Bella Thorne: ‘People have this idea in their heads that I’m a crazy party girl’

As a Disney child star and teen movie actor, Bella Thorne felt like she was lying to the world. As she headlines the provocative social media thriller ‘Infamous’, she tells Adam White why speaking openly about her trauma, mental health and pansexuality has changed her life

Friday 24 July 2020 16:24 BST
‘I’m really f***ing honest, and that gets me in trouble sometimes’: Thorne at the Venice Film Festival in 2019
‘I’m really f***ing honest, and that gets me in trouble sometimes’: Thorne at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 (Shutterstock)

I don’t feel like a liar anymore,” says Bella Thorne, the Disney kid turned author, singer, cannabis mogul, erotic filmmaker and movie star. “Lying is one of the things that I just can’t... I just can’t do it. I won’t do it. I don’t have time for it. I felt like I was lying my whole life, because people couldn’t understand me. They couldn’t understand why I make the decisions that I make, or why I say the things that I say. Everybody always needed such an explanation, and I didn’t know how to explain myself besides just starting from the beginning.”

Thorne has had a couple of different beginnings. She was working at six weeks old, modelling and acting in TV commercials. When she was nine, her father was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her as the sole breadwinner in her family. At 13, she was cast, alongside future Spider-Man star Zendaya, on Shake It Up, a Disney sitcom that paid enough to help her mother and siblings avoid homelessness. On screen, she was shiny, controlled, and allegedly nearly fired after she wore a bikini to the beach (Disney has denied this). In its wake, she would be pushed into bad kids movies (Alvin and the Chipmunks, something called Mostly Ghostly) and middling comedies (Blended, The DUFF), all while hiding personal trauma and creative dissatisfaction. That changed in 2017, when she revealed she was a survivor of sexual abuse, which occurred from when she was six until she was 14. For as long as she could remember, it was the tragedy lingering behind everything she did.

Thorne is still only 22, but speaks with a kind of clarity and occasional defensiveness that only someone with her wealth of experience can get away with. “I can’t not be open,” she insists. “I can’t not be openly pansexual, or openly molested, or all this other f***ed-up s*** that I talk about. I can’t be like most celebrities and hide all that mental s*** – the depression, the anxiety, the eating disorder. No. I’m not gonna put that way deep down where no one can find it.”

Infamous, Thorne’s new movie, arrives after a year that saw her neatly embody the sheer weirdness of modern fame. In just 12 months, Thorne released a book of visual poetry, was slut-shamed by Whoopi Goldberg for taking naked selfies, launched a line of cannabis products, added to a discography that includes trap hits with titles like “Bitch I’m Bella Thorne”, played a Jesus fetishist who flees drug dealers by disguising herself as a nun, and directed an explicit art film for Pornhub. I’ve been asked not to bring up the latter, a fact that seems to confuse Thorne. Does she think there’s a move to keep it separate from her less sensational work? “In my world, nothing needs to be separated because everything’s a whole,” she says. “Every single piece of the pie makes the pie, so if you’ve cut out pieces of the pie, then the pie don’t taste the same.” She’s explored practically every corner of the entertainment industry so far. “I’ve never had more than a few weeks off in my life,” she says, with only a glimmer of sadness. “Everything is like, ‘Hey, I wonder if I could get paid for doing this s***?’”

There are obvious parallels between Thorne and Arielle, the character she plays in Infamous. Like Thorne, Arielle is a working-class child of the internet and survivor of abuse, who flees sunny Florida convinced fame and social media will prove her salvation. The parallels diverge when Arielle teams up with a crooked bad boy (Jake Manley) and embarks on a crime spree, recording each highway robbery and becoming an Instagram sensation in the process. It’s essentially True Romance for the social media age, and Thorne is spectacular in it. She brings to mind Rose McGowan circa 1995, or Drew Barrymore in her bad girl phase – so compellingly “alive” as a performer that each scene feels wild and untethered.

The film itself reflects an era of Instagram in which young people are finding just as much personal validation from the platform as they do capitalist opportunity. Thorne understands both well. “It’s immediate acceptance, it’s a need,” she explains. “You’re so hungry for it that it’s easy to take it three steps too far. I think a lot of people feel that way about social media. Everybody’s a couple of inches away from crossing the line, and that line keeps getting thinner and thinner.”

Thorne (centre) as Arielle in ‘Infamous’ (Vertigo Entertainment)

Thorne’s own Instagram serves as a portal into an entire generation. It’s one of the most lucrative elements of the Bella Thorne industrial complex – she reportedly charges brands $65,000 per post – as well as the most emotionally satisfying. The fans who bombard her with love tend to be younger than she is, often queer kids seeking advice or at least a digital safe space. Such positivity overshadows the times she’s been trolled. Thorne’s social media has seemingly been hacked before, her nudes stolen as a means to extort her (she would end up leaking them herself). While Thorne says she’s found it necessary to take regular breaks from the platform, she refuses to give it up altogether, despite occasional heartache. “Because then I’d be letting [the trolls] win,” she reasons. “I refuse to let them take my happiness away or cloud my judgment with hatred.”

Plus, she says, social media has enabled her to convey who she actually is. Having come out as an abuse survivor on Twitter, she used the same platform to open up about her sexuality (she identifies as pansexual), and continues to utilise Instagram to correct many of the untruths that surround her. When she appeared on a red carpet with less-than-perfect skin, a number of celebrity news blogs were convinced she was abusing hard drugs. Thorne quickly corrected things: she’s actually just suffered from cystic acne since her early teens. “Like, ‘Oh well, she must be a f***ing crackhead because her skin is so bad,’” Thorne remembers. “That was a really hard one for me to get over mentally. So many news people printed it and I’m like, ‘How do they even get to print that?’ They have no f***ing proof if I’m a crackhead or not, like they’re just seeing a photo of me with acne!”

Interviews with Thorne tend to be chaotic. They’re squeezed in between photoshoots or business meetings, or abruptly rescheduled, or carried out in dramatic car rides, each tunnel bringing about a new loss of connection. Today, though, the conversation is surprisingly calm. Thorne is on time, she speaks longer than initially agreed upon, and is open and present. There’s still a loose unpredictability to it, her dialogue peppered with swears and belches, but it’s enjoyable rather than exhausting. At one point she lets out a long, loud yawn that I don’t know whether I should take personally. At other times, she seems to be performing to an imaginary audience, recreating lines of dialogue from Infamous through snorts and giggles. She says she derives pleasure from not being what people think.

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Disney kids: Thorne and her ‘Shake It Up’ co-star Zendaya at a film premiere in 2014 (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“People have this idea in their head that I’m this crazy bad party girl, or this bitchy, crazy druggie,” she explains. “I don’t get it, because I feel like I don’t actually put out, like... bad s***? Like, I’m honest. I’m really, really f***ing honest, and that gets me in trouble sometimes, but at the same time…” She trails off. “Most people who meet me will apologise. They’re like, ‘Yo, I’m sorry, I’ve read all these things and I just had a certain image in my head of who you are. And now that I meet you, I feel so bad because I realise that’s completely untrue and I should never read anything.’ The amount of f***ing people that I’ve heard this s*** from – directors, producers, studio heads. Even friends! I hear it all the time.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint where it stemmed from, but Thorne developed a “wild child” reputation in the wake of Shake It Up. There were never any actual scandals, no mugshots or compromising photographs, but she was still written about as “bad”. Dubbed “Lindsay Lohan in training” by gossip sites, she got high, dyed her hair a rainbow of colours and pierced her septum. She was also half-naked a lot, and was therefore determined to be a child star gone awry and just the latest in a run of Young Hollywood casualties. In truth, she always seemed stable, just different, and repelled by the sanitised safety of the career she initially seemed pushed into (the Nicholas Sparks-like weepie Midnight Sun, where she played a virginal musician dying of a rare disease, was a low point). As she’s come into her own, she’s been drawn to gnarly thrillers. In the Netflix psycho-drama You Get Me, she played a one-night-stand from hell. In the debauched witch-hunt satire Assassination Nation, she was a grungy cheerleader straight out of a Nirvana video. Even Infamous became vastly more interesting when she signed on and convinced director Joshua Caldwell to make Arielle, in her words, “a complete nutso eccentric”.

“I think I’m just tired of reading all the same s***,” she says of the roles she’s drawn to. “I want things that get me excited and get me out of my comfort zone.” Her fearlessness comes from her father. “My dad did not give a f***. He was a daredevil, he was crazy, someone who was living life and making his memories. And even if they weren’t the best ones, he made ’em. I think everybody in my family wants to live a little bit like that. We just don’t want to f***ing die in the meantime.”

Grungy cheerleader: Thorne in ‘Assassination Nation’ (Neon)

Going public with her trauma has helped her heal, she says. Last year, she published The Life of a Wannabe Mogul: Mental Disarray, a raw and unedited memoir of poems, sketches and scribbles. It reads like therapy. Not Hollywood therapy, with a famous person creating an illusion of honesty, but real, painful, full-body honesty. She writes about her body dysmorphia, how her depression has sometimes left her feeling numb, and her worries about why she pursues constant validation from fans, relationships and from the industry at large. “Was it beacuse [sic] I was molested my whole life?” she asks in one poem, “exposed to sex at such a young age that [it] feels the most natural to offer the world?”

“I feel like a different person now,” she says today. “I’m not wondering if people know, or if they’re thinking about it. The book is out there, so I don’t have to explain all that s*** to people that I meet anymore. Now, when people meet me, most of them actually know what they’re walking into. And what my life has been like.”

Her fanbase has taken notice, too. Where once she was only stopped in the street because of her past work, she’s now approached by people eager to unload their own pain. “They used to be like, ‘Bella, I love you, oh my god – Shake It Up, Midnight Sun,’” she explains. “But now it’s like, ‘Yo. Bella. I was raped too.’ And that is such a beautiful thing. People feel like, ‘Yeah, Bella’s a celebrity but she’s one that you can actually talk to about this s***. Because she understands and she’s not, like, a judgmental bitch.’”

For now, she’s happy. Or if not happy, then at least taking each day as it comes. “S*** gets easier, s*** gets harder,” she sighs. “More problems come up, and less problems come up. You know how life is.”

Infamous is available on digital platforms from 31 July

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