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From ’80s Teen Star to Boutique Owner: A Look at the Surprising Career of Phoebe Cates

She's so much more than the bad girl from 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High!


Phoebe Cates, the teen star who rose to prominence in ’80s classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gremlins, was one of the most charming actresses of her day. While she’ll always be associated with the infamous Fast Times scene in which she removes her bikini top in a fantasy sequence turned hilariously awkward nightmare, she’s far more than just an ’80s teen boy’s crush.

In her handful of starring roles, she projected a mix of sweetness and sass that made us wish she was our BFF or older sister. Becoming famous at a young age is always something of a gamble, but Cates seems admirably well-adjusted, and she’s had a delightfully quirky career trajectory. Here’s a look back at how she got her start and what she’s been up to in recent years.

Phoebe Cates, 1980s
Phoebe Cates in the ’80sFilm Favorites/Getty

Model to movie star

Phoebe Cates was born to a showbiz family in New York City in 1963. Her father, Joseph Cates, produced TV shows and Broadway shows, while her uncle, Gil Cates, was a director and produced multiple editions of the Academy Awards. Young Phoebe was destined for a career in entertainment, and attended the Professional Children’s School and Juilliard. She originally wanted to be a dancer, but after an injury dashed her hopes she began modeling. With her glossy raven hair and perfect pout, she quickly became a fixture in teen magazines like Seventeen.

Phoebe Cates modeling on the cover of Seventeen magazine in 1979
Phoebe Cates modeling on the cover of Seventeen magazine in 1979@magnif_zinebocho/Instagram

While being a model may seem like a teen girl’s dream job, Cates was less than thrilled with it, telling People, “That didn’t teach me anything… It was just the same thing, over and over. After a while I did it solely for the money.” She soon made the shift to acting, and had her first role starring in Paradise, a poorly-received 1982 Blue Lagoon rip-off in which she appeared nude. In the People interview, she admitted she thought the film was dumb and had no interest in promoting it.

That same year, Cates was in a film she actually liked: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie, which perfectly captured teen life with an unforgettable sense of humor, made her and her young costars famous, and it was a hit that remains beloved over 40 years later. The movie made Cates a household name, and she and her onscreen best friend, Jennifer Jason Leigh, became real-life friends and are still close years later. In a 2018 conversation between the two actresses in Interview magazine, Leigh told Cates that when they first met, “I knew you were a person I wanted to hang out with all the time because you were so funny and with-it and smart and savvy, and a little bit evil.”

Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' 1982
Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)@the80s.guy/Instagram

After Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cates was in high demand, and appeared in a TV movie, Baby Sister, and Private School, another teen sex comedy (albeit not as well-remembered as Fast Times) in 1983. The next year, she starred in the soapy miniseries Lace as a haughty movie star searching for her biological mother. The addictively trashy show became notorious for her line, “Incidentally, which one of you b*tches is my mother?” The series was a success and led to a TV movie sequel in 1985, in which she reprised the role.

Portrait of Phoebe Cates in pink outfit in 1986
Phoebe Cates poses for a portrait in 1986Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty

In 1984, Cates also had one of her most popular film roles when she co-starred in the madcap horror-comedy Gremlins as the protagonist’s girlfriend. The combination of adorable critters and creative genre blending proved irresistible to audiences, and Gremlins was a box office smash. Cates returned for the sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990.

MUST-READ: Cast of ‘Gremlins’: See the Stars of the Madcap ’80s Horror-Comedy Then and Now

Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan in 'Gremlins,' 1984
Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan in Gremlins (1984)Warner Bros. Pictures/Amblin E/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

Cates worked steadily through the late ’80s, with roles in Date With an Angel, a fantasy-comedy, Bright Lights, Big City, an adaptation of the contemporary novel, and two midcentury period pieces, Shag and Heart of Dixie. However, these movies weren’t nearly as successful as Fast Times and Gremlins before them.

Phoebe Cates in 1985
Phoebe Cates in 1985Vinnie Zuffante/Getty

Phoebe Cates’ final roles

In the ’90s, Cates had just three more film roles, in 1991 she played a grown woman revisited by her wacky imaginary friend from childhood in Drop Dead Fred. While the film was critically panned on its release, it gained cult status over the years. She then starred in the 1993 indie drama Bodies, Rest & Motion. Cates acted opposite her husband, Kevin Kline, in her penultimate film, Princess Caraboo, in 1994. She played the title character, a woman posing as an exotic princess in the late 19th century.

Phoebe Cates in 'Princess Caraboo', 1994
Phoebe Cates in Princess Caraboo (1994)Richard Blanshard/Getty

Following Princess Caraboo, Cates stepped away from the spotlight to focus on her family. In 2001, she made her final onscreen appearance in The Anniversary Party. The ensemble dramedy was co-directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Cates appeared in it (along with Kline) as a favor to her longtime friend.

MUST-READ: Kirsten Dunst Movies, Ranked: 10 of the Luminous Star’s Greatest Roles

Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh at the premiere of 'The Anniversary Party,' 2001
Old friends Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh at the premiere of The Anniversary Party in 2001Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty

Phoebe Cates’ life offscreen

So what has Cates been up to in the more than 20 years since she’s graced the screen? She and Kline, who married in 1989, are still together and have two grown children, both of whom are also creatively inclined and have established careers as hip artists. Their son, Owen, is an actor and filmmaker, while their daughter, Greta, is a musician with her own band, Frankie Cosmos.

Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline with their kids, Owen and Greta Kline, in 2005
Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline with their kids, Owen and Greta, in 2005Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty

In 2005, Cates opened a boutique, Blue Tree, in New York City. The shop sells jewelry, clothing and home items, and according the their site, the former actress envisioned it “a general store but according to me.”

Lest you think this is a mere celebrity vanity project, Blue Tree is still going strong nearly 20 years after it first opened, and shoppers report that Cates is often there working the counter! The store is a family business, and frequently features Greta modeling their wares on their Instagram page.

Phoebe Cates posing in front of her boutique, Blue Tree
Phoebe Cates poses outside of Blue Tree@bluetreeny/Instagram

While we miss seeing Phoebe Cates onscreen, we think it’s pretty cool that she’s taken an unexpected path and found her passion outside of Hollywood. We’d be happy to buy some eclectic accessories from her any day!

Phoebe Cates in 2019
Phoebe Cates in 2019@bluetreeny/Instagram

Read on for more about your favorite ’80s actresses!

Jamie Lee Curtis Movies: A Look Back At the Scream Queen’s Most Memorable Roles

Geena Davis Movies: 12 of Her Most Charming and Memorable Films

Molly Ringwald Movies: A Look Back Through the ’80s Teen Icon’s Best Films

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