The multi-hyphenate star, 45, started as a child performer like Spears, and saw her life — especially her relationship with Ryan Phillippe and their 2006 divorce — become tabloid fodder and her kids paparazzi targets. The Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies star tells Time that the difference was the media narrative about her was that she was painted as a "good" girl while Spears and some of her peers were painted as "bad" ones.
Witherspoon landed her first role, The Man in the Moon, at 15 and — persevering amid the climate, including her own #MeToo wounds at 16 — quickly rose up the ranks in Hollywood with 1999's Election solidifying her as a star. That same year, she married her Cruel Intentions co-star Phillippe when she was six months pregnant with Ava. That combo of being young, famous, beautiful, successful and part of a famous couple put a lot of attention on her and their relationship.
"My children will tell you stories about being in preschool and people climbing on the roofs of our cars," she told the magazine. She was also followed to church, the playground, ice cream shops, soccer practices — and practically everywhere before the anti-paparazzi law was in place and most major media companies stopped running paparazzi photos of celebrity kids. She recalled an RV being parked outside her home with cameras pointing into her kitchen window 24/7.
Witherspoon and Phillippe's marriage didn't last and they filed for divorce the same year Spears, 39, and Kevin Federline did. Also, like the pop star, Witherspoon had two very young children, also including son Deacon. A reported cheating scandal — Phillippe moved on with his co-star Abbie Cornish — intensified the coverage around them. And the fact that she won an Academy Award the year they split, for Walk the Line, added to the narrative Phillippe was jealous of her career success.
Witherspoon told Time she moved her family's home base to Nashville in 2006. (It's unclear for how long as she's always kept a home in California and that's where her older children attended school.)
And while all that sounds like a lot, Witherspoon isn't boohooing about. She considers herself one of the lucky ones, she says. While she screamed at paparazzi — and of course had her own arrest (for DUI in 2013, with the video living in infamy) — she and her friend Jennifer Garner, also a tabloid target, were deemed "good" girls by the media while Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were the "bad" ones making for very different narratives.
“What if the media had decided I was something else? I would be in a totally different position," says Witherspoon, who runs her female-focused media and production company Hello Sunshine — the topic of the Time cover story — as well as clothing line Draper James and Reese's Book Club. "I want to say it’s my decisions or the career choices I made, but it felt very arbitrary. And kind of sh*tty."
Witherspoon — who got remarried to Hollywood agent Jim Toth in 2011, with whom she shares 8-year-old son Tennessee — also spoke about the #MeToo movement. She said after coming forward in 2017 to say she had been sexually assaulted by an unnamed director at 16, and endured other incidents of abuse, she struggled with anxiety and had many sleepless nights over those resurfaced memories.
She said working toward change in the entertainment industry is what helped her heal. She recalled a gathering at Eva Longoria's home as #MeToo unfolded with Rashida Jones, Kerry Washington and America Ferrera, and said she broke down at one point in tears thinking they'd never be able to make a difference. She recalled Ferrera looking at her and saying, "Yes, we are."
Witherspoon also spoke about Shonda Rhimes challenging her to call 30 Hollywood business leaders with no females or people of color on their boards. She said when she's feeling discouraged, she's in a text group with other female-driven businesswomen and "We're like: Just keep going."
The Framing Britney Spears doc, which came out in February, has led several former child stars — including Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Bella Thorne and Mara Wilson — to reflect on their experiences.
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