Why Do Child Stars Sink or Swim?
We asked a famed child agent and former child stars themselves about what condemns (or saves) young actors from becoming train wrecks?
Image by Official Sean Penn
The classic tale of childhood stardom goes like this: cute kid stars in movies, faces horrors behind the scenes, turns to drugs, alcohol, or other unsavory coping mechanisms to deal with waning adult celebrity, crashes and burns for the world to see. Tabloids and gossip sites relish sharing the stories of the DUIs and public meltdowns of once-squeaky, adorable stars, but few of the child stars who make it to adulthood in one piece are given credit for their success.
See, for every drug arrest and bankruptcy there is a child actor who went on to worldwide celebrity—or a happy, calm life away from the spotlight. What factors allow for some of these young stars to thrive, and for others to fail? Broadly spoke to former child actors succeeding outside of Hollywood, and some of the industry's most successful child agents, to see what makes young stars sink or swim as they age out of their childhood fame.
Children by their very nature are more vulnerable to abuse—both emotional, sexual, and financial—and many young stars face a combination of the three during their careers in Hollywood.
While some child actors are supported by parents who simply want to honor their kid's desire to perform, others are guided by parents who are motivated by greed and a desire to make money off of their child's fame. Iconic child stars like Brooke Shields, Drew Barrymore, and Macauley Culkin had parents who famously exploited their celebrity and, in some cases, stole their money. More recently, Modern Family actress Ariel Winter successfully filed to become legally emancipated from her mother, who was accused of emotional and physical abuse.
Susie Mains, one of Hollywood's biggest and most accomplished child agents who has worked with such stars as Tobey McGuire, Seth Green, Fergie, and Adam Brody, tells Broadly that these cases are actually tragically common in Hollywood. "A lot of times parents will abandon their kids once they grow out of the breadwinner and child-star role," Mains says.
Without regular and consistent parenting and love, it's natural for many of these young actors to turn astray. Parents who "support" their children's dreams of acting might not support their decision to move away from the spotlight. "I once had a client whose parents supported her through the roof: moved the family from the East Coast to LA to help her with her dream, and even brought the grandmother, the uncle along," Mains says. "One day a few years after she had experienced some success, her mom brought her by my office to work on a script. Once her mom left the room, this little girl broke down sobbing, saying she didn't want to do this any more. She said her mom didn't understand, calling her ungrateful after all they had done for her. So this 'supportive' mom was not supportive when the child changed her mind [and wanted] to be able to try different things."
Even if a young actor comes from a stable home, there are other predatory adults that can take advantage and lead them down the wrong path. As a child, Spencer Breslin starred in Disney's The Kid and The Cat in the Hat, while his sister Abigail (who went on to adult fame) received an Oscar nomination at the age of ten for her work in the film Little Miss Sunshine. Breslin, who now plays in the band Broken Machine and hosts the Spencer & Lara's Vomitorium podcast, tells Broadly these negative influences are all too common in Hollywood.
"A lot of times there are people who will kind of latch on to kids, whether it be an agent or a manager or anyone else like that, [who] will try to get the parents totally out of the picture so that the actor can rely on them," Breslin says. "That can be really dangerous because then you have someone whose only motivation is making money calling the shots and directing this kid's life and what they should be doing. These wolves are coming up and saying, 'You don't really need mom and dad around, you don't really need that teacher you respect around, all you need is me and I'll take care of you.'"
Adult figures without young entertainers' best interests in mind run rampant in Hollywood. Iris Burton, one of the first and most famous child talent agents in Hollywood, who represented young stars like River Phoenix and Kirk Cameron, famously told People, "I hate to say it, but kids are meat. I've never had anything but filet mignon. I've never had hamburger. My kids are the choice meat."
I hate to say it, but kids are meat. I've never had anything but filet mignon. I've never had hamburger. My kids are the choice meat.
Famous fraudsters like famed boy-band manager Lou Pearlman have gone to prison for running Ponzi schemes and stealing from their clients, while popular child agent Marty Weiss was charged with child molestation after years of allegations against him went unheard.
Former child actors like Elijah Wood and Corey Feldman have recently spoken out about the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. Feldman has spoken about the sexual abuse he and fellow child star Corey Haim suffered as young actors. "This is a place where adults have more direct and inappropriate connection with children than probably anywhere else in the world," Feldman said of Hollywood.
Lisa Jakub is a former child actor who starred in major blockbusters like Mrs. Doubtfire and Independence Day. Jakub, who is now an author and speaker who has written a book about her experiences in the industry, tells Broadly that she saw lots of inappropriate behavior between adults and children in the industry, whether it be sexual or through allowing kids early access to more "adult" experiences, like drugs and alcohol. (Drew Barrymore, for example, famously checked into rehab at the age of 13.) Jakub counts herself as lucky for avoiding many of these experiences, but didn't escape them entirely. "I did experience some things before I was ready for them. A variety of substances were easily accessible, which of course makes the abuse easier," she says. "I got hit on when I was still too young to know what that meant."
These wolves are coming up and saying, 'You don't really need mom and dad around, you don't really need that teacher you respect around, all you need is me and I'll take care of you.'
After a whole childhood spent working, young stars are often confused when roles dry up as they move into new phases of their lives. Jakub found the transition out of the only life she had ever known especially difficult: "I didn't know how to leave [Hollywood]— I didn't remember ever not being an actor. I wasn't even sure who I was because I had spent so much time pretending to be someone else," she says. "My education was very spotty and I didn't have many experiences of the outside world to let me know what else I might be interested in. I had no skills other than crying on cue and doing foreign accents and didn't know what I could ever be passionate about."
Child actors often face a reverse conundrum of their non-famous peers: Rather than having a free childhood before a lifetime of work, they spend their early years working and are suddenly faced with freedom. Lives on sets are micromanaged. Freedom is daunting. Mains, the child agent, says this transition is where she often sees young stars go astray, sometimes out of not knowing what to do with themselves; sometimes out of deep-seated feelings of rejection. "Everybody loves you and adores you and you're on red carpets, and then boom, you're pushed out and it's the next exciting person," she says. "It becomes an issue of the ego. That's why kids turn to drugs and alcohol. There are some who are thrill-seekers and it passes, but others are trying to assuage a pain that doesn't go away."
Another coping mechanism: Evangelical Christianity. "It's is sort of a bigger trend than you may even know," Mains tells Broadly. She says many of her Nickelodeon clients, inspired by a few "cool kid" stars, attend the same church every week, and the trend has been going on for decades. Iconic child actors like Tia and Tamera Mowry (who were once represented by Mains), Kim Fields, and Dakota Fanning have attributed their success to their faith, calling it a grounding force in their lives.
A surprising number of former child stars have taken their faith a step further and gone on to become Evangelical preachers, ministering salvation to the fans that once watched them on TV. Former child actors like The Facts of Life's Lisa Whelchel, Charles in Charge star Willie Aames, and Full House's Candace Cameron Bure have dedicated their lives to Evangelical ministry, using the skills of charisma and storytelling they learned as young actors in Hollywood.
Kirk Cameron, the former Growing Pains actor and teen heartthrob was Born Again midway through his career as Mike Seaver, and has become one of the biggest and most controversial Evangelists in America. Cameron has advocated that bananas are proof of intelligent design, called homosexuality "unnatural" and "destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization," and advised women that "wives are to honor and respect and follow their husband's lead."
More disconcerting is the conversion of Angus Jones, former star of the wildly popular Two and a Half Men. The teen star made national headlines when he appeared in a video with an Evangelical minister denouncing the show and begging viewers not to watch. "If you watch Two and a Half Men, please stop watching Two and a Half Men. I'm on Two and a Half Men and I don't want to be on it. Please stop watching it and filling your head with filth."
Many viewed his conversion and extreme views as a natural response to the debauchery shown by the show's star, Charlie Sheen, but others worried that the young man was being controlled by Christopher Hudson, the extremist Seventh Day Adventist Minister who accompanies him in the famous video. Breslin, who met and hung out with Jones when they were both kids on set, says he wants to believe his conversion is authentic, but adds that he wouldn't be shocked if he did find out Jones' new Evangelical mentor was taking advantage. "Managers and agents do it all the time, so I don't see why someone else couldn't grab some kid who's kind of influential or has some money," Breslin told Broadly.
While religion can help or hurt a young actor in their attempts to leave Hollywood, Breslin, Mains, and Jakub are all in agreement that the most important factor in child performer's transition into a successful adulthood is the presence of grounding and supportive adults in their lives.
"I think my transition was relatively successful due to having a really great family," says Breslin. "I have good parents who did their best to shield me from a lot of the scummy stuff that goes on in LA. None of my friends were actors. We just played sports and did stupid kid shit. We weren't comparing résumés or asking each other which agent we recently signed with."
Mains says that she tries to remain a steadying force in her young clients' lives, providing a counterbalance to many of the more predatory figures in Hollywood. "As a manager, I spend a lot of time with my clients and I can communicate solid values and insure that they realize that who they are as people is not defined by their last job," she says. "It's really about being able to give kids a balanced perspective that helps them transition to productive adults with a healthy and positive attitude."
Breslin and Jakub also agree that while the journey into adulthood can be difficult for anyone, the threats that face young stars are often overblown. The phenomenon might have less to do with the pressures created by Hollywood, and more to do with the spotlight that focuses on the actions of young stars as they come of age.
"I'm not sure that [transitioning to adulthood] is drastically harder for child actors than it is for anyone else," Jakub tells Broadly. "When the kid who works at the grocery store goes on a bender and wraps a car around a tree, it doesn't end up on the cover of People magazine. I think it's mostly about the fact that our society fetishizes fame and puts so much focus on painful celebrity drama. There are plenty of us that have made it through just fine. That's just not a grabby headline."
Breslin agrees. "I think the tabloid and celebrity-obsessed culture we live in definitely roots for failure. Some star or starlet stumbling out of a bar half-naked and drunk garners a hell of a lot more clicks than a well-adjusted actor going to the dentist on a Tuesday afternoon."