Bella Thorne: “As a famous young woman, you’re either a whore, a drunk, crazy or bitchy”

Ella Alexander
·8-min read
Photo credit: Theo Wargo
Photo credit: Theo Wargo

From Harper's BAZAAR

If ever there was a job that seems desirable, but actually takes more than it gives, it’s the role of a young famous woman. A notion we have long known, but not really faced up to until recently, is that wealth, fame and beauty do not make us immune to life’s challenges. In fact, we have seen that flying too close to the sun often ends in scars and burns, sometimes worse.

Bella Thorne, who began her screen career when she was just six weeks old, continues to fly remarkably close to the sun, but has developed an admirably defiant way of orbiting around it. That’s not to say, aged 23, that her wings haven’t been singed in the process; she has experienced first-hand the intensity and the damage that child stars and latterly young famous women face. Her early work – before she was recruited by Disney – was characterised by roles in thrillers and dark dramas. Children cannot, she says, simulate feelings of fear or sadness, so are asked to dig deep to trigger trauma that will look authentic on camera. For her, that was the death of her father, who was killed in a car crash when she was nine.

“There was a film I did when I was 15 where I had to cry every day,” she tells me from her LA home. “There was a murder happening in this house, and every take I had to think about the way my father died, the glass in his hair, the stitches from his autopsy, everything that my mum described about his death. I would think about that over and over whenever they said ‘action’. Then I’d have to repeat that every time someone decided the lighting wasn’t right or something minor. Natalie Martinez, the actress who played my stepmother, finally said, ‘You have this little girl on set and every time you make her do this scene, she’s thinking about her dead father. You need to get this together.’”

She recalls mothers telling their children nasty things on set in order to prompt the required upset for a particular scene. “They’d tell them that they don’t mean it, but still, I’ve heard people say things like ‘You’re stupid’ or ‘You’ll never be beautiful’. As a child, you don’t understand how playing dead in a bunch of movies, aged six, might catch up with you. I’ll think sometimes, ‘I have a really weird obsession with death, I wonder why that could be,’” she says, sarcastically.

Photo credit: David Livingston
Photo credit: David Livingston

When she was starting out, Thorne was carefully controlled. Disney told her to make her voice more high-pitched and once berated her mother for compromising her image by allowing her to wear a bikini on a beach, which proves just how sexualised child stars are (Disney has denied this). “I grew up on the beach, I was always in a bikini – I didn’t think anything of it,” she says, evidently still baffled by what happened. “Perez Hilton wrote this article calling me a baby prostitute. It made no sense to me and it was so confusing. My mum then stopped me wearing bikinis at the beach because she didn’t want to get another call from Disney.”

Regardless, Thorne has found a way of being herself despite it all. Today, she is a successful actress and musician, who has also directed an acclaimed porn film and runs her own cannabis brand, Forbidden Flowers. She owns her own production company too, which affords her more freedom with the projects she does. She identifies as pansexual and has candidly discussed the abuse she suffered between the age of six to 14 (she has never named the perpetrator). Thorne talks with an unrestrained openness and directness that recalls a young Rose McGowan. She fearlessly refuses to be defined by society’s expectations of how a young famous woman should look or behave, and certainly won’t be silenced.

“It’s hard to be a female in the public eye,” she tells me. “You’re either branded a slut, a whore, a drunk, crazy or bitchy. People want to put you in a box. I wish the public and the press could just look at a woman and think she’s smart, intriguing, talented or beautiful. Why can’t we have more positive boxes?”

Photo credit: Michael Bezjian
Photo credit: Michael Bezjian

Talking to Thorne is unpredictable and enjoyable. She is funny, honest and self-aware, particularly about how her childhood experiences have shaped her. She swears a lot and says things she probably shouldn’t; her answers to my questions are animated and detailed. Like many who grew up in the public eye, she simultaneously feels like an old soul, someone who has had more experiences than most people double her age, while also maintaining a liveliness and sincerity associated with teenagers. She has said in previous interviews that her candour comes from years of being made to only show a sanitised version of herself. “Lying is one of the biggest things that I won’t partake in. I just can’t lie. If I don’t lie, then they can’t call me a liar. But guess what? Not true. They’ll still call you a liar. It’s crazy.”

She is referring, of course, to the tabloids’ tradition of twisting what she says and does. The media once used a Snapchat video of her showing fans her acne as proof she was a heroin addict. “They said, ‘No one has that skin unless they’re on crack. Look, her hair is thin too – she’s an addict.’ I smoke weed and you guys are labelling me a heroin addict? You’re taking away from people who are actually struggling with these issues.”

Photo credit: Samir Hussein
Photo credit: Samir Hussein

Thorne started modelling and filming TV adverts when she was a baby and her breakout role came when she was 10, securing the part of Margaux Darling in Dirty Sexy Money. Three years later, Disney enlisted her for the sitcom Shake It Up, co-starring Zendaya, who naturally she was pitted against (the two are on good terms). She says her job there allowed her to prevent her struggling family from becoming homeless. A music career came next, then major stardom and, of course, backlash – criticism over what she wore, speculation over her love life and intense scrutiny from the paparazzi. Two years ago, she moved to a more obscure location in LA to deter photographers from camping outside.

“No one can get me up here,” she says, laughing. “I remember pulling up late to my old house after a long day at the studio and the paparazzi walked across the road, flashing their cameras, and tried to follow me inside my gate. I know everyone’s got a job to do, but aren’t there better ways to do it? I was like, ‘Bitch, please get off my lawn.’”

Thorne’s new music video ‘Shake It’ is likely to provoke raised eyebrows, since it features a number of self-directed raunchy scenes with the porn star Abella Danger. “You literally cannot please everyone – it’s not humanly possible,” she says. “You’d have to be multiple people. Someone will always disagree with you, but when you’re famous, they voice that feeling online and start some cancel-culture shit and make the whole world disagree with you.

“With ‘Shake It’, I want people to have fun,” she continues. “It’s been such a sad year that everyone needs to have a little fun and dance to that video a thousand times. This is a song to let loose to. Take some time off from this world and its fuckery, and listen to this song.”

One of the arguments thrown at high-profile young women is that they can’t moan about the media pressure and scrutiny if they share information about their public lives on social media or otherwise. The Duchess of Sussex received this criticism weeks ago after she disclosed a picture announcing that she and Prince Harry were expecting their second child, and Thorne has had to deal with this reproach in relation to her openness on social media. ‘You can’t have it both ways,’ the conservative decry. God forbid a woman tries to take ownership of her own narrative.

“You can’t fucking win,” says Thorne. “If I get rid of social media, it means they’ve won. I just have to keep being myself even if it gets me in trouble. I have to stay myself. We view women as objects, so when you’re a female celebrity, it’s double because we also view celebrities as objects. The Britney documentary is a good reference."

Talented, famous women like Bella Thorne do their jobs because they enjoy the crux of it – whether that be singing, acting, activism, or maybe all three. They do it because they love their fans and helping others to feel better about themselves, more confident and perhaps less alone. It would be a great and beautiful thing if, at some point, their desire to dance, sing and make others happy didn’t mean they’d have to be driven out of their homes by the paparazzi, or be forced to change the way they look, behave or dress. We look back at the mistreatment of Britney Spears with horror, and yet the current crop of famous young women are still hunted. Bella Thorne has developed a commendable resilience, but should she have ever had to?

‘Shake It’ is out now


In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.

SIGN UP

Plus, sign up here to get Harper’s Bazaar magazine delivered straight to your door.

SIGN UP

You Might Also Like