Utah actress describes fame, criticism as a Church celebrity

Monica Moore Smith sat down to reveal the reality of hateful attitudes within the Church from member to member through comments on social media. (Jessica Smith)

Actress Monica Moore Smith addressed the challenge of becoming a celebrity within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Smith began her journey in the film industry by appearing in Mormon Messages, which gave her a reputation, she said, as a face of the Church.

Smith said she is still recognized as the bullied girl from one of the first Mormon Messages she appeared in, an association that has led to a slew of hateful comments on social media from people who feel she isn’t living up to the standards they expect of a Latter-day Saint actress.

One of the comments Smith said shocked her the most came on Instagram from a middle-aged man who claimed the pictures she posted of herself wearing red lipstick crossed a line.

“He told me that me wearing red lipstick was giving him sexual thoughts and that there was no room for someone like me in the Church,” Smith said.

Smith’s husband, Justin Packer, said hate messages are all too common for his wife.

“When I see those messages, it’s usually her calming me down about it,” Packer said. “I think it’s something that’s worked to develop her character quite a bit.”

With over 46,000 followers, Smith said she tends to face more moral scrutiny than many of her peers.

“How does your bishop feel about that?” is a common comment Smith said she receives from members if they’ve misinterpreted something she posted about.

Smith was asked to sponsor the kombucha brand Health-Ade in an Instagram post last August. She said her doctor recommended it to her after being in the emergency room for poor gut health.

Despite her positive experience with herbal kombucha recipes, critics attacked her in the comments, pointing out that most kombucha products have tea in them.

“I don’t always drink kombucha, but when I do, I break the Word of Wisdom,” one user wrote.

Smith said she believes religion should never be used as a weapon.

For Smith, especially within an industry where people’s morals stretch across a wide spectrum, she said the point of her Church participation is to serve other people and better herself rather than telling others how to better themselves.

What it comes down to, Packer said, is the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. In other words, there is a big difference between gospel principles, which are perfect, and some aspects of Latter-day Saint culture.

He said that when he sees people send his wife hateful messages because they believe she’s not fulfilling their idea of Church culture, it’s more inappropriate than whatever behavior they think she’s displaying.

“I want to be an example, but I think nobody is perfect,” Smith said. “I can either create a facade of perfection or what I’d rather say, which is that this is what I believe, and I’m trying, but I’m not perfect.”

Smith pointed to other Mormon celebrities who received criticism for their careers. Among them, she mentioned former presidential candidate and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, actor Kirby Heyborne, actor and producer Jon Heder, singer Gladys Knight and musician Lindsey Stirling.

Heyborne is an actor best known for his films in the Latter-day Saint genre like “The R.M.” and “The Best Two Years.” He was criticized in 2008 for appearing in a beer commercial.

In an article published by Deseret News that summer, Heybourne responded to claims that he was acting against the Church and would entice young viewers to eventually drink alcohol. He told Deseret News that he remains a temple-worthy member who is sometimes forced to play characters with different standards than he does as a person to provide for his family.

Smith said she was disappointed with the response he received from other members.

“Kirby Heyborne is such a good guy. If people see something as a mistake, they just throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said.

Focusing on the external appearance of someone’s behavior is something Smith said she believes is exactly opposite of what Christ taught.

“We could be so focused on what a woman is wearing or what her makeup was like that we could miss the great mother she is or what she’s doing in her industry,” Smith said. “Isn’t that what Satan wants us to do?”

Smith said if long-time members treated investigators and converts the way they treat each other, no one would want to join the Church. She pointed to Knight and Stirling as examples.

Sterling received backlash in 2015 for wearing a what some considered to be a revealing dress to the Billboard Awards show. Smith pointed out that when Knight chose to wear revealing clothes, she was far more protected from criticism than Sterling had been because Sterling was held to higher expectations. Knight was already a major celebrity when she became a member of the Church, so it was probably more important to members, Smith said, to make her feel welcome than Sterling.

Smith recently received a long critical message from a long-time Instagram follower.

“The whole thing was just like, ‘How can you be a part of this Church and come off as too sultry when singing a Church song?’” Smith recalled. “I guess it was just the faces I make that are not intended to be sexy, but she disguised what she said as this concern for my spirituality. She said, ‘I’m just watching out for you, but how do you feel comfortable going to the temple when you’re representing these people the wrong way?’”

Smith said she wishes all of the energy and emotion that went into the message would have been put into serving someone else or doing some good.

“If I see other people doing things I don’t agree with, I can take that energy and use it to attack them, or I can take it and learn from it and how how I can apply that lesson in my life,” Smith said. “I can ignore the fact that they make mistakes because I make mistakes too.”

As a rule of thumb, Smith said when she was younger and faced a decision, she would ask herself if she would feel comfortable telling her parents about it. If she couldn’t picture herself standing in front of her mom with confidence, she would stop and rethink her decision.

It is a tactic she says she wishes most people would implement because the mask of a username is what fuels individuals to say whatever they want.

“I could say that if not 100 percent, at least 99.9 percent of people would not say to me in person the hateful things they say to me on social media,” Smith said. “If we believed that everything we say could be plastered up on us as we walk around, would we still say it?”

Smith said it’s disheartening that many people assume that becoming successful means that person will fall away from their faith. She said it comes down to knowing who she is and having the right purpose in pursuing her goals.

To keep themselves in check, Smith and her husband Packer communicate clearly with each other what they will and will not agree to do in their work lives.

“Our standards are very defined for us, and we do wear our religion and our beliefs on our sleeves,” Packer said. “We wouldn’t promote something that goes against the Word of Wisdom or wear something extremely immodest.”

Smith added if either she or her husband are asked to sponsor a product they don’t actually approve of, they refuse to be dishonest in their reviews.

Smith said she is ultimately committed to keeping the commandments and bolstering her relationship with God. Smith said she believes the commandments, her conscience and her personal prayerfulness were given to her so her decisions remain solely between her and the Lord.

“I think people want me to be the perfect example of what they want their daughters to be or what their mothers have told them they want them to be, but because each of us have our own paths, that is never going to happen,” Smith said. “Unless we’re looking at Jesus, we’re going to find flaws.”

Being on constant public display, Smith said it’s most important to her when she shares her religion to be her own light and honest in her efforts. Most of the time, she said, that honesty will mean owning up to her imperfections rather than painting the facade of someone only Christ could truly be.

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