On the corner of a dingy street in Los Angeles, Bella Thorne is yelling down the barrel of a video camera. “You’re just Hollywood cockroaches,” she spits, before chucking her half-finished drink in the direction of a gob-smacked paparazzi. Fans jostle in the background, screaming requests at the star.
This is the opening scene from new music drama Paradise City, but Thorne has had plenty of similar experiences in her own life. She might not be the biggest name, but she has a punk rock spirit and is no stranger to controversy – both of which stand in direct contrast to the squeaky clean image she had as a Disney child actor. It’s a combination that makes her catnip to tabloid hacks and gossip columns.
“Hollywood people being vultures is definitely relatable,” she says over the phone from LA, sounding tired and fed up. “I’ve definitely had bad experiences with paparazzi that feel the need to push the boundaries to get the shot.”
That the 23-year-old actor would respond in a similar manner to her Paradise City character Lily Mayflower, bassist of the show’s fictional band The Relentless, is part of what enticed her to get involved with the series. “I just felt like she was so much a part of me,” says Thorne. “I think that really shows. This character is so natural for me to play. I felt like she was another half of me that I hadn’t met yet.”
“I’ve seen people do some crazy shit in the music industry”
Season one – now streaming on Amazon Prime Video – submerges itself in the LA rock scene, centring on the comeback of The Relentless after frontman Johnny Faust (played by Black Veil Brides’ Andy Biersack) returns from hiatus. Now back in the game, the group have to deal with inter-band conflict and the consequences of past actions as they try not to implode.
In another memorable scene from Paradise City’s first episode, the returning Johnny rants against the music industry while standing on the roof terrace of his luxury apartment that was bought with said industry’s money. In it, he characterises the business as “psychotic”, a description Thorne – who also has a growing music career – agrees with to some extent. “The music industry doesn’t have a union so that already makes it a fucking shitshow to do anything,” she says. This isn’t strictly true – SAG-AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild Of Musical Artists all exist – but it does highlight the fact that a lot of mainstream artists aren’t aware of the help that’s available to them. “I’ve seen people do some pretty crazy shit in music. I’ve definitely had my fair share of interesting experiences.”
She declines to specify what those experiences consist of, but a simple Google search will reveal some of the hurdles Thorne’s had to overcome. Born in Florida, she got her debut gig as a weeks-old baby model in 1997. Acting began at six, scoring an uncredited role in the Matt Damon comedy Stuck On You, before her dad was tragically killed in a motorbike accident leaving Thorne as the family’s main source of income. By nine, she’d had her breakthrough as dancer CeCe Jones in the Disney series Shake It Up, which also featured a young Zendaya. Much later, in 2018, Thorne revealed she had suffered sexual abuse until the age of 14.
As she grew up, Thorne moved away from the wholesome pre-teen image crafted for her by Disney execs. She did things that are typical of young adulthood – drinking, dating and exploring her sexuality – but because of the world she had first become famous in, her actions were harshly scrutinised. The media accused her of being a heroin addict and simultaneously sexualised her while labelling her a “slut”. In one 2017 article published by Screen Rant, the actor was described as “crazy” in a listicle of Disney stars who went “off the rails”. The suggested evidence? Her colourfully dyed hair, wearing of bikinis, drinking and taking naked photos of herself. Hardly out of the ordinary. Given the constant online battering and inevitable toll that takes on a person’s mental health, we have to ask: is fame really worth it?
“I keep fighting, even when I feel like wanting to die inside my bed”
“I think that question comes across your mind every fucking day,” she says. “If you’re a public figure, you’re always weighing up how much of yourself are you willing to give up? These questions run [through] my mind all the time so I don’t have an answer yet…
“It would be so sad [if I quit because of] the media and ‘cancel culture’ and all the annoying people sitting behind a screen wanting to bully people off the internet for no other reason than they’re bored with their own lives,” she adds. “That’s why I keep fighting, even when I’m going through terrible shit in the media or I feel like wanting to die inside my bed.”
Keeping going might be hard sometimes, but Thorne is trying to learn how to care less about what people think. It’s a process that’s also raising more questions for her. “We naturally want people to like our work – we want them to agree or express that they think we’re good,” she says. “It’s undeniable, but it’s just… how bad do you want that? How much of yourself are you willing to step on to get that?”
As you might expect from someone who’s spent their formative years being hounded by the press, Thorne watched the recent Framing Britney Spears documentary. The world has changed a lot since Spears was starting out, but the treatment of young women in the public eye is still an issue. Ask her what needs to happen for things to change and she’ll respond with a big laugh and quip: “Well, that’s a loaded question.”
“It was clear Britney was under duress – she was crying”
She does offer some solutions though, primarily education. “A good example in the Britney doc is when the paparazzi are like, ‘No, Britney never had a problem with us, she never told us to stop taking photos’,” she says. “And then it cuts to all these times where she’s like: ‘No’ – and it’s clear she’s [under] duress and she’s crying. [The photographer] must look back and watch that and go: ‘It was right there in front of my face, why couldn’t I see it?’ That’s why education is so important – I’m sure when he watches it now he feels bad and he probably won’t make the same choice again when he’s shooting more celebrities.”
While it’s true that Thorne has been treated unfairly over the years, some of the criticism has been warranted. In 2020, she caused a big stir when she signed up to online platform OnlyFans, which allows users to sell adult content – among other things – via a subscription service. The site had become a lifeline for sex workers during the pandemic, and many were angered by Thorne’s reported record earnings of $1million per day. Later, amid allegations that she lied about the nature of her pay-per-view photos (prompting refund requests), OnlyFans changed the limit on how much creators could charge. That move hit the pockets of others and Thorne was blamed. She eventually apologised – though her public image had already taken a hit.
We’re not allowed to discuss that incident today – it’s listed among a number of off-limit topics emailed over beforehand along with the porn film she directed, her Disney career and former co-star Zendaya. It’s a set of subjects that can tell us a lot about where Thorne is at right now – perhaps over the child-star-gone-wild narrative around her and trying to refocus the conversation on what she’s up to now. It also indicates there’s some concern over managing yet more media storms she has a tendency to wander into.
We can, however, discuss her latest controversy. In February, she released a new single called ‘Shake It’, accompanied by a video starring porn star Abella Danger (who Thorne also cast in the porn film she directed, Her & Him). Not long after it was uploaded, the video was temporarily taken down by YouTube. No reason was given, but Thorne thinks it has something to do with it featuring her and Danger kissing, rolling about on a bed together and “shaking our asses”.
She makes a good point that similar videos involving heterosexual couples rarely face the same censorship. Thorne has suggested starting her own women-only platform in response. “If [mainstream platforms] see someone else changing things and everyone running to that [new] platform, maybe they will change themselves,” she reasons. “With these big tech companies, you need to force their hand.”
Whether Thorne makes this new digital space isn’t definite yet, but the way she describes it sounds practically utopian. “I want to make people happy and feel that it’s a safe space,” she says. “If I make it, I’m gonna spend a lot of time thinking about what is gonna make these kids feel better about themselves and give them a platform to be themselves? I don’t give a fuck about freedom of speech when it comes to bullying – I will be taking away accounts and checking IP addresses and shit.”
“It’s so annoying that people have this negative connotation around the word feminism”
This approach has been mooted in other parts of the industry too. When sexual assaults at live events spiked before COVID, some suggested women-only music festivals could be a solution. NME tries to bring this up to Thorne, as well as the argument that women shouldn’t have to make their own spaces – in reality or online – but her publicist interrupts. It’s not a controversial question, and the response reinforces the idea that those working with her are overly wary of her outspoken nature. Thorne answers anyway.
“It’s so annoying that people have this negative connotation around the word feminism. Feminists just want equal pay, the right to be themselves and not be censored and also walk down the street and not have to worry about being raped.” She pauses for a moment, clearly angry. “God, this is gonna make me mad for the rest of the day now.”
The fire in her voice brings us back to those scenes as Lily Mayflower, standing her ground and refusing to take anyone’s shit. Unlike her Paradise City character, though, Thorne isn’t waiting around for someone else to make things happen. Her time is wrapped up in so many projects it’s hard to keep track. As well as being in front of the camera, she’s got a development deal with Fox to create both scripted and unscripted programming, has been hard at work on an album, writes and directs all her music videos, and much more. “You should see my calendar – I put it on a board so it’s easier to look at and there’s just so much writing, it’s hard to fucking read,” she laughs. Like much of her life already, It sounds very overwhelming. She laughs. “Sometimes it really is!”
Photographer: Bonnie Nichoalds
Stylist: Sammie M
Makeup: David Velasquez
Hair: Chris Dylan
Stylist assistant: Honey West
Clothing: Carte Blanche