“Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” wonders Britney Spears in her most famous song; yesterday, in a public court hearing, she finally got to ask the question of her own family and management. The pop star was testifying on her own behalf for the first time about her bizarre current existence in a state of legal limbo – since 2008, she has been under the conservatorship of her father – and how “abusive” that arrangement has become.
Her words followed the release earlier this year of Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times documentary exploring the pop star’s rise and fall, provoking a backlash against Justin Timberlake, her ex-boyfriend and former public slut-shamer-in-chief, and other infamous Britney detractors, for profiting from the degrading and sexist public discourse surrounding a vulnerable young woman in the early Noughties heyday of tabloid-dominated celebrity culture.
The music industry, the tabloid press, other celebrities, and the public at large, Framing Britney implies, all bear responsibility for what happened to her.
In the wake of the revelations contained in the doc, Timberlake issued an Instagram apology, triggering a slew of other celebrity mea culpas. Actress Sharon Stone, comedian Sarah Silverman, and celebrity blogger Perez Hilton expressed regret for jokes told at the pop star’s expense.
Timberlake, meanwhile, did not confine his apology to Britney – he also expressed remorse for the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” incident, in which singer Janet Jackson was roundly publicly criticized after Timberlake ripped off part of her costume to reveal her breast during the 2004 half-time Super Bowl performance. Timberlake was barely censured and did not speak up on her behalf.
While the #freebritney phenomenon – a social media umbrella under which fans have coalesced to campaign for her liberation from the conservatorship – might have made Britney into the archetype of a young female celebrity torn apart by the very salacious and sexist institutions that lifted her up, she is by no means an aberration. One consequence of Framing Britney Spears is the beginning of a broader conversation about female celebrities, and particularly child stars, who have been made to endure the kind of public humiliation rarely encountered by their male peers.
When it comes to the women who grew up in the intrusive public glare, how many more are overdue an apology?
In recent days, footage of the Mean Girls actress and former child star’s 2013 interview on the Late Show with David Letterman has been circulating on social media. In 2013, the then 26-year-old Lohan, whose struggles with addiction and mental health had long been the subject of media scrutiny, was promoting the film Scary Movie 5, but Letterman, a broadcaster known as much for his string of sexual encounters with female employees as his grouchy interview style, was more interested in her personal life.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in rehab right now?” he demanded. “How many times have you been in rehab? “How will this time be different? What are they rehabbing, first of all? What is on their list? He asked her if she has alcohol problems, and drug addictions, and finally produced a printed list of things “Lohan has endured”, which she reads with obvious mounting distress.
By the end of the interview, she was in tears, prompting Letterman to adopt a tone of teeth-grindingly hypocritical faux-paternal condescension, “she’s tearing up a little, God bless you.” (Letterman is yet to address the clip.)
This Lindsay Lohan interview on David Letterman in 2013 is horrifying to watch now. pic.twitter.com/lZxKVvbVB0
— 𝐭𝐫𝐞𝐲 𝐭𝐚𝐲𝐥𝐨𝐫 (@treytylor) February 13, 2021
This is far from the only example of Lohan being ridiculed by the media and other powerful figures in the entertainment industry. In 2004, a New York businessman called Donald Trump went on the Howard Stern radio show to consider the question of whether the freckles on 18-year-old Lohan’s chest made her more or less sexually attractive. He couldn’t decide but concluded that “She’s probably deeply troubled and therefore great in bed.”
In 2006, after a brief hospitalisation, and shortly before entering rehab for the first time in, a studio executive on the film she was making chose to vent his frustration with Lohan by attacking her in the press, calling her “irresponsible and unprofessional”, bemoaning her “various late arrivals and absences from the set” and concluding “we are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called ‘exhaustion’.” Over the next few years, the tabloids remorsefully documented a series of drunken episodes, traffic arrests, court involvements and repeated rehab stays.
Another Noughties pop star whose dubious treatment as a sometime American sweetheart is currently getting some reappraisal is Jessica Simpson. A 2009 Vanity Fair profile of the pop star, by male journalist Rich Cohen, in which he fixates on the idea that she is fat, has resurfaced on social media, prompting the creation of a FreeJessicaSimpson hashtag, in an echo of Britney’s.
Like Britney, Simpson’s long-time manager was her father, Joe, whose commercial exploitation of, and apparent delight in, his daughter’s sex appeal now feels as distinctly queasy. “Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both… She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” he told GQ in 2006.
Like Britney, her former romantic partners have profited from public disclosures about their sex life: ex-boyfriend John Mayer described her as “sexual napalm” in a Playboy interview in 2010, while she has accused her ex-husband Nick Lachey of using misleading stories about their marriage to sell his break-up album. Lachey, for his part, told MTV that the album was “not in any way vindictive or an assault on her,” and “In a lot of ways, it’s more of an assault on me.”
Another former child star whose very public mental health and substance abuse struggles were gleefully documented by the press is Amanda Bynes. Best known for her roles in Noughties hits She’s The Man and Hairspray, Bynes took a hiatus from acting in 2010, after which a series of drug-related arrests saw her parents granted conservatorship over her in 2014.
Perhaps even more than Britney, Bynes is an actress who has been consistently ridiculed by the very institutions that piled upon the pressures of early fame that obviously contributed to her mental health struggles – she told Paper magazine in 2018 that the release of She’s The Man sent her into a six-month depression because she didn’t like the way she looks in the scenes in which she drags up as a boy.
Unlike Britney, Bynes often chronicled her own destruction. Her erratic Twitter posts – badmouthing other celebrities, accusing (and then retracting) her parents of various crimes – proved ample fodder for breathless media headlines and derisive comments from other users.
In recent years, she seems to have recovered her mental health, and in that interview with Paper – her first in a decade – she assumed full responsibility for her online comments. But fault clearly also lies with the forces that drove and profited from her very public breakdown. In Bynes’ case, another set of apologies are long overdue.
ET made Drew Barrymore a Hollywood star at the ripe old age of seven, and she immediately began to suffer the after effects of fame. By the 13, she had been hospitalised for alcohol and drug addiction and done a stint in rehab; at 14, she legally “divorced” her parents and became emancipated as an adult. The list of people who owe her apology is horribly long: from the parents whose absence and neglect she has attributed to her erratic behaviour, to the talk show hosts who encouraged a seven-year-old to flirt with them live on national television, to the tabloid press that thirstily documented the party-girl exploits of a pre-teen during her Studio 54 years.
There are also the Hollywood casting agents who laughed the teenage actress out of the room at auditions, considering her washed-out and an A-list has been, Playboy magazine, on whose cover she posed naked at the age of 19, and even her godfather Steven Spielberg, who responded to said cover by sending her quilt with a note attached saying “Cover up.” It seems typical of the public treatment of female child stars that she could be both sexually exploited and slut-shamed over the same incident.
It was Rich Cohen, again, who, in a 1995 Rolling Stone profile, described the then 18-year-old break-out star of teen comedy Clueless as having “the brand-new look of a still-wet painting” and being the kind of a movie star “whom lots of men want to sleep with.” Fifteen when she was cast in what would become perhaps the defining teen movie of the Nineties, Silverstone found herself living alone in an apartment in Vancouver for the entirety of the shoot, and legally emancipating herself in order to dodge Canadian working restrictions for minors.
After starring in the critically-derided Joel Schumacher flick Batman & Robin, the tabloids took gleeful delight in commenting on her perceived weight gain – paparazzi used to chant “fat girl” as they chased her for pictures.In another echo of Britney’s treatment, she was once asked by a journalist for her bra size during an interview.
The star of the American Pie franchise and The Big Lebowski, Tara Reid is yet another example of an actress whose later life was clouded by the impact of early fame. She began her career at the age of six, appearing regularly on the game show Child’s Play, and later on teen sitcom Saved By The Bell: A New Class. She recently told Entertainment Tonight that her label as a “party girl” stymied her acting career in the Noughties. “I never got in trouble or got a DUI or did anything bad really. So I feel like it wasn’t right. I felt really bullied by the studios and a lot of people and very misjudged” the 45-year-old said.
Then there was her treatment by the media. In an infamous 2016 radio interview with Jenny McCarthy, the host told her that she hoped “your knees get a little wobblier than they already are” [in reference to Reid’s public acknowledgement of having had plastic surgery] and that she would manage “to stay married.”
Star of smash-hit Noughties teen drama The O.C., Mischa Barton is yet another actress to grow up in the glare of Hollywood, the media, and her fans. But after her surprise exit from the show during its penultimate season in 2006, Barton’s media image followed a well-worn trajectory over the next decade: drinking driving incidents, stalled acting projects, periods of hospitalisation, and even a legal battle over revenge porn. Meanwhile, the invasive paparazzi photos and lurid headlines continued, mocking her perceived weight gain, or clothing choices, or legal battle with the ex-boyfriend who filmed a sex tape apparently without her consent and then shopped it around the internet. She obtained emergency restraining orders against two exes, and the sale of the sex tapes was blocked.
The by-now depressingly common narrative of strained relationships with parents-cum-managers also developed in her case: in 2015, Barton sued her mother and former manager Nuala for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, claiming she lied about the amount of money the actress was being paid for a 2013 film and pocketed the difference. Her mother said the allegations were baseless and defamatory, and Barton later asked the judge to dismiss the suit but without prejudice, leaving her the option of refiling in future.
Slightly older than the cohort of troubled American teen stars, Eastenders actress Danniella Westbrook nonetheless suffered similarly brutal and sexist treatment at the hands of the media and the entertainment industry during the Nineties and Noughties. She began modelling at the age of seven, first appearing on the long-running BBC soap at eleven, and took on a full-time role at 16. H
owever, the cocaine addiction she developed in her early teens saw her written out of the show several times, stalled her career, and kept her firmly in the unwelcome glare of the paparazzi, with many pictures highlighting the structural collapse of her nose that resulted from drug use.
In her memoir, Westbrook described being introduced to cocaine on the London club scene in the Nineties, and partially attributes her addiction problems to the lack of guidance she received from her employers and older co-stars: “I was always in clubs and everyone was doing coke and it was glamorous – except obviously, it wasn’t at all. I was just very young, very stupid and very easily led... I think there should be someone at EastEnders to say to young people when they come in, ‘Look, your life is about to change, you're going to be invited places, and you'll be offered drugs.’ Someone who can tell them what sort of people are about, and what sort of papers, and how quickly what you’ve worked for all those years can be gone.”
After a stint in rehab in 2000, she appeared on Channel 4 reality TV show The Priory, presented by Jamie Theakston and Zoe Ball, in which she was clearly under the influence, despite claiming to be clean. Of the show, she said: “I should never have been allowed on. They wanted to laugh at me, rip me apart” (Channel 4 did not respond to her comments). Clearly, female celebrities overdue numerous apologies from public figures who exploited them are not confined to camera flashes across the pond.