Faces of Faith: Jenny McCarthy on her Chicago, Catholic roots
(POSTED: 10/8/12) Growing up in the West Lawn area on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Jenny McCarthy was a God-fearing Catholic school girl who played with Jesus, Mary and Joseph dolls, had a Jesus poster in her bedroom and once dreamed of becoming a nun.
She went on to become a model for Playboy Magazine, an actress and a best-selling author, who currently lives in Los Angeles. McCarthy, 39, has previously written about being bullied as a student at Mother McAuley High School in Chicago and much about her experiences as a mother of an autistic child.
However, in her newest book, “Bad Habits: Confessions of a Recovering Catholic,” McCarthy shares amusing stories of her Catholic upbringing and her ensuing journey to Playmate of the Year. She recently spoke over the phone with ChicagoCatholicNews.com about her faith background and evolving spirituality. Below is an edited transcript.
You were raised in a very strict and very religious household. How do you go from there to Playboy?
Looking back on it, we grew up really poor, and that underlying kind of poverty — looking at my parents struggling for food — was so traumatic on me and my childhood that I had this dream that somehow and someway I was going to make their lives better, get them out of debt and move them out of the neighborhood. I went to college to do something respectable, if you will, but even there I was so financially strapped, I couldn’t afford books, I couldn’t afford food. I got to the point where I was selling parking passes that weren’t real. Then I decided that it just wasn’t working. …
I went to a modeling agency in downtown Chicago, and they turned me down. They said I don’t have what it takes. … Right across the street was Playboy, and I thought there’s no way I could do that. My mom — everyone — will disown me. I talked to the receptionist, … and they took some photos of me in a bathing suit.
By the time I got on the bus, I got a phone call that I was going to be in the October issue. I was excited to find opportunity, but I was horrified as to what it meant for me spiritually and religiously and for my family. … Once I got paid, I sat them down and wrote them checks for all of their bills and moved them to the suburbs. …
What did your family think of it all?
My mom initially was devastated. … I said, ‘Listen, there are things that people do in their lives that you don’t agree with, but I’m going to do something with these bunny ears. I’m going to use the opportunity to do something for good. Please, please, please stand by me.’ … Once I went on this autism journey and went on tour helping moms, my mom said, ‘You did what you promised and you are doing something good with your bunny ears.’
You’ve mentioned the notion of Catholic guilt before – did that stay with you?
Catholic guilt carried with me for about 30 years of my life, feeling bad about things. I do talk about one thing in the book: When I moved to California, I was still attending Mass by myself. I was looking around my church and thinking that everyone looks really depressed and really sad. We are meant to look at our sins and examine them at Mass, but why aren’t we also looking at the goods thing we did that week? … Focusing on the negative was attracting me to bad things. I wanted to eat bad food, smoke a cigarette or whatever. When I started looking at the good things I did, I felt better about myself. I noticed that my friends were of better quality and I was happier. … I started to concentrate on that rather than focusing on the negative things I did, the sins, if you will, because it made me suffer. Suffering was not leading to my enlightenment.
Coming from a heavily Catholic neighborhood in Chicago, how does Hollywood compare? Is religion as visible there?
Religion is visible there. When I first moved there, I looked for the local Catholic church. I attended it until it closed down. There were a lot of churches closing down there in our area. Then I didn’t want to go a lot because I was feeling so bad. I started going to other places — gospel places, actually. It made me feel so happy, singing and dancing in the aisles.
The title of your book describes you as a recovering Catholic. Where do you stand now? How would you describe your faith now?
I am still religious and still spiritual. I still believe in so many of the same things I did growing up. What I did drop was a lot of the guilt and the suffering. When people say ‘are you still Catholic?’ I would have to say no because I don’t go to church anymore. But, in some ways, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. … I hold on to everything I’ve been taught and I still want to be a good person and do good things. I just want to open my mind to more belief systems, which then open my heart more. I stopped being part of organized religion and became a really spiritual and nice person.
As a child you were afraid of God and afraid of hell. Do you believe in hell now?
I was raised everyday believing I was going there. After I had an interview once with a Catholic nun on my TV show, … I asked her to describe a scene in hell and what a bad person might expect. And she said that the Catholic Church has never made a statement that anyone was in hell. For 25 years, I was taught that there were bad people melting and their skin was hanging off for all eternity. Hearing that, I thought to myself, well, there goes any belief that there was anyone in hell.
On a lighter note, you’ve got a good sense of humor, and the book is meant to be part comedy. Can you share a funny anecdote from the book with us?
When Madonna first came on the scene, it was in my puberty years. My mom refused to let us watch any part of Madonna. … As a little girl, I still snuck upstairs and danced around in my bedroom with my shirt hanging off one shoulder, wearing my rosaries. I went to Mass to confess my sins, of me liking someone like that. I told the priest that I feel bad for liking Madonna, and he said, ‘So do I.’
By Katie Drews, for ChicagoCatholicNews.com