Children with stars in their eyes

Laura Tennant had always looked down on the sort of parents who put their children through auditions. But then her daughter got a shot at film glory...
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The Independent Culture

But the newspaper ad had been alluring: "Two girls wanted to star alongside Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet". It continued to say that casting director Gaby Kester was looking for two girls aged between four and seven to star in a feature film called Holiday. A quick internet search revealed that Gaby had also worked on Nanny McPhee and Bridget Jones, and that Holiday would start filming in the US and Britain next year. It seemed too good a chance to miss.

Two days later I have my reporter's hat on and my seven-year-old daughter Artemis has been bribed. After her initial enthusiasm (she spent the Friday night writing her Oscar acceptance speech), by Saturday she is close to tears. Feeling like some kind of ghastly procuress, I explain that "the show must go on".

We expect the open casting to attract hundreds of hopefuls. I envisage a queue of wide-eyed Dakota Fannings stretching around the block and providing an ample buffer zone between Artemis and an actual audition. But when we arrive at 10am there is no queue; just a room of 50 parents and their children.

The woman ahead of us is a young mum from Luton who has brought the two oldest of her three little girls; she explains that the youngest had already started photographic modelling, but at three-and-a-half was too young to audition. Behind me a middle-class mum joins the queue: she says that, at six, her son appeared in Medea as one of Fiona Shaw's murdered children (no permanent psychological damage, apparently) and now pops up in The Bill occasionally. He is only 10, but likes to tell his siblings that "there's nothing like the theatre".

Operating undercover (the casting director has already ejected a journalist from the Daily Mail) I make a few discreet enquiries about why we have all given up our Saturdays. Oddly, perhaps, we all seem to be amateurs. No one, apart from Medea mum, will admit to ever having done anything similar, although a few of the girls are signed up to photo agencies. "It's a laugh, innit?" and "It's a day out, innit?" are common responses.

Sociologically, we are a mixed bag. I chat to a Russian émigré who has been tipped off by a friend in the film business, and watch open-mouthed as a tweenie Lolita makes her entrance in high-heeled boots, tiny ra-ra skirt, midriff-baring top and Gran Canarian tan. Her mother is built along Jordan-esque lines, something I try very hard not to pass bitchy judgement upon.

Half an hour into the wait and, alarmingly, I find that being a stage mother seems to have come naturally to me: I am casting a cold and fishy eye on the other (far inferior) little girls and telling my daughter to give some welly to her rehearsal. But the real tipping point for us comes at midday when Artemis decides to give up the seats we'd booked at the circus that afternoon in favour of doing her audition. From that moment, I cease to be a journalist and become a fully signed-up pushy mum - vicarious nerves, churning stomach and all. I assure myself that if genes mean anything, Artemis can count on the ones inherited from her great-grandmother, a talented stage actress; and while acting is insecure, it is also very cool. After all, that's what really matters. But, statistically, what are the odds of producing a well-adjusted Daniel Radcliffe instead of a messed-up Drew Barrymore? Children need an established sense of their own intrinsic worth before strangers start to value them for the non-essential stuff (like acting talent and a flawless complexion).

No one I speak to seems to have thought through what would happen if their child is picked - although in the loo I find myself chatting to a woman who has just started a cancer charity and hopes that having a star for a daughter will boost her contacts book. "Who knows what they're after?" she says brightly. "Perhaps they're not looking for a pretty child!"

Stage mothers get an appalling press. According to "performance confidence expert" Andrew Evans, who appears on the Beeb's Blast website for aspiring stars, "The problem with young performers is they often have 'stage mothers' who dominate them, who stop them from growing up properly, and who ignore their husbands and the rest of their children in a desire to bask in the reflected celebrity of their offspring." Spirits, however, in Le Meridien's Coca-Cola-fuelled camp for tiny wannabes are high - there are now more than 200 girls waiting to audition. If I'd been expecting evidence of tap-dancing, elocution and other behaviour associated with maternal ambition, I would have been disappointed.

Artemis is up next, and skips off without a backward glance. Mums aren't allowed into the inner sanctum, so I have no idea how she does, except that she is in there for what seems like hours, they tell her she is brilliant, and she does a screen test. Afterwards, we feel a bit flat. I suspect that my daughter - as beautiful and as clever as she is - is not quite peculiar enough to be an actress. But I'm as starstruck as the next poor sucker. If the call comes, we'll be there.