As soon as we met, Tara Reid said she had brought me something. She pulled a small orange satchel from her pocket and handed it to me. “I made it myself. I picked every bead,” she said. Inside was a friendship bracelet made with turquoise, silver, and little rivets etched with words like “Beautiful” and “Believe.” She advised me to put it under moonlight to charge the crystals with good energy. Reid, like a lot of women who spent their entire adult lives living and working in Hollywood, is a little witchy, a little woo-woo, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We spoke over the course of a few days in Los Angeles, while the now-46-year-old actor was shooting a lookbook for her new sunglasses line, Cult Queen, and a handbag made in collaboration with designer Michael Kuluva. Before the shoot, she was reserved, almost sleepy, but when the photographer lifted the camera to her sightline, she popped out her leg, offered a smile, and for hours, turned on the charm that made her successful in the first place.
This is the kind of behavior one might expect from an actor whose early breakout roles cemented her as an approachable bombshell and America’s Next Sweetheart. In 1998 she played Bunny Lebowski, a former porn star trophy wife who shops constantly, in the cult classic The Big Lebowski. In 1999, she was Vicky in the megahit teen comedy American Pie (and a few sequels), the quintessential girl next door who’s unsure if she really wants to have sex for the first time with her idiot boyfriend.
But my favorite — and Reid’s — was her role in 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats. I always loved Melody, the band’s dim but sweet drummer. In the Archie Comics that inspired the film, she’s sidelined to punchlines where she isn’t even in on the joke — everyone thought Melody was an idiot, and they treated her as such, but she was actually just a perennial optimist. And Reid was the perfect vessel for such a character. “Everyone thought she was clueless, but she was actually really smart,” Reid told me.
Josie and the Pussycats might have looked and smelled like a typical coming-of-age movie, but it was actually an incisive, brutal commentary on toxic media culture and how easy it is to lose yourself in the fame machine. Who better understands that cycle than Reid? “No matter what I do, even if I stopped acting tomorrow, I’m going to be famous for the rest of my life,” she said. “It wasn’t like I cared about being famous. It just all kind of happened.”
At the dawn of the 2000s, Tara Reid was the quintessential It girl: a bankable, beautiful, blonde actor with sparkling blue eyes, perfect for rom-coms and gross-out comedies. But just a couple of years later, the shine had already started to wear off. There were fewer starring roles, in similar horny-slapstick movies (2002’s college comedy Van Wilder, 2003’s hijinks-heavy rom-com My Boss’s Daughter). When even those disappeared, she showed up on reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Celebrity Big Brother.
Like so many Hollywood women of the era — Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears — Reid’s career and reputation suffered in her early 20s when she hit the party circuit and became known for tabloid photos of her outside Hollywood clubs wearing low-rise jeans and chainmail halter tops. But there are big differences between Reid and her contemporaries: Namely, she never really found herself embroiled in any major scandal. “Yeah, I partied and had fun,” she told me. “We’d pop bottles of champagne. But who doesn’t?”
There is no Tara Reid mugshot, no Tara Reid DUI, no Tara Reid prison sentence. “They all were in jail, they all did fucking sex tapes, crazy shit,” Reid said, referring to some of her peers. She said she never got in trouble on movie sets and was always on time. (The only story about her being late to a set is from 2018, when she was removed from a flight for causing a “disturbance,” making her three hours late to filming 5th Borough.) “There’s nothing like that about me,” she said. But it didn’t really matter — soon, perception became reality.
If you ask Reid, her reputation as a party girl coincided with her reputation as a professional flake, two things she considers patently false. Elevated publications largely ignored her — she might’ve been on the cover of Maxim and Playboy and FHM, but that attention never really transferred to more roles or more respectability. Soon, her body was endlessly dissected by gossip magazines, with zoomed-in photos of her legs and abs picked apart by bloggers and readers alike.
There is no Tara Reid mugshot, no Tara Reid DUI, no Tara Reid prison sentence.
Anyone who’s had their body criticized by a cruel audience, even an audience of just one, can empathize. But Reid hasn’t had her large-scale redemption narrative even as the media has reconsidered narratives about many young white women who were famous in the aughts. Maybe that’s because her story isn’t tragic in the extreme: She’s alive, well, and still working. Monica Lewinsky had her name splashed across every major newspaper in the world, while Spears had to fight for control of even the smallest part of her own life. In comparison, what did Reid endure, apart from the vagaries of fame? The world moved on; maybe she just didn’t suffer enough. Still, the way the media treated women like Reid serves as a kind of allegory for the sexist, targeted, and unjustified ways women have historically been treated.
Reid isn’t bitter, but she’d have a right to be. In her 20s, she was primed to be the next big thing, but instead the roles dried up. She tolerated more cruelty than any one person should. Yet, having survived the worst of 2000s tabloid culture, Reid barely wants so much as an apology. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I don’t want people to think I’m hung up on that.”
As far as she’s concerned, she doesn’t actually require redemption, whether for her sense of self-worth or her career. The way the tabloids talked about her is old news. She hasn’t made any attempt to publicly rewrite her own narrative. She isn’t writing a memoir or trying to sit down with Oprah. She’s simply been working, now producing more than acting, and living a quieter life.
But hasn’t she earned an apology? Because, for all the vitriol directed at her, when it comes down to it, Reid only did two things: publicly enjoyed her 20s and altered her body in a way people didn’t approve of. Neither would have ruined her life had the public not reacted so strongly. Her peers are getting absolution. So why can’t she get a break?
The current revival of early-aughts fashion — Von Dutch hats and denim skirts like the ones she used to wear to Hyde Lounge — brings back a more personal element of Reid’s troubles with the tabloids. “When I see things people wear sometimes, it reminds me of my mother,” she said. “It’s a very melancholy feeling. She was great. She was a boss.”
Reid’s mother died four years ago, and her father around two years before that, but she was always close to them, even after moving from her native New Jersey to Hollywood in the late ‘90s, when she was 20. The media response to her personal life hit them the hardest. “My mom would say it wasn’t fair. She said, ‘I’m going to call these motherfuckers, tell them off,’” Reid said. “She was more angry than I was. She didn’t want to be judged by her friends, by me looking bad. If I could have fixed it, I would have, but it wasn’t up to me at the time.”
If she had become famous now, Reid’s partygoing might look like run-of-the-mill celebrity carousing. But in the aughts, it made her a tabloid fixture. Every night out, every relationship, and every change to her body was examined and derided ad nauseam. She was a TMZ and Perez Hilton mainstay — TMZ called her “Franken-nipple” and a “train wreck,” and ran videos making fun of her for being denied entry to clubs, while Perez Hilton covered a clothing line she was working on in a post called “Hookers Rejoice!” It was the era of Britney Spears being photographed without underwear on and Paris Hilton’s sex tape. If gossip blogs needed someone to shit on that afternoon, famous young women were perfect targets.
Celebrity bloggers were quick to post close-ups of every trail of cellulite on Reid’s body, every fold on her midsection. Page Six routinely zeroed in on photos of her chest, her stomach, her butt, criticizing every fold and crease. In 2004, she went pre–social media viral when the top of her dress slipped and exposed her breast while she was at a party hosted by P. Diddy. “Tara Reid: Holy Lopsided Boobs!” proclaimed Just Jared in 2007, about red-carpet photos of the starlet smiling placidly in a green dress. In 2008, she received negative attention for paparazzi shots of her in a bikini at the beach, which showed scars left over from a fumbled liposuction procedure. (The scars aren’t that extreme, but the response was so aggressive and swift, you would’ve thought she’d had a head transplant.) “It’s a ghastly, protruding thing, isn’t it?” Lainey Lui wrote on Lainey Gossip in 2011 about Reid’s midsection. “Like it might detach from her and start killing things. Part leather, part plastic, all gross.”
Too thin and she was accused of having anorexia, but even rumors of surgical adjustments earned sneering, as if trying to evade mockery was equally worthy of derision. And the more insulting headlines she had to tolerate, the fewer roles she felt like she was being offered. She’s still trying to sort through the consequences. “Why would that affect me so much, especially when there’s never ever been an article about me being unprofessional?”
Meanwhile, she was certainly making money for a lot of other people. “When I hosted [TMZ], Harvey [Levin] came up to me and goes, ‘We wouldn’t even have TMZ if it wasn’t for you. You were always the one that was picked on. For us, it was perfect,’” she said. “It wasn’t for me.” (Levin did not respond to requests for comment.) Bloggers like Perez built their own empires on such cruelty. “I found out we had the same publicist, and I [said to the publicist], ‘You’re not protecting me. Everything I tell you, are you telling him?’” she said. “I think he’s the one that ruined my career, to be honest with you.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Perez said he didn’t think they ever shared the same publicist, and he denied ever receiving tips about Reid from former or current publicists. But he still couldn’t help himself. “I’m sorry for my past coverage of Tara Reid,” he said. “I could have covered her then-sloppiness and problematic behavior with more empathy.”
There are a lot of things Reid doesn’t want to talk about, but the biggest one is speculation about cosmetic surgery. (Before the interview, her publicist asked that I not ask any specific questions about what cosmetic work she has or hasn’t had done, though she was willing to discuss the impact of the tabloid coverage of her body.)
In the early aughts, she reportedly received two cosmetic procedures that drastically changed her body in ways she now says she didn’t want. Her breast implants were bigger than what she originally wanted (she said she asked for B cups but received Cs instead), and body contouring left her with a midsection she once called “the most ripply, bulgy thing.” She seems protective of herself and her choices, which makes sense considering how often she’s had to defend how she looks. “It was a terrible experience and everyone kept throwing it in my face,” she said. “Like, why are you being so mean?”
She figured her options were to either fade away entirely, or to try a new type of public life. While the tabloids were picking her apart, Reid turned to reality TV, the dominion of stars whose A-list status has evaporated. There was the 2005 E! docuseries Taradise, where Reid tried out local cuisine and nightlife in places like Greece, Italy, and Monaco. Reid liked making it but recognizes it probably affirmed the misconceptions about her.
“No one knows the real truth about all the things that happened.”
“That’s where, really, I think the party girl image came,” she said. “I didn’t realize that would actually hurt me. I thought it would be fun.” There was a 2011 stint on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, alongside Irish celebrity twins Jedward and David Hasselhoff’s ex-wife, Pamela. Then, in 2016, she appeared on Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars with her “boyfriend” Dean May. She was kicked off the show on the finale when it was revealed that they weren’t a real couple. (Reid declined to discuss the scandal in our interview.)
In 2008, she spent two weeks at the Promises Treatment Center, and to outsiders, it seemed like Reid was there to get sober. She said that wasn’t the truth either. “I was dating a guy at the time, he was very destructive. I couldn’t get away from him,” she said. The relationship was so abusive, she said, that her team sent her to rehab to break them up. “The only way was to go to treatment. Everyone thought I had a real problem, and that was the problem.”
Reid never wavers in her eye contact when she talks; there’s no insincerity in her delivery. “No one knows the real truth about all the things that happened. This doesn’t even bother me, because I know my truth, but it used to.” Reid talks low and slow, forcing you to lean in to hear her clearly. “How long can you be angry about something?”
People who know Reid well paint a vastly different portrait of her than the tabloids did. Twenty years after Josie and the Pussycats, Reid still considers costar Rachael Leigh Cook one of her good friends. Cook was supposed to be a bridesmaid at Reid’s wedding to Carson Daly before it was called off in 2001 — a breakup that tabloids and Daly attributed to Reid’s partying. “To some extent, I dodged a bullet,” Daly told Elle in 2012 in an article titled “I’m Living Proof That the Good Guys Win.” “I was getting serious about my career, and she wanted to shoot movies and just party in her time off.” (Reid didn’t have as much to say about Daly: “We grew apart,” she told me. “We love each other, we care about each other, but I know I can’t spend my whole life with you. In some ways, that’s the hardest breakup in the world.”)
“I think Tara’s someone who, as strong and as outspoken as she can be when she needs to be, she doesn’t actually like to look backwards,” Cook told me over the phone. “She’s always somebody who’s kept appropriate blinders going forward toward her own best, most positive path and trajectory.”
Cook said that she didn’t hang out with the same “fast crowd” that Reid did, and maybe that insulated her from some of the criticisms her friend had to deal with. But the negative attention struck her as unfair. “I don’t know how she ended up as deeply mistreated as she was,” Cook said. “People would say, ‘Oh, she can’t be the sweet innocent person, not if we saw pictures of her coming out of a club in a crop top.’ That’s absurd.”
The aughts starlets who survived cruel press vortexes have done it, in part, by seeking to change their public narrative with domesticity. Hilton is a newlywed, Spears and Lohan are both engaged, and Richie has two kids and a decadelong marriage to Joel Madden. Reid never followed suit, though she does have two dogs (Bella and Beso) and a live-in boyfriend of four years. But she didn’t pursue family life in as public a fashion as, say, Hilton, who recently starred in a reality show on Peacock about her wedding. “I think what they really wanted from me to make the next change was to get married and have kids. Now, she’s a woman,” Reid said. “They wanted to see me have a family, and because I didn’t, it was still fair game.”
Not that she hasn’t been offered opportunities to retell her story, like Hilton did in 2020’s This Is Paris (where she discussed her trauma after being abused at a boarding school) or Lohan’s 2014 OWN series (which followed her path toward sobriety and attempted career relaunch). “I’ve been offered a million times to do a memoir or a book,” she said. “The reason why I haven’t done it [is] because I’m not over yet. Why now? As Justin Timberlake would say, I don’t need you to cry me a river.”
But doesn’t she want some kind of reckoning? I would, if someone had publicly called me “ghetto tits.” Her insistence that she doesn’t feels almost like a reverse defense mechanism: She’s so used to people mocking her that she doesn’t want to ask for too much. To ask for an apology is to take a risk; it’s too intimate and vulnerable a request from people who might still just call her ugly.
These days, bloggers like Lainey Gossip and Perez are offering up mea culpas, and it’s no longer socially acceptable to malign a young woman for going out. “Other stars get a little bit crazy now. Jennifer Lawrence fell down the stairs!” Reid said, referring to that Oscars moment in 2013. “She’s doing late-night talk shows, drinking a beer. If I ever did that, I’d be destroyed.” Still, Lawrence recently gave an interview about how she had to disappear from public life because people were getting sick of her and her relatable antics. The culture hasn’t changed that much — if tabloids want to drag a woman, they’ll find a way no matter what.
Reid’s story is a case study for what happens when the stardom you’re poised for goes sideways. Now, her relationship with Hollywood and the public is an uneasy one — and no one knows, not even her, what it’ll look like in the future.
In fact, a few months after I interviewed Reid, she was once again harangued after posting a photo of herself in a bikini. The comments came in swiftly, thousands of people assessing whether she might have an eating disorder and criticizing whatever she’s done to her body over the years. (Reid has repeatedly denied ever having any type of eating disorder.) “You need help,” one follower said. “Age isn’t everyone’s friend,” another said. Later that day, Reid posted another photo of herself, along with a statement. “Here is another picture from yesterday to show you I am not too skinny. I have a high metabolism. All I do is eat,” she said. “To everyone who wrote something nice and stuck up for me, I love you! And keep spreading that love, it is the only thing that will save this world.”
Reid feels like her 20s still color people’s opinions. “Even to this day, there’s still kind of a thing about me,” Reid said. “Come on, guys. You can’t judge me by my high school picture. I’m 45 years old now.” The hope, maybe, is that people get bored of shitting on her. “Eventually it’s going to go away, and it is going away,” she said. “What are they gonna do? Pick on me when I’m 60? I’m a 90-year-old lady and I have a glass in my hand? Fuck off.”
If you’ve seen Reid in a movie in the last few years, it was likely one from the Sharknado franchise, the TV movie absurdities about tornados full of sharks. Reid isn’t divorced from how people perceive her, nor does she have highfalutin ideas about her career. When I asked which of her movies were her least favorite, she didn’t stutter: “Some of the stupid movies I do,” she said. “You know. It’s a paycheck.”
Before filming the first Sharknado, Reid was living in London, trying to recover from a decade and a half of ruthless media attention. The city was the last spot on the American Pie Reunion promotional tour in 2012, and instead of going home, she stayed. Nothing was tying her to Hollywood anymore — her last big movie, My Boss’s Daughter (a critical bomb), premiered was all the way back in 2003, and her seasonlong stint on Scrubs ended in 2005. “I need[ed] to refocus and find myself, my core again. And it worked, I went there and I lived my life,” she said. It was easier — the tabloids let up, and she felt like she could blend in and do whatever she wanted without constant observation.
“My agent called me, like, ‘All right, Tara, you’re not working, we’re not doing anything, you need to work again. You need to come home,’” she said. “So then they gave me this craziest, stupidest script I’ve ever read in my whole entire life called Sharknado.”
Reid credits it with reviving her career. “It’s the worst movie of all time. It’s so bad that it’s actually kind of good,” she said. “Let’s have a baby in the shark in outer space. It’s so out there. For Sharknado to bring me back is something I never would’ve expected.” Sharknado wasn’t a critical or commercial darling by any means. But the movie was a success all the same: When it premiered in 2013 on Syfy, it had 1.4 million viewers, on a channel with a typical viewership of less than a million. Its third screening a few weeks later got 2.1 million viewers. (Sharknado 2: The Second One, got 3.9 million viewers on a Wednesday night.) With its aggressive commitment to campy terror, Sharknado is now a cult classic that inspires midnight screenings and themed parties.
In 2018, The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time came out, marking the end of the franchise. But the Sharknado movies exposed her to a new audience, as evidenced by a recent flight she took from a vacation in Mexico back home to LA. “The flight attendant comes up to me and he goes, ‘Oh my god, I so loved your movie.’ So of course, I automatically think [of] American Pie,” she said. “And he goes, ‘Sharknado is everything.’ I was like, Is this really happening?”
Her next project is the forthcoming Masha’s Mushroom, a thriller about an overworked mother who throws a party for her daughter where all the guests end up dosed with a hallucinogen. Reid plays the mother; Vivica A. Fox and Beverly D’Angelo also star. Reid is also a producer on the movie. Even though she decided to get involved in producing because roles for women her age are famously hard to find, she’s excited about it. “If someone’s not gonna give me that chance, then I was like, I gotta make it for myself,” she said. “I found a great script, great director. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished.” Finally, she’s on the other side of the Hollywood equation. “It was so funny this time, calling up the agents that said no to me that I’d like to make an offer to your client,” she said. “To reach out to all these different companies and me being the boss this time, it was like, the table’s turned. It was beyond satisfying.”
It’s easy to root for Reid when she tells stories like this. She comes off as open and sweet; she ended our interview by proclaiming “I love you!” into my recorder. And while Reid told me, over and over, that she didn’t want or need a reconsideration, I still want one for her. Whether she’s saying it because it’s true or just a line for a culture that has largely scorned her, she does seem exhausted from explaining herself. She’s tried repeatedly to make it clear that she’s productive, settled, kind, and easygoing. It hasn’t worked so far. Appearing in a well-known movie franchise hasn’t proved it. Refusing to engage in criticism of her body hasn’t either. Wanting to be understood has only led to disappointment, so why not forget about it? Vindication isn’t everything. What could anyone do to make amends? Cry her a river, and then what?
Reid has little time for regrets. “I wonder what else I would’ve done,” she said. “Do I take it back? No, I don’t. It’s who I am.”●
Tara Reid styled by Amy Lu