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?