Editor’s note: Click here to see Molly Ringwald’s contribution to our new feature,
My Life in Books, in which we ask readers to tell their life stories in ten books or less.
Here’s what you probably already know about Molly Ringwald: back in the ’80s, she was the pretty, pouty face of suburban teen angst, starring in the iconic John Hughes movies Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink. Here’s what you may also know: recently, she’s returned to the topic of teen angst, playing the mother of a teen mom in the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
But there are many things you may not know about the flame-haired former Brat Pack member, and you’ll learn some of them in her new book, Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick. The book, which Ringwald penned with neither ghost- nor co-writer, is not a memoir; nor is it really a self-help book. Rather, inspirational and packed with personal anecdotes, whimsical illustrations (by artist Ruben Toledo), and actionable advice, it is the book Ringwald says she craved when she herself turned 40. (She’s now 42 and a mother of three young children.)
“This book is about celebrating turning forty and being the sexiest, funniest, smartest, best-dressed, and most confident woman that you can be,” Ringwald writes. “It’s about everything I’ve learned, thus far, and how to put it together and incorporate it all.”
By all, Ringwald means everything from what kind of handbag, T-shirts, and bras to buy, to what sort of parenting advice you should ignore, to how to make the best bouillabaisse and properly slice cheese. (“Never cut the nose of the cheese!” she admonishes.) It’s a broad and somewhat idiosyncratic span of topics, but Ringwald — who has long considered herself a writer as well as an actress and singer — tackles them with a passion, candor, and friendly intimacy that wins the reader over.
In Getting the Pretty Back, Ringwald comes across as a particularly grounded person who has somehow managed to escape the usual Hollywood traps and live the sort of real, rich life she hopes to encourage in her readers. That groundedness came through, as well, during our recent phone conversation with the actress and writer, in which she told us why “pretty” is a better thing to strive for than “beauty,” whether getting older is more difficult when your public image is frozen at age 16, and why writing a book ranks right up there with doing a movie in French and giving birth to twins — breach — on her list of proudest accomplishments.
The Barnes & Noble Review: What made you write this book, rather than, say, a straight-up memoir or some other sort of book?
Molly Ringwald: Well, I didn’t really want to write a straight-up memoir because I don’t feel like I’m ready. I feel like I’m at this halfway point in my life. If I wrote a straight-up memoir, I’d just have to go and write another one later. The book really came about because I was turning 40 and there was kind of this crazy oh my god, how is it possible that I’m turning 40? thing. And I realized there were no books like the one I wanted to read. Anytime that I’ve gone through anything in my life, I’ve always felt like I could turn to a book that offers guidance and solace, and I’m not even talking about self-help books necessarily. But there was nothing fun and stylish and inspirational about being a woman, rather than a girl. That’s why I wanted to write this particular book — and why it’s in color and illustrated by Ruben [Toledo]. I wanted it to be a colorful, beautiful, fun, sexy little book.
BNR: What was the process of writing the book like? Did you work with anyone else on it?
MR: No. It’s all me. It was daunting, to say the least. I’ve never written a book before. Everything I’ve ever written has been, you know, a 2,000-word limit. So it was challenging. My husband [Panio Gianopoulos] is a writer and an editor, so he was very helpful in keeping me on track. I had this 500-word-a-day target, or two hours, whichever came first. And as long as I could commit to that, usually once I got myself in the seat, I would usually write, like, 1,500 words or 2,000 words. They add up after a while, if you do it all the time.
BNR: It’s just getting over the psychological hurdle.
MR: Yeah. It was just little by little, brick by brick. It took a little longer than I had anticipated because I sold the book in September and then I got pregnant in November. I had to call my publishers and say, “You know, I think this is going to take a little while longer.” Doing anything pregnant is just a little more difficult. I delivered the manuscript two weeks before my twins were born, actually.
BNR: Nice timing. You write in the book that you’ve always considered yourself a writer and a singer as well as an actress. What compels you to write?
MR: Well, I love books, and writing is just something I’ve done over the years. It’s usually taken on the form of short stories. I keep a journal. I’ve done profiles of people. I’ve done a few book reviews. I think the thing that compels me to keep writing is just that it’s another form of expression. Just like singing is. It was something I did a lot when I was younger. And I stopped writing and singing at some point and just put all my focus on acting, and now I’m just coming back to it.
BNR: I understand you’ve written book reviews for the Hartford Courant and done some writing for a Westchester paper. When did you do that?
MR: It was a while ago, around maybe 2000. I had a friend [David Daley, who runs the Web site Five Chapters] who was the culture director of the papers [the Hartford Courant and the Journal News in Westchester County, New York]. He’s always been a big supporter of my writing and has done whatever he can to keep me writing. So if there was anyone he knew that I was interested in, like he knew I was interested in [Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter] Stephin Merritt, he would say, “Oh, would you do this for me?” It was his wily way of getting me to write, which was really sweet. Other than my husband, he’s one of the people who’s been most supportive of my writing. I credit him almost as much as my literary agent for making me write.
BNR: It’s good to have friends like that, as a writer.
MR: Well, it’s hard. When you’re an actor you have so many fans and so many supporters and people telling you that you’re doing the right thing. But when you’re a writer, you really have to do that for yourself. So the few people who say “you should do this” really matter, I think.
BNR: Yes, writing is solitary.
MR: I feel like in a lot of ways it’s just so much easier to act and to feel like you’re doing the right thing because you’re getting that feedback from other people. And writing, even though it reaches a lot of people, it just doesn’t happen right away. You kind of have to find other reasons to do it.
BNR: Who are you trying to reach with this book? Do you have a specific audience in mind?
MR: Women. [Laughs] Women my age — 10 years younger, 10 years older. I think it really doesn’t matter what age you are. Women are my target audience. I really set out to write a book about and for women. The book is about me in some ways, but it’s really just about women. I mean, I talk about my friends so much.
BNR: You tackle so many different topics. Were you worried about taking on such a broad range? How did you come up with the span of topics you address in the book?
MR: I just tried to think about what it was that went into being a woman and things that were important to me. I knew I wanted to write in essay form, and then I gave it nine chapters as sort of my nod to J. D. Salinger. I tried to think about what matters to me, and there’s style and food and fitness and motherhood and friends. And hair. I have an entire chapter on hair, which then ended up becoming hair and makeup and skincare and all that.
BNR: You share your misgivings about aging in the book. Do you think it’s been more difficult for you to find yourself in adulthood, since you’re sort of frozen at age 16 in the eyes of so many people?
MR: I don’t think it makes it any more difficult. When I was turning 40, it did seem kind of impossible to me, but I feel like every woman feels that way. Maybe I felt that a little bit more, just because I’ve always been so associated with being young. It certainly doesn’t mean I’m exempt from it. I’m just really focused on aging gracefully. I think all the angst that led up to being 40 was so much worse than it actually is. So far, my 40s have been pretty fantastic.
BNR: But you’re also playing the mother of a teenager on TV. Does that freak you out at all?
MR: Not really. I’m certainly old enough to be the mother of a teenager. It’s a little bit of a flash forward because I’m the mother of infants and a 6-year-old girl in my own life. You know, I have a ways to go, but it can’t help but make me think what I’m going to do when I get to those issues.
BNR: So it’s instructive, in a way. You write in the book about how when you’re a teenager you wonder if people like you, but when you’re a grown-up you wonder if you like them. Can you talk about what that process of learning to accept yourself and not to worry about what people think of you has been like for you?
MR: I don’t think it’s anything that happens overnight, but all of a sudden you realize you do feel differently. You have all this experience you didn’t have as a teenager. I don’t really worry whether or not people like me. I’m more focused on how I feel about them. I don’t know when that happened, but it is a shift that just gradually happened.
BNR: What made you move to France near the height of your fame, in your early 20s? And what made you move back?
MR: I had worked a lot through my teenage years. I was living in California and was not particularly inspired by what was around me at the time. I was actually planning on going to college. I had applied to U. of C. and was accepted and was going to go in the fall, and then I went to France for work and just thought, this is where I should be. This is wonderful and I can learn a lot here. It was just one of those instinctive things where I thought, if I’m ever going to do this in my life, this is the time, and this is how it’s going to be possible, because later on I’m going to be focused on something else, whether it’s family or career. It was time I needed just to live, for myself, and to live out of the public eye.
BNR: Were you able to achieve that? Did you find a certain anonymity there?
MR: I did, yeah. I had a sort of normal life. Normal within limits. I mean, not totally normal, but it was very much like, waking up and going to get bread. It wasn’t like I did anything extraordinary. It was just daily life that was out of the public eye and it was in this beautiful place and I learned French and, as I write about in the book, I went to chef’s training. And I was just very inspired by where I was.
BNR: How long were you there?
MR: I’d say on and off for about 10 years. My sole residence was about five years, where I just only lived in Paris. And then I got an apartment in New York and kind of lived in both places for a while.
BNR: What made you decide to move back?
MR: I’d kind of achieved my goal, which was to do a movie in French. Once that happened, it kind of made me want to act in English again. I don’t know. Again, I just followed my heart, and I felt like where I wanted to be after that was in New York. I missed living in English. I think that’s what it was. It made me realize that I was going to be limited in terms of what I could achieve acting-wise in French. And I still wanted to be an actor, so I wanted to do that in English. I missed the United States, too, and being closer to my family.
BNR: Had you acted the whole time you were in France?
MR: I would come back and forth to the United States and do things. I’d go do a movie. I did [the 1994 TV miniseries] The Stand while I was living there, but I was studying the whole time. I was learning to speak French. I put a lot of focus into that. And so when I actually did a movie in French, that was a huge accomplishment. Writing an entire book by myself, doing a movie in French and giving birth to twins who were breach — I think those are the three things I’m most proud of.
BNR: Let’s talk about the book’s title for a minute. You mention that a friend of yours suggested that you change the word “pretty” to “beauty,” and you felt the word pretty was apt presumably beyond it referencing Pretty in Pink. Can you explain what you think the difference is between beauty and pretty and why you think pretty is the thing we should strive for, or strive to get back?
MR: Well, beauty to me is kind of heavy and weighty and seems like something that’s outwardly based. It’s a physical thing. And the way I talk about pretty is really more of an attitude. I wrote an entire chapter on it because I don’t want people to think I’m talking about something that’s outwardly physical, because it’s not. It’s really more of an attitude and a lightness and something that has always been associated with being young. And I feel like we need to reclaim it. I don’t feel like it’s something that needs to go away, but I feel like that lightness is something that does go away. You don’t feel pretty as you go through life and you get weighed down by bills and all your focus goes on your kids or you’re in a job that you don’t like, and it’s hard to get that feeling back. So I talk about it more in terms of an attitude.
BNR: How do you balance your intellectual leanings with your more superficial concerns, like lipstick and handbags? Or maybe you don’t feel like they’re disparate at all?
MR: I don’t. I think they’re all part of who I am. I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that in order to be intelligent you can’t wear high heels, you know? I love being a woman and I love the fantasy of fashion and clothes and makeup. That’s part of what I probably initially loved about acting. It all kind of goes together.
BNR: At some point in the book, you note that you’re writing as much for yourself as for the reader. What did you hope to get out of writing this book, personally?
MR: Well, when I started the book, I wasn’t pregnant, and then I got pregnant, so everything I talk about in terms of your state of mind and getting the pretty back is basically stuff I was going to go through, because if there’s anything that sucks the pretty out of you, it really is having babies. You go through this amazing experience and you’re so happy and you have kids, but then it’s like your body has yet to go back to the way it was. It takes a while. You’re completely sleep deprived. You’re totally living for someone else, and it’s really something that you consciously need to think about, in terms of taking care of yourself.
BNR: You mention that when you see actresses looking perfect post-children on magazine covers, you feel like you went to the wrong celebrity school. You do seem like a different brand of celebrity. Your appeal has always been real. Is that groundedness something you’ve always deliberately sought?
MR: I think it’s just the way I am. I can’t really be any other way. I think if I tried to be that other kind of celebrity and have a power marriage and never eat a carb — it’s just not how I want to live my life. I want to be able to do what I want to do, but not at the expense of having a rich, full life. That’s just the way I am, and I don’t think I could be any other way if I tried.
BNR: You write about the prettiest girl in high school syndrome. How that sets someone up for disappointment because they think all their best days are behind them. Have you had to contend with some version of that as a former teen star?
MR: No, because I don’t think I was ever the prettiest girl in high school. What I was talking about was literally the prettiest girl in high school. Just everyone thought so. But I never was. I was always too off-kilter and freckly.
BNR: I guess that’s part of that realness. You mention that allowing your daughter to go into acting would be like feeding her to the lions. Do you feel like you were fed to the lions?
MR: I feel like show business is very much a business, and I don’t feel like it’s the healthiest place for kids. I feel like my parents would agree but they didn’t have any experience with show business before. So having gone through that, I don’t think that it’s something I want for my child. Not to say that if she wanted to do something as an adult I wouldn’t fully support her. But it’s nothing that I would want to do now as she’s growing and forming herself. I think it’s too much pressure for a young person.
Click here to see Molly Ringwald’s contribution to our new feature, My Life in Books.