Inside Bristol Palin's Complicated Public Life

The mother of three, whose husband just filed for divorce, was thrust into the spotlight at 17 and, through a combination of factors, has remained a polarizing figure

By Natalie Finn Feb 14, 2018 11:16 PMTags
Bristol Palin, Dakota Meyer, TrippInstagram

In an alternate universe, Bristol Palin never courted controversy. She never did Dancing With the Stars (twice), she wasn't the butt of any jokes, and she never felt the need to explain her life choices.

But that isn't the universe we're living in.

In this world, Sen. John McCain picked telegenic Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, ushering her whole family into the spotlight and adding a new motley set of sort-of celebrities to the pop culture mix.

Bristol was only 17 when she was more or less forced to be the face of teen pregnancy in America, her mother revealing her expectant status on a national stage a few days after Palin officially signed on with McCain.

What a way to meet your public, right?

Bristol Palin and Dakota Meyer's Cutest Family Photos

Bristol Palin is now 27 and it's been about five years since her last reality show appearance, on Celebrity Wife Swap in 2013, which capped off a five-year period where she released a scathing memoir and understandably fit in as much media exposure as possible to support her young family, which she was doing as a single mom.

More recently she has maintained a light presence in the public eye via social media and as a blogger on Patheos, where she declares herself "Pro Life, Pro God and Pro Guns."

But as anyone who's ever done even one season of an MTV or TLC series and wasn't famous before or hasn't done anything since can tell you, once you're thrown into that spotlight, your business finds a way of getting out there, long after the cameras stop rolling.

And once again, business that's theoretically private (albeit part of the public record) has raised eyebrows once again because it involves Bristol, who's free to make whatever choices she wants but has earned her share of critics with her outspoken promotion of a certain set of values that even she hasn't been able to abide by.

Less than a year after welcoming their second child together, Bristol and husband Dakota Meyer are divorcing. E! News has confirmed that Meyer, a former Marine who was awarded a Medal of Honor in 2009, filed the paperwork in Austin, Texas.

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According to a copy of the documents obtained by People, Meyer used only their initials (in an apparent effort to slow down the news cycle) and cited as the reason for the split "discord or conflict of personalities" that "destroys the legitimate ends of the marriage relationship and prevents any reasonable expectation of reconciliation." TMZ reports that they're no longer living together.

Merry Christmas from our family to yours ??

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The pair are parents to daughters Sailor Grace, 2, and Atlee Bay, 8 months. Bristol is also mom to 9-year-old Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnson, her son with ex-boyfriend Levi Johnston, the high school not-so-sweetheart who became even more of an accidental celebrity than Bristol when Sarah Palin became the GOP's 2008 vice-presidential nominee and informed the world that Johnston would be marrying her daughter.

"Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family," Sarah and husband Todd Palin said in a statement issued by McCain's campaign on Sept. 1, 2008.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A McCain aide told CNN that the senator was aware of Bristol's pregnancy when he extended the invitation to Palin, who described herself on the campaign trail simultaneously as a relatable hockey mom and a "mama grizzly" who'd let the claws come out to protect her young when need be.

"Families have difficulties sometimes and lucky for her she has a supportive family," the aide said, seemingly referring to Sarah Palin.

Harry E. Walker/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

While both the McCaign and Obama campaigns were quick to publicly state that the race was not about any of the candidates' children and those boundaries should be respected, Bristol's pregnancy was obviously a lightning rod for controversy (and late-night comedy), whether you thought...

Well, basically, whatever you thought, there was a side for you to take.

Fast-forward a couple of months and Sarah Palin did not become vice president of the United States, but her family remained famous anyway. Tripp was born on Dec. 27, 2008. Bristol and Levi split up in January 2009, only to quietly reconcile later that year and get re-engaged.

Bristol said on Fox News in March 2009 that, if she had to do anything differently, it would have been to go to college and pursue a career before having a family, but she was head over heels for her son. He "brings so much joy," she told Greta Van Susteren. "I don't regret it at all."

In May 2009, Bristol, having been appointed a teen ambassador by the Candie's Foundation to help prevent teen pregnancy, said on Good Morning America, "I don't see myself as a celebrity; I don't want to be one. But I think using this experience in my life to help others, I think it's a blessing."

Sarah Palin resigned from the governorship in July 2009, saying that she both wanted to protect her family, which had come under merciless scrutiny, and because, she said, she had realized that she wasn't "wired to operate under the same old politics as usual."

Following in the footsteps of her mother, who wrote books and became a go-to pundit on Fox News, Bristol opted to expand her media horizons as well.

And she tried to have Levi along for some of it, but in mid-2010 they broke up for good after he got his now-wife Sunny Oglesby pregnant. Johnston and Oglesby have been married since 2012 and are now parents of two.

Judy Patrick/

Bristol participated in TLC's Sarah Palin's Alaska, which followed the family around in their home base of Wasilla, and then she accepted an invitation to do Dancing With the Stars in the fall of 2010.

Partnered with Mark Ballas, she ended up making it all the way to the final, a surprise and ultimately controversial run which served as a reminder that, from day one, Bristol also won herself plenty of fans, most of whom probably support her and her family to this day.

"She's improved every week. I think a lot of people are ignoring the fact that she's actually a decent dancer," DWTS executive producer Conrad Green told Entertainment Weekly in response to the conspiracy theory that the Tea Party, which adored Sarah Palin, was messing with the voting system somehow. "What I think is annoying people is that maybe she's not as vivid a performer as some of the other dancers on the show."

Knowing full well that wasn't the only thing annoying people who were outraged over Bristol advancing instead of Brandy, Green said, "There might be an element of her vote that's from Republicans, but there might be an element of her vote she's not getting because of Democrats. She was working at a dermatologist's office in Alaska, whereas Jennifer Grey was in a movie beloved by millions of women around this country who are now our target audience.

"She hasn't got any fan base to speak of. If there are a few Tea Party people getting behind her, how is that any different from Marie Osmond's fans voting for her, or rodeo fans voting for Ty Murray, or Brandy's fans—5 million albums sold—who were voting for her? You could argue that [Bristol]'s got no constituency. People are being melodramatic about this."

Conrad Green, meet People.


As for the people who had threatened never to watch again if Bristol won, Green cracked, "People threaten to leave the country if the next government wins the election. They tend not to."

Judge Carrie Ann Inaba weighed in to the Los Angeles Times, saying, "What's sad is that, while people are upset about Brandy, and I completely understand that, I don't think they should be taking down somebody else who is doing well. You can be upset and please express yourself but young kids read message boards. We don't want to teach our kids that when you don't like something, you should spew."

Exactly. Which is why days later Bristol apologized on behalf of her and her sister Willow Palin after they lost their temper with a Facebook commenter who wrote that Sarah Palin's Alaska, which was airing at the same time, was "failing so hard."

Willow, who was 16 at the time, had fired back, "Haha your [sic] so gay. I have no idea who you are, But what I've seen pictures of, your [sic] disgusting ... My sister had a kid and is still hot. Tre stfu. Your such a f----t." Bristol added, "You're running your mouth just to talk s--t."

Standing down, Bristol wrote, "Willow and I shouldn't have reacted to negative comments about our family. We apologize. On a nicer note, thank you for supporting the great competition in 'Dancing With the Stars.'"

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Bristol made waves on DWTS too (and not just by succeeding) when she inferred in one of her interview packages that she wasn't superficial like your average celebrity.

"I wasn't meaning the competition," she told E! News backstage the night before she found out she'd be dancing in the finals. "That's probably going to be taken the wrong way. But I know there are lots of people out there that turn on a smile for the cameras, when I'm the same 24/7. I'm very real."

"This is my seventh season and I've always had athletes or actresses," Ballas added. "I've had Melissa Joan Hart, Shannen Doherty, and I think this is the first time on a season that we've had someone who isn't on a TV show, isn't in a movie, isn't making records or doing anything like that. We just called Bristol up in Alaska, and now she's in the semifinals. This is the first time the true testament of this show has been told."

"That's why we're still around, and I'm happy to be here," Bristol agreed. "Mark started with someone from scratch, and I'm becoming way more confident and people are watching that journey." She was referred to by way of introduction on the show as a "teen activist."

The following week on the finale, she said, "Going out there and winning this would mean a lot. It would be like a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me." But—national crisis averted!—she ended up coming in third. Jennifer Grey won the mirror ball that season. 

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

But Bristol had become more famous than ever.

In 2011 she released a pretty juicy and at times self-flagellating memoir, Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, in which she described losing her virginity (to Levi, while she was drunk on wine coolers during a camp-out): "All of my plans, my promises, and my moral standards had disappeared in one awful night in a series of bad decisions."

Her intention as a Christian, she explained, was to wait for marriage to have sex (and as a public figure she would continue to preach abstinence). After they had sex, she concluded, "I was going to marry Levi. I had to now." They broke up when the Palin family moved to Juneau, when her mom was elected governor, but reconnected in the summer of 2007.

She had sex with him, she wrote, because he had needs as a guy and "if I wasn't going to fill them, I feared he'd go back to his old [cheating] ways." After she was prescribed birth control to help with menstrual cramps, they stopped using condoms.

Bristol took eight pregnancy tests, all positive, before the news sunk in. "Better be a f--king boy," is what Levi said, according to the book.

Levi, meanwhile, took issue with a number of his ex's anecdotes, and Levi's sister Mercede Johnston called Bristol "the meanest person." She told Playboy in 2011, "Everything is about her, her, her. She has to have her own way. She'll be super-sweet and then she turns into the most evil person I've ever known... I didn't know someone could be so vindictive and evil."

Adam Taylor/ABC

Of her Dancing With the Stars experience, Bristol wrote, "I noticed some of the contestants rolled their eyes when they realized we'd survived to dance another day," while some of the contestants voted off before her "literally would not speak to us or acknowledge our presence."

Bristol both endeared and inflamed with her book, a deft ability to polarize apparently running in the family.

In 2012 she starred in her own reality show, Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp, chronicling her experience as a single mom living in Arizona. And that fall, any negativity she previously experienced aside, she returned for Dancing With the Stars' all-star season, again partnered with Ballas.

Whatever chemistry with her audience—and Mark—that she'd established during her first run on DWTS went missing the second time around, however, and after experiencing a tearful on-air crisis of confidence that had Anderson Cooper begging her to get a real job, she was eliminated in week four. Tabloids obsessed over her apparent weight loss and speculated that she'd had work done on her face. And someone even sent hate mail containing a mysterious (though ultimately harmless) powder to the studio, prompting Sarah Palin to get involved. (Or, as she said on her own short-lived reality show while hunting, "Don't retreat. Just reload."


"These threats sure waste a lot of time, production and public resources; but do the haters really think this will stop Bristol and Mark and the show's producers from keepin' on keepin' on? Silly critics—after all these years of goofy antics like this we find these efforts are actually quite motivating! Bristol's not letting this get her down," Palin wrote on Facebook in Mama Grizzly mode.

Life's a Tripp only lasted one season (and required a bizarre clarification from Bristol when it sounded as if her then 3-year-old son blurted an anti-gay slur, and she assured that he had used the other F-word). In 2013, Bristol and Willow appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap in an episode with Joan Rivers and daughter Melissa Rivers ("wife" being just a jumping-off point), which led to a heartwarming moment between celebs approaching each other from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

"I think Joan is just awesome," Bristol told Fox News. "I think at the end of the day, her family is the most important thing to her, just like with me—my family is the most important thing to me."

And Joan was pleasantly surprised as well, telling Bristol at the end of the episode, "I learned nobody should judge anybody from where they come, or who they're related to, good or bad. You are your own person. And...I adore you. I just think you're great. I just had the best time with you. I think you're terrific."

When Rivers died in 2014, Bristol wrote, "People might wonder how we could get along so well—since we had different politics and came from different places. But that misses the point entirely. Politics is downstream from most people's lives—including mine. Joan was a rare person—charming, funny, and (no matter how she pretended otherwise) kind."


Meanwhile, though she continued to blog, Bristol had retreated back into a more private life in Alaska.

But the 24/7 news cycle was never far away. In 2014 half of the Palin family got caught up in a drunken bar fight in Alaska, apparently while defending their honor. According to the police report, Willow told Bristol that a woman had pushed her, and went Bristol went to confront the woman, a guy shoved Bristol to the ground and called her a "f--king slut" and the c-word. Then she started smacking him.

"Some guy punched me!" Bristol can be heard yelling on a copy of the police audio tape, obtained by E! News. "I don't know the names...He pushed me down on the ground and dragged me across the grass!"

Then a group of four other people reportedly jumped patriarch Todd Palin, prompting his son Track Palin to jump into the fray.


"I love my Bristol!" Sarah Palin, who did not witness the excitement that night, wrote in addressing the incident on Facebook. "My straight-shooter is one of the strongest young women you'll ever meet. I have to say this as a proud mama: right up there with their work ethic and heart for those less fortunate, my kids' defense of family makes my heart soar!"

She went on, "As you can imagine, they and my extended family have experienced so many things (liberal media-driven) that may have crushed others without a strong foundation of faith, and I'm thankful for our friends' prayer shield that surrounds them, allowing faith to remain their anchor. Thank you, prayer warriors! I love you!"

So the Us vs. Them feeling sown among the Palins and their supporters only continued to perpetuate. At some point, Bristol had started dating Dakota Meyer, and a few months later, in January 2015, she revealed she was pregnant again.  


But instead of a celebratory announcement, Bristol practically apologized.

"(I'm announcing this news a lot sooner than I ever expected due to the constant trolls who have nothing better to talk about!!!)," she wrote on her blog. "I wanted you guys to be the first to know that I am pregnant.

"Honestly, I've been trying my hardest to keep my chin up on this one. At the end of the day there's nothing I can't do with God by my side, and I know I am fully capable of handling anything that is put in front of me with dignity and grace. Life moves on no matter what.  So no matter how you feel, you get up, get dressed, show up, and never give up. When life gets tough, there is no other option but to get tougher.

"I know this has been, and will be, a huge disappointment to my family, to my close friends, and to many of you," she wrote in her blog post. "But please respect Tripp's and my privacy during this time. I do not want any lectures and I do not want any sympathy. My little family always has, and always will come first. Tripp, this new baby, and I will all be fine, because God is merciful." 

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As she herself noted, she was trying to get ahead of the haters and the inevitable bodyshamers who would have been all too happy to point out an iota of weight gain. But her pregnancy served as a rueful acknowledgment that she herself wasn't exactly practicing what she preached about premarital sex and nuclear-family values. 

At first she didn't identify the dad but soon enough Meyer stepped back into the picture and they got engaged. Days before they were due to tie the knot in May 2015, however, they called off the ceremony

Via a statement posted by her mom, Bristol stated that any rumors that Meyer was still legally married to his first wife were wrong, that they had in fact been divorced for years. 


They welcomed daughter Sailor that December and settled into a co-parenting routine. Eventually they reconciled and decided to get married after all, which they did on May 23, 2016. Almost exactly a year later they had daughter Atleeand moved from Alaska to Texas.

"This pregnancy has strengthen our bond and made our relationship stand even firmer on the foundation that we have proudly built up for our little family," Bristol wrote a week after Atlee's birth.

As for the move, she explained, "When Dakota and I got married, we both agreed that we would 'meet in the middle' and move somewhere to dig our roots in a mutual, new, place. We decided on Texas, and I couldn't be happier! The kids love it too. The new house is just in time for Dakota and me to celebrate our wedding anniversary."

They lived a quiet life in Austin, with Bristol continuing to blog and share family photos and holiday pics on Instagram, just like anybody else. And now she's getting divorced, just like anybody else.

No apologies necessary.