How ‘Dirty Dancing’ star Jennifer Grey survived her wild youth

At 62, the actress known for playing Baby in the 1980s classic has a new memoir out, ‘Out of the Corner,’ in which she reveals how partying, abuse and a teenage abortion shaped her

Jennifer Grey and her co-star Patrick Swayze attend a party following the premiere of 'Dirty Dancing'.
Jennifer Grey and her co-star Patrick Swayze attend a party following the premiere of 'Dirty Dancing'.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

It is one of the most common clichés of the Hollywood dream: A young actor or actress arrives in Los Angeles with barely $20 in his or her pocket and, with a stroke of good luck and talent, becomes a global star. Only a privileged few continue to shine for decades: the majority succumb to fame’s inherent temptations and become mired in controversy. But Jennifer Grey’s story resonates in a special way because she has taken the opposite path. She enjoyed and suffered the consequences of extravagance, debauchery and abuse before Dirty Dancing catapulted her to international fame, making her the 1980s legend she is today. Her personal story is nothing like that of the chaste Baby Houseman. After disappearing from public life for decades, Grey is back to tell how she managed to survive it all in her new memoir, Out of the Corner.

35 years after its release, Dirty Dancing retains its appeal.
35 years after its release, Dirty Dancing retains its appeal.cordon press

“No teenager should be swimming in waters that dark,” the 62-year-old actress says, reminiscing about the many endless nights she experienced before she came of age. Born into one of Los Angeles’s best-known families, her mother is Jo Wilder, an actress and singer who gave up her career to raise Jennifer and her younger brother, James. Her father, Joel Grey, is a well-known actor who won an Oscar in 1972 for his iconic role as the Master of Ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Jennifer Grey’s status as a child of Hollywood royalty granted her unrestricted access to the most exclusive nightclubs; she was friends with Madonna, dated Matthew Broderick and Johnny Depp and formed part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle at the Factory.

Jennifer Grey poses with her parents, Joel and Jo, at a 1979 premiere.
Jennifer Grey poses with her parents, Joel and Jo, at a 1979 premiere.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Although she hadn’t yet finished high school, Grey’s standard of living was similar to that of any young movie star at the time. Even before she started her acting career, she frequented New York’s wild nightlife scene. “When I try to imagine my own daughter at 16, playing house, essentially living with a grown-ass man, doing tons of blow, popping Quaaludes, and going to Studio [54] - not to mention being lied to, cheated on, then gifted with various and sundry STDs and unwanted pregnancies, it makes me feel physically ill,” she reflects.

In her memoir, Grey writes that when she was just 14 years old, she was sexually assaulted by the superintendent of the building where she lived with her parents. “I must’ve closed my eyes for a brief second. Next thing I knew, he was behind me, pinning my arms down by my side [...] He was now licking my neck, breathing harder and harder, pressing his body into me from behind,” she recounts. Grey managed to free herself, and she immediately called her father to tell him what happened. “Well, what did you expect?” replied her father, who always denied the veracity of his daughter’s accusations. “This was a loss of innocence. I felt perhaps I must’ve been somehow at fault. Why else would the people I trusted most in the world disappoint me so profoundly?”

 Jennifer Grey and Madonna frequented the 1980s nightlife scene.
Jennifer Grey and Madonna frequented the 1980s nightlife scene.Robin Platzer (Getty Images)

Grey also reveals that she had several abortions (although her editor had encouraged her to leave them out of her memoirs for fear of a media circus). The first occurred during the 1980s, and it deeply affected her: “It’s such a grave decision. And it stays with you. [Without it,] I wouldn’t have my life. I wouldn’t have had the career I had, I wouldn’t have had anything,” Grey says. “And it wasn’t for lack of taking it seriously. I’d always wanted a child. I just didn’t want a child as a teenager. I didn’t want a child where I was [at] in my life,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Grey now has a 21-year-old daughter from her marriage to actor Clark Gregg, from whom she split in 2020.

In addition to its plea for the liberation of female sexuality, the right to a safe abortion is another issue Dirty Dancing addresses, which made selling the film to studios difficult for the movie’s screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein. Baby meets Johnny (Patrick Swayze) after his dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), gets pregnant; after undergoing a botched illegal abortion, Penny suffers serious health complications. Prior to the film’s 1987 release, very few global blockbusters dealt with the issue in such a clear-cut way. Unfortunately, that same topic has brought the film back into the spotlight following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade this past summer.

Jennifer Grey is working on a sequel to 'Dirty Dancing.'
Jennifer Grey is working on a sequel to 'Dirty Dancing.'Cindy Ord (Getty Images)

“We saw what happens to people without means,” Grey notes. She says she is “heartbroken” at seeing American society’s regression in this regard over the past three decades. “This is just so fundamentally wrong, and it is sounding a bell for all women to rise up and use their voice now because we have assumed, since 1973, that our choice was safe and that it was never going to be overturned.”

Last spring, it was announced that a sequel to Dirty Dancing is in the works; the movie is scheduled to be released in 2024. Grey will reprise her role as Baby Houseman. She has also recently appeared in supporting roles on different television shows.

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