Mischa Barton sits at the dead center of a 2000s-specific TV infinity loop. After all, it was the then-16-year-old’s portrayal of troubled teen Marissa Cooper on The O.C. that helped propel the show into the pop-culture stratosphere, spawning the hit MTV reality series Laguna Beach about real-life rich teens in Orange County, and then its twenty-something follow-up The Hills, which Barton would eventually star on as herself in its long-awaited reboot last year, The Hills: New Beginnings. That’s right, 16 years after Josh Schwartz’s beloved teen soap premiered on Fox, Barton entered the very universe she’d helped build into a worldwide phenomenon, while still just a teen herself.
Today, the 34-year-old Barton sits on the other side of some very high highs and low lows, eager to open up and let audiences reconnect with her. Over the years, she’s said it’s been a challenge navigating the public’s inability to differentiate between Mischa and Marissa, between the real-life woman and the character she played on TV. “Because of the tabloid coverage and how much they feel they’ve read about my life — most of it not true — then [the public] really do feel like they know you,” she says. The Hills: New Beginnings provided an opportunity for Mischa to further draw a distinction between her and the teen she played on The O.C. “I wanted to be vulnerable and I wanted people to get to understand the real me,” Barton says, while chatting in between glam looks during her photoshoot, while her sweet, aging Cavalier King Charles Beagle-Spaniel mix Charlie (short for Charles Dickens) lovingly follows her around set. “But at the same time, it’s also very tricky … I wish I’d opened up sooner, but it’s really hard to do because I have a lot of trust issues with people already who’ve already done weird things with my life story.”
Even if she took a little time opening up, that didn’t stop her from carving out a space of her own on the series, amidst her castmates’ dramatic story arcs (Audrina and Justin Bobby’s “will they or won’t they?” romance! The Pratt siblings’ feuds! Brody Jenner and Kaitlynn Carter’s unraveling marriage!) She allowed cameras to film her going on auditions and let viewers see her visible nerves and excitement over getting back into acting. “If I look back at the kind of things that I was very unsure about putting on television, that would be one of the main ones because acting is a very — I don’t want to say a sensitive subject for me, but it’s my career, my life,” Barton says. “I don’t ever want them to take anything and put a spin on it that looks insincere when it’s a real craft. But I think it turned out pretty respectful.”
In person, Barton has an immediately engaging presence and, for all the understandable wariness she may still have of the media and reality TV cameras, she’s unafraid to dive into any topic or episode from her life. Ultimately, Mischa’s willingness to open up in person — and on TV — is rooted in a larger feeling of wanting to impact people who might relate in any way to her story and the challenges she’s faced. “I think what really made me do [the show] is the fact that I do believe that you can really help people,” she says. “Depression and anxiety and things like that — they actually really matter to me and are things that are close to my heart. So, I was really hopeful that if people heard the other side of the story, they might kind of get it. You know? Especially young girls and the kind of audience that watches The Hills — that they might see a bigger, rounder picture of what you really go through in Hollywood and in this business.”
For Mischa, the past few years have seen her try a variety of projects in the business, from the “giant leap of faith” that she took to be on The Hills to appearing in a handful of smaller movie roles. In 2016 she appeared as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, where she and her partner were eliminated in the second round (an experience that she described in an interview with The Ringer as “awful” and “a popularity contest”).
Not long after her DWTS stint, Barton decided she needed some distance from Hollywood and tried to live more under-the-radar in New York, alternating between the city and a town upstate, where she spent time on a self-described “very welcome break in horse country.”
But there was no peace and tranquility in the window that followed. In January of 2017, she endured a scary episode of being reportedly drugged with GHB while out at a club celebrating her birthday. Back at home, her neighbors called the police after she’d been seen reportedly hanging over her back fence wearing just a dress shirt and a tie, yelling about her mother. It ended with a hospital visit — but not before numerous photos and videos taken by neighbors hit TMZ — and she’s gone on to say she has little recollection of the event.
Just a few months later, she found herself embroiled in a lawsuit with an ex-boyfriend who she found out had been shopping around a sex tape recorded without her consent, marking one of the more widely known cases of what we now understand as “revenge porn.” Barton appeared in court several times in 2017 — flying in from New York to LA — and held an emotional press conference about the case, with her lawyer, the famed and now somewhat notorious Lisa Bloom, by her side. (The daughter of legal icon Gloria Allred, Bloom has made a name for herself through her work representing women accusing high-profile men of sexual harassment and assault but has recently been criticized for briefly advising Harvey Weinstein.) In the press conference Barton addressed the cameras: “This is a painful situation and my absolute worst fear was realized when I learned that someone I thought I loved and trusted was filming my most intimate and private moments without my consent, with hidden cameras.”
That spring, Barton and Bloom appeared on the Dr. Phil show for a wide-ranging interview, where the two firmly laid out their view of the case. “This is a fight over a woman’s right to control images of her own body,” Bloom said. Mischa added, “From the second that you would meet somebody, you have to now fear that they might be trying to do something like that to you — that’s horrible.”
The two sides eventually were able to reach a settlement in which her ex agreed not to distribute the tape and to turn any footage over to Barton. The winning moment was captured with a photo Bloom posted to Instagram that June showing her and Barton holding raised hands outside the courthouse, both smiling with the caption “COURT VICTORY today with Mischa Barton. Distribution of the explicit images banned, ex stays 100 yards away forever.”
It was only a few months later, in the fall of 2017, that the #MeToo movement would barrel through Hollywood and more and more women would come forward to share traumatic experiences with bosses, former partners and colleagues alike. “It’s really funny, I always joke that I’m somehow just those few years ahead of or behind the curve,” Barton says. “I’m, like, trying to forge the way to try to explain to everybody what ‘revenge porn’ is and what these things are [at the time].”
“Those women are so brave,” she says about members of the #MeToo movement, before alluding to the fact that, at the time she was going through the case, there were few others speaking openly about these topics. “Thank god [women now] have each other so that they can have that support system, because it’s really hard when you feel like you’re the only person going through it. But it still takes so much bravery, even if you have people behind you.” Barton’s hand rests on her heart while she talks, her eyes wide.
Those episodes sit in the midst of nearly 15 years of mistreatment by the tabloids, particularly in the mid-to-late aughts. Blogger Perez Hilton targeted her often, nicknaming Barton “Mushy Fartone” and labeling her “bloated” and “barfalicious,” among many other crude and misogynistic taunts. In one 2008 post covering a Barton appearance in Australia, Perez put his trademark white doodles over a picture of her on the red carpet, drawing white drops coming out the bottom of her dress mimicking urine. The post read: “Cellulite at 23 is never pretty! Mushy’s… boobies and cellulite thighs in full glory… Barfalicious!”
In the years since, there’s been something of a newfound reexamination of the way the early aughts treated its young, female celebrities, particularly the Britneys and Lindsays and the like, who were barely adults and endured the cruel indignities of upskirts and terrifying car chases from the paparazzi. It was all eaten up happily by the finger-wagging public who relished the perceived poor choices these Hollywood starlets were supposedly making. And to look back now and see so little care and human understanding afforded to young women who were, at times, suffering greatly under the microscope of newly minted celebrity — no matter their chosen career— says a great deal about the public’s ability to afford empathy in a given moment.
It’s an absence of empathy whose effects still linger.
“I didn’t leave the house,” she says when asked to recall the period. “It still affects me and it makes me sad to hear what [Prince] Harry says when he talks about the cameras and the flashbacks,” Barton continues, referencing Prince Harry’s openness about still being triggered by paparazzi and the reminders of the harassment his mother, Princess Diana, endured, which ultimately culminated in her tragic death in a car accident during a paparazzi car chase. Barton says she gets similarly triggered. “I get total PTSD. I don’t like when people run too fast or cameras go off. It randomly affects me because you don’t forget, [especially] if you’ve been in car accidents caused by that kind of stuff.” Here, her energy has dimmed as she opens up, almost exhausted by the recounting. “There’s so many places I won’t go and things I won’t do that are totally irrational at this point, but I still don’t like to do them because it just reminds me of bad things. You know, that’s just stuff you work on and it’s not a sob story. But I’ll be the first person to be like, ‘Let’s not go to that café. I remember we used to get paparazzi-d. I just don’t want to risk it. [Pauses.] Let’s just cook at home!'” She rebounds with a laugh and her open, warm features light up.
For his part, Hilton went on a redemption tour some years ago, acknowledging his past mistakes and appearing on Ellen in 2010 to say, “I still want to be sassy and critical, but I can do it without having to be mean or nasty.” But, understandably, Barton isn’t eager to pat people like Perez on the back for their eventual apologies and acknowledgment of former misdeeds. “I think the good news is that they’ve realized they’re really not allowed to [do those things] so much anymore because once you get sued enough times, I think people change their attitude whether they want to or not,” she says. “As for the Perez thing, he really bullied me both in person and on the internet for a long time, through social circles here in LA as well, so he was just busy bullying me. He would pick a couple very famous targets and that was that.” She pauses and, with a pointedly cool intonation, continues, “Whatever. I don’t think he’s that interesting or worth talking about at all. He’s irrelevant now. But at the time, yes, it was hard because there was really no way to talk back. I was just sort of at the mercy of him being able to do that to me.” She would go on to have an on-camera confrontation with Perez — who happens to be the godfather to Heidi and Spencer’s son, Gunner — on The Hills, telling him “This bullying that you did for so long to so many young girls, I find it hard to let go,” in front of a room full of guests at a party. The apology moment didn’t exactly go smoothly, ending in Perez storming off, but it allowed Barton to at least find a modicum of closure.
“I wish I’d opened up sooner, but it’s really hard to do because I have a lot of trust issues with people already who’ve already done weird things with my life story.”
Perez aside, it’s possible that in the last several years, the public has also become more contrite — or, at least, no longer has the same appetite for the kind of salacious, sexist and crude gossip items that ruled the internet of the mid-aughts. Barton affirms that there’s been meaningful change in the way the culture, press and public alike, treats women in the public eye, noting, in contrast, how truly stifling it had been at times for her. “I think we’ve definitely evolved as a society,” she says. “We’re in a much more understanding, body-positive world than we were in the early 2000s. The early 2000s were particularly brutal when it came to the way you looked. You had to be stick-thin Sarah Jessica Parker or me on The OC. You had to have this perfection and then, of course, by the way, it was also never good enough. You were too thin!”
She continues, “I do think we have evolved in terms of understanding that we have to have some sort of a softer treatment of people in the public eye, especially women, largely because now we live in the Billie Eilish era and there are the Camila Cabellos who are not afraid to speak out and say, ‘Hey, I’m a woman. I have good days. I have bad days. I also don’t have to show my body in a way that I don’t want to. And I can dress and behave the way that I want to.'” She pauses and lets out a laugh. “Do I feel a tiny bit jealous that I didn’t get to live in that era? Yes, totally! I would’ve loved to have not been torn apart quite so much as I was, but it’s just one of those things. I mean, better late than never.” She adds, “I’m so grateful that I’m still working and have a career and am still having fun.”
These last comments reinforce the idea that Mischa, despite all she’s endured, remains sanguine about Hollywood and her career in the industry. It’s this attitude, along with her ambition, that allows her to dispel any narratives attempting to portray her experiences as “cautionary tale” parables. No, instead, her story is one of resilience.
“A lot of people tried to ruin it for my generation,” Barton says, describing how public perception would assign “blanket blame” for a handful of individuals’ bad behavior (sex tapes, substance issues, acting out on set) on an entire cohort of young stars. Even today Barton says, “Everybody still thinks you’re one big clique.” She continues, “An Australian talk show said to me recently, ‘Oh, you hung out with Paris and Lindsay all the time,’ and I was like, ‘Oh no, not at all,’ and then they dug up one paparazzi photo where we all left in a car together and I was like ‘Omg, okay, yes, so there’s, like, one photo of us leaving an event together, but that’s not what life was like.'”
And it wasn’t just the media who was quick to judge or make assumptions. Back when she was getting started, “You were told that if you stepped too far out of line your career was over, you would just not get a second shot at it. That’s how agents and managers and publicists used to approach it, or women felt about it. You know, if I put on weight or if I had a bad story printed about me, then my career could just be dead and they’ll move on to the next person,” she recalls.
Today, she thinks young stars have more agency, largely thanks to social media. “[Earlier], there was only ever what the paparazzi portrayed,” she says. “And that’s totally up to them what they do with those photos and how they want to make your narrative. [Today] it’s better in so many ways because you can protect and narrate your own life… Let’s just say some bad event happens to you when you’re out at a restaurant; now you can tweet about it or write about it the next day on Instagram and tell your side of the story and your fans will listen. We didn’t use to have that privilege. Whatever was said was just believed.” But, she acknowledges, social media “brings in a whole other [kind] of bullying” and “people can film you doing anything… It’s a whole new set of problems.”
While Barton waits to learn about her level of involvement in the second season of The Hills: New Beginnings, she continues to edge her way back to acting, noting that it had been particularly hard to audition during the grueling Hills shooting schedule. But this year fans will get to see her on the big screen, in a role in the upcoming indie film Spree, featuring Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Sasheer Zamata and Frankie Grande. The satire, co-executive produced by Drake and Future the Prince, tells the story of a social media-obsessed rideshare driver (played by Keery) who falls down a dark, murderous rabbit hole with his various passengers, one of whom is played by Barton.
Meanwhile, she’s eager to keep the plate spinning for her love of fashion, a thread she’s woven throughout her career. She’s been in talks about making a possible capsule collection, ideally a small clothing line that allows her to partner up with another creative. And while she acknowledges she’s stepped away from fashion somewhat since trying her hand with accessory lines and a now-shuttered brick and mortar retail shop in London in the late aughts, Barton sees the current moment as particularly exciting to revisit fashion. “I definitely stepped out of it because it can be a grueling line of work,” she says. “[But] I feel like there’s a lot more body [positivity] and more interesting stuff going on in fashion now,” she says. “There are so many people on the runways and red carpets getting away with more extreme and unique looks than before. So, I think there’s room to be a little bit more adventurous.”
And Barton also wants to take a page from the recent wave of actresses who are grabbing the wheel and steering their careers with newfound power. Reese Witherspoon’s hit HBO show Big Little Lies and Drew Barrymore’s Santa Clarita Diet are just two examples Barton references of women in Hollywood optioning material and creating their own projects to star in. “I really want to develop more projects,” she says. “I think a lot of the good stuff that actresses these days are doing, they’re developing with people.” She also mentions being particularly excited at having just signed with major management/production company Untitled Entertainment, who reps actors like Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Sam Rockwell and Mandy Moore. “The pressure is on me now to develop and find the right stuff for me. [To ask myself] ‘So what DO you want to do? What WILL you be good in?'”
But, as her experiences navigating everything from confronting Perez Hilton on-camera to fighting her way through an ugly lawsuit with an ex show, Barton doesn’t buckle under pressure. “Honestly, sometimes the things that turn out to be the most therapeutic and healing are the things that do cost you a lot of anxiety and trouble,” she says. “But once you’re past it and through it, you can say, ‘I did that.'”