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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brooke Shields has worn many hats. Now she’s a labor boss.

The actress and model Brooke Shields in New York on May 22, 2024. She is the recently elected president of Actors’ Equity Association. (OK McCausland/The New York Times)

By Michael Paulson

Brooke Shields has a new office. It’s empty, and she hasn’t figured out how she wants to furnish it, or even how often she’ll be there, but it’s a sign of her new and unexpected status, as president of Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing theater actors and stage managers in the United States.

Shields’ candidacy was a surprise, even to herself. But when Kate Shindle, who had led the union for nine years, announced in April that she was stepping down, Shields’ music director suggested she consider the opening, and soon enough, she had tossed her hat in the ring, and in May she won the vote by members, defeating two more-seasoned labor activists. She’s already led her first meeting of the union’s council, and came away realizing she has a lot to learn, starting with parliamentary procedure.

Shields, of course, is one of those people who has been famous for so long, and in so many ways, that even she can’t remember a different time. She was a childhood model, a preteen movie star, a sex object and an icon of beauty, all before she went off to college (Princeton, thank you very much). In the years since, she has acted on-screen and onstage, has written books, has spoken widely, particularly about depression, and has become a symbol and a subject for an evolving discussion about how women and girls have been sexualized by the entertainment and fashion industries.

She has had five roles on Broadway, each time replacing a principal in an already-running show (“Grease,” “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Wonderful Town” and “The Addams Family”). She has also performed occasionally at regional theaters (“The Exorcist” at the Geffen in Los Angeles, for example) and off-Broadway (in the star vehicles “Love Letters,” “The Vagina Monologues,” and “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” among others).

Now, at 59, she is thinking a lot about middle age. She is recovering from a foot surgery that attracted attention when she wore Crocs (yellow, matching her dress) to the Tony Awards. She has just started a new beauty business, Commence, with hair-care products developed for women over 40; she is writing another book, also aging-focused; and she is seeking new ways to harness the celebrity she can never shed. That’s where Equity comes in — she says actors and stage managers were extraordinarily supportive of her when she needed to jump quickly into an unfamiliar show. Now she wants to give back.

Over lunch at B’artusi, an Italian restaurant in the West Village, she talked about her time in theater, and her crash course as a labor leader. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How’s the foot?

A: It’s both feet. It’s going to be OK. This is my sixth surgery. I really blew my feet out on Broadway, from dancing in shows — being thrown in, with no training and raked stages and jamming my feet into the shoes and abusing them. I’m sure it’s hereditary too — it’s probably one more thing I can blame my mother for.

Q: You just started a company, you’re acting, and the Equity presidency doesn’t pay. Why add this position to the mix?

A: There’s something that I grapple with and have struggled with my entire life: being a public persona. You have this thing you have to live with, and it’s constant. So how do I turn it into something I don’t resent? How do I use Brooke Shields — that thing that is separate from me, that’s a job, and is a commodity of some sort — to make a difference for a community that’s given nothing but love and acceptance to me when it was not cool to cast somebody who had zero Broadway training? My experience with Broadway, and regional theater, and off-Broadway, is this welcoming community. Those are the people that had my back.

Q: Union activism is new for you.

A: This is going to be a huge learning curve for me. My first time chairing a meeting was something out of Monty Python. I hadn’t learned the vernacular. Robert’s Rules? I’ll get to know them! But if that’s my weakest place, then I’m OK, ’cause I can learn it, or someone who can do it better can do it and I can sit right by them.

Q: You don’t like conflict?

A: That’s going to be hard for me. In this stage of my life, I’m letting go of the tug of war rope. I don’t like to fight; I like to discuss.

Q: But you’ve taken a job where you’re going to have to ask producers for things they don’t want to give. It’s adversarial.

A: I’m ready. I’ve had to do it in my company — letting people go, saying no. That’s a skill to practice and learn.

Q: The union just announced a strike against developmental work, saying negotiations were not making progress. What’s the issue?

A: People aren’t being compensated fairly.

Q: Also, Disney’s theme park performers just voted to unionize with Equity.

A: We have to figure out what they want in their contracts, and then we have to put forward people who can be good in that negotiation.

Q: What’s your sense of how theater is doing?

A: It’s not fully recovered, obviously, from the pandemic. But it’s really great to see how many new shows there were. There’s something for everybody. You can have a “Merrily” and a “Stereophonic” and an “Illinoise” and “Appropriate” and “Mother Play.” It’s refreshing that it’s not one note.

Q: Something I often hear from readers is that they wonder why there can’t be more streaming of staged shows.

A: That’s a tricky one. The part of theater that’s theater is being in person. There’s a different performance every night.

Q: Are you going to continue to act while leading the union?

A: As long as I’m wanted. I’ve got a couple of things right now that I’m working on. Netflix did really well with the last movie that I did. I have a show in development. What would be ideal is to be on a show here in New York because then I could do it all. And never sleep.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I hope I’m able to carry through many of the little changes that can make a bigger difference, and that I leave the association feeling kinder and more inclusive and not angry or fractured.

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