of a scene in the 1992 film Basic Instinct where her character, a female murderer, crosses and then uncrosses her lower limbs to reveal that she's neglected to wear underwear. But in recent years, Stone has "found" religion.

It started, true to celebrity cliché, with the Church of Scientology, which she subscribed to for a few years during the mid-1990s. But things really got interesting following her marriage to the San Francisco-based journalist Phil Bronstein in 1998, when she was introduced to Buddhism, allegedly by Richard Gere.

Shortly afterwards, Stone became a mother, adopting a son, Roan, in 2000. (Her two other adoptive children, both boys, came after her divorce from Bronstein.) Then, in October 2001, came a moment of personal trauma: she woke up with a throbbing headache that turned out to be bleeding on the brain, and was lucky to be discharged from hospital, in apparently perfect health, just eight days later.

It's funny what a brush with mortality can do to your average celebrity. Sure enough, Stone soon started taking a keen interest in global issues such as Aids awareness and malaria prevention, attending events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. In 2006, she appeared on a platform in Israel with Shimon Peres in an effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

Today, she keeps on making films (with four in production, and one, Five Dollars a Day, due out this autumn) but styles herself as much as an activist and humanitarian, in the Mia Farrow or Jane Fonda role, as she does a jobbing actress.

It is through this prism that her comments last Sunday, which were subsequently bought to the world via a clip on YouTube, can be understood, if not necessarily condoned. Seasoned followers were not particularly surprised to find that Stone holds strong views on Tibet, but somewhat amazed by the medium in which she allowed them to come out.

"Everyone knows Sharon Stone has strong beliefs and a big mouth, but in Hollywood she's always on her guard," says Sheeraz Hasan, founder of the news channel Hollywood.tv. "She's out and about a lot, at events or at parties, but is normally very controlled. Being overseas must have made her more outspoken. Cannes is a hustle, and stars need an aggressive publicist to check who they are speaking to. For some reason, she didn't have that; it's ended up costing her."

Industry experts are now working out what effect this week's row will have on the bottom line of Stone's forthcoming films. The globalisation of film-making means that production companies seek finance from across the world, and financiers in places such as Dubai and Hong Kong, as well as China and the rest of South-east Asia may now steer clear of projects to which she is attached.

In addition, most films now make between 50 and 70 per cent of their earnings from the overseas market. "It's easy to do the math: to speak plain English, you don't want to piss off several billion people," says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of the Hollywood newspaper Variety. "That said, since the beginning of Hollywood, stars have dabbled in table-tapping and spiritualism, so at least Sharon Stone is following in a grand Hollywood tradition."

In fact, Stone's entire career has followed a grand Hollywood tradition. Born to middle-class parents in the Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1958, she achieved fame by way of a natural intelligence and bombshell looks, which took her from stints behind the counter of the local McDonald's to first prize in the Miss Pennsylvania competition – and later, the books of the prestigious Eileen Ford model agency in New York.

"Sharon's the second of four children. She was born posing. Every time you brought out the camera she posed," her mother, Dorothy, once recalled. "She was precocious at school, and very inquisitive. Even now, she never leaves the house without books. At 19, as part of a Christmas gift, we told her we'd go to New York to visit my sister and go to a modelling agency." So began a life in show business. Stone's first acting job was bit part in Woody Allen's 1980 film Stardust Memories as a "pretty girl on a train" and the early years saw her later toil in such films as Police Academy 4 and several B-movies. She also had a two-year marriage to TV producer Michael Greenburg.

Her big break, so to speak, came with the starring roll opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990 film Total Recall. In a bold move for a 32-year-old actress, she also agreed to pose for Playboy, a self-promotional ploy that succeeded in getting her the role of novelist Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct two years later.

Although several more prominent actresses had turned down the role because of the nudity it required, Stone made it her own, and was rewarded with a series of Hollywood paydays that cast her as a man-eating seductress. For Sliver in 1993, she earned $2.5m. Last Dance, a forgettable romance three years later, got her double that, while the flop Basic Instinct 2 paid her $13.5m.

The irony of all this, of course, is that with the exception of Basic Instinct and Casino, the brilliant Martin Scorsese history of Las Vegas, Stone's CV is almost entirely populated with commercial and artistic turkeys. That she has survived so long is thanks to a personality cult that results from being one of the most iconic sex symbols of modern times, together with her own feisty character and ability to generate public controversy.

But while in show business there is rarely such a thing as bad publicity, Stone's latest comments may yet prove to be a step too far. "Stars have always used their persona to build political legitimacy. Look at John Wayne, or Charlton Heston, who played off the Moses image as a wise spokesman," says Steven J Ross from the University of Southern California, who is writing a book about Hollywood and politics. "Unfortunately, Sharon Stone's image is of a sex symbol, and who wants to listen to a sex symbol talk about politics, unless, of course, it's sexual politics?"

A Life in Brief

Born 10 March 1958, Meadville, Pennsylvania.

Education Transferred from high school to Edinboro State University of Pennsylvania, aged 15. Degree in creative writing and fine arts.

Education Married TV producer Michael Greenburg, 1984, divorced 1986. Married newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, 1998. Adopted son Roan Joseph, 2000, divorced 2004.

Career Worked in McDonald's as a teenager. Won Miss Pennsylvania beauty contest aged 17. Became a model in TV commercials. Debuted in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980) as "pretty girl on train". Big break in 1990's Total Recall opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. Starred with Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct in 1992, for £750,000. Finally won industry acclaim in Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995). Reprised her previous role in Basic Instinct 2 – Risk Addiction.

She says "We Barbie dolls are not supposed to behave the way I do."

They Say "She was born posing. Every time you brought out the camera she posed" – Her mother Dorothy

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