ColumnWhere celebrity goes conscious.
When you decide to embark on a career in Tinsel Town, your sensitivity chip for what’s considered “Appropriate work behavior,” basically gets crushed up and snorted off an executive’s coffee table. I know this because, as a writer, I’ve logged in some hours hanging around studio sets. This means I’ve experienced lots of Very Inappropriate Moments, like an invitation to the Playboy Mansion in the middle of a pitch meeting, or being asked to trade sexual favors for a job. (Both offers declined, none were made by Charlie Sheen.)
Also, you need to make friends with rejection. Scratch that, you need to make friends with rejection, offer to have his babies, and retire together to a nice arid climate where cold and humidity are easy on old age. Usually, every overnight success story is years in the making, and perseverance gets you the keys to the kingdom. You need to be strong enough to handle the breaks and the Very Inappropriate Moments. And you need to be mature enough to let them slide off your back.
So how do you do this when you’re just a kid?
The first time I worked around a child actor, I was amazed at his utter precociousness. Kid A was charming, adorable, and seemingly had the poise of Queen Elizabeth gracefully waving down at us from Buckingham Palace. That is, until the day he forgot his lines, held up production for hours, and dissolved into a sad puddle of tears that no mother or social worker could soothe. Why did this happen? Probably because he was a mere six years old.
The next time I worked with a child actor, I was impressed with Kid B’s resume. Just into her teen years, she already was a hit on a TV show and had just started venturing into film. But painfully shy, she wouldn’t talk to anyone outside of her lines. The social worker assigned to the shoot recommended that she take time off and go to high school to get some normal socialization skills. Her manager parents rebelled at the idea, after all, she was the main breadwinner of the family. Kid B stayed in the picture. She was fifteen.
And then there are the Child Stars Gone Bad, their names forever a cautionary tale against childhood fame. Jackie Coogan, Michael Jackson, Brad Renfro, Lindsay Lohan, Dana Plato, Corey Haim, River Phoenix, Danny Bonaduce, all their names etched with sad tales of addiction, crime, lost childhoods, resulting either in a premature death or a career destroyed.
But fame doesn’t always ruin a child. For every Lindsay Lohan, there’s a Leonardo DiCaprio who has flourished. And a Ron Howard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christian Bale, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kurt Russell. So what makes one child star succeed while another fails to thrive? Is it utterly irresponsible to allow your child to pursue a career in Hollywood, or is it stifling a child’s creativity to forbid him or her to do so? Ultimately, does it all go back to the parents?
Undoubtedly, parents can play heavily on a child actor’s success. See: Michael and Dina Lohan, whose daughter Lindsay has managed to turn a once promising career into a TMZ daily headline of arrests and abuses. But then there are the anti-Lohans, Shelley and Avner Herschlag, parents to newly-minted Academy Award winner Natalie Portman. Portman got her first break into the industry at age 13 in The Professional. She’s gone on to star in many films, as well as earn a degree in Psychology from Harvard University. She credits her parents for her success. As she told Hello! Magazine via Metrolinks, “My parents are the opposite of stage parents in that they’re still not so sure about the whole Hollywood thing. I got a degree in psychology at Harvard and my dad is still saying, ‘This being an actress thing is cute, but don’t you think it’s time to go to grad school?’ They are amazing parents who listen to me and respect what I say, and the reason I’m not totally crazy is I know they’re at home, happy, loving me and proud of me no matter how badly I fail. If you have that in your life, you feel free to do anything.”
There are some built-in safety features for a child riding a coupe de Hollywood. The Coogan Law, named for child actor Jackie Coogan of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in the 1920s, famously lost all of his earnings after his mother and manager squandered his assets. This law, passed in 1939, ensures that 15 percent of a child’s earnings are automatically deposited by the employer into a separate account held in trust for the child. But protection from loss of money is only one issue facing children of Hollywood. Throw in early exposure to drugs and alcohol, exacerbated by large bank accounts and an entourage of yes-men, and you could easily have a disaster in the making. That is, it seems, if the parents or guardians allow it.
Child actor, author and advocate Paul Petersen
I contacted former child star, current child star activist Paul Petersen to weigh in. Petersen is President and Founder of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit formed to give guidance and support to young performers. Fired from the Mickey Mouse Club (for Conduct Unbecoming a Mouse), in 1955, Petersen went on to grow up on “The Donna Reed Show” from 1958-1966 as Jeff Stone. As Petersen describes his experience, “I became the Dreaded Bubble Gum Star, complete with hit records, screaming fans, fast cars and faster women…Then I got the bill. The hidden costs, psychologically and emotional, were more than I could pay at the time.” Petersen spent his 20’s mired in drugs and alcohol; then he took Mickey Rooney’s advice to “Get out of town for 25 years.” He returned to write 16 books. He is the AFTRA Chair of the Young Performers Committee, a delegate at the United Nations for the World Safety Organization, and sits or has sat on the boards of SAG, AFTRA, the American Foundation for Drug Prevention, and the Child Labor Coalition.
I specially asked Petersen if he believed that parents hold the key to a child’s emotional success in Hollywood.
“Parents, whether in “the [entertainment] business” or in the meanest streets of Mumbai, India, are the single most important aspect of a child’s health and well-being. Most stage parents (90%), handle the pressures of the business quite well, especially that critical moment when it is time to stop. Too many stage parents, however, forget that their real job is to raise a successful and well-adjusted adult. [They need to help] the developing child break away from the business (usually for college, which the kid has worked for after all) long enough to find out who they really are as persons, not actors, not wage earners. That break from the business is crucial.
Disney star Demi Lovato
So as Petersen might put it, get in but get out and build a life outside of Hollywood. It seems one young Disney star may have heeded this advice. Demi Lovato, star of the Disney Channel’s Sonny With a Chance, recently announced she was leaving the show that made her famous after a stint in rehab for emotional issues. As Lovato said in a statement to People Magazine, “It’s kind of sad for me that a chapter of my life has ended, but there couldn’t be a better time for me to move on. I don’t think going back to Sonny would be healthy for my recovery, being in front of a camera would make me nervous.” The Disney Channel responded with “She is a talented young woman, and our hearts are with her as she continues to take action to improve her health and bounce back from adversity.”
I contacted Disney to see if they had anything to add and did not receive a response, though in all likelihood it would have been “no further comment.”
Will Lovato be able to move forward without a continued presence on TMZ.com? It remains to be seen, but it’s heartening to see a young woman in Hollywood put herself before her career.
And ultimately, doing just that may be the key to a successful child star.
This is the latest installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade Grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.