American Dreamers

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Post-Kiddie Fame On October 10, a former child star wandered through a busy Los Angeles airport, her iPhone clutched tight to her ear, eyes peeking out from behind a pair of expensive sunglasses, tiny frame wrapped in an immaculately styled designer ensemble. Only this wasn’t an ordinary flash-bulb assault by the paparazzi. The woman’s recent fame was no longer based on talent or graft or any actual work, and the questions directed her way weren’t innocuous or superficial. Less “who are you wearing?” and more along the lines of “I can’t believe your dad showed you his penis”. Unknowingly en route to a forced incarceration at an institution, the woman in question was Amanda Bynes.

American Dreamers

As a result of a two-year long torrent of arrests, alarming Twitter posts, claims of mental illness, accusations of sexual abuse, rehabilitation and a subsequent relapse of sorts, Bynes went from a successful child actress to a media punch line. Her very public breakdown was given rampant press coverage, veiled by an obnoxious air of faux-compassion. It’s a depressing story on numerous levels. But it’s also an unsurprising one. Outside of the few to break out, television’s backlog of child stars is littered with forgotten names, high-profile addictions and occasional death. These are the oddly common by-products of early fame and inevitable drop-off.

Bynes was one of several key teen stars to hit the big-time in the early to mid-2000’s, one of the celebrities we now embrace with fond nostalgia, memories of a time when something like The Amanda Show was essential after-school viewing. Bynes, along with contemporaries like Hilary Duff, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Raven Symoné, were products of kiddie sitcoms, splashed across Disney and Nickelodeon like wholesome portraits of all-American youth. They looked like the popular girls but never played them, were virginal yet never prudish, sexy but not “*sexy*”. All white teeth and pink gums and wild arm gestures, aggressively mugging for laughs from the live studio audience. They had their own movies, the occasional pop hit. But all are practically synonymous with a very specific time in pop culture. Many are still around, clinging onto the fringes of media relevancy, but few have been able to parlay their tween success into an adult career.

So why the assumed inevitability of adult misery? The fingers point at the toxic Hollywood environment many of these kids grow up in. The kind of industry in which young performers are indulged and pandered to whenever they’re bringing in cash, yet slandered and derided as soon as the notoriously fickle tween market come of age and find alternative interests. The kind of industry in which young women are promoted as wholesome girly-girls until their 18th birthday, when suddenly they are compelled to take their clothes off for Maxim cover-spreads and talk about being unbridled sexpots. Whether you’re Alyssa Milano, Melissa Joan Hart or Miley Cyrus, it’s seemingly part of the package. That and these kids are pumped full of enough Adderall to make their eyes bleed, shakily staggering out in front of baying crowds to perform like monkeys wearing people suits. Gradually, it develops into an emotional crossroads in which all the identity-forming development we experience in our teen years is exposed and critiqued on an exhaustingly enormous scale, inevitably accompanied by standard Fox News assessment and the whirring of a TMZ camera.

For every child TV actor success story, names that include Jason Bateman and Neil Patrick Harris (both notable in taking an enormous step back from the limelight before re-entering it in their thirties), there are at least a dozen not so lucky. The Hollywood wasteland is littered with ex-child stars who transitioned from sitcom to scandal, or burnt out all-together, among them the mostly deceased cast of Diff’rent Strokes, Kel from Kenan & Kel, practically anyone from Power Rangers, or the one who wasn’t Shia LaBeouf on Even Stevens.

The solution? Seemingly get out of it all together. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, once gimmicky pre-teens, have long operated a legitimately revered fashion label. Their $39,000 alligator purses and aloof, pouty-lipped oddness is now very much a part of their appeal, long eclipsing the eating disorders and shady Heath Ledger conspiracy theories that could have consumed their entire brand. While Hilary Duff plugs away at her new music and Shia LaBeouf tries to laugh off the public intoxication and homeless bum-fights that derailed his movie career, the Olsen twins successfully changed the conversation, dropping off the radar and resisting the continued allure of the spotlight by finding other avenues to pursue. Maybe they were smarter than the rest. Or maybe they just had better luck? Whatever it was, they defied the odds stacked against them from the start, the cycle that just keeps on repeating like a classic sitcom forever in reruns.

Originally published in Venue #305 (09/12/14)

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