Standing in front of a dressing-room mirror at a Hollywood studio, Rumer Willis slips on a sleek black blazer and stares at herself in disbelief. “I just can’t believe how much I look like my mom right now,” she says with a laugh. “It’s trippy.” For the oldest daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, feeling comfortable in her own skin hasn’t always come easy. Since her teens, she has endured nasty online comments about her looks and famous family. “It was really hard,” she says. “I would read that stuff and feel awful. I thought, ‘I don’t even get a chance?’ ”
Now on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Rumer, 26, is winning fans over with her new confidence – and she’s thrilled to be showing the world who she really is. “People have such an immediate judgment of me because I have tattoos or because my hair is sometimes crazy,” she explains. “[They think] I’m this reckless child of famous parents.” With Demi, Bruce and her sisters cheering in the audience, Rumer and her DWTS partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy, have shattered expectations, shooting to the top of the leaderboard from the start. “She has a very strong work ethic,” says Chmerkovskiy. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone who has that type of spirit.”
Her spirited personality comes from a childhood that was anything but typical. Born in Paducah, Ky., while her father was filming In Country, Rumer grew up traveling between film sets and a home base in rural Hailey, Idaho. The lifestyle, she admits, had its pros and cons. “I’ve traveled to some really incredible places, but my basic math skills are horrendous,” she says, laughing. “It’s an interesting trade-off.” After Bruce and Demi divorced in 2000, they stayed extraordinarily friendly. “We didn’t have to split up the holidays or birthdays,” Rumer says, crediting her parents for a happy childhood but one that was at times isolating. She grew very close to her two sisters, Scout, now 23, and Tallulah, 21, but struggled to find friends. “In high school I had a much easier time interacting with adults than with my peers,” she explains. “So that [period] was a weird transition.”
While Rumer made her acting debut at 7 alongside her mom in Now and Then and appeared in Demi’s Striptease the next year, her parents were “hesitant of letting me do the whole child-actor thing,” she says. But she had a passion for performing. “My sisters and I used to put on shows in our living room. There was a Destiny’s Child ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ phase,” she says, giggling. “In Idaho there’s not a whole lot to do.” After finishing high school at the insistence of her parents, Willis enrolled in the University of Southern California but dropped out after a semester. “It wasn’t my jam,” she says. So she enrolled in acting and voice lessons while working at a Marc Jacobs boutique and started auditioning, landing film roles in The House Bunny and Sorority Row as well as small TV parts.
‘My sisters are hilarious. I’m the shy one’
Despite her parents’ fame, she says, she was “ill-prepared” for the spotlight. “I’d been living in a bubble. I would go to an event and I didn’t realize I needed to do my makeup.” And online, “people really started getting ugly…. People always say, ‘You signed up for this, you’re an actor,’ but I used to take it really personally.” She’s since learned that “if you let your value be determined by what other people think, you’re screwed.”
Her family has weathered its share of personal drama, she says, through unconditional love and support. Rumer stuck close to Demi’s side during Demi’s divorce from Ashton Kutcher in 2011 and hospitalization in 2012. She recently choked up on DWTS when discussing Tallulah’s honesty about her rehab stay last year (for body issues, depression and drug use). She’s doing well now, Rumer says: “She’s so creative and funny and dynamic. She’s owning who she is, and it’s awesome.” Scout, a graduate of Brown University, sings in the band Gus + Scout. “My sisters and I have so much love for each other,” Rumer says. They’re also close to Bruce’s wife, Emma Heming, and their half sisters Mabel, 3, and Evelyn, 11 months. “My dad, God bless him with five daughters! That’s got to be some kind of karma for a past life.”
When not in dance rehearsals, Rumer is enjoying single life in Los Angeles, playing with her five dogs and hunting for the city’s best french fries. And the future? She “100 percent” wants her own big happy family down the line and isn’t stressing about her next break. “If I got a TV show, I would be super-stoked,” she says. “But I would really love to do Broadway. For the first time in my life I’ve gotten to a place where I’m really stoked about just taking care of myself and figuring out what I want.”