Naya Rivera found out she was pregnant in 2010, while she was shooting the second season of “Glee.” She had just broken up with her boyfriend, Ryan Dorsey, weeks earlier to focus on her career. So she made a decision: She had an abortion on her next day off.
When the 29-year-old actress decided to write about this episode in her forthcoming memoir, “Sorry Not Sorry,” she knew it might shock some fans. But she felt it was important to tell her full story, she told People magazine — which meant revealing the truth about her abortion, as well as her years-long struggle with anorexia as a teen.
“It was very scary to open up about everything,” Rivera told People. “It’s not something a lot of people talk about, but I think they should. I know some people might read it and say, ‘What the Hell?’ But I hope someone out there gets something out of it.”
She joins a rapidly growing list of celebrities who have openly addressed deeply personal and controversial issues such as abortion, mental-health struggles and addiction. These are the jaw-dropping revelations that light up gossip blogs and grab space on magazine covers — and inevitably rouse the suspicion of cynics, questioning whether a star’s candor is driven by the promise of PR buzz or a big check.
Yet just as we look to celebrities to show us what to wear or even how to vote, for many fans these intimate, humanizing stories can be helpful lessons in how to cope.
Take a trailblazer like Patty Duke, the Oscar winner and teenage sitcom star, who died in March. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Duke wrote two books detailing her struggle with bipolar disorder and became one of the first famous figures to advocate for people with mental-health issues.
“She took her own story and she gave it to the world,” her son, actor Mackenzie Astin, said during her memorial service, according to NBC.
Duke paved the way for others to speak up about their darkest moments. Paula Abdul went public with her fight against bulimia in a 1995 People magazine profile. Jamie-Lynn Sigler of “The Sopranos” fame revealed in 2005 that at the time the show premiered, she was battling an eating disorder and had considered suicide.
In more recent years, Sarah Silverman talked about her anxiety; Demi Lovato opened up about her eating disorder and her cocaine addiction, impetus for her “Be Vocal” campaign for mental health awareness; and Lady Gaga has also spoken about her eating disorder and the importance of mental health.
And more female celebrities have been openly discussing their reproductive health, as well; such actresses as Amy Brenneman and “Girls” star Jemima Kirke have shared their abortion experiences in the hope of normalizing the procedure.
“Women especially should be able to talk freely” about reproductive issues, Kirke said in a video. “I still see shame and embarrassment. So I have always been open about my stories.”
Colin Farrell, Drew Carey and Harrison Ford are among the ranks of male celebrities who have spoken publicly about depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Comedian Russell Brand has been particularly open about his history of addiction and bulimia — helping the public realize that the eating disorder isn’t limited just to girls.
“It was really unusual in boys, quite embarrassing,” Brand told the Guardian in 2006, revealing that his eating disorder started when he was 11 years old. “It was clearly about getting out of myself and isolation. Feeling inadequate and unpleasant.”
After British soul singer Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning, Brand decided to make a documentary about his own addiction, in the hope that the public might have more compassion for those who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.
When it comes to shattering stigma, this kind of high-profile spotlight matters, experts say: Where our pop culture icons go, the masses follow.
“A celebrity coming forward assists in the legitimization of mental illness by taking away the rarity of it and creating a ‘new normal,’” author and psychotherapist John Tsilimparis wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post. “A ‘new normal’ of mental illness can only come with more voices speaking up.”
So Rivera decided to speak up, sharing the details of the details of an eating disorder that slowly took over her life.
“By the time I was a sophomore, I started feeling that what had begun as a game had maybe gone too far. I just avoided food at all costs,” she wrote in her memoir, according to People. “If my mom had packed a lunch for me, I’d either trash it or find some excuse to give it away.”
She says she didn’t really comprehend how disordered her behavior had become until she decided to write about it.
“I was so young and it just seemed to be the norm. Everyone was going through similar stuff,” she said. “It makes me sad that there are girls still going through that 15 years after I went through it.”
Her book is for those girls, she told People — but also for her son. Rivera ended up reconnecting with Dorsey and marrying him in 2014. Their son was born last year, and she said she hopes he reads the book someday: “I hope it gives him a better perspective on the issues women face.”