Brooke Shields, Me and Our Stage Mothers

by Cusi Cram
Originally Published: 
A brown-haired girl, in a white dress with a gold belt, posing for a picture

Before Kris there were Lohans, Barrymores, and Culkins, who feverishly built and then often destroyed their kid’s careers. Teri Shields, mother to Brooke, was one of the über stage mothers we loved to hate. She made her daughter infamous at the age of 12 by letting her appear nude in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, then continued to pick a series of questionable film projects for Brooke where clothing was optional. Her mothering was even criticized in her obituary in the New York Times.

Stage mothers make us feel better about our own terrible parenting.

Why do we relish hating these particular women so much? Could it be that by nature most mothers are wildly ambitious for their kids and they secretly want the kids to be recognized for their genius, their beauty, their athletic prowess, and their Gandhi-like compassion? But most non-annoying mothers keep those roiling ambitions to themselves. Stage mothers get to publicly fight for and flaunt their kid’s accomplishments at every turn, in a way regular mothers can’t.

Stage mothers also make us feel better about our own terrible parenting. You may have screamed bloody murder when little Manuela used your best lipstick as a crayon, but at least you didn’t tease her hair into a painful updo and make her practice her tap routine to “Bootylicious” fifty times.

In Brooke Shields’ touching new memoir about Teri, There Was a Little Girl, she portrays the loving mother behind the renowned stage mother. The book is a clear-eyed and unsentimental look at their entwined life. It’s difficult to read it and come out pro-Teri, but I did discover that Brooke is, above all, a survivor, and that many of the things the public judged Teri for mercifully left Brooke unscathed. Her mother’s drinking, not her choices about her career, is what ultimately caused Brooke the most pain.

©Hulton Archive/Getty

Shields’ book led me to think about my own mother and our journey together in the early 1980s when, for a brief while, I was a little famous. I was 13 when a family friend suggested to my single mother, who was often strapped for cash, that I could perhaps make some extra money modeling. My mother seemed puzzled by this suggestion. For one thing, I was a tall, nerdy kid with a dumb sense of humor, who snort-laughed at her own jokes (I still do). For another, she prized my goofy sense of humor and devotion to school much more than the way I looked. My mother was Scottish and could be stingy with praise. One of the few times I knew she was genuinely proud of me was when I was elected editor-in-chief of my middle school literary magazine. She burst into tears of joy.

So, modeling was not really on our radar, but we went to our appointment at the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency anyway. My mother was a journalist and was often drawn to unlikely situations because of their possible story value. I remember her assuring me in her deep British alto in the elevator ride up, “If this nonsense doesn’t work out, we’ll get milkshakes and then go buy some books.” If things went south, our custom was to gorge on sweets and buy books we couldn’t afford.

Once in the office, two petite, energetic women dressed in black assessed me as if I were a cow up for auction at the county fair. They asked me questions but seemed to be looking at how my mouth looked when I spoke rather than listening to what I said. The tiny women then asked me to walk up and down a long hallway. I couldn’t do it without snort-laughing.

I sometimes wish I had been able to discover my flaws myself, in my own time. I didn’t yet know how to articulate any of this to my mother.

When I showed them some snapshots from my summer vacation, judgmental sounds erupted from the backs of their throats as they pointed at my nose in the photos. My mother grumbled. They smiled and tried to explain that my nose and I were so “ethnic,” “exotic,” and “unusual.” Finally one of the women blurted out: “I’m just not sure about her.” Everyone was silent.

In retrospect, I have often wished that my mother had spoken up and told the little pixie lady behind the big desk to go fuck herself and explained that her daughter wanted to be a poet or a spy, not someone who was judged on her ability to walk. And the reason that her nose looked “ethnic” was that her father was from Bolivia. She looked “unusual” because she was, in fact, unusual. But my mother didn’t say a word.

Instead, the woman arranged for more photos to be taken. And those photos quickly found their way to Seventeen magazine, where an editor there wanted to do a story on me. This sudden interest made Wilhelmina more “sure” about me, and they decided to sign me.

© Seventeen

My experience at the agency had left me feeling anxious and insecure. I couldn’t look at my face without seeing what was wrong with it. No doubt, this would have happened eventually, as teenage girls are masters of self-loathing. But I sometimes wish I had been able to discover my flaws myself, in my own time. I didn’t yet know how to articulate any of this to my mother. So, despite my doubts, I became the youngest model ever signed by Wilhelmina. My cat Joey and I ended up on the May 1981 cover of Seventeen. And nothing was the same ever again.

Most of my teen years were spent in front of various kinds of cameras. Modeling eventually led me to a job on a soap opera (my years as a contract player on One Life to Live are for another story). I still loved reading, but I was quieter. I stopped telling dumb jokes. I think my mother secretly felt guilty, but we didn’t discuss it. I was happy to help pay for my private school and contribute to our expenses. When I look back on it, it all seemed like a dream to both of us then, a dream we couldn’t wake up from. Until we did.

© People Magazine

In the middle of 11th grade, my contract on One Life to Live was not renewed. Instead of scuttling off to Hollywood as my agency was urging me to do immediately, I told my mother I needed a break. I knew I wanted to go to college. In the same way she had let me plunge into this strange and unlikely world, she let me leave it without ever looking back.

I think my mother was a good stage mother, or she did the best she could under the circumstances, which was better than most. Most of the time she made sound choices for me. When I was cast in a film called Paradise, she wouldn’t let me take the part because there was nudity in it. One day, after modeling in a high-fashion shoot, I confessed that I didn’t like the way photographers talked to me when I was in full makeup—they forgot how young I was. I never had to do that kind of modeling again. She also refused to let me get a nose job, though everyone told her I would be much more famous if I did.

Good stage mothers do exist, but they don’t make great TV.

So, good stage mothers do exist, but they don’t make great TV. I would venture to say there is even something to be learned from their unabashed pride, purpose and energy. Even so, Teri Shields is a tricky one to forgive, yet Brooke’s memoir is in many ways a love letter to her mother. There is no doubt in my mind that Teri exploited her daughter, but she also managed to protect Brooke from the scandals her own controversial decisions created. Her response to any criticism about her daughter was the two-word refrain,”fuck ’em”—a refrain that I wish my own mother had used in that office so long ago at Wilhelmina.

Stage mothers, my own included, are often fueled by ambivalent and conflicting desires for their children; they want to promote their kids while also protecting them. Perhaps the reason we love to hate them is that all mothers, at some level, possess those same complicated desires—stage mothers just get to act on them in grander way, and they do it on a much, much bigger stage.

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