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Inside Bristol Palin’s Complicated Public Life

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 Palinas 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 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.

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.


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.


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, referring to Sarah Palin.

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 Oglesbee have been married since 2012 and are now parents of two.

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.’”

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.”