words and photos / Lindsey Byrnes
copy editor / JoAnn Zhang
cover art / Pearl Zhang
editor in chief / Phil Gomez
“Hello Queeeeen!” Ashley Benson shouts as the door to her gorgeous Hollywood Hills home swings open. She’s wearing a black Rolling Stones t-shirt that she’s cut into a crop top and tight black workout pants. Her face is bare, and so are her feet — and she’s very, very pregnant.
While I tend to feel fear and rage at the old adage of “barefoot and pregnant,” Ashley’s version of domesticity is not about confinement but about choice, balance, and a healthy separation of her personal and professional worlds. In other words, she’s a feminist role model.
At only 34, Ashley’s career already spans nearly 25 years. When she was nine, she landed a job with Mattel, starting out in their internal marketing videos and eventually starring in dozens of Barbie commercials. She flashes her megawatt smile as she says, “You’ll die. It’s really funny.” She pulls up an old YouTube video in which she’s a little girl, showing her Barbie to the camera. It’s adorable seeing a younger Ash with the same enthusiasm and smile that she greeted me with. Her genuine delight is completely infectious. They’re called stars for a reason, and Benson really does shine bright — and clearly always has. What makes her so compelling is that it’s real: she has this authenticity about her which is equally matched by her desire to have realness around her. She’s built the life she wants through dedication, hardwork and determination, and is now at a new chapter: one that includes, but is not limited to, motherhood.
I ask Benson if she’s read Jeffrey Klugar’s The Narcissist Next Door. There’s a part I can’t stop thinking about, and I play part of the audiobook for her: “For all the drama, romance and seeming magic of childbearing, what happy expectant parents are really celebrating is nothing more than a parasite-host relationship. At the moment of conception, an effectively alien creature commandeers the mother’s womb and uses it as a sort of beachhead from which to seize control of her entire body… and in the end you will look like exactly what you are: a childbirth survivor.” Benson, who has a good sense of humor, finds this as funny as I do, saying, “Nobody wants to tell you the truth.” She gets up. “See, look how I’m moving, this is how I have to walk now.” She takes small steps, exaggerating her discomfort, finally positioning herself on top of a giant green yoga ball. She bounces a bit, and then in the same voice as the audiobook’s narrator, she deadpans, “I’m ready for her to come out now.”
Her starring role on Pretty Little Liars catapulted her into a new bracket of fame, one that came with all the perks that normies like me dreamt of and all the downfalls that could push child stars into living nightmares. She spent her evenings at the Chateau running into the people she admired like Lena Dunham who at the time was riding her Girls success. “I was getting dinner and Lena was there. And she came up to me and she was like, ‘My boyfriend’— and it was Jack at the time— ‘has a picture of you on his ceiling. So, when I go to bed, I look at you!’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ And then she goes, ‘But I loved you in Spring Breakers.’” Of course, that was the movie that gave her a chance to differentiate herself from the roles she had been playing since the Barbie commercials, and she started to feel restless at the idea of going back to a series. Now, she had a taste of what fulfilled her: indie film.
Benson herself is not just funny, but talented and interesting, though over the past few years, the media and fans alike have focused instead on her high-profile relationships—a kind of attention she has never been comfortable with. “I kept private because being so seen by everyone else, everyone has an opinion. It’s very lonely and you just feel judged. It’s really hard.” Instead of getting caught up in the drama of press cycles, she focuses on the importance of inner peace. “I had to do a lot of work on myself. I had to really be fine being alone. And you know, I love being in relationships, so I kind of jumped from relationship to relationship.”
Seeking change and growth, Ashley dedicated a year to therapy every day. For the first time in her life, she prioritized self-care, which included her entrepreneurial endeavors like her fragrance, ASH (which smells insanely good, by the way). Her new-found self-awareness led her to the realization that she’d spent most of her life working in a high-pressure industry. That kind of responsibility at such a young age might have kept her motivated, but it also led her to struggle with trust.
Determined to regain the confidence she had lost through her experiences in the industry and in the dating world, and to heal some of her past wounds, she took a step back. “The person that I’ve always wanted to be, I was becoming. And I just wanted to just let that ride out and see where life takes me. Which ironically is when I connected with Brandon.” Brandon Davis, a successful art dealer, is Ashley’s partner, and the father of her incoming child. “It was immediate. I was just like, I think I’m gonna marry you.”
Now, she has a very clear idea of what she wants the next phase of her life and career to look like, and she is aware that it takes time. In the past, some of her more rebellious decisions have been the moves that she has been most proud of, including accepting the role of Brit in Spring Breakers, a morally complex, seductive thrill-seeker who is into drugs and partying. She took the project knowing full well that Pretty Little Liars network ABC Family didn’t approve of the material in the script. But she took the risk anyway, and says that experience changed her life for the better. Now, growth and artistic freedom are of the utmost importance to her. Though she’s starting a new chapter, her rebellious spirit hasn’t been dampened in the least. Having a child, concentrating on indie films, and seeking to play characters she might not be type-cast for is its own form of rebellion. And Ashley is ready for a challenge. In fact, she is hungry for it. “I want the work to change me in some way,” she says. “If it’s not challenging me, why do it? “
While she’s mostly fearless, the prospect of childbirth has her a bit overwhelmed. “Being a parent is gonna f-ing change everything.” To conquer that feeling, she’s made sure that she’s controlling what she can, down to the last detail. She even shows me, with one leg up, the position she’s chosen to be in for the main event. As she has her pelvis twisted and is leaning to one side with her left leg up in the air, I am astonished at her flexibility. “I think it’s way better and gets the job done faster by just laying backwards,” she says, demonstrating. “I would just have two nurses holding me back, or I’ll hold my leg. But I won’t be able to feel it so it’s like they’re gonna have to…” She trails off. “Okay, well, you’ll be there.” Tears of laughter run down my cheeks. Even when she’s pantomiming labor, Benson can’t help but be totally charming.
Benson’s latest show is Wilderness on Amazon, a psychological thriller. “I’ve had to go away from what I’m known for,” she says, about the evolution of her work. And with the birth of my child, the rebirth of my career is going to happen too.” She’s not just saying this for the sake of it. She’s hinting at a super top-secret project that will be announced soon. I can tell that she is a few cocktails away from telling me, but since she is pregnant and not drinking, we are all going to have to wait.