These days, we all want to be famous. And imagine miraculously bypassing those years of social awkwardness, financial struggle, job interviews, and romantic rejections? Imagine being 18 years old and everything you ever wanted was delivered to you on a silver platter, everything you said was the funniest, and everyone in the world wanted to kiss you. For those few and fortunate who are enthroned by Hollywood, the media, and thus the world at large when they are still adolescents, life must play out quite differently. And while feeling like a loser at high school prom is likely not a child star’s main concern, juvenile extravaganzas — both past and present – continually remind us that coming of age in the limelight can have dire consequences.
In 1965, at age 6, Michael Jackson joined The Jackson Brothers, and by 1969 when the group had become the The Jackson 5, Rolling Stone described little Michael as a “prodigy” and outlined that he “quickly emerged as the main draw and lead singer.” So by 11 years old, MJ had become a living legend. Without discrediting the abuse and complications he grew up with within his own family, is it any surprise then that MJ became the Peter Pan poster boy? His voice remained trapped in the octave of an infant and he preferred the company of children. And we all know what happened next…
River Phoenix starred in TV commercials as a child and catapulted to international fame at age 16 with his starring role in Stand By Me, now a cult classic. My Own Private Idaho and Dog Fight forever embedded Phoenix as a Hollywood legend, yet his career was brought to a brutal and sudden end in 1993, when he died of drug-induced heart failure outside the Viper Room, a West Hollywood nightclub. He was only 23.
Having starred in the soap opera Another World by the time she was 10, Lindsay Lohan made her prolific motion picture debut at 11 years old in Disney’s remake of The Parent Trap. After cult hits such as Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Lohan is perhaps one of the more tragic living child stars today. The once-golden girl of Hollywood strung up repeat DUI’s, rehab stints, and court appearances, and as a result, has found herself outcasted by the industry and incessantly ridiculed by the media.
Australian actor Heath Ledger began acting in Australian television when he was 14, and in 1997, at 17 years old, starred in the US Fox series, Roar. In 1999, Ledger hit box office status with his breakthrough role in 10 Things I Hate About You. A celebrated actor with roles in critically acclaimed films such as Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There and The Dark Knight, for which he won a (sadly posthumous) Oscar, the collective heart of the entire world skipped a beat when breaking news revealed that Ledger had died at age 28 of a prescription drug intoxication cardiac arrest.
Need I keep listing…?
After working with Tom Cruise, a Hollywood dialect coach (whose name I won’t reveal) once described him to me as being “emotionally frozen in time” at the age he was catapulted to stardom — around 21. Is that what happens to all these young mortals who are inflated to god-like status and then left to squirm and flounder when they have to figure out how to evolve into real adults and deal with the tangible world around them?
In our present gaze is the teen Disney star turned pop rebel, Miley Cyrus, whose vulgar twerking and tonguing have created quite the stir. However, is this display not merely the regular narrative of a coming-of-age? Granted, Miley’s story possesses a unique edge — she’s one of the wealthiest and most famous girls of her age in the world. The implication here is that living and breathing such a gross distortion of reality must make growing up — and, therefore, becoming an adult — really strange. That her teething, testing boundaries, and rebelliousness is played out on an international stage only intensifies that strangeness.
Perhaps that’s why some child stars like Macaulay Culkin turn their back on Hollywood. And surely this is also why actors like Cate Blanchett, whose rise to stardom happened when she was already 30, appear so stable, poised, and grounded. Surely too though, show-biz and the media alike could be kinder to it’s young ones, with whom it’s so obsessed, when they stumble and fall in their attempt to become adults.