Even at the age of seven, Minka Kelly was aware that her existence was “different.”
Living in Los Angeles with her single mother, exotic performer Maureen, they both struggled with poverty. They stayed in a storage container at the apartment complex at one point because they were unable to pay their rent.
“I spent much of my youth wishing my mother was someone she wasn’t, wishing she was like the other mothers,” says Kelly, 42, in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “It wasn’t until I was much older that I truly understood how exceptional she was. In fact, it was perhaps a bit too late.”
In her forthcoming memoir, Tell Me Everything, Kelly reveals for the first time her traumatic upbringing, which included witnessing her mother struggle with addiction and domestic violence while attempting to make ends meet. Maureen, who died of cancer in 2008, frequently brought her small daughter to the Los Angeles strip club where she performed, Crazy Girls.
“If she made a lot of money that night, we’d go grocery shopping at 2 a.m.,” recalls the actress. “My childhood was colorful and disorderly, unstable and inconsistent, and frequently difficult. The silver lining is that it has made me a highly adaptable individual.”
Kelly reveals in the opening pages of her memoir that at the age of 17, she performed in peep shows at an adult video store in Albuquerque. Kelly was determined to attempt to support herself after being shuttled between family friends and acquaintances for weeks and months while her mother was absent.
“I started with the scariest part,” she says. “The part for which I carried the most shame, the part about which I felt the most embarrassment, the part that I hid my entire existence, and the part about which others have made me feel bad. And I felt that was precisely where I needed to be the most courageous.”
After escaping a toxic relationship with her first partner, which resulted in an abortion and coerced sex tape, Kelly traveled to Los Angeles to reconcile with her former Aerosmith guitarist father, Rick Dufay. Before she began modeling and acting and gained her first breakthrough role in the hit television series Friday Night Lights, she attended school to become a scrub nurse. “I was terrified because I was way in over my head,” she recalls.
She also became romantically entwined with Taylor Kitsch, despite director Peter Berg’s warning. “That relationship taught me not to have on-set relationships,” says Kelly, who is no longer in contact with Kitsch. However, you must master it on your own.
Kelly’s mother came and went from her life, but the two became estranged after Maureen asked for more financial assistance. After Maureen’s colon cancer diagnosis and prognosis of two years to live, they rekindled their relationship. On the recommendation of a clinician, Kelly confronted Maureen about her upbringing.
“I saw her begin to crumble in shame, regret, and pain when she was already in so much of each,” Kelly recalls. “I immediately thought, ‘I shouldn’t do this to her.'” “All I must do is forgive and adore her. She is currently damaged. What is the purpose of rubbing salt into a wound? I’m alright. I want to take care of her immediately.”
Maureen spent her final days in a hospice facility in Albuquerque. Kelly crawled into her mother’s bed and encircled her with her arms and legs as she passed away. One of her greatest regrets is not spending the final Thanksgiving with her mother. “Because that was her favorite holiday, and she really wanted me to be there,” says Kelly, who was working at the time. “I simply said, ‘Ah, I’ll see you at the next one,’ knowing that there wouldn’t be another. And I ponder about this a great deal. This continues to crush my heart.
Now, Kelly hopes that her book will help those who “might have complicated relationships with their mothers feel less alone,” as she explains. “And also to realize that we are not victims of our circumstances.”
She adds that writing it was cathartic and allowed her to embrace “all the darkest, scariest parts, the parts I’ve carried a lot of shame about my entire life.” “Owning my past rather than feeling compelled to conceal it was incredibly liberating.”