I first “met” her when my boyfriend showed me a copy of Oui Magazine. She was a virtually unknown pin-up girl and she graced the cover, her first ever. My boyfriend had picked up the magazine because the brown-haired, olive-skinned teenager on the front reminded him of me.
She reminded me of me too. This girl and I had similar coloring and bone structure. We were the same height and the same age (just two months apart, in fact). At the time–my freshman year in college–I painstakingly blew straight my naturally wavy dark hair and wore purple almost everyday. I even had a lilac cardigan, although I usually wore something underneath it.
Blonde equaled beauty back in the early 80s. It was unusual to spot a dark-haired model, so seeing “my” image gazing at me from a magazine cover was almost startling. There was something else conveyed in that shot, something I couldn’t quite grasp until ten years later, after Demi Moore had morphed from a pin-up girl to perhaps the most powerful actress in Hollywood.
Stretched out on my green corduroy chaise, the first adult piece of furniture I bought for my one-bedroom apartment, I held the 1991 Vanity Fair issue in which Demi Moore posed nude and pregnant. This infamous Annie Leibovitz shot would become the template for every other look-at-me-I’m-knocked-up-but-still-so-hot celebrity pregnancy photo to follow.
Lying on my chaise, I read about her upbringing: abandoned by her dad, subjected to boozy, violent arguments between her mother and stepfather. How she moved forty times while her often unemployed stepfather — who ultimately committed suicide — ricocheted from job to job. At 16, Demi dropped out of high school to become a pin-up girl and, not too many years later blossomed into Hollywood’s darling.
And then I identified the feeling that had emanated from that Oui cover ten years before: vulnerability. Wasn’t it the real, raw, vulnerable parts of Demi that shone through her green eyes and pulled us towards her in movies like About Last Night, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Ghost? And was her attraction to movies like GI Jane (about a woman who defies expectations when she becomes a Navy Seal) and Disclosure (about a female sexual predator) an attempt to conquer the vulnerability that had been dogging her since her traumatic, impoverished childhood?
Perhaps it was her sense of herself as a young survivor that led her to name her daughter — still in utero on the Vanity Fair cover — Scout, after the plucky 6-year-old heroine in To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember reading at some point about her attempts to better herself intellectually, via nerdy reading glasses and giving her kids bookish monikers (Rumer is named after a British novelist).
Until her recent descent into aging-in-the-public-eye hell — shamed by a philandering, younger spouse; allegedly overdosing on substances favored by teenagers, whip-its and synthetic pot; headed for rehab — her life was the stuff of legend. It is a testament to her strength and resolve that, given her abysmal childhood, she didn’t end up plowing through a soul-crushing series of minimum-wage jobs and abusive men, losing babies to the foster care system.
How could you not feel compassion and awe for someone who rose out of such wretched ashes?
Demi’s very public crash-and-burning has eclipsed a recent, similar mid-life implosion by Heather Locklear, who at 50 is just one year older than Demi. While I feel sad for Heather, I don’t feel the same pathos that I feel for my girl Demi. Heather always struck me as a spoiled California blonde whose rise to Hollywood TV fame had more to do with her ambition and beach-girl looks than with thespian substance.
Although my ex-husband didn’t leave me, he has certainly made it difficult for me to go on with my life. The aftermath of my divorce has been exhausting and destabilizing beyond anything I could have imagined. And while I never used drugs to buffer the pain of a mangled life narrative, I know what it’s like to buckle under the deluge of crushing stress, to be unable to sleep or eat, to watch the face I imagined would be forever youthful face turn gaunt, drained of spark.
Demi and I will both turn fifty at the end of this year. Because women’s currency historically has been based on their looks and their fertility, it can be quite a kick in the pants for many of us when we realize that our days of inspiring male rubber-necking have run out, Botox or not.
Last week, I sat with my pretty 20something co-worker in our boss’s office. My dewy-skinned colleague confided that a male staff member had asked her out and she was struggling with how to decline his invitation politely.
I laughed with her and my boss at this cliched scenario until I felt kind of a “huh?” As in, that’s-so-weird-that-he-didn’t-hit-on-me! And then it full-body-slammed me, that somehow, without my realizing it, I am no longer perceived as a pursuable woman (except by my husband, thank the Lord), despite the fact that I still feel that way inside.
As world-altering as that moment was for me, Demi has it about a zillion times worse. She has spent most of her life in front of the cameras, her every public excursion, be it to Starbucks or to a red-carpet event, photographed and critiqued on the basis of her appearance. Look how skinny she is! Has she had plastic surgery? Are those veneers on her teeth?
Add on the part about her marriage to her way-younger husband ending after his public dalliances with a stream of perky groupies, the fact that her other ex-husband just had a baby with his wife who looks like Demi 15 years ago, the likelihood that her copious body-grooming and enhancing has cloaked her fear that she is not “worthy of love,” and that all this has been played out in front of the masses — well, who could blame her for cracking up?
It’s just a shame that Demi can’t crack up without everyone tweeting and TMZing about it. Was is really necessary for the media to release the recording of the 911 call when she overdosed? This event was devastating enough for her and her daughters — at least one of whom was present — without the whole world learning about its lurid details.
Of course, Demi could stand to make some different choices. Stop partying with your children, girlfriend. Find the company of a mature man who will find you lovable when you’re eighty. And as my friend Laura Silverman, blogger behind Glutton for Life, suggested on her Facebook page, “please move back to Idaho and take those daughters with you.”
My best friend from college threw herself a 50th birthday bash last weekend. Not normally one to fete herself, she decided to do so this year because now that she has officially reached midlife, as she says, “I want to know that I matter.”
We all want that, don’t we? It’s just that what matters changes over time. If, at 50, you have found meaning in your relationships, in raising children if you have them, in work and activities that you enjoy, you will probably feel that your life has been worth something. I realized, after mulling over the Demi Situation, that I have a lot of work to do on reconfiguring my psychological hard drive. In part because I assign way too much value on whether or not I can still fit in my size 4 pants, and in part because of the damage done by my horrific divorce.
For (straight) women whose self-worth is still tied up in their looks and in the amount of male attention they attract, whose currency comes mainly from externals, turning 50 can feel like death.
And it is, in a sense. It is the end of an era, yet it also marks the passage into a phase of life that is potentially richer and deeper — as long as we stop chasing what we see in the rearview mirror.
What about you, mid-lifers? Do you find yourself wading into your past or are you content in your present?
Has what matters to you changed as you’ve gotten older? What matters less and what matters more?