Up until I was 10 I grew up in a religious commune [in Italy] called Children of God. But I didn’t believe anything they were telling me. It’s young to be so questioning but I saw that what people were preaching was not what they were doing. And it was such an intense society I got to see that hypocrisy very clearly, whereas most people get a watered-down version of it, so it takes them longer to catch on. I saw the way the men used their power over women and it made no sense to me. It still doesn’t make sense.
We escaped from the commune when I was 10 and moved to the United States. It was a rough time at home, with step-parents who weren’t very nice. I was very scared and traumatised. That’s when I invented my own planet, Planet 9, so I could escape this world and my reaction to America. I would shut my eyes and imagine my planet, and I would have melodies in my head which would soothe me. Looking back at it now I see it was a meditation, a way to astral-project out of my situation. If you could just shut your eyes and go to a better place with a beautiful energy… Why wouldn’t you go there?
When I was 15 I divorced my parents so I could have control of my life. I was homeless, I was on my own, and I was very lonely. I was entirely focused on just surviving. So when I started having relationships with men I wasn’t set up to understand that kind of world. A lot of older men were attracted to me, which at the time I thought was cool but now I think it’s creepy. I developed an eating disorder as a way of responding to the world being scary. So I could feel I was in control. Because the rest of the world seemed so wild and freaky. [McGowan got into a relationship with a man who put constant pressure on her to lose weight.] I’d like to go back to that young girl and put my arm around her. And punch that man on the nose.
If you met the 16-year-old me you’d think I was very adult for someone so young. But I was very witty and funny and warm. I knew I was very cute. And I was very precocious. I was very scared as well, but you can hide fear behind a lot of things. And I’ve always had this inner core of strength. I’ve always resented being afraid and my response is to lean in to the fear. I became used to doing that on my own. I knew I could go under any moment and I refused to.
I always knew I was destined for a big and strange life and I definitely wasn’t wrong. When I was 19 my boyfriend [music label exec Brett Cantor] had just been killed and I was standing on a street corner crying and a woman came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be an actress. It was a really brutal time. A really good person lost his life. It’s very hard to grieve someone who is murdered because it’s such a strange and big thing. I went into a deep depression. But I worked out if I did this movie [California Man, 1992] it would get me enough money to get an apartment, so I wouldn’t be homeless. And being homeless again was always the biggest terror for me. So I took my first acting job.
If I could give the younger me advice I’d say don’t go into Hollywood. I didn’t relate to the people around me. Their concerns were not my concerns, I had much bigger concerns. I wish I had known I was an artist earlier in my life, but Hollywood is kind of a cult which makes you think their way is the only way to do things. And since I didn’t know anything about any other industry I got stuck in this dog-eat-dog world. But now I don’t care what they say and I don’t care what they think. I have shut the door on working in Hollywood. And they have shut the door on me. And that’s OK because I’m an artist and when I was working in Hollywood I really felt that I was a commodity which wasn’t worth much. But I always thought I had something of value and I think Planet 9 – the visuals, the album and now the one-woman show – is a significant piece of work. I think my 16-year-old self would love it. This is the outlet she was looking for; it would be beautiful to let her know she would eventually find it.
I think it’s clear that things have moved forwards since my book Brave [released after McGowan’s 2017 accusation of rape against movie exec Harvey Weinstein, which sent shockwaves throughout America and is seen by many as the trigger for the #MeToo movement]. And it’s across all industries, not just Hollywood. My goal was a lot bigger than Hollywood. I called my book Brave to show people how to be brave in their own lives and how to fight the machine. Because when you do fight the machine it fights back and you have to be prepared for that. I had spies infiltrate my life, I had people paid to write nasty things about me for years. All because someone in power wanted to abuse their power. And other people were profiting from that. It was a sick, toxic system that needed to be blown apart. And for me, social media was the way to do that.
If I had the chance of one last conversation with anyone I would love to talk to my father again. He died 10 years ago. When I was writing my book I was so mad at him I didn’t visit his grave for three years. But after the book came out I found my peace with him. The thing that eats away at me is that he never saw this new chapter of my life. He always hated Hollywood and he hated the men in Hollywood. He was an incredible painter and when I look at his paintings I see a really unique mind at work. I would love to be able to tell him about what I’m doing now and that I’m an artist and I can be free without the trappings of Hollywood. I think he would be really proud. When I travel I try to see the world through his eyes and I have a lot of conversations with him. When someone dies you can have these conversations that you were never able to have in real life.
I’ve become quite good at knowing when I’m in a moment I should file away and keep. So that, when times are tough and trying, I can pull out that memory and know I’m going to be OK. I was in Italy a week ago – I was born there and I feel a connection with the land. I was high on a hill by myself, looking out at the Tuscan sunset, and I felt I’d reached a moment of perfect peace. And in that moment I knew I was going to be OK.