PR: Artfully dodging the media

When Ivan Clark's son Barney agreed to become the new Oliver Twist, a publicist was hired to prevent another child-star casualty. Paul McCann reports
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The Independent Online

Whether it be Macaulay Culkin divorcing his parents and being busted for marijuana or Drew Barrymore taking cocaine at 12 and demanding "legal emancipation" from her mother, the problem child star is an established media cliché. In the worst cases, like that of River Phoenix, they pay for their fame with their lives.

Corey Feldman, who starred with Phoenix in Stand By Me, became addicted to heroin and cocaine, tried to sell his teeth on eBay and has famously described child stardom as a "collision course with hell". In Hollywood there is even a charity and helpline for child actors.

The survivors, like Foster, Brooke Shields or Natalie Portman, are often the ones who step out of the limelight to go back to school. They are the rare young stars whose parents managed to regain some control on their lives after the filming was over.

The parents of Barney Clark, the 12-year old star of Roman Polanski's new screen version of Oliver Twist, are hoping to follow these positive examples. They believe they have found the way to minimise the intrusion into their lives that comes with having a child in a $60m film: they have developed their own media strategy.

"You have to set out what your publicity agenda is going to be at the start and stick to it as firmly as you can," says Ivan Clark. "What we did was secure an agreement in advance with the film company that we wouldn't do any publicity of a personal nature. He is committed to doing publicity for the film. He talks about acting and he talks about working with Roman Polanski. But he never talks about his family, his school or his private life.

"It meant that we were often accused by the film company's publicists of spoiling the party; they said things like 'the film's bigger than Barney'. They would set up photo shoots with his mum and brother and be extremely flattering and persuasive, telling us 'we're all doing it for Roman'. But you have to be extremely pedantic and stick to your guns."

The Clarks took the unusual step of employing their own publicity adviser in the form of family friend and London PR man Mark Borkowski. He was there to look after Barney's interests, not Sony Pictures' investment in the film.

"There were certain things where the advice was invaluable," says Ivan. "For example American Teen Vogue was doing a big feature on up-and-coming actors and they wanted to shoot Barney with another young English actress. But Mark pointed out that we had no idea who she was or what might happen to her career, and yet Barney could have been defined by the photograph and linked to her in the cuttings files for ever."

Similarly, the family refused the film company's offer to set up an interview with Barney's local paper, the Hackney Gazette. "You have to ask yourself what, in this instance, you're getting from a local interview," says Borkowski. "Not much coverage and yet they would, because they are local, have to identify the boy's school and where he lived. Then it's in the public domain, giving others the green light to use it later. It could also have opened him up to every local loony."

Ivan Clark, who works in the media as an advertising executive, says he and his wife, who is a writer, were always aware that it would be easy to portray them as showbusiness parents and the whole family as fair game. "If you do Hello! as a family, which we were offered, you can't then close the door on that, you can't go back. You look like parents enjoying your child's success and then you would be accused of hypocrisy if you turn down requests for further personal interviews or object to intrusion. As it is, people think you must have something to hide if you don't do the personal stuff."

At the very start of filming the Clarks were door-stepped by reporters from the tabloids and their neighbours were questioned about the family. There have also been legal letters issued recently asking papers not to repeat one title's naming of Barney's school. "There is a big difference in the treatment from the British press," says Ivan.

"In the US Barney did 60 interviews in a hotel suite in one day. All day long American reporters asked him about acting, they asked him about working with Polanski and Ben Kingsley and then at interview number 56 a British reporter walks in and his first question is 'So are you rich now?'. I mean how can a 12-year-old boy answer a question like that?"

And yet more often than not, it is the money that causes the most problems for child stars. "Increasingly personal publicists are on a percentage of earnings," says Borkowski. "That means parents might not be getting the best strategic advice. Instead the temptation is to see it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make money. They extend the celebrity brand outside the confines of the film and turn up at events, endorse products or model clothes."

The Clarks were also concerned at what they saw as the attempted sexualisation of their son. "At one point a photographer was saying 'give us a big smile for the girls' and we had to step in and put him straight," says Barney's father. "This is a 12-year-old we're talking about; he's not a teen idol and we've had to stipulate that we wanted nothing to do with teen magazines."

Barney Clark has now taken part in publicity tours of Poland, America, France, the Czech Republic and the UK. A typical day in recent weeks has seen him on Sky News at 7.30am, going to school, and then doing an interview with the Daily Mirror at 9pm in the Groucho Club.

"We're not kidding ourselves that we can control the media," says Ivan. "But we have established that when you're 12 there is a difference between being an actor and being a celebrity. You can never forget that. Because if you ever let the celebrity genie out of the bottle, your little boy could be sucked into the system."