Mischa Barton: The grim truth about growing up in the public eye

·8-min read
Photo credit: Alexander Koerner
Photo credit: Alexander Koerner
Photo credit: Alexander Koerner
Photo credit: Alexander Koerner

I will start by saying that I am extremely lucky to have had career success at such a young age. I am thankful for the kindness and opportunities that were offered to me but ultimately, while I am grateful for some of these, they have come at a cost.

This year of quarantine has brought a fresh life perspective and prompted me to reflect upon the trauma I have been so scared to speak out about for many years. Why? For fear of the rejection, backlash and victim blaming that so many others before me have suffered. But I’m tired of keeping quiet and letting others write my story. Sadly, we live in a post-fact society and my life has often been reduced to a clickbait soundbite.

The truth is that sexuality has always been a component of my career. Even from a young age, I was sexualised. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being an actress and my work on stage. I felt very grown-up, proud of my work and really committed myself to it, but I was still just a child.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives

My movie debut, Lawn Dogs, explored themes of child molestation, and – while the crew did everything to ensure that I wasn’t exposed to the realities of what all that meant – when I did press for the film, it became clear that it was very mature content. Two years later, I did Pups with Burt Reynolds. Lead roles in coming-of-age films are always directly tied to sex and sexuality, and this was a prime example. It was for Pups that I had my first kiss on screen and in real life, in front of an entire crew. My character had her first period in one scene, something I hadn’t even experienced in life yet. The movie blew up in Asia, and I became a strange sex symbol over there. I was 13.

The noughts were a crazy time. When I took the role of Marissa Cooper, I was 18 years old and fresh out of high school. While everyone at my age was enjoying the carefreeness and untroubled joy of being a teenager, I was working extended hours on set, constantly pressured into meeting needs, demands and goals set by people twice my age or older. I never had the option to speak up for myself. As a teenager in an adult world, I felt a perpetual fear that it might backfire, turning my career on its head. This seemed true even far more so then than it is now.

Still to this day, after I found the courage to open up a conversation about my experiences on set as a young girl, I was shut down again right away and publicly referred to as a “nightmare” to work with. References were made about my mother being “annoying” simply because she worked hard to guide and protect her child in a wild industry. I was told by many individuals that I wouldn’t be able to keep working if my mother remained on my team, which led to more complicated dynamics with my family over the years.

Photo credit: Evan Agostini
Photo credit: Evan Agostini

Even being a virgin at the time in that context made me feel like a fraud. I had cultivated the persona of a New York-based, young and streetwise woman who was well beyond her years. Here, I was playing a confident character who was fast and loose and yet I was still a virgin. The kids in the show were quintessential rich, privileged American teenagers drinking, taking drugs, and of course having sex. I knew it was important to get this thing – my virginity – that was looming over me, the elephant in the room if you will, out of the way. I started to really worry that I couldn’t play this character if I didn’t hurry up and mature a little. Did I ever feel pressured to have sex with someone? Well, after being pursued by older men in their thirties, I eventually did the deed. I feel a little guilty because I let it happen. I felt so much pressure to have sex, not just from him, but society in general. This was early on in those critical days and when I finally met someone new and wanted to remove myself from the situation, it created a toxic and manipulative environment. I felt controlled within an inch of my life. At the same time, nobody was happy that there was so much media attention on me over other cast members; it rocked the boat in a big way. They thought I was courting publicity also because the person I was dating at the time was someone well-known in LA circles. I wasn’t attention seeking, but by that point it had begun to snowball.

It was really when I started dating that the press started coming for me. There was no relief from it, so I fought for a long time to be unfamous. But the more I shied away, the more frenzied the paparazzi became. It became too much to read about myself every day and to have these publications laugh at my pain. It’s something I don’t think anybody would be able to get away with to that extent now, not even close. I didn’t want to leave the house. But even if I had wanted to, it wouldn’t have been safe because of the dangerous situations that the paparazzi created. They chased my car. They tried to climb over the walls to my house. They’d track my phone and my car. They’d make deals with restaurants so that when I went to one, someone would notify them. They’d buy cell phones for the homeless, instructing them to call as soon as they saw me walking down the street. I was stalked. They’d shoot directly into my home to the extent where I couldn’t even open my blinds. It was lockdown before there was a name for it.

Photo credit: Gian Marco Flamini
Photo credit: Gian Marco Flamini

After a while, I just couldn’t go anywhere and that’s when my mental health declined. The constant feeling of being hunted affected me entirely. I had a few breakdowns. But no one questioned why I was having those breakdowns. I became a target of nasty attacks when I was clearly expressing signs for needing help. Just because the pain isn’t visible, it doesn‘t mean it isn‘t there. It becomes a sport, an addiction even, to the people hunting you. There is a line that you have to tow with the paparazzi - you don’t want to make enemies out of them.

What happened gave me PTSD. In the years afterwards, cameras would bother me; any noises that sounded like a shutter would give me a panic attack and make me extremely paranoid. I‘d have full blown panic attacks. I went to very dark places. I‘ve always been characterised by the people and friends around me as ’strong‘, something I detest just as much as I‘m proud to say that I certainly am a survivor. To be strong is important but it’s equally important to allow young girls to hang on to their fragility. When you start to take that away, it’s a slippery slope. Mental health is something that is so closely tied to your self-worth.

In 2017, my body became a marketable commodity once again. I took my ex-partner to court for selling a sex tape of me that he had recorded without my consent while we were together. The videos were then offered to the highest bidder online. My mind had boggled when I heard he had said, “I knew that she was one of the only girls, unlike Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, who didn’t have a sex tape.” He then thought that he could surreptitiously record all our intimate moments, even covertly filming me in the shower. With the help of an incredible lawyer, to whom I owe a lot, we won the case and stopped the videos being sold.

It’s extremely important to recognise the hope in this MeToo era. I can’t tell you how much I wish it had happened sooner, but at least the conversation about women’s rights is now ongoing. Today there is more focus on encouraging girls to protect their own bodies and show them as they see fit from the outset.

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From the teenage girl who did a lot of her sexual firsts in front of the world, her first kiss, her first period, her first sexual experience, I have finally learnt what it means to be in control of my own sexuality. I have grown to love watching women break through these taboos. The more we talk about what we’ve done to generations past, whether it be Britney Spears, who was so poorly treated by the press, or Natalie Portman talking about how she felt overly sexualised as a child, the sooner we can protect our young women and learn from our mistakes as a society.

I realise that these are very complicated conversations to have, with repercussions for many people but I can’t sit back and let people tear me down anymore. I'm not just a headline, I am a woman, a human being and I have a story to tell. I can’t stay quiet anymore, because these things are still happening - the exploitation of young girls, to people of colour, to all women, sexualised while being picked apart and shamed for being alive in their own bodies. If my story can help even one young girl stand up for herself and not let the world tear them down, then all of this will be worth it. We need to heal collectively as a society and I now know, that starts from within.

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