Whenever I think about Courtney Stodden, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of them in full glam, wearing a bedazzled bra and a pair of Daisy Dukes covered in fake blood. It's our first Halloween together and they're high-kicking their seven-inch heels into the air, showing me how limber they are as I pour each of us a tequila shot. We click our plastic cups together as a glitter-covered angel comes over to ask about their costume, to which Courtney responds, "I'm a bloody tampon." The angel, who was probably expecting an answer like "sexy Carrie" or "hot zombie" looks visibly uncomfortable, but all Courtney can do is giggle.
After all, there's very little that can faze them now, as they later explained, mostly because they stopped giving a fuck.
For the past decade, the 27-year-old artist — who's nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns — has lived under a microscope thanks to their 2011 marriage to actor Doug Hutchinson. At the time, Courtney was 16 and Hutchinson 50, which led to an onslaught of endless slut-shaming, death threats, and unfettered scrutiny at the hands of online trolls and tabloids alike, who all conveniently ignored Hutchinson's grooming while forgetting the subject of their derision was just a teenager.
"It's hard because, in a sense, I grew up in front of everybody, in front of the media," they yell over the roar of the yacht's engine as we leave the embrace of Marina Del Rey. "That's a really hard position because you're getting to know yourself as a teen. You're getting to know your surroundings and all of your mistakes are out there."
Courtney pauses for a moment to take a bite of their vegan quesadilla, washing it down with a sip of champagne that almost spills on the couch before continuing, "It shaped who I am, because those times are very crucial in a person's life. But I also feel like I've missed out on what the normal idea of growing up right means."
They quip, "I don't have my driver's license, even though I got my marriage license at 16. So it just feels like I'm catching up now."
However, it's not hard to see that they've done much more than "catch up" in the past few years, stepping into their own by advocating for themself and publicly sharing their mental health journey, including a past suicide attempt and their ongoing battle with depression. Despite all this darkness though, Courtney explains that they've become "stronger" from processing these complicated emotions. And while part of this has come from writing their memoir, they credit the bulk of their growth to finally entering therapy — something they were "hesitant" to do for a "really long time" after years of televised "therapy" for shows like Dr. Phil. Granted, they say it's better late than never, as the decision allowed them to get to a place where they were "no longer scared" of speaking out against the bullies.
Over the past few years, Courtney's continued to be open about how other celebrities, particularly women, would relentlessly bully them, from Courtney Love to Joy Behar. But for the most part, their anecdotes went largely ignored until they revealed in a bombshell Daily Beast interview that Chrissy Teigen was one of the worst offenders, going so far as to tweet about wanting them to take "a dirt nap" and encouraging them to kill themself in DMs." All of which ended up kicking off fierce discourse about victim blaming and sexist scrutiny of young women and femmes, such as Courtney, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.
Needless to say, the cookbook author ended up issuing lengthy statements via Twitter and Medium in the wake of intense backlash, apologizing for her past treatment of Courtney. And while Chrissy previously claimed to have personally reached out to make amends, they say their DMs still remain empty, though they "wish her nothing but peace."
"Everybody's journey is exclusive and we're on separate ones," Courtney says, before stating that their new tenet is to forgive in the name of "personal growth." And that's especially true as they move on from their divorce and all of the internet drama surrounding it, in favor of looking forward to a life with fiancé, Chris Sheng, who makes it no secret that he's completely smitten with the star.
"If you don't forgive, you're going to just be one of those haters and you haven't probably realized you are, but you are," they say, reiterating that they want to leave behind all of the trauma, baggage and negativity. "I'm on just a completely different path right now in my life and I'm really happy."
As part of their journey toward forgiveness though, Courtney has also forgiven their mother for signing off on their marriage to Hutchinson, explaining that their recent reconciliation was the reason she was on the boat with us. In between her mother's remorse and the perspective provided by therapy, they're no longer "looking too closely... to find the faults." And though they say it's mainly to "keep [my] own sanity," the one thing they've tried to remember throughout all of this is that "groomers are very skilled" — not just with victims, but the people who protect them as well — and that their mom did the "best she could in her life with the cards she was dealt."
"Growing up, my mom and I were very close and she was always actually very protective of me, which made it even more confusing," Courtney says, mentioning that their mom is all they have given that their father disowned them years ago. "I know the perception of her, but my mom has always believed in me and has never denied me as a daughter. My father has," they add. "I will always keep my mom close as she's a part of my heart."
But even so, reflecting on this formative trauma has still been difficult, especially as Courtney continues to channel their experiences into music with a harder edge and their aforementioned memoir, the latter of which has forced them to reckon with an "almost PTSD-like response" — nightmares, cold sweats, et al. — head-on.
They sigh, "And it also makes it feel like these things happened to me yesterday because I see it all the time. It rips the bandaid off over again."
But that said, one aspect of their evolution they've continued to find empowering is the embrace of their gender identity, as it's been a way to reclaim and "control of the narrative for myself," especially since they "don't always identify super-feminine."
"Some days I would feel like I would want to be more masculine. Just wear baggy clothes, no makeup. I don't want to identify necessarily as feminine," Courtney says. And though they still like dressing up and maintaining a high-femme look in public, they'd rather be seen for their individual humanity, regardless of gender presentation. After all, they've spent an entire lifetime subverting expectations and pushing up against public opinion of who they are and what they should be. But this time, they're doing it with renewed perspective, an understanding of what happened before and a newfound devil-may-care attitude when it comes to what people think.
"I actually turned it into my power, like how Dolly Parton does," Courtney says. "She has so many stories about that same kind of treatment."
They give me a mischievous smile, "But she's one of the most smartest fucking human being on the planet and lived through all that. So the joke's on everyone else."