Tori Spelling was a doll to me before she was a person. I will never forget the Donna Martin Barbie my mother bought at a yard sale, her stiff, flaxen hair hanging down to her belly button, her ditzy floral mini-dress stained by another child's vigorous play. I was transfixed before I knew who the doll was modeled after: Spelling, daughter of TV-producer extraordinaire Aaron Spelling and eternal figure of public obsession and tabloid scorn. Watching 90210 with my much-older cousin, I was shocked by how perfectly Tori's features superimposed onto that doll, as if they made more sense there, on a piece of plastic, than on her own bright and youthful face. This is not an indictment of her much-discussed relationship to plastic surgery but rather a testament to the fact that, from age 16 on, Tori Spelling was America's plaything.
Since 90210 went off the air in 2000, Spelling has still made her living as an actor (for a time on her own VH1 show, So NoTORIous, notable for its sharp willingness to skewer public perception of its lead) and for the past nine years as a fixture of reality TV. Having lived her life documented by reality crews — along with her husband, Dean McDermott, and their four young children — she has come to represent something else: a self-professed flawed mother, daughter, and wife trying to navigate her way through infidelity, public feuds, and even an unfortunate incident with a Benihana hibachi grill.
My attraction to Spelling, my desire to interview her for our feminist publication, is about more than her longtime cultural relevance or some tabloid shenanigans. It's about the fact that, despite presenting herself in some of the most contrived contexts humanly possible (reality programming, Us Weekly diet pages, TV movies), she emits a constant hum of truth. Her almost-pathological inability to conceal her emotions is what makes her shows so compelling — and it was on full display when we met in Los Angeles.
In person, Spelling is pretty and petite, girlish, nervously twisting the surprisingly subtle diamond band she wears on her left ring finger. She giggles, flails her arms, and rolls her eyes at herself, but when I ask her a question she meets my gaze with the hardened eyes of a prizefighter. The most telling moment of our interview comes toward the end, when I ask whether she ever wishes she could end her relationship with the tabloid-news cycle once and for all.
She pauses, seeming genuinely perplexed. "How?"
A week after I interview Spelling, news breaks that she is reportedly being sued by American Express for unpaid bills amounting to almost $40,000. Her mother — our nation's foremost Mommy Dearest, Candy Spelling — hurries to talk to TMZ, dismissing her daughter as "extravagant" and insisting she pays for all Tori's necessities but not her incidentals.
I find myself wondering if Tori is sad, anxious, or embarrassed. Who is talking to her about it? Who will pay if the bills need paying? I want to protect her, like a kitten without a collar skittering across the street. Then I realize how a story like this fits into the rest of her life, the rest of her day. Then I remember her relationship to secrets. And something tells me she'll be back in fighting shape soon.
Lena Dunham: You came of age in the public eye. You still are deeply recognizable. How much do you feel like that's influenced your psychology and your life?
Tori Spelling: In that regard, I had the upper hand just because I literally was born into it. Becoming famous at a young age didn't feel all that new to me. I don't know it any differently. I don't notice it. I probably couldn't have functioned at 16 if I had been acutely aware of it. Are you aware of people noticing you?
LD: I'm aware of the shift, because until I was 25 years old, I could just walk down the street without anybody ever looking at me, because it wasn't like I was a super-hot girl, and it wasn't like I was a famous girl. I had the experience of almost total invisibility, which you seem to have never had, especially when 90210 hit.
I loved that show, but I watched it when I was five. The people who watched it concurrently with their teenage life, it seems like it's an insane obsession for them. It causes them to regress. You've done so much stuff since then, but do you ever resent the focus that still exists on 90210?
TS: I don't at all. I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for 90210. You always have to be grateful and acknowledge where you came from. I'm excited when people call me Donna. There's not a week that goes by that people aren't like, "Can you say it?" I'm like, "Donna Martin graduates," like they want me to say it. They always think they're annoying me. But they're not.
There's days, obviously, I'm sure you have those too, where you're having other shit going on and it has nothing to do with them. You just don't want to talk to anyone. You're in a bad mood and life sucks, but I never take it out on the fans. I also have that thing because, for me, it was like a double-edged sword. I became famous, and I was also Aaron Spelling's daughter. It wasn't just like, "She's a famous young teen." It's like, "She's a famous young teen. She must be a bitch."
LD: So many of our readers are in that phase between college and the real world. They're trying to figure out what they do. Was that phase the moment when 90210 ended and you had to figure out what was next?
TS: That was a defining moment in my life. I was like, "Doesn't everyone do a pilot and then all of a sudden you go ten years and have a successful show? Things will just work out." I had never done another series, so I didn't know.
[After 90210] I had this opportunity to do a Friends-esque pilot. It didn't get picked up, and then that was it. I was like, "What do you mean it didn't get picked up? This happens?" Then there was nothing. I asked, "I left 90210. My pilot didn't get picked up. What happens next?" My manager said, "You start auditioning." I was like, "I start auditioning?"
That was it. I was back out there. I was going on four auditions a day during pilot season. It was a harsh reality and it just started back at zero again.
LD: I loved your VH1 comedy, NoTORIous, which was an amazing fictionalized version of your life. How did that project come about? It skewered so much of what's just a part of our culture now, celebutantes and their search for fame and validation.
TS: That was initially made for NBC. They picked up My Name Is Earl instead. I remember getting that news at the Kentucky Derby with Tara Reid in the stall next to me. I was like, "My life is really fucked. It's not moving forward." She's like, "Are you OK?" I was like, "Don't touch me. Sure, I'll go have a shot with you."
I created that because I literally was so sick of going on auditions and having producers say, "She's really great, but we just can't get past the fact that she's Tori Spelling." Then I did this one pilot and my line was like, "I can't pay rent this month. Yay, a quarter." The producers said, "The network just thinks it's not working because she's Tori Spelling." It felt like I couldn't do anything right.
Then I did Scary Movie. Keenen Wayans was directing. I told him the problem I was having. He said, "You just need to do a Roseanne. You just need to give them what they want. If they can't see past Tori Spelling, give them Tori Spelling, and then you're gold." I just kept thinking about it, and I was like, "I have all these really funny stories." [This was] before I did my books, so I had no outlet for them. I went into the network pitches, and I took my pug and I took all the bad clippings of me from every bad magazine.
TS: [An unexpectedly large truffled-goat-cheese pizza arrives.] I can't believe I've ordered pizza right here.
LD: I'm so into it. You deserve it. You have real full-time parenting duties.
TS: I do.
LD: Do you and your husband split it evenly?
TS: We do. We just had a conversation yesterday. My hours are so crazy. He woke me up, and he said, "I've been thinking …" I was so tired. I'm thinking, Is he going to want sex right now? He was like, "I feel like I've been unemployed," which, by the way, he has a new series coming out in March. He's amazing, and he's such a good actor. I support that 100 percent. If he's gotten such a bad rap with the reality thing, I feel like I tied him into that world, and I feel guilty. All of a sudden, he became Mr. Tori Spelling, and it makes me sad because I don't know what would have happened for him.
LD: When you and Dean started on reality TV, the genre was happening but not the way it's happening now, not like this personal-brand version of reality. How did you get into it? Did you think about it as a creative expression? What has it meant to you artistically, and how did it start?
TS: It started just because I wanted to do other things, and I wanted to do interior design, so I figured I could build a reality show around it. Dean and I stayed at the bed-and-breakfast, and it was, like, this crap bed-and-breakfast. I thought, Have we made a modernized bed-and-breakfast? I feel like our generation would stay in a bed-and-breakfast if it weren't an antiquated, scary dollhouse. That's how we had the idea. We went to a network and said, "Let's redo a B&B. That would be amazing." They were like, "Yes." The first season of our show was focused around the B&B, and then the network caught on. They figured, "Wait. Let's move it back to L.A. and just focus on your lives." Then the show took off.
LD: So much of your life has been so public. Did you have any qualms about letting them in that way? Did you feel you could always keep the separation between what was happening on the show and what was happening in your reality?
TS: I feel like I've always been just so open, which has been good for me and bad for me.
LD: I'm incapable of keeping my own secrets.
TS: I have no filter, I guess. I've always been that way.
LD: Did you have a moment where you were like, I'm worried about what this will do for my marriage and worried about what this will do for my kids?
TS: On Tori and Dean, I was the executive producer. I looked at every edit. I basically protected our relationship through that. At first, it was fine, but it was a new relationship for us. We started the show when I was pregnant with Liam, when we had just gotten married. We had this thing that was fairy tale, amazing, newlywed period, honeymoon, unbelievable. All of a sudden, we got pregnant, and then I saw a different side of him. Not that I didn't love him. But I thought, I didn't sign up for this. Wait, you didn't show me this. He said, "If I had shown you that side, you wouldn't have been with me." That's not fair.
LD: That's not how it works. It's like misstating the terms of a business deal.
TS: It's like, "Can I go back and sue you now?" But the show was happening. The reality show was a form of acting. I was always watching the scene as it was filming. I was controlling it as best I could. I was being real, but I knew not to let it go to a certain place. I knew Dean had a temper, and I didn't want that on camera, because that didn't serve us well. We were like America's sweetheart couple. Why would I do that? There were some things where I'd be like, "You guys have to cut that out." It seemed OK. It seemed like I was giving them enough that it was real, but I wasn't telling all the details that they'd be like, "We're really disappointed in this relationship."
LD: When you made the decision to do True Tori, documenting your life after Dean's affair, was that terrifying? You had always lived a relationship out loud, but this was a very different tone.
TS: It was weird because I felt backed into a corner, like I didn't have a choice. Everything about me was stripped away with one magazine cover. That was it. It was that Us Weekly cover. I always say I can replay everything that happened during that time. The hardest part about it was, like, "You're really going to put this on the cover of the magazine three days before Christmas? It's Christmas. It's family. I know we're in Hollywood, and I know we put a lot of ourselves out there, but really, we do this?"
Then when it came out, I didn't know what to do. This wasn't going away. Everyone said, "This happens all the time. Look at all the A-list celebrities. They used to complain about it. Then they go on and do a big movie and it just goes away." That's not my life. That's not my relationship with my fans. I'm not the type that can just go from talking about everything and then it's like, "No personal questions," the next time I do something.
LD: Was Dean resistant to talking it through on TV?
TS: It was honestly my decision. This was affecting me on many levels, not just the personal level. This is my career; this is, I hate saying it, my brand. All the lines blurred at that point. I obviously ran it by Dean, and if he had been adamant that he didn't want to do it, I would not have done it. I would have respected that. He just said, "Do what you have to do." I said, "Will you be a part of it?" He was at that point where he just was at the lowest point. He was in rehab, and he was just like, "I fucked up. I'll do whatever I have to do to maintain our relationship." It obviously became something that he was like, "I don't want to do this anymore," but at first, he said, "Yes, that's fine with me."
LD: On another note, we hear so much now about how Hollywood affects the body image of young girls everywhere, but if you're a young girl and you're growing up in Hollywood, it's even more intense. You have two daughters: how do you think about raising them to protect them from some of the stuff that you had to deal with?
TS: It is so hard. I don't know the right thing. I'm learning as I'm going. I have no filter, and I am like that at home. I have to watch myself. In our house, we talk about everything, really no holds barred. People are obsessed with me getting my breast implants removed because they're recalled and expired. That's such a big thing on True Tori. [Stella, age 7, overheard] and said, "Huh, your boobs aren't real?" I was like, "Oh my God." It was like Santa Claus. I didn't know what to do.
LD: What did you say?
TS: I said, "I'm so sorry you heard that. No, they're not. I have breast implants." She said, "I thought your boobs were real. I just didn't know. They look real." I said, "God bless you. They really don't. They're like the worst ever."
Her world was just shattered. It hit me hard, and I felt so guilty. I thought, I can't believe it. Why was I even talking about getting my breast implants removed in True Tori? I shouldn't have been talking about that. I explained it to her, and she was fine. Now she asks questions. She says, "Are you going to get them replaced because you said they're recalled and you need to get a new one?" She's very mothering, my 7-year-old.
LD: I think mother-daughter relationships are truly the most complicated thing we can experience.
TS: When I found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I thought, Fuck. I am screwed. I cried when I found out I was carrying a daughter. I didn't know what to do. I thought, I'm going to repeat the past. This is just the way it goes.
LD: What's been different for you about being a mother than having a mother?
TS: Touch. I just remember thinking, my mother always said the reason we have a complicated relationship … complicated. I always use that word. It's such a silly word.
LD: It does the job.
TS: It does the job publicly. It's because she had that relationship with her mother. I would always ask my dad, "Why is Mom like this to me?" He would tell me, "She had a really bad relationship with her mom. Her mom was like that with her. There was a lot of competition. It was complicated."
I thought, If I have a daughter, I guess it's just going to pass down. That's the way it goes. Over time, I discovered it was definitely a conscious effort, and I just reminded myself every day I'm not my mom. I'd think, What would make me different? What's my instinct of what would make that different? My instinct was touch. I just wanted to hug her and hold her and tell her how beautiful she was and make eye contact.
Because that wasn't done with me a lot, it was foreign. There were times where I was holding her, and she was holding me so hard, and I was like, There's that moment that's uncomfortable. I feel like this hug is lasting too long. I'm like, No. Go past that. What's the point that's past that? The point that's past that is amazing. It's everything I wanted it to be that I couldn't have with my mother. Now, I feel like Stella and I have this amazing relationship where we're just always holding hands and we're holding each other and touching, and I love it. I have no fear anymore. That is gone. Then I have Hattie, who's 4 and tells me she hates me every day, and then it starts all over again.
LD: The endless cycle. I wonder, how do you think about the next period of your life, what you want to do with that, what is creatively exciting for you?
TS: I totally know what I want to do next. I feel like my life is completely out there and I keep putting myself at the forefront because I have to. I don't have that opportunity right now yet to create a show and not have myself in it, because that's what sells currently. I want to get to the next level where I'm not in it. I don't want to be out there talking about my life and showing my life. I want to be producing others and be behind the camera, be at home, be with my kids, and have a production company. I want to be creating for other people and bringing them up the way I saw my dad do so much for so many other people. I haven't been able to do that because I'm so busy having to prove myself that I have to put myself in front. I don't want to be in front anymore. I want to be behind.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lena Dunham is waiting for someone to make a doll of her. She may be waiting awhile.