There are two Rose McGowans I seek to reconcile, as I ring the doorbell to her Lower East Side apartment.
The first we can call the Rose without thorns – pretty and sweet, plucked from obscurity at a young age, who starred in cult classics like Jawbreaker and Grindhouse, and gained fame as a beloved star on The WB’s Charmed. This Rose is known too for her life off-screen – for wearing a provocative dress to the MTV VMAs in 1998, and dating Marilyn Manson. In short, she seems to be an actress with a familiar narrative, who fits a recognizable mold.
The second Rose – well, let’s say she isn’t a Rose you’d want to be holding if you are male (especially not if you are Adam Sandler, or her former agent, or any man, for that matter, who is a member of Hollywood). This is the Rose whose name I’d heard more recently in a context with more bite, as an outspoken feminist dropped by her agent because she spoke out against double standards in Hollywood, who has since been dedicated to the message “enough is enough.”
While a small part of me girds my loins in anticipation of this latter incarnation, McGowan greets me at her door with an unhesitant embrace. She wears a close-fitting white sweater – simple yet luxurious to the touch – with tapered jeans and a pair of Stella McCartney platform shoes.
Her smile is welcoming, her voice full of emphatic peaks and valleys as she immediately regales me with a colorful retelling of her morning at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Picasso always felt like one of these artists I was supposed to really like – one of these things that’s forced upon you from a young age – but I have to say, I saw this show about his sculptures and I actually loved it,” she gushes. She offers me a glass a water, and in the sudden, almost overwhelming comfort of her chatty and hospitable mien, any fears I had about man-eating Rose McGowan melt away.
I sink into her sofa. Rose has just moved cross-country from LA to New York, so her living room is mostly bare. A modern-looking glass table in the center is flanked by a wall of yet-unsorted cardboard boxes.
She chatters on from the kitchen – “an open book” are the first words I write about McGowan in my notebook – and when she returns she says, “Don’t mind this,” pointing to a tiny dab of white cream on her upper lip which I hadn’t. “It’s not a cold sore, it’s a cigarette burn. I was sitting outside the MoMA on a bench,” she explains, “when a woman waved her cigarette right at me. She wasn’t even sorry. She said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have been there.’” Lured by her congeniality into the feeling that we are two girlfriends, I’m indignant on McGowan’s behalf. “How dare she!” I reply. It’s easy to want to be on her side.
The next moment girlfriend-McGowan is asking me about my shoes – a pair of silver-buckled black loafers that I confide are actually a women’s style.
“Here’s what I can’t stand about women’s shoes – heels, in particular,” she proclaims. “With all the technology we have, why aren’t they more comfortable yet?”
As a fashion stylist who often outfits women’s feet in beautiful yet uncomfortable footwear, I’m no stranger to her complaint. I’m about to commiserate when she effectively cuts me off: “Because it’s gay men that design them.”
She locks eyes as if to confirm that yes, she knows I am a gay man, and no, she’s not making an exception for me. According to her, I am as culpable in the systemic mistreatment of women in America as any other man – a belief to which she is infinitely more devoted than the preservation of niceties with me or anyone else.
A brief yet knowing pause follows, that I might fully experience sting of her sudden confrontational dig, during which I realize … there they are, prominently displayed: her thorns.
Last summer McGowan poked fun via Twitter at an actor she calls out as “rhymes with Madame Panhandler,” whose casting team asked actresses auditioning for a role in his new film to wear “black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push-up bras encouraged), and form fitting leggings or jeans.”
Citing this example as one of the many ways women in Hollywood are still subjected to age-old double standards, her feminist zeal got her promptly fired by her agent, and in the aftermath, McGowan tweeted, “The awesome thing about being an artist? You can’t be fired from your own mind.”
Unlike those of other stars making headlines for their outspokenness on social media, her voice isn’t another attention-seeking wail in the ever-churning celebrity “beef” mill, but something new and incisive: a powerful call for change, from an industry veteran who has been through enough to finally call bullshit. It’s an incredible shift in the actress’s life: For years, she didn’t speak up at all – because she felt she couldn’t, and she didn’t know how.
“Every press junket is filled with the most asinine questions you’d ever hear,” McGowan says, “insulting to the extreme – usually very, very degrading, assuming that because you’re an actress you must be completely stupid. Their favorite thing to ask you about is the male director, otherwise it’s questions like” – she sticks out her neck like a neanderthal and imitates a reporter with an IQ of 70 – “’Was is hard to wear that little outfit?’”
Anyone who watched enough celebrity interviews knows that for actresses, getting prodded about fluff is standard – although often it can be much worse than questions about dresses and directors. A particularly cringeworthy example is her appearance on the Howard Stern show in 2001, the year she was cast at the beloved Paige Matthews in Charmed.
I bring up this interview, in which for thirty minutes Stern essentially regards McGowan like a talking sex object. Her face wretches now with visible disgust. “The studio would force you to do Howard Stern – I didn’t want to – but I was raised in the shadow of, ‘You better not stand out of line,’ and ‘Be a good little girl, Howard Stern has 44 million listeners, you have to appeal to the young male audience.’ I spent my early years in Europe, but it was that town that raised me. Hollywood was my father figure.” She shakes her head. I bring up some of the more nauseating topics of that interview: McGowan’s breasts, labia, sexual preferences, and repeatedly, whether she would have sex with Stern. “Were you angry?” I ask.
“There was nobody fighting for me. That’s supposedly the job of a publicist. That’s the job of a manager, agent, and no one saved me – they just threw me to the wolves.” McGowan bitterly shakes her head, and suddenly her voice drops. “I forgot about that one interview,” she says. She chokes up, lip trembling, “I spent the majority of my adult life in this game and – I feel so much sorrow for that girl – that girl who was disrespected like that.”
I’m stunned by her candidness and unsure how to respond, but she collects herself with a deep breath. Conviction replaces the tears in her eyes, and before I can say a word, she’s talking as before: “My mind can fulfill me vastly, so during that interview, I know what I was doing – I was off up in the sky, thinking about things, parsing them apart.”
For the next twenty minutes, I don’t ask her any questions, only listen, as she flows from one topic to the other. I’m astounded in two major ways: first, at the extent of her mesmerizing self-awareness, as she weaves her personal narrative with bursts of profound philosophical insight; second, that for so many years, she felt unable to share this complex side of herself with the world.
No topic is off-limits, and she is predisposed to point out the darker aspects of her charmed life – in a way, to clear the record, pull back the curtain on behalf of herself and other women like her. Regarding her physical beauty, her precious nose and full lips, that pixie-like facade with those sweet, searching eyes – she acknowledges, “Yes, I was granted a power that others don’t have. But other people abused me for that – there was always something about me that people wanted to break. I came so close – thankfully, I bent, but I didn’t break.” Starring on a hit TV show took a considerable toll: “It was a lot of pressure. I was having panic attacks, my hair was falling out, I was sick all the time, and I was working sixteen hours a day. I have great affection for the character I played, but frankly I’m a lot more complex, so every day I was wearing clothes I would never wear, talking to people I never wanted to be around, in a world I didn’t want to be in – for five years straight. It was like an airplane ride that I couldn’t get off of.”
When she finally did ‘get off’, after five years of Charmed, she explains, the industry climate had changed for the worse, and actresses were suddenly expected to have an army of professionals dedicated to their appearance – at the very least, a stylist, a makeup artist and a hairdresser – not just for their acting roles, but for their daily life. “Now I was being told every time I left my house that I wasn’t enough. I had to have someone fix me – dress me, do my makeup, because I was too stupid to do it myself. It’s crazy, the idea that to be desirable, someone else has to come and approximate what you want to look like. But not even what you want to look like – they wouldn’t know because they’ve never asked. They approximate what they think some man out there wants to fuck.”
Her underlying message is that a life of appearances, essentially playing a role to bankroll a male-dominated industry – isn’t the life that women should aspire to. “I was in the wrong place for my brain and largely stuck in the wrong life,” she concluded many times in her career, yet like a woman in an abusive relationship, she stayed, unsure how or where she might escape. “Fear drove me in a way that benefited other people,” she says. “My fear made other people millions, and it was in their best interests that I fear ‘the man’, so to speak. Fear was my companion.”
All of this is in the past now. There’s a sense that by publicly unburdening herself – sharing her own story, and expressing her views about the problems in Hollywood – she can finally move on.
By waving farewell to LA, she has essentially declared freedom from so many of the ties that bound her, and has begun pursuing a life on the other side of the camera. She points out that she hasn’t recently “become” an artist; rather, she was an artist all along. “It’s funny who is considered – or what is considered an artist. Take me, for instance – people didn’t consider what I did to be art. But I changed everything for each role – my teeth, for example, and my weight. I approached my career as being a Cindy Sherman that speaks.”
Rose made her stunning directorial debut last June with the short film Dawn, a 60s period piece premiering at Sundance, which hauntingly dramatized the consequences of teaching girls to stay silent. Shortly after, in September, she effectively silenced any naysayers who might have thought Dawn was an artistic one-off, by starring in her first music video, the hypnotic ‘RM486′, lensed by the visionary Jonas Åkerlund. On the horizon, Rose’s next project is a film about synesthesia, an appropriate theme for an artist whose previously unseen private gifts are starting to blend in with her public life.
“Artists are meant to push the culture forward,” McGowan says, “and there’s a dearth of people doing that – I don’t see it in music or in acting. Celebrities have a huge platform, and most of time they’re saying fucking nothing. I know that like me, these people are trained and coaxed. I did the best that I could do in the box that I was stuck in. But now…”
She trails off, but it’s clear what she means to say: Now McGowan has a voice, and she’s using it.