In the wake of Pitch Perfect 2’s record-breaking weekend, Rebel Wilson has been caught in a very old-fashioned sort of scandal: According to one of Wilson’s high school classmates, speaking anonymously to Australian tabloid Woman’s Day, Wilson has been lying about her age, her name, her upbringing, and her family’s class.
“I studied with Rebel at Tara Anglican School for Girls in North Parramatta, Sydney,” the classmate says. “But no-one knew of a Rebel Wilson. Her name is – or was – Melanie Elizabeth Bownds, and she’s 36 – she was born in 1979 and we left school in 1997.” She added that Wilson had a “very normal, upper-middle-class upbringing” and, the publication says, “has added a touch of ‘fantasy’ to the life she lead [sic] before becoming a household name” — a sharp contrast to Wilson’s tales of a manic upbringing by “bogan” parents (Australian slang that translates, approximately, as “NASCAR dad”) in the “ghetto” of Sydney and spending a wild year in Zimbabwe, where she supposedly contracted malaria and experienced visions of winning an Academy Award.
Those claims were amplified across the Australian and international press, inspiring ridicule of the “investigative journalism” leveraged to ascertain the “real Rebel Wilson.” On May 18, Wilson addressed the rumors via Twitter, joking, “OMG I’m actually a 100 year old mermaid formerly known as ‘CC Chalice’ ….thanks shady Australian press for your tall poppy syndrome.”
In the aftermath, investigations into business and voting records show that Wilson’s legal name is not Rebel, but, yes, Melanie Elizabeth Bownds. She is not 29, as previously claimed on her IMDb page, or 36, as asserted by her classmate, but 35 — born March 2, 1980.
But Wilson’s certainly not the first to fabricate details of her past. In old Hollywood, very few actors went by their real names: It’s common knowledge that Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jeane Mortenson), John Wayne (Marion Morrison), and Cary Grant (Archibald Leach) changed their names for alliteration and Americanness, and studios also made up catchy names to distinguish their stars: “Gary” was just a surname until Frank James Cooper borrowed it from a city in Indiana; Rock Hudson was one of dozens of American, masculine names (Tab Hunter, Dack Rambo, Clint Walker) that agent Henry Willson conjured for his (usually gay and closeted) clients.
Names, after all, are the base of a brand: Jennifer Aniston’s all-American goodness is reflected in the simplicity and prevalence of her name (as opposed to her very Greek real last name, Anastasakis), just as elegance and glamour is at the root of Angelina Jolie’s (born Angelina Jolie Voight). It makes sense that a woman whose hopes for stardom were rooted in her unruliness — of body, of humor — would go by “Rebel.”
The same goes for stars’ personal histories. The most extreme example of fabrication goes to Theda Bara, a silent star who fan magazines reported was born “in the shadow of the Sphinx” to a French actor mother and Italian sculptor father and grew up to practice Dark Arts — but was actually born Theodosia Goodman to middle-class Jewish parents in Cincinnati. Other stars simply accentuated parts of their upbringings at the expense of others: When Clark Gable’s image shifted from a romantic “lover” to rugged he-man in the mid-’30s, suddenly, every fan magazine that mentioned his childhood emphasized his lifelong love of the outdoors; Hudson, whose homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, was always painted as the most masculine and heterosexual of men.
It’s not that audiences were more gullible during the golden age of Hollywood, or that they simply lacked the resources of Google. Few would’ve actually believed that Theda Bara was a vampire who lunched on raw beef and lettuce and spent ample time with skeletons — that image was a fiction in which most took as much pleasure as any of her screen performances. Everyone knew that Joan Crawford’s image was a fabrication because it was the result of a fan magazine contest to name her. Same for Rita Hayworth, whose transformation (and de-Latina-zation) from Margarita Carmen Cansino, complete with electrolysis of her “Latin” hairline, took place in the pages of the fan magazines.
Star images have always been tinkered with to better match the ideologies that please audiences and reflect what we collectively consider desirable. The seams of that construction, which dates back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, were just a bit more visible.
Which is all to say that Wilson’s creative history isn’t unprecedented, but a longtime Hollywood practice. Our expectation for total transparency when it comes to celebrities’ histories is a relatively new phenomenon, borne of the ease with which anyone can play amateur archaeologist with another’s past. “Authenticity” is no longer judged by a star’s commitment to her art, or an ability to portray the truth of an experience through that art, but the absolute fidelity with which she has represented every aspect of herself. For Rebel to always have been Rebel, even from birth, makes her image seem more authentic than, as the real story seems to have been, that she made a nickname into a legal one. Same for the amplified tales of her upbringing: Her “bogan” parents make her role in Bogan Pride, the series that helped launch her to Australian fame, part of a cohesive and coherent image.
And it makes sense, truly, that Rebel Wilson would represent herself as 29. Her most famous role is as a college student in the Pitch Perfect series — it would feel unseemly, at least according to Hollywood standards, for that role to go to someone in her mid-thirties. Even if twentysomethings regularly play teenagers, it’s judged as disingenuous for a woman on the border of Generation X to perform as a millennial. Back in the 1930s, Mae West — who, like Wilson, was buxom, blonde, and known for ribald humor — also lied, significantly, about her image. When she first arrived in Hollywood, the assumption was that she was somewhere in her mid-thirties.
West looked amazing — and her figure, supposedly the same 36-26-36 measurements as Venus de Milo, had inspired a nationwide trend “against reducing.” But when a certificate for a long-forgotten marriage was unearthed, it proved that West was, in fact, 42 years old. The scandal turned out not to be the marriage, which West had denied, but that a middle-aged woman had inveigled audiences into considering her a sex symbol.
Mae West in the 1930s
Multiple factors, many of them industrial, led to West’s gradual fade from prominence in the late ‘30s, but the revelation of her age was certainly among them. No matter that the humor, charisma, and talent that had launched her to stardom — most memorably, seducing Cary Grant with a single invitation to “come up sometime and see me” — were still the same. The mark of middle-aged-ness, and its attendant connotations of undesirability, clung to her.
It’s no wonder, then, that Rebel Wilson — a woman whose body and its overt expressions of desire already challenge societal standards — would periodically position herself as a younger woman. She’s already fighting so many battles for acceptance: Why wouldn’t she attempt to fend off another?
And it’s not as if Wilson herself has been consistent about her age. In 2011, an author asked if she was 28, as online sources suggested; Rebel replied, “That’s wrong, and as my mum says, ‘You’re a lady, don’t say your age.’” In 2012, an Entertainment Weekly profile described her as 32 years old — her actual age at the time.
Whether it was Wilson herself or her management team (who, presumably, would’ve also controlled the information available on her IMDb page) who declared her age as 29 in 2015 matters less than the fact that they believed it would likely facilitate her almost-but-not-quite-there stardom.
They’re not wrong.
While various corners of the internet were generating outrage over Wilson’s fudging of her age, Maggie Gyllenhaal told The Wrap, “There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood ... I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55.” Earlier this year, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette satirized their “Last Fuckable Day” in a skit for Amy Schumer, articulating the unspoken but overarching logic of Hollywood: that “in every actress’s life, the media decides when you finally reach the point where you’re not believably fuckable anymore.” Somewhere, apparently, before the age of 37.
“Leading Men Age But Their Love Interests Don’t,” and even as performances like Diane Keaton’s in Something’s Gotta Give and Meryl Streep's in It’s Complicated are held up as examples of Hollywood’s supposed willingness to embrace the depiction of sexual desire in women over 40, even 60, they’re the (often indie) exceptions that prove the rule: To age, as a woman, in Hollywood is to rapidly reduce the number of roles for which you’ll be considered.
This ideology is so pervasive, so normalized, and so ideologically persuasive that Wilson herself has contributed to it. Speaking about the casting of the Ghostbusters reboot, she told The Independent that “they went with, kind of like, an older group.” The “oldest” of that group is Leslie Jones, who’s 47; the youngest is Kate McKinnon, who's 31.
Did Rebel Wilson misrepresent moments of her past? Sure. Did she lie about her age? Yes and no. Is she an ageist herself? Maybe. But it’s easy to see how a woman like Wilson would have internalized, and articulated, the same logic that shames older women — a logic that has been the ideological air we’ve all been breathing since long before Wilson arrived in Hollywood.
Rebel Wilson wants to be a star; at age 35, with a failed sitcom behind her, her “fuckable years” are disappearing. Yet her desire to reinvent a younger version of herself shouldn’t indict her character. Rather, it’s about a pristine a reflection as possible of the restrictions our society, led by mainstream Hollywood, continues to enforce when it comes to what sorts of bodies may be considered beautiful, sexual, and employable.
Wilson’s unnamed classmate laughingly told Woman’s Day: “Maybe you have to tell stories to make it in Hollywood!” She’s not wrong.