6 Ways Being A Child Star Is Way Darker Than You'd Think
Children and entertainment mix about as well as alcohol and prescription meds -- which, incidentally, often end up being their primary diet. And you don't need to be an A-lister for the biz to ruin your life. "Kathy" learned that the hard way after her father pushed her into a singing career. She first started performing at fairs and talent shows, but by the end, she was singing with her own band for huge crowds ... while hating every last second of it.
My Dad Decided My Career For Me When I Was Five Years Old
"I was in the car with my siblings, singing along to the radio," Kathy recalls. "Suddenly, my dad made them be quiet while I continued to sing. It was like a switch flipped inside him, and he decided that this was now going to be my career. I think I was something like five."
"Kathy, sing along!
Give me money / that's what I want / Whole lot of money / that's what I want."
And that's how Kathy's childhood died, while she was still in kindergarten. From that day on, Kathy's dad would have her practice singing for hours a day while channeling his inner Joe Jackson. "If there was one strained note, it was the end of the freaking world. I was not allowed to read music or write down words to songs either. My dad had this idea that sheet music was bad for singing. If I forgot the words, though, there was hell to pay. My dad would not let me go to bed or eat until I had something down perfectly. He never beat me, but it really sucked."
But all that hard work eventually paid off when Kathy came in second at a state fair talent show. Can you imagine how her dad must have felt? If you've been paying attention, you probably can. "My dad threw things, threatened the judges, told everyone that it was 'fixed,' and then screamed at me all the way home. I wasn't allowed to talk in cars, because my dad thought the pressure in the cabin could somehow damage my singing voice. So I had to sit and take it. I was about eight."
We're honestly not sure what that man was worse at: parenting or basic science.
And yet Kathy didn't have it all that bad when compared to some of the other kid performers she met along the way. "There was a girl whose parents were so abusive that she peed her pants every time she heard someone yell. This lasted well into her adulthood. I also knew this family band with seven kids. The oldest son was arrested for trying to rob a bank, and the dad ended up murdering the mom."
But still, it's not like stage parents are the worst thing in the world ...
That would be the child molesters.
Pedophiles Were Everywhere
Which is worse: Being a kid alone in a room with one especially bad pedophile, or being a kid in a room absolutely full of ordinary pedophiles? It sounds like the shittiest zen koan ever, but it accurately reflects Kathy's childhood. "The musicians, producers, etc. were straight-up perverts. I was getting tickled, touched, patted, and felt-up before I even had a training bra. The guys that were willing to hit on a 10-year-old were monsters, but there were so many more hands to dodge as I started to develop. I felt nostalgic for the one or two really bad pedophiles when faced with a room full of run-of-the-mill perverts. I was so alone. I didn't know at the time that I could (or should) tell anyone what was happening. I didn't know if my parents would have done anything about it if I told them."
We're taking a bunny break. We all need a bunny break.
Kathy's parents might have never hit her, but a child not being sure if their parents would even protect them from pedophiles is a whole new kind of abuse. And that's not a case of some naive kid not knowing she had people to turn to. She'd later find out for a fact that her parents wouldn't do anything about the creeps. "A band member once broke into my bedroom, at which point my dad said he wasn't allowed to be alone with me. I was 12. He was still allowed to play with us and come over; we just couldn't be alone together. He was arrested later for kidnapping a young girl."
We wish we could end this with that tragic near-miss for Kathy, but she was eventually raped (by a different guy). She doesn't like to talk about it.
Life Offstage Was All About Starvation And Overwork
It shouldn't come as a surprise that in their quest to turn Kathy into Whitney Houston circa 1985, her parents almost succeeded in turning her into Whitney Houston circa 2010. It shouldn't, but it does, because we still have our stupid souls. "I went to a crappy little school that didn't care or record how many days I missed. I could miss a week of classes at a time, several times a year, with no repercussions ... I rarely went to bed before midnight thanks to two-to-five-hour nightly rehearsals. Also, thanks probably to the loudness of the music, I now have permanent hearing loss in my left ear. Did I mention that all of this started when I was seven?"
Her father successfully made her the next Beethoven: talented, hard of hearing, and totally miserable.
"There are so many little things that happen when you're being groomed for the stage. I had an eating disorder before I had boobs," Kathy told us, determined to strip us of our last shred of humanity. "My breakfast was half a grapefruit. My lunch was the other half. Dinner was a dry salad. I was so skinny and freaky-looking, pale and weak all the time. It was really sad."
She didn't so much sing for her supper as she pitifully, painfully moaned for it.
Still, when all was said and done, by the time she was an adult she had a successful career lined up and a healthy savings to bankroll-
PFFT hahaha, you should have seen your face! Your eyes, all twinkling with meager sparks of hope, like an idiot.
I Never Saw A Penny
For all the crap that Kathy went through, we wanted to know how much money she at least ended up making. "Welcome to the club," she said.
"I wasn't a national recording artist, but I did make some money. I started small, by winning talent contests. There was usually a cash prize, but my father pocketed it. Once I was somewhat established in the amateur scene, he started setting up actual shows. I sang at county fairs and other hootenannies, and was an opening act for a few washed-up-but-you've-still-heard-of-them stage performers. My father pocketed that, too."
At this point, he started exclusively wearing cargo pants for the extra pockets to fill.
Of course, there are laws that protect the earnings of young performers, but they require kids to have the energy and moxie to take their own parents on in court. Kathy had neither. Huh, maybe that's why her folks starved her. "I did a lot of gigging, and never saw a dime. When I left show business at 18, not only did my parents not give me anything that was saved, but they also refused to support me in any way. I mean in ANY way, despite the fact that I was their show pony for the bulk of my childhood."
After a lifetime of being bilked out of every penny she earned, working in the record industry would've been redundant.
The only thing that could be mistaken for comforting (from a distance, if you squint real hard and have abandoned all hope) about the whole situation is that none of this was personal. Kathy's parents ended up screwing over all of their kids.
Leaving My Career Destroyed My Family
The longer Kathy tried to make it in the business, the more she realized how awful it was. But she couldn't leave. "My father quit his job to focus full-time on my career. He sunk all of the money we had, and a lot more that he borrowed, into the dream he had for me ... By the time I was a teenager, my entire family was so invested that I felt I had no choice but to continue."
She had become the Queen of Dead-Eyed Soul.
When Kathy's father got cancer, she was briefly allowed to put her career on hold -- normal schooling, dating, hanging out with friends. What a breath of fresh air! It didn't last, though, because her dad eventually went into remission. How messed up is it when beating cancer is bad news?
Kathy had a taste of the normal life now, and she wanted to hang onto it. "At 18, I was offered a recording contract, and I turned it down. When I told my parents that I was ending their multi-year venture, they took it about as well as you might imagine. My mother told me that I was too stupid to do anything but sing for a living. My father told me he expected repayment for all the money they had put into me over the years."
"You already spent your zero dollars on absolutely nothing, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?"
Then there were Kathy's siblings -- or as their parents called them, "not-Kathys."
"My parents focused all of their energies on me ... One sister never fails to remind me how her college fund was spent on my voice lessons. My brother still refers to me as 'the traitor' because they all had part-time jobs to contribute to the family income in the hopes of a big payoff. At least one positive came from this: My brother and sisters are all very close now ... united in their hatred of me."
Seriously, it's like somebody watched a Lifetime family movie about the Jackson family and thought it was a how-to guide.
The Whole Experience Made Me Stronger
After Kathy turned down her recording deal, she was alone for the first time in her life. Making it on her own wasn't easy, but often the best things for us are also the hardest to do. Case in point: eating vegetables more than once a month.
A more relevant case in point: "I had to find sofas to sleep on. I had to work as a telemarketer. I handed out flyers and T-shirts for store openings. I did everything I could to get money. I saved and saved and saved. I ate nothing but rice, I bummed rides, I walked ... Eventually, I bought the shittiest car ever. And I'm sure everyone thinks they had a shitty car, but no, not ... no. This thing was only held together with hope and prayer." And yet being able to buy a car made Kathy happier than any gig she ever had, because this was the first thing she got that she wanted.
The radio didn't work, either. Just the way she liked it.
Kathy sums it all up: "I continued saving and put myself through college with no financial aid, while working full-time ... Then I met a kick-ass guy who married me for some reason. (Sucka!) I have the best life now, with a family that is AMAZING. My kids are really cool, but I'll never let them pursue a music career. However, I'd say there are good things about living the stage life at a young age. I'm not at all shy. I can public-speak like a boss. I'm also not easily starstruck. I've hung out with some celebrities, and they mostly suck as much as everyone else. Plus, my kids think my singing voice is beautiful. So thank you for that, Dad."
Then she continues: "On the downside: rape, emotional abuse, eating disorders ..."
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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