Charlotte McKinney Would Like to Be Taken Seriously
The model turned actress opens up to Marlow Stern about her struggle to break into Hollywood, coping with chronic pain, and tabloid objectification.
Listen my darling, you’re never going to win the Nobel Prize for quantum physics, but you are easy on the eye.
Those words, uttered by Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli, still haunt Charlotte McKinney.
“I’ve been put squarely in a box and I’m still in that box,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with it necessarily but it’s been a struggle to try and get out of. I started my career as ‘the Carl’s Jr. commercial girl’ who was a bikini model, so I’ve always felt a degree of judgment from that. But as soon as people see my personality and sense of humor, I feel that goes away. It’s definitely a work in progress.”
That Carl’s Jr. commercial aired in 2015 during Super Bowl XLIX, and featured McKinney gliding through a farmer’s market in slow-mo, as peppers and melons shield her presumably nude body from view. A series of double entendres about being “all-natural” soon gave way to the reveal: McKinney in a bikini balancing an All-Natural Burger. The ad went viral, elevating her from popular Instagram model to the next “blonde bombshell,” and earning her comparisons to Pamela Anderson and Kate Upton.
In the five years since, McKinney, who recently turned 27, has been trying to break into Hollywood. She takes regular acting lessons with a coach in Burbank, and though she’s amassed a number of feature-film credits thus far, including Baywatch and Fantasy Island, they’d only been bit parts with character names like “Attractive Woman” and “Girl on Bicycle.” That changed earlier this month, when McKinney had two films—Guest House and The Argument—open on the same day.
The former, a raunchy adult comedy, sees her play “basically that boxed person—the old girlfriend who’s skanky and trying to make him sleep with her when he’s married. But you know…whatever I’m given I’m going to try my best and make it funny.” In The Argument, however, filmmaker Robert Schwartzman gave McKinney the freedom to flex her comedy muscles, playing an aspiring actress alongside more seasoned pros Dan Fogler, Danny Pudi, and Tyler James Williams.
“The Argument was very fun,” she says. “The reason I enjoyed that character was because she was your typical girl in L.A. really trying her hardest to make it, and going incredibly over the top in auditions. I got to poke fun at who I am, and people I know, and go for it.”
More screen time has also meant better treatment for McKinney, who says she’s encountered her fair share of predatory men in the worlds of fashion and Hollywood—men who, at least pre-#MeToo, felt entitled to treat her inappropriately due to that aforementioned box.
“It’s been a part of my adult and teenage life. I started modeling at such a young age, and whether it was a photographer or somebody else, it’s been around,” she says. “But the last two years, I’ve been able to work with directors that have been nice and it’s washed away some of that nastiness. Now, they make sure you have your robe after a scene. It’s different then before, when you were thinking, Ugh. I have to do this scene now and this director is really creeping me out.”
Fellow model turned actress Emily Ratajkowski’s recent essay in The Cut, vividly describing the commodification and abuse she says she suffered at the hands of photographer Jonathan Leder, hit close to home for McKinney.
“To see that, seeing that she’s been through things that I’d been through, I admired her courage,” offers McKinney. “At a young age, I was around all that. I’ve had plenty of experiences that one day I’ll hopefully feel as comfortable as her to talk about. Fortunately, we’re starting to get rid of all these people. That photographer will never work anymore. He’s done. I feel things are going in the right direction. And now, I mostly just work with photographers that I trust so I don’t have to deal with any riff-raff.”
Of course, those are the photographers—and photographs—that McKinney has a say in. Anyone who’s ever visited the homepage of the Daily Mail is familiar with their breathless, ogling coverage of McKinney, who can’t take two steps outside of her Malibu place without getting the paparazzi treatment. The site offers near-daily updates of McKinney’s whereabouts with outrageous headlines like, “Charlotte McKinney leaves little to the imagination as she frolics on the beach in a tiny string bikini during LA sunbathing session” (it appears to be a regular bikini) and “Charlotte McKinney shows off her toned curves as she picks up sunflowers at Farmers Market after yoga class” (in standard workout clothes and an N-95 mask).
“All my friends, my mom, and my publicist constantly joke about the headlines. It’s the weirdest thing!” she exclaims. “The last couple years in particular, it’s become this big running joke among us—Charlotte McKinney and her curves go shopping! We read it in a British accent. One thing I don’t love about it is it’s very body-focused. Charlotte McKinney shows her curves on the beach! A lot of these tabloids really go overboard and the language needs an update.”
She pauses. “I’m not a huge celebrity, but where I live, there are paparazzi all over. With the tabloids, it’s a big part of my anxiety because one day there will be a picture of me on the Daily Mail in a bikini and I’ll look fine, and then another day they’ll run a photo of me at a bad angle where I feel like I don’t look my best, and it makes you question yourself. There are days when I want to just go down to the beach and I think, ‘Is this going to end up in the tabloids?’ Eventually, you just have to say F-it, I’m going to live my life, and try not to read the comments. Although I still do. And it’s hard.”
Last year, when a paparazzo captured McKinney on the street looking thinner than normal, those comments came fast and furious. A popular subreddit with tens of thousands of members dedicated to McKinney’s “wonderful boobies” (their words) had a full-on meltdown, accusing her of having an eating disorder or being addicted to drugs.
What these online voyeurs failed to realize is that for years, McKinney has battled chronic pain.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she says. “Doctors would tell me to get over it. I thought I had stomach issues and was getting colonoscopies a lot at such a young age.”
She adds, “It took a toll on my relationships. It was me, my boyfriend, and my pain. It becomes a part of your life and can hurt those relationships because people feel helpless, and like they don’t know what to do. And when I’m in pain, I lash out. So you need the right communication and trust to get through it.”
It was only a little over a year ago when her doctor finally realized she had a rare kidney condition.
“I was constantly getting comments about my weight, or about not being able to attend certain things. I connected with a few other girls on the internet who had my disease, and hearing them made me feel so much better,” explains McKinney. “People need to realize that we’re all going through our own battles, and you don’t know what anyone’s dealing with on a given day, so maybe you should try to give people the benefit of the doubt.”
In the immediate wake of the diagnosis McKinney battled depression and “the mental aspect of dealing with pain, and being a happy person.” And the ongoing pandemic, replete with hours upon hours spent inside doomscrolling social media, hasn’t made things any easier.
“To have full days of just you forces you to over-analyze your work, or your body, or your face, or anything. You pick things apart,” she tells me. “You can get sucked into it. And now, with more time on your hands, you have more time to look at the comments. You have to rewire your brain to not go there, and that’s something I’m still trying to convince myself of. Don’t go down that rabbit hole. So, I’ve tried to stay busy focusing on other people.”
In between professional photo shoots and self-taped auditions, McKinney has been volunteering with Best Buddies International, an organization helping those with developmental disabilities. And she started a YouTube channel. Thus far, it’s been mostly makeup and fashion tips, though she hopes to soon dive into weightier topics like mental health.
“This will be a place for me to have control over what I say, what I’m wearing, what I look like,” she says. “It’s my way of fighting back and taking control.”