Mischa Barton is ready to take back the narrative.
In February, FX released The New York Times Presents' "Framing Britney Spears" episode, which documented the superstar's ongoing struggle to regain control of her finances and career after her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed her conservator in 2008.
But the bombshell report also examined the tabloid coverage of Britney Spears in the aughts, kicking off a reckoning for the media's treatment of young female celebrities at the time, including Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Another one they just wouldn't leave alone? Barton.
Just 17 years old when she sky-rocketed to fame thanks to her breakout role as Marissa Cooper on The O.C., the theater-trained child actress became a paparazzi favorite in the early 2000s.
Her highs—attending the Oscars and Golden Globes, becoming a Chanel brand ambassador and landing the cover of Glamour, Elle and other major publications—and lows, such as her hospitalizations in 2007 and 2009 and her 2007 DUI arrest, all became fodder for public consumption, conversation and condemnation.
Now, 18 years later, Barton, now 35, is ready to be a part of that discourse, revealing to E! News she is working on a few projects that will fully open reveal what she experienced early in her career.
"I felt all the feels when I watched the Britney doc because I was there at those clubs and those parties and down the street when all of that was happening," Barton said in a phone interview of watching Framing Britney Spears. "Literally would've been in the background, but not quite."
While it was also "happening to" Barton, she recalled feeling "so sorry" for Spears.
"I remember thinking, 'Jesus, this poor girl,'" she explained. "And her getting sucked into the wrong people pretending to want to be her friend—that happened to me too. A lot of that weirdness."
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, where what we know now about about what was going on behind the camera flashes paints a fuller and more accurate picture of what we perceived all those years ago.
"You've got such a different view [now], which is why it's interesting to think about," Barton said. "We wanted to condemn Britney so much for just being a 'psycho' at that time, right? But if you look at it like a mother who's just about to lose her children, who was told three days before by a judge she's going to have her kids taken away from her and then she's being hounded by the paparazzi to within an inch of her life—like, like, she's going through a meltdown, then you realize when put in context, those pictures, you can see the anger and the passion of just like, 'Get away from me, let me breathe.'"
But Barton was also a target of the paparazzi's lens, photographed and followed during her formative years while still grappling with newfound fame.
"I look back at some of it and you can see that pain of having to deal with so much all at once," she explained. "First loves and breakups and betrayals and all sorts of ups and downs and that kind of treatment."
Barton also said she lost out on prospective roles because of the media attention she was receiving, being informed that last night's event impacted tomorrow's job opportunities.
"If I put one foot out of place, my agents would call me up and be like, 'Nope, you lost the role because they saw you out at wherever and you just don't get the job now,'" she alleged. "I remember a lot of that stuff really devastated me."
It wasn't until 2019 that Barton really began calling out the media's treatment of her.
In a move that surprised many, the actress joined the cast of MTV's The Hills: New Beginnings—a revival of The Hills, which was the spinoff of the reality series Laguna Beach, which was inspired by The O.C. It was meta, for sure, and Barton left the show after just one season, but it did provide her with the very real opportunity to confront blogger Perez Hilton for his cruel coverage of her in the aughts.
"I think a lot of young girls feel that way, that he was very damaging to their mental psyche," Barton said of the impact his site had on her at that time. "I know a lot of other girls have said that too. He had pretty awful nicknames for most of the girls."
"It was hard for me to confront him," Barton admitted of addressing Hilton at a party on-camera. "I remember my heart was pounding, I didn't really want to do it. I knew he would have a bunch of excuses for his behavior, people like that always do."
While Hilton initially apologized for his behavior, Barton was unconvinced and the media personality eventually left the party...only to call her "boring" and "not a good reality TV star" on his site after the episode aired.
Back in 2003, when The O.C. premiered, celebrities didn't really have a direct platform to share their side of the story, which is "the one good thing" Barton believes social media can provide. For some people, whatever the tabloids told them was the truth because it's all they had to go on. Now, thanks to Instagram and Twitter, a star can address a rumor before it even has a chance to rumble.
"It's bad because it's all fake and we all know Instagram vs. reality is a very real thing," Barton explained, "but it also does give these girls an opportunity to show their side of the story and justify why they were out at a club that night or got in a fight with their boyfriend that evening or whatever happened. They have a way to dispel that rumor machine that was strong in the early aughts."
One misconception Barton would've liked to clear up at the time is that she was unappreciative for her time on The O.C. or the opportunities the hit teen soap afforded her. (She opened up about her much-publicized exit from the series and the "bullying" she said she endured during her three years on the show in an in-depth interview with E! News.)
"In many ways, I did have everything, and I was so happy and grateful for what I got," she said. "I got to do movies all over the world. I've visited everywhere."
But achieving that level of fame at such a young age—again, Barton was 17 years old when The O.C. began airing—had a cost.
"It's weird, I can't have that many friends," she admitted. "I only have a few friends because only a handful of people can really understand the magnitude of what I've been fortunate enough to have and been given in my life. And it's very hard to understand the amount of opportunities and things I've been given and afforded to do."
She continued, "But at the same time, whenever you peel back the surface, nobody's life is perfect, not even Bill Gates! The truth is that people go through tragedy and sometimes the more you have, the higher the tragedy and the bigger the pain."