Back when we were kids, most of us would have spent Saturday mornings in front of the television, probably either watching ‘Rugrats’ on Live and Kicking or ‘Recess’ on Diggit, back in the days when Fearne Cotton was less famous than that Des bloke and we were still struggling to adapt to the change of names of Ant and Dec from PJ and Duncan.
The benefit of such cartoon shows from a studio viewpoint was one of practicality; toons don’t grow up. They don’t demand wage increases, develop drug habits or expose themselves outside a nightclub at four in the morning after befriending Paris Hilton. They are forever innocent, a quality which current studios would surely kill for if only they could transfer it to their real-life stars.
Instead, they must find a new individual to exploit every time their current little tykes get too big for their boots or – worst of all – get fat. The difficulty of course is what to do if your Christmas bonus is being paid for by the success of these children’s careers; do you sack them anyway, send them home to their mummies with a pay cheque and a lollipop?
Or do you tolerate all of the ego and the aggravation and continue to milk the little money-trees for all their worth? I think we all know how a true businessman would answer.
The issue of problems facing child stars has had some column inches dedicated to it recently. This is something undesired by studios, Hollywood publicists and middle-class parents all over the world.
The studio which has had particular difficulties in 2008 is that bastion of innocence, Disney.
Much to their horror – perhaps balanced by the frantic pleasure of every fourteen year old boy with an internet connection – the company’s two most profitable, saccharine-sweet franchises have been tainted by the inevitable passage of time which reminds children and adults alike that the innocent will never stay so for long.
If you have younger siblings or a bizarre fondness for the Disney Channel, you will know all about the Hannah Montana phenomenon. What started off was a fairly pleasant, if entirely moronic, children’s sitcom based around a seemingly normal high-school girl called Miley who, by night, is a singing superstar struggling to protect her true identity.
Once the tween generation got hold of it however, Hannah Montana’s fate was sealed, and now the fifteen year old Miley Cyrus is everywhere, with CDs, a 3D movie, a clothing and accessories range and a sold-out 54-date tour currently taking the world by storm.
The success of this show and its young star relies on the fact that it is good clean fun, a feature which some Americans neglect to use to describe such classic youth’s institutions as Dawson’s Creek (underage sex), Barbie (slut) or even Harry Potter (black magic being tantamount to Satanism).
Such people will protect the virtue of their children with their lives, so the recent controversy surrounding Ms. Cyrus is, to them, a betrayal of trust by the free babysitting service provided by their television. During a recent photo shoot for Vanity Fair, photographic legend Annie Leibovitz captured images of Miley with a bare back, wrapped up in a bed sheet, thus giving an impression that she was posing topless.
Soon enough The New York Times, Disney, and half of the U.S. were up in arms, livid at the possibility that a young celebrity had been manipulated to sell magazines, while Miley herself avoided personal criticism by suggesting that she had been misled.
She has managed to avoid a backlash by playing the blame game, a clever move surely encouraged by her agents in order to make her appear even more innocent than before the incident. And yet, it is not always so easy to keep the halo on a child star’s head, as shown by the PR nightmare posed by Hannah Montana’s network buddy, the insipid and yet impossibly successful High School Musical.
With a third one due in cinemas in October, the production of the franchise has been plagued by hearsay regarding potential in-fighting amongst the cast, as well as the two words feared by child stars’ agents everywhere; ‘gay rumours.’
Amongst such sordid whisperings was a beacon of light to all adults everywhere, the best possible example for their impressionable little kids; a chaste couple in the form of film leads Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, all-round good kids and advocates for the silver ring thing, an American movement which uses jewellery as a display of virginity.
And yet it wasn’t long before Ms Hudgens got frisky, taking photographs of herself naked in her trailer before sending them to her beloved teeny bopper. Of course, true love never runs smoothly, and within days these incriminating images were all over the internet, prompting parental outrage, the tabloid’s use of the term ‘Vanessa the Undresser’ (gold), and pressure from many to dismiss her from a project so loved by children, lest they take her snap-happy antics as acceptable practice.
The kids, however, were behind her, and yet Hudgen’s reputation has been soiled, perhaps beyond complete repair. To some she will now always be that girl who bared her soul – on top of a few other features – to a boy who, most probably, would have preferred another boy.
So why is it always such a surprise to discover that children in the showbiz industry are affected negatively by it? Hollywood is a town of vanity, cruelty and drug addiction, and so closing your eyes and keeping your fingers crossed isn’t going to stop the kids that other kids look up to from going off the rails.
Grabbing the pitchforks and flaming torches is probably not the best way to combat it, especially since, surprise surprise, kids aren’t all morons. Jamie Lynn Spears getting pregnant doesn’t mean that the country’s nine year olds are running out to find the means to procreate does it?
Parents also neglect to realise that a smiling face does not a happy showbiz child make. In fact, while the tween generation’s favourite figures, such as Cyrus and Hudgens, have been unlucky enough to have very public misdemeanours, our own ex-idols, the wide-eyed child stars of the nineties, were simply screwed up in private, with issues that escalate only to emerge to shock us long after.
Our generation of child stars have more swollen ranks than today’s due to the current monopoly by a select few, and yet there were some who stood out from the others, a troop of successful individuals who would have been the envy of their classmates if they hadn’t all been schooled on-set.
For us, the Olsen twins were the child stars of the ’90s, appearing on television from the age of just nine months before embarking on a career involving several shows and nine straight-to-video movies. They were the definition of the All-American girl, and yet were intelligent enough to keep their wits about them, making enough money in the process to render them self-made billionaires by the time they’d reached twenty one.
Their childhood lacked a single blemish on an immaculate record, and yet their post-teen careers have been a veritable checklist of rebellious behaviour, with stories of bulimia battles, car crashes, drug problems and even a reported liaison with famous cyclist Lance Armstrong.
It seems, therefore, that the long hours behind a job which begins before any of us had mastered potty training clearly had a detrimental effect on the Olsens, and yet the parents of America were happy to buy into the twin-thing because all seemed fine.
This is just one example of the see no evil, hear no evil principle, showing that when you’re relying on other children to pass on values to their own, ignorance is bliss.
Child stars are appealing because children can relate to them, and adults trust them as role models more than they would adult stars.
When growing up, we grew to love these kids and, in the case of long-running television shows such as Boy Meets World and Sister Sister, we grew at the same rate as they did; Corey and Topanga’s wedding was a family event, and everyone at school had a crush on Libby Kennedy off Neighbours as if she were the girl next door.
For children like us, therefore, seeing child stars grow up and go off the rails ruins this façade, the imitation of reality is broken. Once we’ve seen Britney fall out of a car displaying her complete lack of underwear, we are forced to realise that she has grown up past pigtails and flavoured lip-gloss, and so must admit that we are now old.
The realisation that we are closer to having our own children than we are to actually being them ourselves is a conclusion met with dread by many.
When this is realised, and we get round to having these kids, there’ll be a whole new army of child stars for them to worship or, if we’re really unlucky, High School Musical IX will be arriving in cinemas for them to salivate over. Who knows how the young celebrities of the future will cock up, but however they do it the tabloid press and perhaps even some of us will undoubtedly be up in arms about it.
And why? Essentially for the same reason that we are uncomfortable with our TV bound peers growing up now; because once the child stars worshipped by the fruit of our loins cease to be innocent, it means that they’re closer to adulthood, meaning that our kids are too, which means that we are officially old and we’ll have to go out and buy a red sports car to make us feel better about it.
There’s also the idea that if we can’t trust other kids to teach our own what to do in certain situations, if asking ‘what would Hannah Montana do?’ results in a decision to strip off for Annie Leibovitz, then who is supposed to teach them the right thing?
The answer, being the parents themselves, is a conclusion which most of those who complain about seeing Miley’s Cyrus back or the Olsen twins’ escapades on the cover of People simply do not want to acknowledge.
Look how they’ve grown
Five of the kids who overcame their roots to become stable adult stars in their own right
Natalie Portman – Portman’s first role as a little girl taken in by an assassin in Leon caused some controversy due to claims that she was overly sexualised (note her best line in the film; ‘He’s not my father. He’s my lover.’) While still a child, Portman took roles in Heat, Mars Attacks and the Star Wars prequels
Charlotte Church – Church’s career began with classical music, taking her all across the world and making her a fortune. She has since launched a pop career, earning her great acclaim and a Brit award nomination, and has forged a successful television career
Drew Barrymore – After playing Eliot’s little sister in ET, Barrymore went off the rails for a bit, smoking tobacco at the age of nine, drinking at eleven, smoking cannabis at twelve and snorting cocaine at thirteen. Since then she has settled down and, with Charlie’s Angels, The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, is now one of America’s favourite commercial actresses
Christian Bale – Best known for the lead role in the reinvention of the Batman franchise, Welshman Bale has been in the business since 1986 playing Alexei in a biopic of the Romonov dynasty, but found most acclaim playing the lead in Empire of the Sun
Donny Osmond – Osmond may be the least credible inclusion on this list, but after a music career with his family band left him a has-been, he clawed his way back into the industry to carve a successful solo career, fitting in stints as a talk show and game show host, record producer, race car driver, author, and Disney voice-over artist
What went wrong?
The fates of some our favourite child stars who have gone off the rails or into obscurity
Mara Wilson – In days gone by, Wilson was the go-to girl for any role which needed a cute yet mature actress. She is best remembered for being the sweetest little thing in the history of mankind in Mrs Doubtfire, following that up with Miracle on 34th Street and the lead in the 1996 film Matilda. She now studies drama at NYU
Haley Joel Osment – He saw dead people. Osment received a level of critical acclaim unparalleled by his contemporaries, Oscar nominated for The Sixth Sense and finding a big fan in Steven Speilberg. After a drink and drug fuelled car accident in 2006, he is still under probation. His sister, Emily, has a role in Hannah Montana
Tiffani Thiessen – At fifteen, Thiessen was everyone’s favourite beauty queen Kelly Kapawski on the ultimate teen sitcom Saved By the Bell, the only girl of the group to move on to the follow up, The College Years and the subsequent made-for-TV films, where she finally married Zach Morris. She has remained in the business since the demise of the show but has never reached the same level of success
Macaulay Culkin – No one can die from a wasp attack like Macaulay Culkin, the child star who dominated the early nineties with My Girl, Richie Rich and Home Alone, the film which taught millions of children the importance of home security. After a nine-year hiatus from acting, he returned to film in 2003, and was charged with possession of drugs in 2004
Michael Jackson – Perhaps the quintessential example of child-star gone wrong, Jackson had it all, a massively popular family-orientated boy band followed by a solo career which saw the biggest album sales in history with Thriller. From then on he was the personification of weird, and while no one’s really sure where he is now, the consensus is that he should probably be in the loony bin