At 21, the online star has four movies out, 18 million Instagram followers, 19 cats and the will to survive
“Come upstairs with me,” Bella Thorne says. She takes off, racing up the neon-lit steps she has painted _ every one a different colour of the rainbow _ to her bedroom, above which iridescent pink bulbs warn: “[expletive] off.”
She waves me in anyway, past her bed — a mattress on the floor, encased by a tepee — and into the bathroom. There are stacks of clear acrylic drawers on every surface, all filled with hundreds of make-up products. She puts down the blunt she has been smoking and picks up a pencil, dotting beauty marks onto her face. This is one of the ways she deals with her acne, she explains _ highlighting her freckles to distract from the blemishes on her face.
Downstairs, two publicists, an assistant, a stylist, a make-up artist, a photographer and — inexplicably — the director of one of the movies she is in are waiting for Thorne to touch up her face. She had been in the midst of a photo shoot when, after reviewing some of the images, she grew self-conscious about her skin.
When it is bad, she says, tabloid magazines insinuate she’s on drugs.
“The Daily Mail will be like, ‘Bella must have been out partying last night’ because they got a photo of me not wearing make-up with acne,” she says. “They’re like, ‘She looks really tired out. Maybe the drugs are really wearing on her skin.’ … I get so mad. So are you telling every kid with cystic acne that they must be a heroin addict? I think they think I take serious drugs, and I’m just smoking weed.”
As she finishes touching up, I take a look around her bathroom. Like every room in her house, which she purchased two years ago for $2 million (Dh7.34 million), it’s a craft store hodgepodge. Her shower is covered with a wall of faux ivy, and inspirational notes she’s written to herself hang from the ceiling: “Follow your instincts, Bella.”; “Your worst mistake is your best advice.”
Thorne’s home appears to be her canvas _ the medium she uses to express herself, be it through her hand-painted 12-foot unicorn statue, the hundreds of felt roses she’s glued to the wall or the castle she created for her 19 cats. (She didn’t want her first cat, Lola, to be spayed because she thought it was barbaric, and now there are four generations of cats living here: Nuzzling against your knee, crawling up the screen windows, tearing down metallic streamers.)
The abode — the exterior of which Thorne immediately had painted a loud violet — is wildly symbolic of where she is in her life. She bought it with money she made via her Instagram account, where she says she can charge around $65,000 to blast an ad to her 18.2 million followers. It was her first big adult purchase, which she instantly made childlike — a dreamy kind of space that became a manifestation of her evolving identity.
Thorne became Disney Channel-famous on Shake It Up, a show about a pair of adolescents balancing school with jobs as backup dancers. It wrapped five years ago, and Thorne has been trying to figure out the kind of star she wants to be ever since.
HER CRAZY, SERIOUS SIDES
While her Shake It Up co-star Zendaya has landed major roles in blockbusters such as The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thorne has enjoyed a quieter but remarkably steady career for a former child star. This year, she will have appeared in five movies — four of which are out this fall — and headlined the second season of Famous in Love, a recently cancelled Freeform series about a young woman trying to balance college with the perils of sudden stardom.
And yet Thorne’s biggest impact at the moment is on social media, where she documents the exploits that have forged her reputation for being a wild child. Pictures of her topless. Pictures of her with red hair and orange hair and pink hair. Pictures of her kissing her boyfriend and her girlfriend. (Her boyfriend, Mod Sun, is a heavily tattooed “hippy hop” star who has been known to serenade Thorne’s vagina during his concerts. Her girlfriend, Tana Mongeau, is a YouTube star whose vlogs include such content as “I GOT ARRESTED AT COACHELLA … story time?” and “3 girls, 1 bath.”)
But she’s also serious about acting in a way most people probably don’t realise. Every year, she says she makes a new vision board, and it always includes her desire to win an Oscar. This autumn, she had a small role as a cheerleader in the Sundance buzz movie Assassination Nation, plays a girl who sees ghosts in the horror flick I Still See You, fights for her life in the rideshare-gone-wrong thriller Ride and stars as a teen who coaxes her boyfriend to commit suicide in Lifetime’s Conrad & Michelle.
When he hired her on Ride, director Jeremy Ungar was slightly unsure of which Thorne he was going to get — the young woman who’s been working for over half her life, or the exhibitionist she appears to be on Instagram.
“But she was a consummate professional,” the filmmaker said. “She is really passionate about delivering the best possible performance. We’d cut and she’d be like, ‘Are you sure? Is there anything else I can give to make this work?’ There’s this sense that she has this crazy, wild side — and that is a part of her — but there’s another layer to Bella that I think there’s kind of a purity to.”
Still, it’s entirely possible that more of her fans will watch her Instagram stories than any of the independent films she is currently in.
Like many people her age, Thorne spends a lot of time contemplating what people think of her. When people look at her Instagram, for instance, who do they see? We pull up her account, and I scroll through some of the images.
“I mean, OK, this girl, she’s showing off her body. She’s got armpit hair,” she says, taking my phone in her hands. “That’s just my [breats] looking huge. And that’s a photo I like because I have no make-up on. But people say, ‘She’s crazy. She’s probably giving it up all the time. That girl’s a [expletive].’”
But Thorne isn’t like most people her age; as a Disney star, she was famous young, which meant people have long felt they could comment on how she looked. When she was 13, she and Zendaya went to the beach and posted a photo of Thorne in a black bikini. Perez Hilton wrote a post saying he’d “really be more comfortable if she would just cover up.”
“Excuse us, Bella? WHERE IS YOUR MOTHER???” the 2011 post read. “Does she know you own this outfit? Please don’t tell us she bought it for you??”
The post caused such an uproar, Thorne says, that Disney Channel executives “tried to fire me.”
A Disney Channel spokesperson responded that Thorne’s “job was not threatened and would not be jeopardised merely over her bathing suit choice.”
It was this disconnect between brand expectation and reality that led to Thorne revealing the even greater battle she had been fighting in secret. Last December, when someone on Twitter trolled her with the message: “What did Disney do this girl?! I think she was molested.” Thorne replied: “Yeah, I was. So it wasn’t Disney.”
TROUBLE SPEAKING HER TRUTH
From age six to 14, she subsequently wrote on Instagram, she was sexually abused by an older man in her home.
“I used to think of myself like Marilyn Monroe a little bit,” she says now. “Everyone thought Marilyn Monroe was this sex symbol and she was always perfect and beautiful, but she was dying on the inside. I go back to that tweet, and maybe, in some [messed] up way, it’s right. Maybe I am this way because I was molested and raped when I was younger.”
Thorne has never named her abuser and says she has resisted reporting the molestation to the authorities because she does not want to relive the traumatic memories.
“And I guess that makes me selfish,” she says, her voice growing quiet. “I could do it. I should do it. You should tell every girl to go after her attacker. You should tell every girl that she has the right to go out there and speak her truth.
“But then you don’t. Then you can’t even [speak out]. I always want to be a good person. And that makes me qualify as not as good of a person.”
Later, Thorne’s older sister, Dani, tells me that she learnt of Bella’s alleged abuse only “recently.” “I think the day that she did open up about it, it was a weird sense of — not, like, relief — but holy [crap], this is real,” said Dani, four years Bella’s senior. “Really, that was the first step to leading her to where she is today.”
Where she is today, Thorne says, is first on the scene. “If anything happens, it’s Bella who’s the first one downstairs with a bat,” she says. “That’s me. I watched my life stand still for so long, and now it’s moving.”
SHE WON’T ‘STAY STILL AGAIN’
She has reason to know it. A few weeks before the interview, there was a burglary at Thorne’s home. She was watching a movie with her sister on the couch, and when she heard a noise at her front door, she initially thought it was one of her cats. Then she noticed a masked figure trying to break in a front window.
“I was immediately on my phone calling the police, not even waiting for a beat,” she says, “because I’m just never, ever going to stay still again.”
The burglars were scared off but returned when Thorne was not home and made off with $150,000 in loot. Since then, she’s been staying at her boyfriend’s place and plans to buy a new house that’s less accessible from the street.
She and Mod Sun, 31, spend nearly all of their time together. He’s adventurous, which she likes: Recently, they both got tooth jewellery — crystals semi-permanently attached to their teeth. At first, she got a “disco ball” tooth but had to scale it down to three crystals because they started to fall out in her food when she was eating at Chili’s.
He also encouraged her to pursue music, and she’s recently started rapping. She started her own label, Filthy Fang Records, and has released a few singles.
Music has taken on a higher priority in the wake of the Famous in Love cancellation, which was accompanied by some dramatic headlines. Thorne dismisses reports that she and showrunner King ever had any issues, and King herself tweeted that she and the actress “had, and have always had, a friendly and professional relationship.” But, Thorne says, Freeform viewed her as “uncontrollable and crazy” and believes the network called her a diva “because they were scared I was going to go running my mouth if I was upset.”
Thorne has always struggled to fit in on sets, she says. She is usually closer with the crew than she is her fellow actors. She vividly recalls how, while filming the 2015 film The Duff, her co-star Mae Whitman was the first actress to ask her to hang out outside of work.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘She thinks I’m awesome. She actually wants to hang out with me,’” Thorne says. “My first moment of seeing a female in power was her on that set. That was my first time ever experiencing the right and the wrongs of feminism. That’s just not the way things were growing up in my household. I just never really learnt ‘Be a woman,’ and ‘Be a boss,’ and all these things and what the feminist movement is about. I never learnt that until I got on that set with Mae.”
After Shake It Off, Thorne says her agents saw her emulating Rachel McAdams and transitioning to romantic dramas and comedies. She diligently took roles in broad commercial films with family appeal such as Blended and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. But she was really interested in darker fare — the kind of stuff she’s doing now.
“I grew up loving The Grudge and The Shining,” she says. “Horror is the thing that most keeps my eyes on the screen, so I don’t think about myself or whatever I’m going through.”
It’s getting dark, and I suggest I should leave because I’ve probably been here too long and I can also no longer pretend I’m not allergic to her inter-generational family of cats.
“Hey, Bella, one more thing,” I say. “Do you ever wonder if it would be easier to be in an industry where there isn’t so much judgement aimed at you?”
“No,” she replies without hesitation. “Because I like my life. All of the things that are awful — especially all of the things that happened growing up — I’ve always looked at it as: ‘Why me?’ Because I am strong enough. Because it has gotten me here. I don’t even know what Bella Thorne would look like if she hadn’t been molested growing up, or her father hadn’t died. I don’t know that I like that girl.”