How the world's worst stripper became Spielberg's protegee, stole another woman's husband and might just win an Oscar


Last updated at 19:29 02 February 2008

Pregnant 16- year-old Juno MacGuff is about to enter an abortion clinic when she meets a protester waving a banner declaring, ungramatically: No Babies Like Murdering.

"Your baby probably has a beating heart," says the demonstrator.

"It can feel pain. And it has fingernails."

When Juno later decides to keep her baby and flees the clinic, the protester shouts: "God appreciates your miracle."

And so does Hollywood, which last month embraced the film Juno as a surprise Oscar contender.

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With its smart script, the bittersweet comedy, which follows a teenager's decision to go through with an unplanned pregnancy, has already made a star of its leading actress, newcomer Ellen Page, who has picked up one of the film's four Academy Award nominations.

Hailed by critics as this year's Little Miss Sunshine, another successful, low-budget, independent film with no A-list Hollywood names, Juno will be released in Britain on Friday.

Yet the film has also united America's Left and Right in condemnation of its writer, a 29-year-old from Illinois called Diablo Cody.

Her script's insouciant endorsement of teenage pregnancy, with no repercussions, shame or consequences, has angered pro-choice activists who claim it sends out a message that is naive, unrealistic and irresponsible.

Meanwhile, feminists and the religious Right have formed an unlikely alliance to condemn Cody not only for her past as a stripper and phone-sex operator, but for glorifying her role in the sex industry in an autobiographical book.

The issue of abortion is regularly the subject of controversy in America.

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But teen pregnancy is a hot topic following the publication of figures showing that the birth rate among teenage mothers, after falling for 14 years, has now risen by three per cent.

Public opinion has also been divided over Britney Spears' 16-year-old sister Jamie Lynn, who recently stunned fans of her show on Disney TV by revealing she was pregnant and keeping her baby because she wanted to "do what's right".

The film Juno does nothing to contradict this sentiment.

Having had unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Juno ignores the advice of her parents and friends and decides to give up the baby for adoption to a yuppie couple.

Yet her studies are unaffected, her parents accept her choice and she remains as cute as ever.

"A teenager who saw this movie would feel like a moral failure for choosing abortion," says feminist commentator Katha Pollitt.

"The mother in me winced at Juno, that wisp of a child-woman, going through pregnancy and childbirth."

It's a view shared by other campaigners.

"Single motherhood, for the average teenage girl, is just about the least glamorous thing you can possibly imagine," says Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

"Juno tells young women the best option is to have the baby, and it glorifies that choice."

Nor does middle-class Juno reflect the majority of teenage mothers, who come from poor families.

"Some have the babies as part of their path to what they see as adulthood, but they often put their education on hold, and it makes life a lot tougher," says Demie Kurz, sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Do we want to put burdens on these teenage girls by encouraging them to think having a baby is cool?"

Unsurprisingly, those on the religious Right were quick to praise Juno's implicit pro-life sensibility - until they discovered how far Diablo Cody's life has strayed from the teachings of the Church.

A former prom queen Catholic schoolgirl who had supportive, middle-class parents, Cody, whose real name is Brook Busey, turned herself into a tattooed Goth with a wilful disregard for authority.

In 2003, while working by day at an advertising agency in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she was a stripper by night, experiences she chronicles in

Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper, a book published last year.

In a recent TV interview she said she began stripping so she would have something to say on her internet blog.

"I stripped for one night, and it was supposed to be a fun thing to do. But I wrote about it, and people responded right away.

"I was the world's worst stripper, but I danced for two hours that night, and came home with 100 bucks.

"I thought, 'This is awesome. I could do this and buy a car.'"

In Candy Girl, Cody describes offering "bed dances" for £30, how she then became a "sex worker" and how she finally passed herself off as under-age girls on a phone-sex line.

"If you are hoping to find some sort of redemption in this sprawling epic," she writes, "I'm afraid you won't find any here."

Her unashamed, recalcitrant stance has not won her many fans.

"Most women become sex workers through making poor choices, being pregnant teenagers or being abused," says Lalla Shackelford of New Friends, New Life, a group that helps rehabilitate prostitutes.

"They get into it for glamour or money but quickly realise it's degrading and turn to substance abuse to keep going."

Perhaps it is not surprising that there is one more skeleton in Cody's cupboard - the accusation that she stole another woman's husband. The victim was 31-yearold Renatta Hunt, a teacher from Minneapolis. She was married to Jonny Hunt, a graphic artist who had an affair with Cody when she was known as Brook.

"Jonny and I were married in 1998 and our daughter Nadija was born the next year," said Renatta.

"He met Brook on the internet. He lied and told her we were just two parents sharing a house, but without romance. Then he went to Los Angeles to meet her on Mother's Day."

Cody moved from Chicago to Minneapolis to be with Jonny, who left Renatta in 2002. Soon after, Cody began stripping - something Jonny considered "cool" - and the couple seemed happy to discuss it with four-year-old Nadija.

Renatta said: "One day Nadija and I were out and she pointed to a sex club and said, 'That's where Brook works.' I couldn't believe it."

Cody and Jonny got married on the Star Trek ship at the Las Vegas Hilton in 2004, surrounded by aliens.

According to Renatta, Cody also borrowed elements of their lives for her Oscar-nominated script.

"Jonny was adopted," said Renatta.

"I wanted him to meet his birth mother, and he resisted. After meeting Brook, he finally contacted his birth mother. I'm full of life, a lot like Vanessa, the woman adopting Juno's baby. And Vanessa's husband, Mark, is supposed to be Jonny - he dreams of being a rock star and is kept on a tight leash by his wife. In the film, Juno gives birth on May 4, Nadija's birthday."

However, Renatta said Cody and Jonny are no longer together.

"The week before Juno had its premiere, Jonny called me to say they'd split up," Renatta said. "I wish Brook well, but she's shattered my life."

Since Juno, Cody has sold three more screenplays and was recently chosen by Steven Spielberg to write and produce his TV series The United States Of Tara, about a housewife with multiple personalities.

As for the inspiration behind her hit film, Cody says she based Vanessa and Mark on her own parents and Juno's boyfriend on her best friend at school.

And Cody adds that she found it easy to write about 16-yearold Juno. "I never got past being a teenager, and never had to assume responsibility," she says.

"And I still haven't."

While she says she supports a woman's right to have an abortion, she admits Juno reflects her own antipathy towards it.

"I would have freaked out if I was about to have an abortion," she says. "So she bolts out of fear. It's a personal choice not moral. At the end, everything turns out all right."

This encapsulates Cody's personal philosophy - though Oscars voters may think otherwise.