7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider's Perspective)
When I was a kid, I acted in a few movies.
It was generally a good experience, but every day I'm glad I wasn't Olsen twins famous. Not many child stars make it out of Hollywood alive or sane, and at any given time there are at least three former ones having very public breakdowns.
But why does this happen?
Their Parents Won't Help Them ...
I chose to start acting when I was 5. It was my decision, and my parents tried their hardest to discourage me. When I insisted, they allowed me to act, but were always very protective of me.
I saw many child actors who did not have that, and they were all miserable. Kids whose parents pushed them into acting often grow up to resent them. They never had a choice, and worse, they never had the chance to be a kid.
This dude reportedly said "Actors are cattle." That would mean child actors are veal.
When one of my preteen co-stars didn't seem that into acting, I asked him why he even bothered doing it. "For the money," he said. I hadn't considered that. My own money was an abstract concept: locked in a bank somewhere, to be used only after I turned 18. I was just acting because I liked it. But this kid was supporting his family.
This isn't a new problem. Back in the 1930s, Jackie Coogan was not only the biggest child star in the world, but one of the biggest stars, period. The kid had $4 million (more than $48 million in today's money) to his name, but when he turned 21, he found that his mother and manager/stepfather had spent almost all of it. Coogan sued his parents, and while he only got $126,000, he did get a law named after him. That's a nice consolation prize, right?
And he also went on to play a character named after something a boil does.
The Coogan Law isn't perfect, though: While it has long protected a kid's right to a trust fund, it still only protects 15 percent of a child's earnings. There are still lots of ways parents can misuse their kid's money. And it's easy for them to get away with it, because most kids don't have the guts to take their own parents to court and scream about all the things they can't handle (the truth, and so on).
The next time a former child star is in the news, look at the age at which he or she started performing. Then imagine making a life-changing decision at that age. Chances are good he or she wasn't the one who made it.
... or Their Parents Can't Help Them
Even good, non-stage-parent parents can have trouble asserting authority over their kids. My parents, I think, did most things right. They didn't always pick the greatest movies for me to be in, but they were supportive and responsible about money. But even they had to answer to a higher power.
No, not this guy. We were Jewish.
When I was 7, I went to the premiere for the movie Nine Months. I don't remember much about the movie beyond Hugh Grant stammering and some placenta jokes, but I do remember a red carpet reporter asking me my opinion about Hugh Grant getting busted for prostitution.
"You play a child-wizard in this film. Do you think abortion should be a woman's decision?"
If he had been arrested for something like defacing a Lion King poster or stealing bouncy castles, I might have cared. But while I knew he'd been arrested, I didn't understand what for and didn't feel comfortable answering. My father called the station the next day to suggest that they, you know, not talk to a child about soliciting sex. But he was rebuffed, and the complaint was ignored. Even then, as a kid, I knew that parental power was gone.
When Miley Cyrus went through a series of scandals in 2010, one involving the scarier-than-pot-but-somehow-more-legal salvia, Billy Ray Cyrus went on record saying that he had very little control over his daughter anymore. Her Disney entourage had long since taken over. Even if he wasn't telling the complete truth about his role in his daughter's scandals, it was clear that he, the parent, was not in control.
"We are your family now."
They Get Used to Love and Attention, and Then Lose It
The first week of my first movie, Mrs. Doubtfire, I got gifts from every cast member. When an interviewer asked me what I loved most about acting, I forgot all about the joy of becoming someone else on camera and said, "You get a lot of presents, sometimes!"
"And the weed is just ... mmm!"
Combine the regular amount of free stuff celebrities get with all the presents people give kids just for being cute, and you've got a recipe for one spoiled-ass child. My parents tried to keep me grounded: They made me share a room with my sister, kept me in public elementary school, and encouraged me to think of acting as just a hobby. But I'm sure there were still times when I was an entitled little shit.
This tends to happen: It's called the hedonic treadmill, which sounds like something 1950s sci-fi writers imagined we'd all have in our pod-houses by now, but actually means that even people who have the best of everything quickly become used to it. The thrill of new things and new experiences always wears off.
"OK, I'm bored, take a hike."
Adults know that infatuation is fleeting, but kids don't understand this. A year in a kid's life seems like an eternity, and they think anything happening now will happen forever. Years of adulation and money and things quickly become normal, and then, just as they get used to it all, they hit puberty -- which is a serious job hazard when your job is being cute.
It's basically a real-life version of Logan's Run. A child actor who is no longer cute is no longer monetarily viable and is discarded. He or she is then replaced by someone younger and cuter, and fan bases accordingly forget that the previous object of affection ever existed.
Except without the human sacrifice and creepy '70s strobe-light orgies.
Most of you reading this felt pretty disgusting and useless while you were going through puberty. But imagine that people you once relied on and trusted -- as well as millions of people you'd never met, who had previously liked you -- had told you then, "Yeah, it's true. You are exactly as ugly and worthless as you feel."
They Have Been Sexually Exploited
Speaking of which, you know that one lucky asshole you grew up with who never seemed to go through an awkward age, at all? The child stars who make the most successful transitions tend to be those kinds of assholes: They were adorable kids, and now they're beautiful adults. The rest typically disappear.
Or come back a few years later as Rorschach.
But it's not always a smooth transition: To be a teen idol is to be vulnerable. Brooke Shields has said that being a sex object led her to feel like she wasn't in control of her own body, and is one of the reasons she didn't have sex until she was 22. Natalie Portman has said similar things.
And sometimes it gets violent: Former child stars Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, and Todd Bridges all went on record saying that they had been sexually assaulted by adult men when they were young, and that there were likely many more child molesters in Hollywood. Actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker after he saw her in bed with a male character in a film and denounced her as "another Hollywood whore."
But even when it's not violent, it's not pleasant. When I was 12 years old, I made the mistake of looking myself up on the Internet. (I know not to do that now, unless I want to stay up all night imagining the kind of person who would replace my Wikipedia article with nothing but the word "poo.") One of the things I found was a foot fetish website dedicated to child actresses.
Officially displacing the "pictures of actresses sneezing" blog as the creepiest celebrity site on the Internet.
Now, at the time, I thought this was hilarious. I was in seventh grade and couldn't say the word "sex" with a straight face; fetishes were beyond me. I never told my parents because it seemed like too much of a joke, not a threat.
Then, two or three years ago, I was talking to a friend and casually mentioned the foot fetish thing. Her eyes went wide. "So, basically, you were on a child porn site?"
"Uh ... I guess so." I hadn't thought about it like that. Suddenly it wasn't as funny as I had once thought.
There was worse, both for me and for others. Like the Coogan Law, there are too many loopholes. If you ever need to convince someone not to get their kid into show business, inform them that it's still legal in several places to Photoshop a child's head onto a nude adult body. Sexual exploitation is just part of the package.
They Need to Rebel, But Can't
Probably one of the reasons I was never big into partying as a teen was because I was scared of the public finding out. "Friends" of mine would sometimes post things I'd said or pictures I was in on public websites, which caused rifts and some serious trust issues. Even now, I will duck out of the way at parties when someone brings out a camera -- even though I'm well over 21, I haven't been a recognizable name in years, and my parties tend to be less "coke orgy," more "board game bonanza."
Though I do love getting Banged.
Nearly every teenager rebels. But most of them have about five people they need to answer to when they screw up: teachers, school administrators, and their parents or guardians. Maybe the police or other authorities, if they're rowdy or growing up in a rough area, or a wise neighbor if they grew up in a sitcom.
Now imagine if you, as a kid, had millions of people watching your every move. First, there's your own entourage: parents or guardians, agents, managers, producers, studio heads, executives of all kinds. And then there are the fans: kids your age who think they know you because they've seen your face on TV, parents who pray you stay squeaky clean because their children want to be you.
"Please, God, do not let Justin Bieber be the head of a sex trafficking ring."
Having to live up to your fan base is a little like having to deal with a million strict parents who don't actually love you. They reward you for your cuteness and cleverness, but are quick to judge and punish. And they do not want you ever to grow up. How do you react? The way any sullen teenager does: You get resentful, and as soon as you have the freedom, you act out.
Look at when most teen and child stars committed crimes and had breakdowns. Most were in their late teens, or even well into their 20s. When everyone else their age was getting detention for flipping off teachers or getting grounded for breaking curfew, Disney and Viacom and Fox were doing everything they could to ensure that their adorable little props weren't causing trouble and costing them millions of dollars.
"Shit. Hilary Duff cannibalized another PA, somebody call the Wolf."
But when they get older, they have more freedom. They also have money and little to no experience making decisions for themselves, so their rebellions are going to be on a much larger scale. The whole world will see it.
And if there's one thing the whole world loves, it's a public breakdown.
They Don't Know What Else to Do
If I were to talk to Lindsay Lohan, I'd encourage her to get the hell out of acting and into something soothing. Take up botany or something.
But she wouldn't be likely to listen to me -- and not only because I'm younger and way less hot than her. It's because she's been acting all her life, she has little education, and in her mind, there's nothing else she could do. She's likely to keep doing it even if she's making herself -- and maybe also the people she works with -- miserable.
"Laugh and the whole world laughs with you" swings both ways.
Everyone loves to laugh at that asshole who was smug once, and has since fallen. (I was thrilled when I saw a sitcom rerun a few years back and realized that the fellow child actor who broke my heart when I was 15 was pretty shitty at acting.) But no one wants to be that asshole. I worked several crappy jobs when I was younger, and prayed every day that no one would recognize me.
Eventually, I had to stop caring: It didn't affect my paycheck, and I liked working hard (which led to me getting a job I actually liked). But most former child stars are proud and sensitive and don't have much of an education. It's easier for them to hold onto what they did in their past and make money that way.
Hence all this crap.
Besides, everyone they know is in the business, and after having people take their money, reject them for their looks, and turn them into a sex object, they're not going to be especially trusting. The sleazy bastards you know are better than the sleazy bastards you don't.
They Can't Escape It
People who meet me as an adult are often surprised that I'm alive and have never been in prison or rehab. Sometimes they're disappointed I'm not cooler: I'm a normal-looking woman living in a two-bedroom apartment in one of the less cool neighborhoods of New York. I write stuff and tell stories, but I'm not a celebrity and wouldn't want to be one. I'm much more "reformed drama nerd" than "former child star," and I like it that way.
One of the reasons I love living in New York is that no one gives a shit about celebrities. Susan Sarandon comes to your deli, Lou Reed's in your kickboxing class, David Mamet flips you off, whatever, most New Yorkers really don't care.
Just make sure you put rocks on your garbage cans to keep Gary Busey from digging through them.
But even here (and even though I was never as famous as those people), I still get recognized. It's flattering, but it can be uncomfortable. Maybe because it only seems to happen when I'm looking and feeling crappy, and while I'm glad what I did meant something to someone, I can't take much pride in my childhood acting. It feels like it happened in another lifetime, and even then, it felt like a hobby. People making a big deal out of me just embarrasses me, and I'm also very camera shy.
You would be, too, if you'd been in the public eye when you looked like this.
It's not something I'm ever going to escape. And while I'm glad for all the advantages it's given me -- I got to meet the queen of England! -- it does give me something I have to not only live up to, but surpass. A lot of child stars feel like they'll never get past what they did as a kid, that their character has taken over their life. Jake Lloyd might have been melodramatic when he said The Phantom Menace ruined his life, but it does kind of suck that years later he's still seen as a punchline.
It's a constant damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation: If former child actors bring up their past, they're washed-up opportunists shilling for attention. If they never do, they're clearly in denial. If they say it was fantastic, they're full of shit. If they acknowledge that it wasn't always fantastic, they're bitter.
There's not much to do besides accept it for what it was and move on. Child stars who are best off as adults usually do one or two projects, then get the hell out of Hollywood, at least for the next few years. They go to Harvard or Yale (or my alma mater, NYU, which has been called "Where Child Stars Come to Die") and learn to do something besides act.
"Welcome to the wonderful world of low-paying, menial office jobs where you will work thanklessly until you die, anonymous and alone."
That's my suggestion for kids who want to act, by the way: Make sure it's really your choice, get out of it when it stops being fun, and get an education.
Additionally, movies like A Series of Unfortunate Events and, um, Twilight have used CGI rather than human babies in some scenes. Some of them looked pretty creepy, but CG technology is improving all the time. Considering all the legal hassle child stars can be, I won't be surprised when they are phased out by CGI children voiced by adult actors.
When, not if.
Behold, your future.
For more on life after hitting it big, check out The 7 Most WTF Post-Fame Celebrity Careers and The 7 Most WTF Post-Fame Careers of Famous Musicians.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Ways 'Futurama' Is Becoming a Reality.