If life is truly about taking lemons and turning them into a sugary sweet drink, then Shannen Doherty just might be winning.
Few people have proven more adept at flipping the script than the 37-year Hollywood vet. Sure, she was cut loose from the original iteration of Fox’s beloved teen dramedy Beverly Hills, 90210 in part because of her bad girl rep and constant feuds with costar Jennie Garth. “There were times when we wanted to claw each other’s eyes out,” Garth has admitted. But flash-forward three decades—and a few reboots—later and Garth labels Doherty “one of my dearest, closest friends.”
And, yes, she made a few relationship detours, with two quickie marriages and a handful of bad engagements to her name. But that just made her more adept at recognizing her “soulmate” in photographer husband Kurt Iswarienko, a man she vowed to “walk any path with” and “take any bullet for.”
As for that tough girl façade, turns out she needed that to face her toughest battle yet. Some three years after announcing she was in remission, a battle with her insurance agency has forced her to make a stunning revelation: her breast cancer has returned and progressed to stage four.
Though she’d been undergoing treatments for more than a year, “I don’t think that I’ve processed it,” she shared on Good Morning America in February. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a lot of ways. I definitely have days where I say, ‘Why me?’ And then I go, ‘Well why not me? Who else? Who else beside me deserves this?’ None of us do. I would say that my first reaction is always concern about how am I going to tell my mom, my husband.”
And now her fans. She decided to open up because her ongoing lawsuit with State Farm over smoke damage from the 2018 California wildfires meant her health records would soon be exposed (“I’d rather people hear it from me,”) but also to continue her work as an advocate. She figured showing how she had juggled work on the short-lived BH90210 reboot with treatments could change a bit of the narrative associated with cancer.
“I thought when I finally do come out I would have worked and worked 16 hours a day and people can look at that and say, ‘Oh my God, she can work and other people with stage 4 can work,'” she explained. “Our life doesn’t end the minute we get that diagnosis. We still have some living to do.”
Doherty, celebrating her 49th birthday today, is certainly making the most of every moment she receives. “Cancer has, in a strange way, done some amazing things for me,” the actress told Entertainment Tonight. “It’s allowed me to be more me, like much more in touch with who I am, and much more vulnerable and the person that I always was, but I think it got hidden behind a lot of stuff.”
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Doherty would be the first to admit she arrived on the 90210 set in 1990 with a bit of a prickly exterior. Actually the actress, by then a veteran of TV series Little House on the Prairie and 1989 cult favorite Heathers, would label it as confidence.
“I’m not saying I don’t have my moments of bitchiness, because everybody has them, but it’s never for no reason,” she explained to People in 1993. “I’ve always been a ballsy kid. I know it pisses some people off, but isn’t the end result much better?”
At first, notes Doherty’s costar and onscreen brother Jason Priestly, her self-assured stance was admirable. “She really and truly did not give a s–t,” he recalled in his 2014 biography, Jason Priestly: A Memoir. “It was a very cool attitude, until it wasn’t.”
So basically up until the point he and Luke Perry had to physically pull her and Garth apart.
As Tori Spelling recalls, when the duo’s long-simmering feud finally boiled over, an actual fistfight followed. “I could hear the door fly open and everyone screaming and crying,” she revealed on a 2015 Lifetime special, Tori Spelling: Celebrity Lie Detector. “That’s when I was told the boys just had to break up Jennie and Shannen.”
But Garth insists they didn’t quite come to blows. “We were shooting a scene and Shannen kept grabbing at the hem of my skirt, trying to slap me on the leg—anything to get me to react and break character,” she wrote in her 2014 tell-all, Deep Thoughts From a Hollywood Blonde. “Finally, when she’d pulled up my skirt, and my bare ass was exposed for everyone on the set to see, I did snap and I yelled at her, something to the effect of, ‘Come on, bitch! We’re taking this outside!'”
If you ask Spelling, that attitude cost her the lucrative gig. Fed up with her behavior, the actress claimed in her Lifetime special, she phoned up her dad—executive producer Aaron Spelling—and instructed him to get rid of her. “I felt like I was part of something,” she said, “a movement that cost someone their livelihood.”
But whether it was her penchant for starting trouble, the fact that she was—in her own words—over the show by the fourth season or writer-producer Larry Mollin’s claim that she angered the staff by chopping her hair halfway through shooting the season finale, Doherty says leaving the Golden Globe-nominated hit was the best thing that could have happened to her.
“It let me find a little bit of peace and discover who I was as a person,” she explained to Entertainment Weekly. “Not the person who the press made me out to be because I’d had a few bad experiences in my personal life, and I was struggling to figure out a bad husband or a bad boyfriend and I was doing it under the spotlight, so I wasn’t reacting well to any of it.”
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Because of course she knows those years weren’t the best look.
Near the time she ended her engagement to Chicago real estate manager Chris Foufas, she was cited for alleged misdemeanor battery in 1992 after getting into a shoving match with aspiring actress Bonita Money at Hollywood’s trendy Roxbury nightclub. (The fracas reportedly started when costar Brian Austin Green stepped on the toes of Money’s boyfriend.) She also got in a public dispute with a landlord who claimed she failed to pay $11,000 in rent, was accused by second ex-fiancé Dean Factor of pulling a gun on him and threatening “to hire a few guys to beat me up and to sodomize me” and wed 19-year-old actor Ashley Hamilton in 1993 after a two-week courtship.
Reflecting on her choices in 2010, Doherty told Parade she definitely made mistakes, but, so has a large majority of those in her industry: “I never did a sex tape. I never didn’t wear panties and flash a camera.”
But such prudence didn’t prevent what she labels as one of her more mortifying moments. Fresh off a 2001 DUI arrest and another eviction from an Aaron Spelling-produced show (this time her friction was with Charmed costar Alyssa Milano), she wed film producer Rick Salomon, her boyfriend of just two days. Their marriage lasted nine months and shortly after it was annulled, he landed his most infamous role as the man who starred in and distributed Paris Hilton‘s sex tape.
“It ended up being very embarrassing for me,” Doherty admitted to the Chicago Tribune, “and humiliating and disgusting.”
And a bit of a wake-up call. “I’ve had some bad relationships and two failed marriages,” she’s told Parade. “It’s like, ‘Why did I pick these men?’ I guess it was about what I thought I could do to help them. But, in truth, I was only hurting myself.”
Eager to re-center herself and feel a closer connection to God, she told the Chicago Tribune, the Memphis-born, Southern Baptist-raised star took a hiatus from acting.
By that point, she reflected to Parade while promoting her 2010 book Badass: A Hard-earned Guide to Living Life with Style and (the Right) Attitude, she realized just how much the missteps of her youth had affected her. “I had this amazing career in front of me and because of some of the things I did, my career really suffered,” she said. “Thank God that I’ve had some second chances.”
When the first came in 2008—the offer of a literal second act on the 90210 reboot—she almost brushed it off.
“I was kind of like, Why would I play Brenda Walsh again? There was an ‘I hate Brenda’ newsletter,” she reflected to Entertainment Weekly. “Why would I possible get myself back into that? I think it was too scary for me. I didn’t want to go back to people hating me.” (Because to her, that newsletter was mean: “It’s ridiculous,” she said at the time, “that two girls, wherever they are, are so incredibly jealous of one person who happens to be on TV and are so desperate for publicity that they would create lies.”)
Eventually, though, she realized people were actually eager to embrace her. “It hit me that this is what the fans wanted,” she told the mag. “They put a roof over my head. They allow me to eat and to feed my dogs. The only reason I survive is because of them. If there’s one way to possibly say thank you, it is to go back and play a character that you never even liked yourself.”
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As for her much-hyped reunion with former frenemy Garth? That was actually a selling point. “Being with someone I knew made it easier for me my first day on set,” she noted.
With all eyes watching, the pair embraced in the middle of the set, she recalls, and she was hit with a realization that they could be allies this time around: “It’s like going to war together. You’ve already been in the trenches together. You learned so much from that first war. That second war, you know what you need to do to make the set the most peaceful environment you can possibly have.”
Having both matured in their decade-plus apart, she told the Huffington Post in 2012, “we were able to sort of talk and work out what our issues were with each other in the past, and look at each other and go, ‘OK, wow…I get where you were coming from.'”
Following the successful four-episode stint (she’d later return for more), she booked an independent film, an animated web series and a slew of reality shows. In 2010 she took a spin in the ballroom on Dancing With the Stars as a tribute to her dad, who had suffered a major stroke.
“When I mentioned Dancing With the Stars as a joke because I’m so nervous in front of a live audience, he got really excited and we struck a deal,” she explained to Ryan Seacrest on his KIIS FM radio show. “And that’s that he’s going to work really hard on regaining his speech and mobility and I’m going to get over my fear of a live audience.”
Though her dad passed, Doherty continued playing to camera. WE tv captured her and Iswarienko as they planned their 2011 Malibu vows. And in 2014, she re-teamed with Charmed costar Holly Marie Combs for the Great American Country road trip reality show Off the Map with Shannen & Holly.
Then her biggest part—as inspirational role model—found her. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2015—an illness that became public five months later when she sued her business manager for failing to pay her medical insurance—she began documenting every step of her journey from radiation treatments with the machine she dubbed Maggie to the moment her best friend, model Anne Kortright-Shilstat showed up with a box of Ferrero Rocher and an electric razor.
Though Doherty didn’t set out to be a source of inspiration or an educator—sharing what she calls #cancertruths from the #cancerslayer—it’s a role she’s embraced. “I just thought, I was doing something that was beneficial, maybe to myself and others, and maybe through that journey we could all learn something,” she told E! News in 2017 of her Instagram posts. “I learned a lot from my fans who follow me and my cancer family who post and tell me about their journey.”
Her path, while perhaps dotted with potholes, has transformed her into the type of person who does a bit of reflecting. “I have a rep,” she’s admitted to Parade. “Did I earn it? Yeah, I did. But, after awhile you sort of try to shed that rep because you’re kind of a different person. You’ve evolved and all of the bad things you’ve done in your life have brought you to a much better place.”
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This version of herself is someone who’s starting to think about the legacy she’d like to leave behind.
Having announced her cancer’s return, she’s back to giving inspiring updates on social media. “After a year of dealing with cancer coming back and other stresses, I’m back at it. Taking care of myself and embracing every day,” she wrote on Instagram in February. “It’s not always easy. I have days I’m depressed or just plain lazy. But I push thru with the help of friends.”
She’d like to pass that drive onto others. “I want to make an impact,” she shared on Good Morning America. Whether that means through her current lawsuit, showing that one person can battle a big corporation such as State Farm, or through her every day life, serving as an inspiration for anyone who’s dealing with major health issues, she’s here for it. “I want to be remembered for something bigger than just me,” she said.
Mission decidedly accomplished.
(Originally published April 12, 2018, at 5 a.m. PT)
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