Or should we say Mischa Barton was; that’s how closely entwined the actress and her most famous character are. Barton’s rise to fame as television’s most recognisable spoiled little California rich girl coincided with the boom of the paparazzi and the ensuing Los Angeles celebrity industry.
You couldn’t open a MySpace page in the ’00s or crack open the spine of an InStyle magazine without being bombarded with images of Barton, whether in character as Cooper (tousled locks, mini kilts, boho-chic handkerchief dresses) or out of character as the girl-of-the-moment in Sass & Bide dresses and motorcycle jackets on her way to whatever party was happening that night in Los Angeles.
RELATED: Mischa Barton steps out looking very different
RELATED: OC star Mischa Barton joins Hills reboot
RELATED: The OC revisited: How Marissa killed herself off
For a while, Barton was as famous as the other ’00s party girls she shared vodka cranberries and Chloe Paddington bags with: Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. On the surface, the life of a champagne bubble about town “It” girl seemed good. But privately, each of these women were facing their own demons. And Barton was no exception.
When she was arrested for driving under the influence in 2007, before later being hospitalised in 2009, Barton seemed to have made the decision to bow out of public life.
Now she’s making her comeback as the new cast member in the rebooted scripted reality series The Hills. What happened to Mischa Barton?
Anyone shocked by the phenomenal success of The OC in 2004 was obviously not a teenager. Creator Josh Schwartz (who would later go on to make Gossip Girl) understood what teenagers wanted to watch was a high school series with rich people melodrama, ripples of sex, preternaturally good-looking characters and cooler-than-thou costumes. Thus, The OC was born.
The series’ main quartet of Adam Brody, Rachel Bilson, Ben McKenzie and Barton instantly found themselves catapulted into overnight fame, none more so than Barton.
As the troubled Marissa, her character occupied much of the first series’ screen time, and courtesy of her style, she became a front-row fixture at fashion weeks and graced the covers of Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Allure and Glamour.
In 2006, Barton decided to leave The OC and her character was killed off in the third season finale. “I just had a lot in my career that I wanted to do and accomplish … I felt like things were really heavily reliant upon me, and I was getting no time to do any of the other offers that were out there,” Barton told The New York Times in May 2019.
Immediately after leaving The OC, things started to unravel for Barton. In 2007 she became a near-permanent tabloid fixture, making headlines for being hospitalised after a barbecue at Nicole Richie’s house. (Her spokesperson told the press Barton had bronchitis and her prescribed antibiotics reacted to the cocktails she had drunk.)
In December 2007, Barton was arrested for drink-driving in West Hollywood and was required to undertake 36 months probation, alcohol education classes and pay a fine as part of her plea deal.
“I’m 100 per cent responsible for my actions in this case, and I’m really disappointed in myself,” Barton told Ryan Seacrest in 2007. “I don’t know what to say about it except I’m not perfect. I just don’t ever intend to do something this stupid again.”
To Nylon, Barton added: “I never ever would have thought I would be arrested. I was disappointed because it associated me with a group of girls that I would rather not be associated with. That was the biggest bummer for me — I didn’t leave my house.
“I was too embarrassed. They made such a big deal out of it with these other young actresses that, for a little bit, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.”
Barton’s arrest made her fodder for the tabloids, and suddenly, she found herself haunted by the spectre of the paparazzi. For the next year, images of Barton were splashed across magazines and websites around the world, building to enormous pressure on the young star.
In particular, the tabloids focused on her weight. “I was really young and just had not filled out at all,” Barton told People magazine in reference to her weight on The OC. “Not everybody stays the same body type. It was always, ‘She’s too skinny, she must be sick.’ Then it was, ‘She’s too big’. I was never the right weight.”
In July 2009, Barton was admitted to a psychiatric ward. The hospitalisation came in the middle of what might have been her television comeback, courtesy of a starring role in Ashton Kutcher’s drama series about models called The Beautiful Life. (It was cancelled after two episodes.)
The pressure was too much. At the time, the star excused her hospitalisation as a result of taking too many painkillers after a tooth infection. But appearing on The View, Barton added she felt “completely overwhelmed” by her life, and the hospitalisation was a “wake-up call” for her.
“I just figure that if you hit rock bottom like that … and you’re around people, you know, you realise I’m nothing like these people,” Barton said. “I have a career, I worked so hard for it. I’m such a positive person …
“I think if you can overcome anything, and for me having that kind of chronic pain for the first time in my life, like being in serious pain, was such a wake-up call.”
In 2017, Barton was hospitalised again after a neighbour called 911 to report her for “erratic behaviour” and a suicide risk. In shocking footage, the star was dishevelled, ranting and raving in her backyard.
“It’s not the kind of thing you want to go over again and again explaining because life is complicated and so many weird things lead to an incident like that happening,” Barton told The New York Times in reference to her most recent hospitalisation. “It is not cut and dry. All I can say is it was a huge wake-up call about a lot of things.”
THE COURT CASE
Since 2009, Barton has stayed mostly away from the Hollywood scene. She moved first to London and then, later, to Hudson Valley in upstate New York to escape the glare of fame.
Aside from a guest role on Law & Order Special Victims Unit and a turn on Dancing with the Stars (where she was the second celebrity eliminated), Barton has stepped back from the spotlight.
This is because, privately, Barton was battling a revenge porn case against two of her ex-boyfriends. With celebrity lawyer Lisa Bloom (formerly counsel to Harvey Weinstein) engaged on her behalf, Barton took them to court to prevent the distribution of the explicit material featuring Barton and to seek a restraining order.
Both ex-partners were friends with each other, and one of them was allegedly trying to sell the tape for an exorbitant sum.
In 2018, Barton won her case, with dissemination of the sex tape banned and a restraining order granted.
COURT VICTORY today with Mischa Barton. Distribution of the explicit images banned, ex stays 100 yards away forever. pic.twitter.com/cr0cWtveYg
— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) June 5, 2017
For a year, the case dominated her life. “It’s not a joke when you end up having to go to court and fight for those things,” Barton told the New York Times. “It’s not really possible to keep everything else going at once.”
In an interview with Amanda Knox, Barton acknowledged the case was the fight of her life. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve done the right thing, even if you had to fight for it,” she said.
In 2019, Barton has returned to screens starring as herself in the reboot of The Hills. It’s a stroke of perfect meta-casting: The stars of The Hills were Los Angeles tabloid fodder at the same time as Barton was in the late ’00s. They ran in the same circles. And the global obsession with California, spawned by The OC, led to the creation of reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills.
Barton joined the series after initial filming had already begun out of a desire to make new friends and to show the world a different side of herself. “She’s been out of the spotlight for some time, and she knows there’s a lot of curiosity about her and her story,” Nina Diaz, president of entertainment at MTV, told The New York Times. “She’s a great example of a new beginning.”
The Hills might be Barton’s new beginning, but she’s open to returning to her old one, too. Speaking to InStyle, Barton said she would be happy to revisit her most famous role, if the opportunity arose.
“I’m more than willing to resurrect Marissa and make that happen,” Barton said. “Maybe she fakes the whole thing … What if she just shows up to her own funeral? I could so see it. It would be a Marissa Cooper kind of move.”
Hannah-Rose Yee is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @hannahroserose