Tara Reid Feels The Love

Hollywood has knocked the actor down a few times. She always gets back up.

by Mickey Rapkin
Originally Published: 
Alex Harper/Bustle

Tara Reid sits in a booth at a crowded private club in West Hollywood. It’s after sunset, the lights low, our table illuminated by the glow of her iPhone. The actor, who starred in American Pie and has been a tabloid staple ever since, wants to show me something on Instagram. Since her brief but memorable summer run on the Fox reality series Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test, where celebrities are put through real military training, her inbox has been flooded.

“‘Tara, my family and I just watched the Special Forces show. My husband and I are both U.S. Army veterans, and you, girl, are so inspiring,’” she says, reading aloud. The connection was undeniable. Stripped of makeup and artifice, Reid’s teary on-screen confessionals were heartbreakingly raw. “Everyone says, ‘She got so old looking, she looks bad, she looks like sh*t.’ And just this sh*t that goes on social media,” she revealed in the first episode. Moments later, she described herself as a “broken bird.”

“Thousands of people are responding to me,” she says now with a smile, and the relief is clear. For the first time in a long time, it seems, it’s safe to read the comments.

Before the Us Weekly covers (“My Plastic Surgery Nightmare”), before walking out of a contentious radio interview with Jenny McCarthy (“I hope your tits get even nicer!”), Reid had one of the great cinematic introductions of all time. In The Big Lebowski, a 21-year-old Reid was lounging poolside in a lime green bikini, asking The Dude to blow on her freshly painted toenails before purring, “I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.” According to Reid, she beat out Charlize Theron and Liv Tyler for the role. Later, at an Oscars party, Julianne Moore introduced herself. She was a fan.

Tara Reid — always both names — had a chokehold on the culture with a stunning run at the mall cineplex: Cruel Intentions, two American Pie movies, Van Wilder, the underrated Josie and the Pussycats. There was lots to celebrate and, well, she celebrated hard. Her every stumble was chronicled by what amounted to her own paparazzi press corps. Tara Reid was everywhere. And then E!verywhere. Five years after starring in a tasty bit of Oscar bait called Dr. T & the Women opposite Richard Gere, she was relegated to hosting a reality show on E! called Taradise.

But since Special Forces, people have been calling Reid something else: a survivor. That quality was obvious to Becky Clarke, executive producer and showrunner of the series. “We’ve all got scars, haven’t we? We’ve all suffered the highs and the lows. And that’s what Tara represents. I think people — and particularly women of a certain age — tuned in wanting to find out about her and connect. Because she’s real,” Clarke says. “She came not to just prove to people that there was more to her than the tabloid tale. She came for herself.”

As the culture at large reconsiders how it treated young women in the late ’90s and early 2000s — Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton among them — an unlikely question has emerged: justice for Tara Reid?

“It’s definitely nostalgia,” Tara Reid says of the surge in goodwill. She’s dressed in an oversize cream sweater, her hair as blond as you remember, her voice like a dirt road. She looks her age, 48, which is not a judgment but rather a fact. We’ve all grown up. But unlike the men of American Pie, people are still curious about her. Earlier this year, she guest-starred on CBS’ megapopular sitcom Ghosts, a cameo two years in the making. (In the show’s pilot, a bro-y spirit recalls partying with Reid in the Hamptons, and her name became a running gag on the show.) Reid also played herself on a 2019 episode of Amazon’s The Boys, signing autographs at a B-list fan convention next to Titanic cad Billy Zane.

“I think the ’90s are coming back right now,” she continues. “And I feel there’s a lot of that. It’s like, ‘You know what? We’ve missed her. Now that we’re seeing her again, come back.’”

If you’re a young person discovering Reid on TikTok, it’s hard to imagine just how famous she really was. But she was the kind of famous where you invest in three restaurants and a fast-food-inspired spot called Ketchup. Reid also had a clothing line with Ed Hardy designer Christian Audigier called Mantra — a perfect 2000s MadLib. Her currency was youth. But her appeal went beyond that. She was a rare combination: a bombshell who played the straight man, who could outfit the era’s raunchiest comedies with heart and naivete.

“I never had a sex tape. People got in trouble, been in jail — I’ve never got a speeding ticket in my life. Why am I being punished?”

Reid recalls seeing one of the pictures her Big Lebowski co-star Jeff Bridges snapped on the set of the Coen Brothers film. “Every single person — every single guy — they were all staring at me,” she says. “Like, wow. I had no clue.”

Everyone wanted a piece. Before a public engagement (then disengagement) with Carson Daly, she briefly dated Tom Brady. “We’d just see each other on and off,” she says of the young Patriots quarterback. “It was nothing serious, but it was fun. We’d go to beer places and have fun and dance. He was cool. He’s all skinny now. He’s so serious. He used to laugh. When I watch his interviews, he’s so cocky now.”

“It was a different time,” she says wistfully, the words hanging in the air. This was before Instagram, before smartphones, before all of it. “We used to go out, do whatever we wanted — then bam. It just changed so fast.” She remembers the moment she felt the vibe shift. Britney Spears was hosting a party at the Chateau Marmont, the storied Hollywood hotel, and at the end of the night Reid emerged to a sea of blinding lights. It felt like “a thousand photographers,” she says.

Reid in 1999.Bei/Shutterstock
Reid (right) and Natasha Lyonne in American Pie.Moviestore/Shutterstock
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“I couldn’t even get in the car. It was insane.” She recalls another night at the Whisky Bar at the Sunset Marquis. “Every celebrity went there. You couldn’t even walk out of that place without getting those cameras. They would follow me in my cars everywhere. They’ll get in the front of your car, the back of your car — you couldn’t even move. It got to the point where I remember hearing Reese Witherspoon calling 911: ‘I’m stuck, I can’t leave, there’s paparazzi, they’re jumping on the car!’”

Tabloid culture was the monoculture. Us Weekly was regularly selling a million copies a week at supermarket checkout lines. Editors were spending big on exclusive photographs. This was the era of the “upskirt photo” — where paparazzi would get as close to the ground as possible and point the camera up, hoping to catch a starlet without underwear — and Perez Hilton, the gossip blogger who’d draw lines of cocaine on photos of his subjects. It was gross. And Reid found herself at the center of it.

“I feel fine in my body. It’s just no one else does.”

“I never had a sex tape,” Reid says. “People got in trouble, been in jail — I’ve never got a speeding ticket in my life. Why am I being punished?” Of the press, she says, “they kind of made me a cartoon character. Everything I did was wrong. And then the casting, the studios — they didn’t want any bad reputation.”

Does she think she ever lost a job because of her reputation? “Probably a lot of them,” she says.

Reid’s reputation wasn’t made up from whole cloth (or a crop top, anyway). She drank too much. She flashed her breasts on a red carpet. (Reid said it was a total accident.) She picked a fight with Lindsay Lohan, calling her a “mean drunk.” But that was decades ago. And it’s hard to ignore the whiff of a double standard. Carson Daly bragged that he took the Backstreet Boys to Scores — a strip club he once described as “an extension of [his] living room.” He now hosts the Today show.

Reid went to rehab in 2008 for troubles with alcohol, telling People magazine that she’d “done enough [partying] for a lifetime.” She also switched agents, which is what actors do to give themselves some sense of control in a town where they famously have none. But the opportunities weren’t any better. A 2011 Funny or Die sketch starring Reid — The Big Lebowski 2, in which she played all the characters — went viral, proving audiences missed her. But she couldn’t shake the Tara Reid caricature.

“The punishment didn’t fit the crime,” Reid says, suddenly speaking tentatively — like a rescue dog trying to trust someone again. What she’s really asking is for the public to consider the role the paparazzi played. That these photographers and the magazines poured fuel on the fire and then made money off the wreckage. That there was a human cost to the way they hounded her, and Lindsay and Britney and Paris. Of the industry rejecting her so quickly, Reid says now: “For them to just take me out of the game for a while?” This is not the last time she will cry tonight.

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The thing about Tara Reid is that she’s always worked, even if “it wasn’t at that level” of her early career, she says. But she knew how to capitalize on a moment. When Sharknado became a surprise hit, she ran with it — making six of them. (The last one involved time travel.) Yet when asked tonight to name a performance she thinks didn’t get its due, she has to reach way back to 2003’s Devil’s Pond, a thriller in which she played a newlywed stranded on a deserted island.

When the pandemic hit, Reid, like many of us, found herself with a lot of time to think. She’s mostly lived in the same place since 2002 — a sleek, glass-walled condo in Hollywood that she bought with her first paychecks. In the early days, it was something of a clubhouse for the American Pie kids, who’d meet to watch movies. Reid lives there now with her boyfriend, Nathan Montpetit-Howar, president of a sound technology company called Phantom Acoustics. They met five years ago at a dinner party, she says, adding: “He’s my best friend, my partner in crime; he’s patient like no other.”

As proof, she says, Montpetit-Howar briefly got himself kicked off Instagram for defending her honor. “She’s all heart,” he later tells me when he shows up to drive her home — a knight in a Porsche chariot.

Perhaps it was this relationship that gave Reid the confidence to make her own luck. Or maybe it was the sudden stillness that lit up something in her.Just days into the pandemic, she got serious about a project she’d been developing called Masha’s Mushroom; she’s producing the movie through her company, Hi Happy Films, and with the entire world shut down, she started rolling calls. “I got people on the phone that I never got on the phone before,” she says. “Bigger agents, managers — because I was going to cast their clients. Do you know what I mean? The tables turned.”

“The ‘90s are coming back right now. It’s like, ‘We’ve missed her. Now that we’re seeing her again, come back.’”

The film will also star Vivica A. Fox and Beverly D’Angelo, but Reid is firmly the lead. She’ll play a single mother who mistakenly eats some hallucinogenic pizza toppings at a birthday party, kicking off a meditative journey. “It’s trippy,” Reid says of the film, and “also really sad.” This may be a spoiler, but the party, she reveals, it’s a funeral. Also, the project might be a trilogy. Reid has other scripts in various stages of development, but she can’t seem to let this one go, hoping to shoot next year after some false starts. “It felt like it has so much to do with what we were going through during COVID,” she says.

That she’d be attracted to a through-the-looking-glass story makes sense. In some ways, the film’s themes mirror her own life: Reid is a Jersey girl who made it to the top of the mountain, only to discover how twisted the world looks on the other side.

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Reid always imagined a movie would be her entree back. That it turned out to be a Fox series instead — one in which she was submerged in a freezing river alongside Brian Austin Green, Tom Sandoval, and JoJo Siwa — so be it. Her ability to get back up whenever Hollywood knocked her down is one of the reasons Clarke wanted her on Special Forces. “We all know American Pie,” Clarke says. “To be that girl — and then what would it be, thirty years later? To still be there standing? This experience” — this reality show — “it looks from the outside like it’s a test of brute strength. [But] it’s about resilience.”

Still, I joke to Reid, wouldn’t it have been easier to go on Dancing With the Stars? “They called, I think, three times,” Reid says earnestly, but the timing was never right. “I had a broken foot one time, you know what I mean?”

Reid in 1999.Bei/Shutterstock
Reid with Rachael Leigh Cook (center) and Rosario Dawson in 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.Moviestore/Shutterstock
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With the public back in her corner — and the dual SAG-WGA strikes in the rearview mirror — Reid is hopeful for a bright 2024. She’s just come from a general meeting at Netflix, and apparently it went well. The executives she sat with already called her manager to say they want to find something to do together.

The outpouring of love from fans since Special Forces — it looks good on her. And for the first time in years, she can feel people rooting for her. “I’ve never felt so much love and support in my life,” she says.

She’d gone on Special Forces to develop a “thicker skin.” She was tired of the public discourse about her appearance. Still is. As recently as October, Billy Bush was telling Reid — as her friend — that he thought she looked “too skinny.”

Today she laughs: “I feel fine in my body. It’s just no one else does.”

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She and Monpetit-Howar have been talking about moving to Florida — “pretty seriously actually,” she reveals. “We’re thinking about Delray Beach. Fort Lauderdale is nice.” She has an aunt and uncle in their 80s who live in the area, and since losing both her parents, she’s eager to spend more time with them.

But it’s clear she has unfinished business with this town. Reid recently shot a low-budget caper called Hollywood Heist — with Mickey Rourke, Nick Cannon, and Alec Baldwin — in which she plays yet another character named “Tara Reid.”

The part “is called ‘Tara Reid’ to get attention,” she says, shaking her head. It’s one thing on Ghosts — where the cameo is relevant to the plot. But here? “Why do I have to be ‘Tara Reid’? I just want to go back to where I started. I don’t see a problem with that. Why is that so hard?”

We hug goodbye — she’s a hugger — but since this is L.A., we inevitably see each other again moments later at the valet stand, where she pulls me aside. Earlier, I’d asked her if there was anything she’d specifically wanted to talk about. Now says there is.

Teary eyed but determined, she says: “I wish that people could see me for who I really am. And I would really love to come back to Hollywood and be accepted again.”

Photographs by Alex Harper

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Makeup: Matthew Paul

Talent Bookings : Special Projects

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

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