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On the 50th Anniversary of Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert Reflects on Aging, Staying Vibrant, and What She'd Tell Her Younger Self

On the 50th Anniversary of Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert Reflects on Aging, Staying Vibrant, and What She'd Tell Her Younger Self

By Stacey Lindsay
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Melissa Gilbert has a casualness and warmth that is arresting. As she chats over Zoom while sitting on the couch—make-up-free, tousled hair, her dog tucked next to her—there are no forced words to fill the space, no trite sentences. She goes there. "We don't have time for small talk anymore," says the 59-year-old actress about women her age. "We have to get right down to it—and everything deepens because of that."

What is almost disconcerting hearing Gilbert talk about being a woman of a certain age is that she's forever imprinted on the minds of countless fans as a vibrant little girl, thanks to her role as a young Laura Ingalls Wilder on the beloved TV show Little House on the Prairie, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year. Mention Gilbert's name to a group, and at least one person—likely middle-aged or older—will squeal a variation of, "I love Half-Pint!" in honor of the nickname given to her by the show's star, Michael Landon. But Gilbert is okay with this. "I still feel every bit the Half-Pint on the inside that I ever was," she tells us.

Youthfulness and aging are top of mind for Gilbert these days. In her latest venture, Modern Prairie, a lifestyle brand and community designed to help women "regain confidence through aging," Gilbert digs into the real stuff rife in middle age and beyond, like "traveling alone, dealing with aging parents, finding hope through grief," she says. And it's all served with "the coziness of the prairie vibe." 

This past week, we chatted with Gilbert and gleaned her thoughts on building community, her passion for the simpler things in life, and how we all need to talk more about aging—or, as she likes to say, "aging gratefully."

MELISSA GILBERT'S TAKE ON AGING, REBUILDING, AND TURNING 60

On Building Her Brand

"It all solidified during the pandemic," she says about creating Modern Prairie, which she dreamt of for decades. "All of a sudden, the little things in life were most important— family, friends, community, love, food. The essentials."

"It's a little bit of everything," she adds. "And it is a reflection of women in my age range. We don't have time for anything trivial. Frivolity, yes! But nothing trivial, and our relationships and friendships are deeper, our interpersonal relationships are deeper, and our work relationships are deeper because of that."

On the Damage of Emphasizing the External

"There's so much emphasis put on the external, globally but especially in America," says Gilbert. "My husband and I do long-distance drives, and it's fascinating to see the road signs. They're basically fast food, fast food, plastic surgeon, plastic surgeon, church, fast food, plastic surgeon, plastic surgeon, plastic surgeon. So, what is the message? Eat this, get as unhealthy as you can, and then we can fix the external part of it so you look like the ideal. That emphasis on the external is damaging."

On the Myth of Anti-Aging

"We are all going to age," she says. "There's no such thing as anti-aging! Well, there is, and I say this all the time: The opposite of anti-aging is death. But anti-aging? It's such a ludicrous expression."

On Turning 60

"I'll be 60 in May," Gilbert says with a big smile. "I really don't know what almost 60 is supposed to look like. In my head, I'm still 35 years old. I'm still just as spunky and curious. And when something really tickles me, I get excited like I'm still eight or nine years old."

On Aging "Gratefully"

"We live in a culture where age is not quite celebrated enough," she says. "At Modern Prairie, we talk about it all the time, and the phrase we use is aging gratefully. We're not just aging gracefully, which seems like something that people pinned on us. What does it mean to age gracefully? Gratefully seems more tangible to me. Let's be grateful for what we have. So, the question for me becomes: How do we [age] to the best of our ability? How do we do it in a healthy way? And how do we gain acknowledgement?"

On the Power of Curiosity

"That's what keeps us the most youthful, not young but youthful: Staying curious," she says. "Being open to whatever is next. And just staying as much in the moment as possible."

On What She Would Say to Her 'Half-Pint' Self

"Boy, are you going to have an adventure! So, be open to all of it. And… you might want to reconsider dating that one guy."

Melissa Gilbert is an actor, author, and founder of the lifestyle brand Modern Prairie. Learn more at Modern Prairie and @officialmodernprairie.

Stacey Lindsay

Stacey Lindsay is a journalist and Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. A former news anchor and reporter, Stacey is passionate about covering women's issues. Learn more www.staceyannlindsay.com.

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