Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Brooke Shields, survivor
It’s taken me 42 years, but I finally feel ready to take a stand for Brooke Shields.
Around this time of year in 1981, I was competing in the “extemporaneous” category for my high school speech team. We would pull three slips of potential topics from an envelope, choose one and have 30 minutes to research and frame an argument before delivering a 5-10 minute speech in front of a judge.
(Yes, I too am wondering why it now takes me so much longer to write editorials.)
In those pre-internet days, “research” came from the six weeks’ worth of Time, Newsweek, Business Week and U.S. News & World Report we lugged around. Pop culture was rarely an option, which made this round’s challenge on one of my three slips of paper all the more memorable.
I opted for something more traditional, like an assessment of what we might expect from that actor who just became president or how to anticipate Iran’s next chess moves. But as a 17-yearold, my strongest opinion was that some adult had written an offensive question about a 15-year-old.
Sure, Shields had just been on the cover of Time, but that piece didn’t mirror the prurient nature of the query (though it did contain other bone-headed lines. Shields’ portrayal of a 12-year-old prostitute in the 1978 film “Pretty Baby” is pondered as possibly inspiring the “campy fad” of very young models).
I hadn’t seen “Pretty Baby” or 1980’s “Blue Lagoon” (and still haven’t), but that wasn’t necessary to recognize that if Shields was being objectified, blaming her for it was just another layer of exploitation.
Four years later, I was working as a news reporter and photographer in New Jersey when I got an unusual assignment. The society editor, Elaine De Micco, asked me to photograph a fashion show in Paramus that would Shields’ new line of sportswear. She seemed to think I would enjoy getting to photograph
Brooke Shields attends the “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” New York premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday in New York City.
Brooke Shields promotes her line of sportswear at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Stamford Town Center on Aug. 19, 1985. Shields during their pre-show interview.
Yes, I would, as a matter of fact.
I even managed to catch Brooke Shields’ eye … for all the wrong reasons.
Elaine and Brooke sat across from each other in facing chairs in a large and otherwise empty room. It was not ideal for being a stealth shutterbug, but at least there were no other photographers in the room to navigate.
What could go wrong? Having neglected to just leave my camera bag on the floor, I lugged it over one shoulder, with the camera strap also around my neck. Somehow, they tangled and wrapped around my right arm, the one I was hoping to take pictures with. It was like they were leashes and the dogs were chasing each other around me.
Basically, just imagine how Kramer might have handled the gig on “Seinfeld.”
It just kept getting worse, like I was performing improv for an audience of two. The Human Knot … with a dangling camera. Eventually, the audience members noticed. Shields motioned toward me with her hands expressing the universal sign language for “What is happening?”
If only I could have gotten my hands on the camera in time to take that pic.
Fortunately, I found a way out of my own trap, and discovered that despite my best efforts, it was impossible to take a bad photo of 20-year-old Brooke Shields.
During the subsequent runway show featuring Shields and some of her Princeton classmates, I also discovered that I am no fashion photographer. If models look like they’re moving slowly, you’re not watching them through a lens. Serendipitously, the next stop on her tour was in Stamford, where she hosted another show at Saks Fifth Avenue and signed copies of
her book “On Your Own” at Waldenbooks.
The next time I saw Shields, she was the one holding the camera. I was covering the final of the 1994 U.S. Open and her boyfriend, Andre Agassi, had just won the title.
Agassi was still doing TV interviews while the scrum of sportswriters were getting impatient in the press room.
“Brooke, Brooke, Brooke,” a few chanted.
After some nudging, she cautiously stepped into the spotlight and filled Agassi’s seat until he arrived. Again came the “What is happening?” hand signals. This time she was the fish out of water. But Brooke Shields was a lot more adept at handling sportswriters than I was at photographing models.
She’s back in the news these days in the documentary, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” airing on Hulu. It tells her story as a survivor, as well as a larger one. Has anything really changed in how girls are treated 40 years later?
My wife and I teach a class about journalism on film at UConn and repeatedly find inspiration in how the students reject outdated norms that surface in old films. They recognize racism, sexism and abuse. They would know the answer to “Is Brooke Shields detrimental to America’s youth?” and redirect the focus to the accuser.
But then, so did I when I was a teenager. Then, as now, it’s the adults who aim to exploit children who are detrimental to America.