How Brooke Shields Became The ‘World’s Youngest Sex Symbol’ When She Was Just 12 Years Old

Published March 27, 2023
Updated April 5, 2023

Brooke Shields' star-studded childhood in Hollywood turned controversial when her mom had her pose for a Playboy publication at 10 years old and play a child prostitute in Pretty Baby as a preteen.

Brooke Shields

Art Zelin/Getty ImagesBrooke Shields initially rose to fame as a young teenager for a series of controversial, sexually provocative films.

From a young age, Brooke Shields was touted as a sex symbol. She first appeared on the big screen in 1978, playing a child prostitute named Violet in director Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby. She was just 12 years old, and the movie featured multiple nude scenes.

Pretty Baby was followed by The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, both of which also prominently featured sex and nudity. Shields then modeled for a series of controversial Calvin Klein jeans ads, and when she was 16, a photographer tried to sell nude photos of her that he had taken when she was just 10 years old.

And it was her own mother, Teri Shields, who managed her career.

The actress’s life is now the focal point of the documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which takes its name from her first film. The two-part series explores her career spent taking care of her alcoholic mother-slash-manager, her battle with postpartum depression, and how the media simultaneously commodified her sexualization and shamed her for it.

This is her story.

Brooke Shields’ Controversial Beginnings In The Entertainment Industry

Brooke Shields spent most of her childhood in front of a camera. Born in Manhattan on May 31, 1965, to Frank and Teri Shields (née Schmon), she effectively split her time between two opposite ends of society.

Frank Shields was an affluent businessman, the son of a top-ranking tennis player and an Italian princess. Teri Shields, on the other hand, was an aspiring actress and model who worked at a brewery in New Jersey, according to NJ.com.

The two had a brief relationship that resulted in Teri’s pregnancy, and Frank’s family paid her money to terminate it. She took the money — but she kept the child. Teri and Frank got married, had their daughter Brooke, and divorced when the baby was just five months old.

Teri Shields And Brooke Shields

Robert R McElroy/Getty ImagesTeri Shields with her daughter, Brooke Shields.

Six months later, Brooke Shields appeared on camera for the first time in an advertisement for Ivory Soap.

Teri Shields realized quickly that her young daughter had a certain appeal, and she made a series of controversial decisions regarding Brooke’s career. Most notably, The Guardian reported, were Teri’s choices to allow nude photographs of the 10-year-old to be printed in Playboy’s Sugar and Spice publication and to let Brooke star in Pretty Baby when she was just 12.

However, Teri was determined to make her daughter famous — and it was working.

Inside The Sexualization Brooke Shields Faced From A Young Age

Brooke Shields was 10 years old when she posed nude in a bathtub for photographer Gary Gross at the urging of her mother. Two of the images appeared in Sugar and Spice, a Playboy publication.

Six years later, after Brooke had made a name for herself, Gross tried to sell the photos yet again, according to Rolling Stone. Teri sued him, and Brooke had to take the stand in court.

Gross’ attorney called Brooke “a young vamp and a harlot, a seasoned sexual veteran, a provocative child-woman, an erotic and sensual sex symbol, the Lolita of her generation.” He also asked the teen, “You’re having a good time posing in the nude at the time, were you not?”

The court sided with Gross.

Two years after posing for the controversial photos, Brooke starred in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby. She played a young girl who grew up in a brothel and was later auctioned off to the highest bidder. Brooke was filmed naked and forced to kiss her 29-year-old co-star, Keith Carradine.

She later recalled of the scene, “I had never kissed anybody before… Every time Keith tried to do the kiss, I would scrunch my face up. And Louis got upset with me.”

Keith Carradine And Brooke Shields

Paramount/Getty ImagesBrooke Shields and Keith Carradine in a scene from Pretty Baby (1978).

Brooke Shields herself has defended the role over the years. Even as a child, she quipped, “It’s only a role. I’m not going to grow up and be a prostitute.” But for many, the film marked the beginning of a line of exploitative projects.

When Shields was 14, she became the youngest model to ever appear on the cover of Vogue. That same year, she starred in The Blue Lagoon, a film in which her character frequently appeared nude and had sex with a male lead played by then-18-year-old Christopher Atkins. She later claimed that filmmakers had tried to persuade her to date Atkins off-screen.

Then, in 1981, Shields starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love, another film that featured nudity and sex scenes — though she had never had sex.

In the Pretty Baby documentary, she recalled that the director grew frustrated with her for not portraying sex correctly. “Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and… twisting it so that I had a look of… I guess ecstasy?” she said. “But it was more angst than anything, because he was hurting me.”

Blue Lagoon

Bettmann/Getty ImagesChristopher Atkins and Brooke Shields in Randal Kleiser’s 1980 film, The Blue Lagoon.

Shields also appeared in a series of provocative Calvin Klein ads when she was 15. The campaign featured the tagline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

Brooke Shields’ early career was marked by rampant sexualization, despite her young age. But as she grew older, she decided to take control of her own life and do things the way she wanted to do them.

The Actress’s Life After College And Journey Through Motherhood

At the height of her teenage fame, Brooke Shields decided to take a break from acting and go to college — but not just any college. She was accepted into Princeton University.

“The ability to say I graduated with honors from this esteemed place, coming from the entertainment industry, it enabled me to have my own opinions,” she later told Glamour. “I knew I needed to develop intellectually so I wouldn’t become a victim to the pitfalls of the industry.”

When she reentered the acting world after graduation, Shields split from her mother as her manager and appeared in films such as Freaked and Brenda Starr. She married — and divorced — tennis player Andre Agassi. Then, in 2001, she wed screenwriter and producer Chris Henchy.

The couple had two daughters, Rowan and Grier — but motherhood did not come easily to Brooke Shields. Rowan was born in 2003 after Shields suffered through a miscarriage and seven attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF), but the joy of having a daughter was quickly replaced by an intense depression.

“I finally had a healthy beautiful baby girl and I couldn’t look at her,” Shields told People. “I couldn’t hold her and I couldn’t sing to her and I couldn’t smile at her… All I wanted to do was disappear and die.”

The stigma surrounding depression led Shields to stop taking the medication she had been prescribed. “That was the week I almost did not resist driving my car straight into a wall on the side of the freeway,” she said. “My baby was in the back seat and that even pissed me off because I thought, ‘She’s even ruining this for me.'”

Brooke Shields With Her Daughters

Marcel Thomas/FilmMagicBrooke Shields and Chris Henchy walking with their daughters.

It wasn’t until her doctor explained to her what depression is — a chemical imbalance in the brain — that she realized that she “wasn’t doing anything wrong to feel that way” and began to speak about it more freely.

The early 2000s was still a time when few people spoke about their mental health openly — especially not movie stars.

“I just set out to be honest, because I was suffering and I saw other people suffer, and nobody was talking about it, and that angered me,” Shields said. “I was like: why should I be made to feel like I’m not a good mom when no one told me about this? So I decided to be accountable and talk about it, because the shame surrounding it is really unfortunate.”

Looking back on her career, Shields expressed few regrets. What many may view as dangerous — appearing in sexually provocative roles at a young age — Shields viewed more as a product of the time.

In her November 2021 interview with The Guardian, she summarized her experience by saying: “It’s how you survive it, and whether you choose to be victimized by it. It’s not in my nature to be a victim.”


After reading the story of Brooke Shields, learn all about Sharon Tate, the Hollywood actress who was murdered by the Manson family. Or, go inside the life of Frances Farmer, Hollywood’s original “bad girl.”

author
Austin Harvey
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
editor
Cara Johnson
editor
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Harvey, Austin. "How Brooke Shields Became The ‘World’s Youngest Sex Symbol’ When She Was Just 12 Years Old." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 27, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/brooke-shields. Accessed June 16, 2024.