The untold truth of Barbara Bush

Born one minute before her fraternal twin sister Jenna, Barbara Pierce Bush — granddaughter of 41st president George H.W. Bush and daughter of 43rd president George W. Bush — is a force to be reckoned with. While Jenna has traditionally spent more time in the spotlight thanks to her job as a news correspondent for the Today show, Barbara is a rising star in her own right. In their joint memoir Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, Barbara and Jenna provide an inside look into what it was like growing up in the political spotlight, and what their lives are like now — and between the stories shared there and some of the interviews that Barbara has done over the years, it's clear that she's an impressive woman.

She went through a goth phase in junior high

Like so many of us — for whom adolescence brings back painful memories of fashion blunders, among other forms of misery and embarrassment — Bush went through her own awkward phase. "By sixth grade, I was a nonconformist conformist…. The most prized piece in my wardrobe was a raspberry velvet Jessica McClintock dress with an attached pearl choker — my favorite feature. Only I could make a Jessica McClintock dress look Goth," she writes in Sisters First (via WBUR.org). 

She also explains that although she had a "very real obsession with vamp nail polish and Courtney Love," she never actually took action on her mischievous, rebellious inclinations. Can I get a shout-out to my fellow aspiring "bad girls," since we all liked the idea of being "bad" but were too scared to actually do anything? High-fives of docile solidarity all around!

Her name caused lots of confusion

Speaking of awkward moments, the public's recognition of her namesake — her grandmother, Barbara Bush — led to some mix-ups and awkward experiences. As she notes in Sisters First, her parents had decided before she and Jenna were born that the girls would be named after their grandmothers, and that they would be named alphabetically in order of birth (the firstborn would be Barbara, and the second would be Jenna). 

This was, of course, well before her grandparents were world-famous public figures. As she explains in Sisters First, since so many men in the family were named George, it made sense to have family names for the women too. But by the time her grandfather was sworn in as the 41st president, the circumstances surrounding her name had changed dramatically.

"When you have the same name as the First Lady of the United States, there are times when 'the name talk' would've been helpful," she writes, recounting the many times when she'd order a pizza, Girl Scout cookies, or books from the beloved Scholastic catalog, only to have people not believe that Barbara Bush could possibly be ordering a children's book or large pizza. She was, as she notes, a little girl with a big name. 

She lost her high school boyfriend to suicide

As if an adolescence in the public spotlight isn't hard enough, Bush also experienced an incredibly painful loss during her teen years: when she was in high school, her boyfriend, Kyle, died by suicide. As she told Time magazine, the experience shook her to her core. 

Adding to the pain, she wrote in Sisters First (via Time) that after Kyle's funeral, she was told that Catholics believe that people who die by suicide are forbidden from entering heaven. "I was so upset," she writes. "Not just then, but for years later…. Until I was 34, every wish that I ever made, on the flame of a birthday candle or on a star, was a wish that Kyle would go to heaven…. He died when I was seventeen, so by now I've made half a lifetime of wishes."

In 2016 she went to see a healer — and indeed, the encounter was deeply healing for her. She brought a photo of Kyle and "didn't say anything, I didn't even tell [the healer] my name, I just showed [her] the photo. She looked at it and matter-of-factly said he had hanged himself in his closet…. She told me, 'He has followed you everywhere, and he's so proud of all that you've done. You've been all over the world and he's gotten to go on this journey with you.' Then she said, 'He says you can stop counting stars now.'"

She had an inappropriate encounter with a former Italian prime minister

In Sisters First, Bush notes that when she was 24, she and her mother, Laura, were visiting Italy for the Olympics. They wound up going to lunch with Silvio Berlusconi, who was then the Italian prime minister, and who proceeded to get incredibly creepy in his conversation with Barbara. 

The New York Times reporter Frank Bruni noted that this encounter was his favorite insider anecdote in the book. He paraphrased: "Berlusconi complemented her on her blue eyes, told her she should mate with his son, and, for good measure, announced: 'If I was younger, I'd have children with you.'" Somehow Barbara managed to maintain her composure. Worse yet — or, perhaps, thankfully — she told Time that, "a few sentences after that, the female translator stopped translating." Yikes.

She's an avid runner

In an interview with SELF, Bush explained that she loves getting up early to go running. "Since I started running, I haven't stopped!" she said. Her cat, Eleanor, usually wakes her up and gets her moving — and then she laces up her kicks and hits the road. "The West Side Highway is a great path," she explained. "I usually start in Tribeca and go up along the water. On weekends, I love running across the Williamsburg Bridge, running around in Brooklyn and then back to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge."

She originally pursued a career in fashion

Although her mom describes her as a math whiz, Bush was also drawn to the arts and humanities from an early age. According to a 2004 feature article in Vogue (via Style.com), Bush "asked for a sewing machine when she was 13," and then went on to design and sew her own eighth-grade graduation dress. She also studied Spanish throughout high school and college, and chose to spend her junior year of high school at the St. Stephens School in Rome.

When it came time to apply for college, she knew she wanted to head East, so she applied to nine schools including Princeton, Columbia, and Yale. "I love Texas, but I wanted a change," she told Vogue. "I like going to places by myself, and I knew so many people who were going to U.T. [the University of Texas] — all my friends from junior high and high school." She wound up attending Yale, from which she graduated in 2004. 

During college, she spent the summer of 2003 working for fashion brand Proenza Schouler — an internship that she landed, according to an interview with Elle magazine, after she cold-emailed the firm's founders and "explained that she could, among other things, sew." She landed the internship and began cutting her teeth in the world of New York fashion and design.

She's passionate about global health

During the summer of 2003, she traveled to Africa with her parents for the launch of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PREPFAR), and it was an experience that would prove to be life-changing. Speaking to Elle magazine, Bush explained that seeing "thousands of people lining the street waiting for drugs that they needed to live, that we had in the United States, was something very hard for me to wrap my brain around." 

In a separate interview with The New York Times, she said that seeing "people who were mourning the deaths of their children and sisters, because they didn't have access to drugs that do exist" was mind-blowing. "We have the tools to solve these problems," she said she realized, but the issue is that "we just need to use them more effectively."

After seeing the impact of global health initiatives like PEPFAR, she was inspired to take action. As Elle notes, she soon changed majors — from architecture to the humanities — and after her 2004 graduation from Yale, she sought guidance from the State Department on how best to become involved in global health issues.

She founded a global health non-profit organization

After college, Bush continued to pursue her increasing interest in global health. Her sister Jenna's attendance at an AIDS conference in California proved to be another turning point: as Barbara told Elle magazine, Jenna had met two people — a Google employee and a member of an AIDS advocacy organization — and she encouraged Barbara to meet with them. When she finally got together with them, they "started brainstorming about global health issues and ended up talking about the fact that Teach for America had been an amazing way to catalyze dialogue and engagement around the need for education." That conversation led to a more crystallized vision of her mission.

In 2009, Barbara founded the Global Health Corps (GHC) — an organization that aims "to mobilize a global community of emerging leaders to build the movement for health equity."  GHC uses a model similar to Teach for America, by recruiting people to "work with high-impact organizations in year-long paid positions… to make a significant and measurable contribution to the placement organization and the target population." 

She was nervous at first, telling The New York Times, "When I was thinking about starting Global Health, but I was afraid I wasn't ready, my mom said: 'You're in another job, but always talking about Global Health. Are you going to be happy leaving this on your to-do list forever?'" That got her motivated to put her plans into action, and the rest is history.

She's an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage

While her sister Jenna is known as the more outgoing, gregarious sister, Barbara is an outspoken advocate for the causes she believes in. In 2011, she recorded a PSA video in support of gay marriage, saying that "New York is about fairness and equality. And everyone should have the right to marry the person they love."

In an interview with The New York Times, Bush said that she was surprised by how much attention the PSA received; Whoopi Goldberg and Julianne Moore had done similar videos, and when Bush checked them out on YouTube, each video had garnered less than 100 views. Thinking that since those videos didn't make a huge splash, hers wouldn't either, she was surprised when it became a newsworthy item. 

"The narrative was that I was breaking with my father," she explained to The New York Times. "But I had talked to my dad about doing it, and he was very supportive. What surprised me were all the people who said: 'How brave! Betraying your family like that.' But my parents raised us to use our voices for issues we care about, and I feel strongly about marriage equality." 

She supports women's health

Bush has spoken out in favor of Planned Parenthood, calling the group "an exceptional organization" in a June 2016 interview with The New York Times

She even served as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas in March 2017, during which she emphasized Planned Parenthood's important role in all aspects of women's health. "To me, Planned Parenthood is a one-stop-shop for everything that has to do with women's health and all social problems that don't have to do with women's health," notes The Texas Tribune in their coverage of the event. "I hope you all realize the incredible investment that you're making for both women and also their kids, their kids' education and their income level. And that is unique and incredible. It's a silver bullet, if you ask me."

She's the favorite — and she knows it

Part of the fun of having siblings is trying to figure out who your parents' favorites are, and one can only imagine that must be doubly true for twins. If you hear Bush and her sister Jenna tell it, though, there's really no contest. Asked point blank by Chelsea Handler, Jenna tossed out her twin's name without a moment's hesitation — and Bush's own revelations about her relationship with their dad didn't exactly contradict Jenna's claim. 

Apparently, Bush wakes up to a text from her dad every single day. "He sends me every morning, it usually says, 'Love you, baby,'" she revealed, "and then we read the same meditation book, and he sends me an abbreviated meditation illustrated by emojis." Adding fuel to the sibling rivalry flames, Bush confessed that their dad had appointed her as his art collection curator and even recently painted her portrait. 

Like her sister, she doesn't identify with any one political party

Given their family's long-reaching past with the Republican party, the presumption that the twins would follow in those conservative footsteps has always been ripe for the picking. However, the women aren't afraid to set the record straight: they aren't affiliated with any one party. "I think it's surprising for people…. Maybe it's the current climate, but our parents raised us to have our own opinions and emotions and be curious independent thinkers. As long as we are living a life well-lived and have formed our own opinions, they're proud of us," Bush told Vanity Fair of the twins' political inclinations. 

However, Bush has also been open about her support for the 2016 election's Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and the platforms Clinton champions. Shortly before the election, a photo of Bush alongside Clinton aide Huma Abedin began circulating on social media. The snapshot, which also included outspoken Democrats like actress Dakota Fanning, was captioned with the Clinton-slogan hashtag #werewithher (though the hashtag was later deleted).

Her sister tried to set her up with Prince Harry

It's practically a law of the universe that siblings exist for the sole purpose of embarrassing you. This is a subject in which Bush boasts the kind of personal experience most of us will be lucky enough to avoid in our lifetime. Sure, if you're the "single" sibling, you're likely no stranger to being set up, but at least your sibling doesn't meddle in your love life on live television and with a royal, no less.

The moment, which sister Jenna later admitted to Fox News didn't go over well with her twin, happened on a Today segment during which Jenna interviewed Prince Harry. When asked about the public's fascination with his future marriage and offspring, Harry admitted he was bewildered by it — especially given his single status. And, well, Jenna seized the opportunity. 

"But you know what? I have a single sister and she feels the same way," she told Harry, pausing slightly before adding, "Listen, she's available." Of course, Jenna immediately realized her sister wouldn't be very keen to being offered up on a silver platter, royal though it may be. "She's gonna kill me," Jenna said with a laugh before telling the regal redhead, "I'll give you her number." 

She's a voracious reader

Bush's days are undoubtedly pretty packed with running a non-profit, promoting the twins' book Sisters First, and spending time with her tight-knit family. Yet, the Yale grad has another passion to fill any spare minutes she might have: reading. Not surprisingly, it's another pastime that Bush shares with her family, telling People that she and sis Jenna "like to read at the same time, so that we have someone to talk to about where we are in the book, and what might be going on." The twins have even looped their dad into their fun by inviting him to read along with them. 

Curious about what type of tome this former former daughter likes to read? Bush shared her top picks with Omnivoracious, which included Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. 

She once got detention for flipping the bird in a school photo

Bush was always seen as the studious or soft-spoken twin while her sister Jenna has often been referred to as the wild one. As it turns out, though, Barbara did a little hell-raising of her own. In a surprising reveal on Chelsea Handler's Netflix show, Bush confessed that she once found herself in serious hot water after flipping off the school photographer during class pictures. Yes, you read that right. 

To set the scene, Bush was in eighth grade at an episcopal school and had hatched a plot with four other girls to give the camera the proverbial bird. "So we took the photo, and I did it. And then the school printed it," she told Handler. "It was so little that you couldn't see it in, like, the composite of the photo, so they printed enough photos for our entire class. My middle finger's floating in it so I had to admit it, and there's, like, a few other girls whose hands are raised, but no one flicked it off. And then they had to get an air-brusher to airbrush my middle finger out of every photo, 'cause they'd already printed it." 

Yikes! Her punishment? Scraping gum of the sidewalks after school. 

She prefers being outside of her comfort zone

The expression may be cliche, but you really can't judge a book by its cover. Despite Bush's reputation as the meek twin, she explained during a panel with Salesforce that she is typically the one taking risks — and she prefers it that way.

Discussing her decision to attend Yale, Bush said, "I chose to go to a school where I didn't know anyone, because I like being out of my comfort zone in that way. I like knowing that I can build a life anywhere, I love that type of experience." 

She's not exactly a Martha Stewart in the kitchen

Being Southern comes with many preconceived notions attached, one of the more positive of which is the idea that Southern women can whip up just about anything in the kitchen. But during a quick round of "Me or My Sister" with Southern Living, Bush and her sister Jenna comically dispelled that theory. 

When asked who was the better cook, neither had to think long before bestowing the title upon Jenna. "Probably me, because I cook," Jenna said, to which Barbara agreed. "If you cooked, you might be good," the more culinary inclined twin posited. Putting up zero fight, Barbara backed Jenna's suggestion, saying, "Maybe we would know, but we don't know." To which Jenna drove the point home with, "We don't know, because she's never cooked." 

On the plus side, the sisters did agree that Barbara isn't totally without talent in the kitchen. "I would say you're more of a set designer for food. You can put food out nicely," Jenna said. Ultimately, they agreed the cooking of food is best left to Jenna, while Barbara does the buying and the placing. Nice compromise, ladies.

She used to think that everyone's granddad got an inauguration

It can be hilarious to look back at the things you misunderstood in your younger years. Some of us believed for longer than we care to admit that the classic Dobie Gray song "Drift Away" was about the Beach Boys ("Oh, give me the Beach Boys…" or, you know, the beat). And then there was Bush, who clearly didn't quite comprehend the whole concept of a presidential inauguration. 

"When we were born, our grandfather was vice president, and when we were in kindergarten, our grandfather became president," she explained, "and we did not know what was going on. We went to D.C. for the inauguration and — I found my journal, in which I say this — I thought everyone's grandfather had an inauguration. I did not know that it was because you were president."

The misunderstanding didn't stop there, though, because what fun would that be? Rather, for an indeterminate amount of time, little Barbara went to school and asked her friends when their grandfathers' inaugurations would be held. Classic. 

She hurt her back crowd-surfing at a Pearl Jam concert

If you ever needed further evidence that Bush is an overachiever, look no further than her bad behavior. Even when she breaks the rules, she goes all out. Just consider the following anecdote about the time she got a little too rowdy at a Pearl Jam concert — in middle school. "I was 14, I went crowd-surfing, obviously, as a 14 year old. I was about 80 pounds. I was, like, a small little middle-schooler," she began retelling the sordid tale during a Salesforce panel, revealing that it's not an activity she would recommend since she fell on her back.

And while she bears no physical scars from the crowd-surfing gone awry, Bush insists she is still haunted by the incident to this very day. "My mom found out somehow, I'm not totally sure how," she said, casting a glance at Jenna. "I mean, someone in our household told her, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't my dad." Suffice it to say, their mother Laura has yet to forget it, either. "My mom brings it up every quarter basically," Bush shared, laughing. "Like, I ran a half marathon and I saw her and I was like, 'I'm kinda sore.' And she was like, 'I know. That Pearl Jam concert.'"

She was the sister who insisted on separating for independence

If you spend any amount of time watching the Bush twins interact, it's abundantly evident that the pair is practically inseparable. So it may come as a particular shock that not only did they branch away from each other during their formative years, but it was Barbara's idea. 

"Yes, we were always coupled and when you're twins, everyone compares you, because you must be the opposite of each other, which we're not," she explained. "And so, when I was 16, I went away to school in Rome and lived my own life without my sissy, and I missed her but I created my own identity. And then she would come and visit and everything became more real, because she was there and got to see it too." 

Go on, you can say it: awww! Sister friends are the best, especially when they consist of two empowered women like the Bush twins who support each other in their similarities and differences.