BELLA THORNE ON FAME, LOVE, AND LIFE AFTER DISNEY
By Olivia Fleming and Photography by Mona Kuhn
Apr 12, 2017
"You're so pretty," coos Bella Thorne, giving me a once-over from the makeup chair on set of her BAZAAR.com photo shoot. It's an unexpected introduction, which the 19-year-old actress, who first shot to fame on Disney's Shake It Up alongside Zendaya, realizes almost immediately. "Sorry, I hate when people comment on my looks when I first meet them." But the subject of looks, and a fascination with appearances, is an apt one. Today, Thorne is posing as one of the world's most beautiful women in a re-creation of Douglas Kirkland's iconic 1961 shoot that captured Marilyn Monroe in nothing but a silk bedsheet. Thorne, who stars in Freeform's new breakout show, Famous in Love, which follows an ordinary college student thrust into stardom after being cast in a Hollywood blockbuster, appreciates the symbolism. But she says Monroe had it easy: social media and the 24-hour tabloid news cycle was yet to exist.
"It's hard every time I step out of the house," admits Thorne of society's obsession with celebrity image, where the public, with its ability to turn even the most innocuous moments into viral sensations, has become a global paparazzi. "I have to worry about someone photographing my acne and how's it going to look and if someone's going to write about me having bad skin because 'she was partying' or 'out too late the night before.' That part [of fame] sucks for sure." Monroe's own well-documented, meticulously crafted celebrity image is something Thorne, who began modeling at six weeks old, knows intimately. Her mother, a marketing executive-turned-talent manager, had initially wanted Thorne to be a singer, but after early stints on Entourage and The O.C. at nine years old, her acting career took off soon after with roles in HBO's Big Love and Disney's Shake It Up, where she says she suffered from "a mentality where you don't know who you are." Thorne, whose natural voice is low and milky, says she was asked to talk at a higher pitch in interviews because Disney didn't think her deep range appealed to the show's young audience. She adds she was reprimanded by the studio after being photographed in a skimpy bathing suit at 14, putting her momager on perpetual edge over their employment. "My mom was so scared after that, for them firing us and us losing our house, so it was kind of like, 'Don't be yourself, just be good.'"
After the Shake It Up series finale in 2013, Thorne, free from the contractual confines of Disney, released her debut album and began to find old her tomboy self—"seeing what I liked, what I didn't like." She reverted back to her normal voice, swapping the girly construct of CeCe, her character on the show, for ripped jeans and T-shirts. Still, she says she only got her "shit mentally together" last year after moving out of her mom's house, which empowered her to embrace her rebellious self: "Getting my septum pierced because I felt like it, getting a tattoo if I wanted one, and just doing me." Thorne admits it took a while to find her true identity, which, with her recently-dyed blue hair and acute affinity for cursing, initially surprised fans. "People will ask me, 'Who are you now?' But this is who I've really been—you just didn't see me before. I was just a puppet. I wasn't allowed to make my own decisions or think for myself in any way."
The industry wasn't as easily convinced, though. "Not only did fans pigeonhole me, but casting directors wouldn't read me anymore," reveals Thorne. "They were like, 'No, we don't want her to come in because she's so Disney.' I had to literally beg for an audition." The South Florida-born, Los Angeles-raised Thorne eventually proved a few casting directors wrong ("one shook my hand in the audition and was like, 'I'm really sorry, I totally misjudged you, you're a great actress'") and is now set to star in this year's Midnight Sun with Patrick Schwarzenegger, as well as the high profile The Death and Life of John F. Donovan alongside Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, evidence of her ability to hold her own next to industry veterans. But it is her current role as Famous in Love's Paige Townsend, a girl next door-turned-superstar navigating her new glamorous life, that has piqued the interest of skeptics. Some fans wonder if the show mirrors Thorne's own life. "I have gone through things that Paige goes through in the series, like press scandals that are misunderstood and the dirty side of Hollywood," but, she says, she is nothing like Paige herself. "We are very different—I've never fallen in love with three people, especially at once."
Navigating new relationships in the public eye is challenging for Thorne, largely because her personal life is often misconstrued or twisted by media looking for the next big headline. "Even if I'm not dating somebody, even if we're just seen hanging out, he must be my boyfriend and we're moving in and holy shit we're getting married," she laughs. A self-proclaimed "relationship girl," Thorne—who has been linked to the likes of Disney actor Gregg Sulkin; Pamela Anderson's son, Brandon Lee; and the son of a Hollywood power-agent, Ryan Nassif—is a hopeless romantic who regularly dreams of dating in an alternate reality, one where no one recognizes her. "I want to go ice skating and I want to ride dirt bikes or do something dope as a date, but I can't. Because if I step outside, he's my boyfriend all of a sudden. So it's like, 'Oh fuck, well, we can only go to your house or mine, we can't leave the house."
Thorne has been single since November after she broke up with Teen Wolf actor Tyler Posey. "I'm single as fuck," she tells me. "I could not be more single. This is the longest I've been super single." In a tweet she posted last month, Thorne declared "I hate not being in a relationship," and the reaction was swift, with several media outlets reporting Thorne had an unhealthy attitude towards singledom. But she clarifies it was not a "dis" at being single—rather, a critique on dating itself. "There are so many unwritten rules about dating which I don't like. I'd rather be super faithful and give my all to one person. I don't like having my phone blown up by a bunch of different guys where I don't really know where I stand with any of them. It sucks." She admits the holidays were tough. "It's very lonely. I don't have much family, so if I'm in a relationship with somebody they kind of become my family in that way."
Thorne, who often uses Twitter as her own personal megaphone, disseminating intimate information to her nearly 6.6 million followers, announced she is bisexual in August last year. She has never dated a girl though, and would like to. "I've done other stuff with girls, but I really want to actually date a girl." In between bites of salad, she theorizes on why it hasn't happened for her yet ("maybe girls just don't like me"), and admits she has a hard time reading signals from women. "I can't tell if a girl is hitting on me or she just wants to be friends. And I don't want to flirt with a girl if she thinks I'm just being her friend. What if I kiss a girl and she's like 'Oh, I'm just your friend dude, I can't believe you just crossed that boundary.' I'm confused on what they want from me." When pressed, Thorne confesses she'd actually like to date Kristen Stewart. "She's so hot. She seems like the raddest chick, I'd be so down."
Such candidness is rare in the world of celebrity. Unlike many stars who edit themselves for a manicured public persona, Thorne refuses to police her thoughts: what you see is, quite literally, what you get—a disposition borne from her heavily-controlled years at Disney. "The world needs more honesty," she says. "I've lied my whole life about who I am and who I'm trying to be, so now, I like to keep it real. I have problems like every person, so if I can help somebody else then that's fucking dope." Thorne says she received dozens of messages from fans who, inspired from her own sexuality revelation, had found the courage to come out to their parents. Similarly, Thorne revealed she suffers from dyslexia in 2013 to help others who struggle with the learning disability.
"I want to use social media to spread goodness," she explains. "Teens are all going through different shit and nobody talks to each other about it. So if somebody could just be that first person to lend their hand, then other people will follow." Aware of her large online influence, Thorne makes an active effort to talk to her fans about their problems through social media. "People go through some fucked up shit. But it doesn't mean that you have to turn completely to the dark side and be unhappy and depressed. I have had really dark thoughts. When I was younger I thought about killing myself; it's very normal in a way that, if you're upset with who you are and how your life is going, you could think these things. I want people to know that it's okay to talk about it. And the more I do it, the more my fans will do it with each other, and with other people in their life."
Still, Thorne's openness online can leave her vulnerable to vilification. As she puts it: "You make so many mistakes when you're young, but [as a celebrity] your mistakes are so harshly judged by everyone around the world. When you're the most hated person on the internet, then it's not so fun." She remembers two specific days when it felt like the whole world was against her. She had been "hanging out" (not dating, she clarifies) with the singer and record producer Charlie Puth, before an an old article resurfaced online about her and her ex, Posey. "Charlie thought I was spending the holiday with Tyler and he tweeted all this shit making me look like a cheater and a whore. I had to basically bang down his door, calling him like 'what the fuck are these tweets?'" Puth later apologized but the damage had already been done. Thorne's Twitter feed was littered with death threats and snake emojis. "I almost changed my bio to the snake emoji when it first happened because I thought it'd be funny," she jokes. Thorne can see the funny side now, but she acknowledges the lasting effect cyberbullying has had on her psyche. "Can you imagine two million people saying they don't like something about you?"
Thorne has learned to approach some of the negative comments with nuance. Sometimes she finds them funny ("like, I have to give you a round of applause because this is such a good dis that I'm laughing myself"), but she refuses to tolerate the spreading of anything inappropriate. "Some shit is just so irrelevant and completely crude," she says, at which point she will often step in. With Puth, Thorne was encouraged to let it blow over, rather than actively defend herself, advice she says she found unfair. "This guy is publicly slandering my name and making me seem like I'm a whore. I'm a woman, I have the right to date around. If I want to go out with you I can, and if I don't, I'm not going to. You can't just do that to people." She also notes that her music is something that garners criticism, but these comments don't faze her. "I'm not trying to make a career out of it, I'm only doing it for fun. If somebody wants to say this isn't the most amazing song, this isn't worthy of a Grammy, well I'm not trying to be worthy of a Grammy right now. It's not the career that I want—I'm an actress, I'm a writer."
Thorne is releasing new music this year on her SoundCloud; mostly songs in collaboration with various DJs including Prince Fox and Ghastly. She wrote one particular song herself, titled "I'm Done," about her mom and an ex-boyfriend. Though she won't go into detail—simply stating that her mom is "a whole other story"—she tells me with a smile: "I love running my own life. It's not like my mom is making my career decisions or anything, it's literally just me. I fucking love what I do." Thorne later notes that though she is grateful she was raised in the entertainment industry, she resents being pulled out of school in the 3rd grade because of her dyslexia. Thorne didn't go to school again until she landed the role in Shake It Up. "Nobody ever taught me," she says. "I just felt so fucking stupid. It was really hard for a long time because I was always told I was stupid girl." Thorne, whose first language is Spanish (her father is Cuban), taught herself to write from reading scripts. "Thank god I read so many," she laughs, adding that she is currently looking into hiring a tutor. "I want to learn stuff that I should know. Do you know how long it took me to really realize how to add a tip on a bill? A crazy amount of time to get 20 fucking percent. That always made me feel like I was at a disadvantage and it still kinda does a little bit." However, her lack of education hasn't stopped her from forging ahead on writing, directing and starring in her first short film, a female-driven, Christmas-themed horror comedy titled The Her and the Him, which begins shooting in May. "I'm so excited, it's lots of writing," she says.
At this point, Thorne's own blue hair is now completely covered by a blonde Monroe-inspired wig and she starts getting into character. With coy eyes, she pouts her full lips like Marilyn before padding over to the mattress in the middle of the studio wearing nothing but a bedsheet. Before the shoot begins, I ask Thorne if she thinks the scrutiny of celebrity life is worth it. "Honestly, if I was Paige Townsend and I'd just come into this world as it is right now, maybe I would choose a different craft. I wouldn't choose being an actress, I'd be a director where people and paparazzi aren't following you around." She pauses. "But for me, because I'm raised in it, [fame] doesn't feel any different. It's just like any other day."
Photography by Mona Kuhn; Styling by Kathryn Typaidos; Hair by Nikki Providence; Makeup by Tonya Brewer; Set Design by Lizzie Lang; Video by Jon Shoer; Special Thanks to Milk Studios LA