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Jennifer Grey: After Dirty Dancing, people thought I will unlock all my dreams, but it didn’t go down that way

In her memoir, Out of the Corner, the Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey opens up about rhinoplasty gone wrong, the implosion of her career and why she's telling her story now.

By: New York Times |
April 19, 2022 12:18:31 pm
jennifer greyJennifer Grey's Out of the Corner isn’t all about regret, survival or reinvention. (Yudi Ela/The New York Times)

By: Elisabeth Egan

Jennifer Grey arrived at a recent breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in a flurry of regrets about the state of her shirt and her hair (both were impeccable). Before the waiter had a chance to pour coffee, the star of Dirty Dancing asked a question that would be an apt subtitle for her memoir, “Out of the Corner,” which Ballantine will publish on May 3.

“Why do I think everything has to be perfect in order to be enough?”

Some actors play it coy in their autobiographies, forcing readers to bushwhack through anodyne childhood memories and tepid revelations about fame before “opening the kimono” (Grey’s term) on the subjects they are best known for. Grey doesn’t roll this way in person — she is forthcoming, warm and hellbent on connection — or in her book, which begins with a 17-page prologue about her nose and the plastic surgeries that derailed her career and (almost) robbed her of her identity.

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At 62, Grey is ready to take control of a narrative that has been in the public domain for so long, it has achieved mythological status. As recently as 2007, The New York Times referred to “Jennifer Grey syndrome” — the phenomenon of too-aggressive plastic surgery — as if everyone is in on the joke. How long must one woman pay for a personal decision? Why should any human being be boiled down to a punchline?

Before we delve into the significance of “schnozzageddon,” as Grey called it, let’s rewind a bit for readers who are too young to remember the significance of the event.

In 1986, Grey landed a breakout role as “Baby” Houseman in Dirty Dancing, a movie about an awkward teenager who falls in love with a hunky dance instructor (played by Patrick Swayze) during a vacation at a Catskills resort called Kellerman’s. Made with a budget of $6 million, the movie earned $214 million at the box office and, as the Times’ film editor wrote on its 10th anniversary, “quickly became a phenomenon in a way that no one associated with it quite understands, even to this day.”

Swayze’s line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” became a rallying cry for disaffected Generation Xers — who, it turned out, craved rumba, romance and nostalgia just as much as anyone else. Cuffed, cutoff jean shorts and white Keds became the official summer uniform of every adolescent whose Sun-In and perm didn’t quite achieve Grey’s honey-coloured waves. At 27, having been paid $50,000 for her work, she became a household name.

jennifer grey Jennifer Grey in Los Angeles, April 1, 2022. In her memoir, Out of the Corner, the Dirty Dancing star opens up about rhinoplasty gone wrong, the implosion of her career and why she’s telling her story now. (Yudi Ela/The New York Times)

“After ‘Dirty Dancing,’ I was America’s sweetheart, which you would think would be the key to unlocking all my hopes and dreams,” writes Grey, the daughter of an Oscar-winning actor, Joel Grey, and granddaughter of Mickey Katz, a comedian and musician who might have performed at Kellerman’s had it been a real place. “But it didn’t go down that way. For one thing, there didn’t seem to be a surplus of parts for actresses who looked like me. My so-called ‘problem’ wasn’t really a problem for me, but since it seemed to be a problem for other people, and it didn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, by default it became my problem.”

“It was as plain as the nose on my face,” she said.

Following the advice of her mother and three plastic surgeons — one of whom recalled seeing Dirty Dancing and wondering “why that girl didn’t do her nose” — Grey underwent two surgeries to “fine-tune” her proboscis. The second procedure, intended to correct an irregularity caused by the first, was more aggressive than what Grey expected. Her new nose was “truncated” and “dwarfed.” She was unrecognizable to people who had known her for years. Photographers who had hounded her the month before didn’t pick up their cameras when she walked down a red carpet.

She recalls an airline employee who glanced at her driver’s license and said, “‘Oh, Jennifer Grey, like the actress.’” When Grey said, “Actually, it is me,” the woman responded: “‘I’ve seen ‘Dirty Dancing a dozen times. I know Jennifer Grey. And you are not her.’”

“Overnight I lose my identity and my career,” Grey writes.

In 2010, after many years of voice-over work, stints on Friends and Grey’s Anatomy and a role on a short-lived sitcom, It’s Like … You Know, in which she played a fictional version of herself, Grey appeared on, and won, Dancing With the Stars. That is when the idea for “Out of the Corner” started to percolate.

Grey had a “ragtag, mismatched” collection of journals she’d kept from the age of 14 until she was 41, so she had plenty of material to work with: “I started to look at high points and low points and the way I’ve adapted to dramatic shifts. I wrote every single word of this book myself, which I know is unusual.”

From April to September of 2021, she had daily coaching sessions by Zoom with Barbara Jones, an editor and publishing industry veteran who helped shape the memoir. “The first thing Jennifer did was give me a massive manuscript, something she called the whole enchilada,” Jones said. “She’s one of the most highly verbal people I’ve ever met. I’d say, ‘You need a word here that means this’ and she’d spit out 10 synonyms, rapid fire. Then she’d pick one.”

“Out of the Corner” isn’t all about regret, survival or reinvention. It’s a funny, dishy, occasionally heartbreaking coming-of-age story, including Grey’s memories of crashing her parents’ late-night snack ritual, ditching class at Dalton and belting out show tunes at Hal Prince’s holiday party with Stephen Sondheim on the Steinway. There are escapades with Madonna, Johnny Depp and Tracy Pollan (whose vintage jeans inspired the “Dirty Dancing” cutoffs) alongside glimpses into Grey’s wild child years (think cocaine, sex and Studio 54 — “Although no one cool ever called it that,” she writes. “It was either Studio or 54”).

There are also revelations about Grey’s tumultuous offscreen romance with Matthew Broderick, whose sulky sister she played in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She recalls him saying, on the eve of her Dirty Dancing audition, “‘There’s no way you’re gonna get it. They’re seeing everyone for this part.’” Shortly before the movie’s premiere, Broderick and Grey were in a car accident in Ireland that left two people dead. He was behind the wheel and suffered serious injuries. Thirty years later, she would require spinal surgery as a result of the head-on collision. But in the meantime, news of the accident — and questions about it — followed her in the wake of her biggest success. Howard Stern joked about it on air; Bryant Gumbel inquired about it during a “Today Show” segment that was supposed to be about Dirty Dancing.

“The idea that the most traumatic tragedy, the most impactful experience of my life, was sandwiched —” Grey held up her hands, palms facing her collarbone and brought them together with a firm thump — “They are inextricably linked. The pleasure of that moment, that surprise arrival, it never felt good. It never felt like what I’d hoped my whole life it would feel like.”

Grey hopes readers who feel victimized or stuck will be inspired by her story: “Like Flintstone vitamins: It feels like candy but you’re getting something.”

“I’m a person who has been associated with ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner.’ If I were to die, that’s what they would write on my tombstone,” she said. “I seemed to have felt in the past that I had been put in corners. But once I started writing, I realized there were so many things I did choose.”

Grey added, “The truth is, when I had all the good stuff, I was definitely not even close to how free I feel today.”

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