The mice that roared: How Disney’s former child stars are fighting to change the entertainment industry

From aggressive stereotyping to invasive questions about the status of their virginity, some of Disney’s most famous faces were put through the gauntlet from an inconceivably young age. Roisin O’Connor looks at the repercussions of early fame and speaks with former Camp Rock stars Alyson Stoner and Meaghan Martin on how they ‘escaped’ the persecution endured by their peers

Monday 19 July 2021 09:22 BST
Growing pains (clockwise from left): Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers from Camp Rock, Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, Alyson Stoner, Britney Spears and Meaghan Martin
Growing pains (clockwise from left): Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers from Camp Rock, Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, Alyson Stoner, Britney Spears and Meaghan Martin (AFP/Getty/Disney Channel/Shutterstock)

There’s something eerie about Peter Pan, a boy frozen forever in childhood. But for many former child stars, it’s not so far from the truth. Over the past year, a reckoning has been taking place as the lives of these celebrities – from Britney Spears to Demi Lovato – have been re-examined. Many are reclaiming their narratives, and reflecting on being hounded, bullied and attacked by the very people who helped make them famous in the first place. And many of these people, whose lives have unfolded under the glare of the media and the scrutiny of the public, are bound together by one unique origin story: they got their big break on the Disney Channel.

It was the starting point for not just Spears and Lovato but also Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Vanessa Hudgens, Ryan Gosling, Selena Gomez, Zac Efron, The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. While they have all gone on to forge wildly varying careers – an Oscar-nominated actor, a Grammy-winning pop star – what links many of them, particularly the women, is how a childhood spent in the spotlight paved the way for issues such as substance abuse, addiction, mental health struggles and exploitation. With so many celebrities now speaking out over past trauma, the Disney Channel and the culture around it are beginning to be seen in a very different light.

Alyson Stoner, along with Lovato, was part of the second generation to emerge from the rebooted Mickey Mouse Club, the US kids’ variety show that launched in 1993 with Spears, Timberlake, Gosling and co. She’s the longest-serving actor on the Disney Channel – and is still employed by them – having starred in films including Camp Rock and Camp Rock 2, Cheaper by the Dozen, Step Up, and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. She started speaking out about her experiences of being a child star this year.

Stoner’s began incredibly early. She started dancing in a local studio when she was three, joined a modelling company three years later, and from there was “unknowingly funnelled into the child actor pipeline”. She tells The Independent about a relentless, fraught cycle of auditions that required strict focus in order to not be distracted by “such a highly strung, cut-throat environment”.

“In the room, there’s no way to predict whether the casting director will look you in the eye or send you to your mark without greeting,” she says. “If you’ll get to read the scene [you’re] prepared to be dismissed for having the wrong hair colour; if they’ll give you notes to improve your performance or cut you off mid-sentence and take a phone call with someone they’re already offering the part to. There are hundreds of strategies and entire acting schools dedicated to the process of the audition room.”

By the age of nine, Stoner had already achieved a level of fame from her role as a dancer in Missy Elliot’s music videos for “Work It”, “Gossip Folks” and “I’m Really Hot”. In her first feature film, a remake of family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen, she acted opposite heavyweights Stephen Martin and Bonnie Hunt. But she was typecast at a young age. In this film and in her later projects, including Step Up and Camp Rock, she was presented as the archetypal “tomboy” – in many she is styled in baseball caps and jeans instead of the skirts and dresses worn by her female co-stars.

Alyson Stoner: ‘The impact of typecasting runs much deeper than mere visual self-expression' (Press image)

Asked what kind of effect this level of pigeonholing could have on a child, Stoner, now 27, says the impact runs “much deeper than mere visual self-expression”.

“Beyond the psychological implications and commodifying your body – as a minor, remember – the industry also has a hierarchy of desirable and profitable qualities,” she explains. An actor’s placement in this hierarchy can affect anything and everything from career trajectory to the way they are perceived by the public. “Every day, there are hundreds of thousands of performers deciding whether to lean into a stereotype they’re given or strive for who they feel they are authentically,” continues Stoner, “and rarely do those feel like exactly the same things.”

Stoner’s Camp Rock co-star, Meaghan Martin, faced a similar issue when she was cast as queen bee Tess Tyler opposite Lovato and The Jonas Brothers in 2008. When the film came out, she was bombarded with offers to play different degrees of the same bitchy blonde teen. The audition, where she met Stone and Lovato for the first time, took eight hours; later Martin messaged Lovato on MySpace to ask if they’d got the part. “High School Musical had just come out so we had an idea that this could be big,” 29-year-old Martin tells The Independent. “You hope but try not to let yourself get too excited.” Martin, who was born in Las Vegas, landed adverts for Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids as a child and had already appeared in TV programmes including Just Jordan and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. “I think I’d learnt by 15 that rejection was inevitable,” she adds.

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We were so young, we were all quite innocent

Meaghan Martin

But she won the role, and Camp Rock became one of the most successful original movies ever released by Disney. Martin has fond memories from the set: “We were so young, we were all quite innocent, we’d have dance parties in hotel rooms,” she recalls. When the time came to shoot the sequel, however, the first film had become a phenomenon and the dynamic on set had changed. “There was more money, more pressure,” she says. “There was a new director and it was not as positive an experience.”

As a teenager, Martin wasn’t mentally equipped with the level of maturity or self-worth to deal with that kind of scenario. “Now, I wouldn’t stand for something [like that], but at 17 I convinced myself, ‘This is just the way it is,’” she says. She points out that child actors are placed in a challenging dynamic because technically they are working professionals. “You don’t wanna send your mom in.”

‘There was a new director and it was not as positive an experience’ – Meaghan Martin on her ‘Camp Rock 2’ experience (Michael Wharley)

That conflict of how child and teen stars should be treated was reflected in the media, too. Lovato was frequently described as having the vocal prowess of an adult; in a 2011 interview with Elle magazine, writer-producer Toby Gad said the then 17-year-old’s “adult quality” marked them apart from their fellow Disney stars, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. “When you meet her, you know this isn’t a girl in stiletto heels – this is a woman,” he claimed (Lovato has since come out as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns).

Meaghan Martin was invited on the Camp Rock tour led by The Jonas Brothers in 2010 – the same tour Lovato eventually dropped out of to enter treatment for “emotional and physical issues” after punching a backup dancer. Martin declined to join them, choosing instead to go against type and star as the sweet but naive lead Jo Mitchell, in the 2011 direct-to-video movie, Mean Girls 2. It was panned by critics but she had a “genuinely amazing time” filming it and has since relocated to east London, where she lives with her husband, British actor Oli Higginson. She studied drama at the prestigious acting school Lamda and now works predominantly in theatre, her first love.

“[Moving] to London was this reinvention, a reminder of who I was and what I wanted, what creatively fulfilled me,” Martin says. “I wanted to do Shakespeare and classical texts.” London’s world of theatre was a million miles away from what she was used to. In 2019, she made her stage debut in the capital in The Actor’s Nightmare by Tony Award-winning playwright Christopher Durang, receiving rave reviews from The Guardian and The Stage.

“I think there’s more respect for artistry here,” she says. “It’s an energy I feel much more comfortable in, rather than the more superficial, competitive nature you get in LA.”

I don’t recall watching movies past the age of six

Alyson Stoner

Where Martin voluntarily stepped away from that world early on, Stoner says she coped with the “chaos” of the industry she was working in by not watching films past the age of six. “By the time I was seven, I viewed media through a technical lens of character development, direction and production, so the enchantment of other worlds and investment into other characters isn’t an experience I have,” she says. “My antidote was focusing on school and accumulating knowledge that could ground me further into reality, not sweep me into fantasy. I was highly pragmatic and hyper vigilant.” To this day, Stoner doesn’t own a TV, subscribe to streaming services or watch films. “It’s bittersweet,” she says.

Martin and Stoner feel like all-too rare examples of former child stars who managed to grow up largely unscathed, at least in comparison to the tumultuous and widely publicised problems their peers have dealt with. Lovato’s 2021 documentary series, Dancing with the Devil, trawls through the myriad issues the pop star has faced, from drug and alcohol addiction to sexual assault and mental health struggles. They claimed they lost their virginity aged 15 to a rape by a co-star – while working for the Disney Channel in the late 2000s – and alleged it was “completely swept under the rug” when they told “somebody of power about it”. (Disney did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment at the time the allegations emerged.)

Alyson Stoner (left) and Demi Lovato with Kevin, Joe and Nick Jonas (Getty)

What’s also troubling is Disney’s habit of trying to preserve the public perception of its stars’ innocence long after they’ve reached adulthood. Perhaps it’s because it knows the media and the public dislikes seeing these actors and their onscreen representatives of childhood innocence grow up. But the media also tends to sexualise young girls while condemning those who express their sexuality on their own terms. In 1999, a moral panic erupted over former Mickey Mouse Club star Britney Spears’s video for “… Baby One More Time”, which showed the 16-year-old in a schoolgirl skirt and shirt knotted around her midriff. Two years later, she posed for Rolling Stone in a bra and silk briefs, holding a Teletubby. Then her fellow Mouseketeer, Christina Aguilera, came out with “Dirrty”, in which she gyrated around a boxing ring in leather chaps and a bikini top.

Pop culture moments such as these can be seen as acts of rebellion by stars sick of pandering to Disney’s squeaky-clean ethos. In a 2019 interview with The Irish Times, Aguilera said that “Dirrty” was her attempt to rip up the “innocent” image she’d been left with post-Disney. “I wasn’t that girl,” she said. “[‘Dirrty’] was my f*** it moment. That was me stepping up and saying I was a woman that’s proud of my sexuality.” In 2011, former High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale posed naked for a nude issue of Allure magazine when she was 25, in a move the press described as “shedding her Disney image”. “Being in this shoot was me saying, ‘I’m not just the young girl everybody thinks I am. I’m actually a woman,’” she told the Daily Mail.

Many former child stars have expressed frustration at the way they are infantalised as adults. In one episode of Dancing With the Devil, Lovato reveals they first began suffering from an eating disorder when they were competing in beauty pageants from a young age. Lovato’s team tried to prevent them from relapsing by telling their friends to be “careful” with what and how they eat in front of them – this only complicated Lovato’s relationship with food. “I feel like decisions have been made for me more so than I’ve made decisions for myself,” they said.

Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil trailer

Similarly, even despite her controversial conservatorship, Spears seems frozen in her teen queen years due to her “baby voice”, most likely an extension of her signature singing style that vocal coach Lis Lewis described to Billboard as “how high school kids talk”. Later in her career, Spears attempted to shed this image and switched her singing style to a more whispered tone on songs such as “I’m a Slave 4 U”, which songwriter and producer Josh Schwartz said emulated Spears’s need to “grow up”.

However, an article in The Guardian argued that Spears’s breathy vocals on the 2001 single, along with Aguilera’s video for “Dirrty”, were examples of women falling into a “virgin-discovers-sex” trope in which the sexual display is catered to the male gaze, which has become a cliche in itself. It seems important to question why these women have felt that this was the only way to be taken seriously as adults. Gomez drew the ire of Lorde over her 2013 debut single “Come & Get It”, who told Rolling Stone: “I’m a feminist and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me’. I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.” The songwriter Amy S Foster meanwhile wrote on the lifestyle website HelloGiggles of Gomez: “It’s not the idea that she is having sex, or singing about sex or wearing sexy clothes that bothers me. It’s the fact that she sings quite proudly about being a total doormat with the notion that THAT is sexy.”

It was Walt Disney himself who asked one of the original Mickey Mouse Club stars, Annette Funicello, to promise to keep her navel covered no matter how many beach-set films she made as an adult. Meanwhile, Funicello’s former co-star Doreen Tracey posed nude while wearing mouse ears for men’s magazine, Gallery in 1976. It went down badly with the company. “You get yourself in a lot of hot water,” she told Jennifer Keishin Armstrong for the 2010 book Why? Because We Still Like You: A History of the Mickey Mouse Club. “I lost a lot of shows at Disney. They used to call me two, three times a year for appearances before I did Gallery, and now they wouldn’t touch me.”

There is an inherent, and very American tension, between chaste, virginal purity and overt sexuality

Dr Jennifer Bickerdike

One reason many of these former Disney stars might have felt compelled to make such a statement is because they have been taught to think in extremes. Disney is built on archetypes – the hero, the villain, the damsel, the bully – and the media, too, continues to perpetuate constrictive tropes of “womanhood”: virgin/whore, good girl/bad girl. “There is an inherent, and very American tension, between chaste, virginal purity and overt sexuality, the key idea being one of possibility,” pop music scholar Dr Jennifer Bickerdike, who is currently writing a new book about Spears, tells The Independent. “In many ways, each defines the other by its absence. One of the reasons that Britney Spears’s breakout video ‘…Baby One More Time’ was such a sensation was that it played on this intangible balance.”

Bickerdike says the school setting combined with Spears’s sexualised outfit represents the quandary that “so many young women find themselves in”.

“We – the public, the audience, the producers, the media – want them, the performer – to be a ‘positive role model’,” she says. “But the context, the other external factors of living and growing up under the unrelenting public eye as a commodity do not factor into being an evergreen good girl. The perfect paragon to be sold across as many platforms as possible does not allow for any experimentation, questioning or engagement with self on behalf of the artist. It leaves almost a simulacrum, not an actual fallible human. That’s why we should not be surprised when they fumble and fall.”

A prominent example of this was when a then 18-year-old Vanessa Hudgens became the victim of a nude photo leak. At the time, the High School Musical star apologised, with Disney releasing a statement saying it hoped she had “learned a valuable lesson” after her “lapse in judgement”. But parents were still outraged, with many calling for Disney to drop Hudgens. One mother in LA told Reuters they felt Hudgens was “damaged” and had lost her image as a “wonderful, pure innocent person”.

Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens in ‘High School Musical 2’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Lovato, Stoner, Hudgens, Martin, Cyrus, Gomez and The Jonas Brothers all came through at a time in the early Noughties, when the US was undergoing a “purity panic” and evangelical groups such as the Moral Majority were urging schools to teach abstinence instead of sex education. However, just as the messages of sexual abstinence were shown to be ineffective on reducing unplanned pregnancies or sexual activity among teenagers, the “purity ring” craze at the start of the decade only served to get everyone speculating over which Disney stars were having sex.

“I was 15 when those questions started: ‘Do you wear a purity ring?’” Martin recalls. “It was essentially asking whether you were a virgin or not! It’s problematic on so many levels.” The frenzy over purity rings became so embedded in pop culture at the time that it became acceptable to slut-shame in public. When Russell Brand mocked The Jonas Brothers for their purity rings at the VMAs in 2008, the newly crowned American Idol winner Jordin Sparks took to the stage and commented: “I just have one thing to say about promise rings. Not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut!” That same year, Miley Cyrus told People: “Even at my age, a lot of girls are starting to fall. I think if [staying a virgin] is a commitment [that] girls make, that’s great” (though of course she eventually had her own ‘I’m a sexual being’ moment when she swung naked on top of a wrecking ball for her song of the same name).

The Jonas Brothers wearing their purity rings at the 2008 MTV Awards (Getty)

Other pop critics have suggested the “purity panic” of the early Noughties played into a historic social stigma regarding women and sex. “There’s a real fear of female sexuality, female desire, and I think it makes perfect sense for [Disney] to want to encourage stars to talk about things that happen to also intersect with tenets of popular Christianity,” Morgan Genevieve Blue, the author of Girlhood on Disney Channel: Branding, Celebrity and Femininity, told Jezebel in 2018. “Family values, Christian morality – it’s especially useful for parents who are attempting to control what their children consume, media- and merchandise-wise.”

While Martin says Disney never asked her to wear a purity ring, its publicists didn’t exactly fend off journalists asking about them, either, she claims. “The publicists who were provided never said, ‘Can you not ask that question?’ But I think now they probably would.” She remembers other questions, too, asking her to describe her “dream man”, or which one of the Jonas Brothers she’d most like to date. “I didn’t have the mental capacity to cope with that kind of leading question,” she says. “It’s an age when you haven’t worked out who you are yet.”

It’s disturbing to consider how things could have been even worse for these stars had they emerged at the height of social media. Martin was there for the early stages of Twitter and even then she deleted it after a few years because “the cyber-bullying was insane. Every time I opened it, it was, ‘You can’t sing, your forehead’s too big, you have a weird body,’” she says.

Stoner, who just released a new eBook for Pride, says part of the problem with the entertainment industry failing to support its child stars is the “unrelatable-ness” of their situation. “It’s painful to attempt to relay such a fundamentally unapproachable experience, especially knowing the external narratives and cultural slants that shape perception and dampen sympathy for young performers,” she says. Among those narratives she cites are: “The narrow and typically wildly inaccurate depiction of wealth, entitlement and fame; the illusion of separation between ‘star’ and general public; the stereotype of diva and tabloid-driven record of erratic or reckless behaviour.”

Alyson Stoner: ‘It’s painful to attempt to relay such a fundamentally unapproachable experience' (Press image)

She has since begun campaigning against the “long-standing, abusive system” in the entertainment industry that “allows child entertainers to endure violence, abuse and neglect with little accountability for those perpetuating it,” she says. One campaign is for film and TV sets to have a qualified, third-party mental health professional on every set – “especially if minors are present,” she adds – and for the introduction of mandatory industry and media literacy courses for guardians and representatives of child performers.

Stoner cites the “Coogan Law” – a legal bill that attempts to protect minors from being exploited by parents, guardians or their teams by requiring a studio teacher to provide schooling and on-set welfare. But “unfortunately,” she says, “it’s the Wild West and there are [a lot of] loopholes, pressure dynamics, unqualified hires, and unethical practices happening to enforce any of this.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of kids flocking to LA. There are thousands of scouts, scams, and programs funnelling prospective talent into the industry. There were zero programs to my awareness that helped anyone navigate the psychological, financial and logistical implications of the industry on individuals and families, of a full-time freelance performance lifestyle on the actor, and of public-facing, scrutiny-inviting careers as minors.”

Martin agrees that there are still many problems within the entertainment industry, which awareness raising movements like #MeToo continue to highlight. “I feel lucky to have healed from it,” she says. “I had a really good support system in my family – a lot of times when things go awry it’s because the parents aren’t really there, or they can’t support the child in the way that [they] need.” She hopes things are changing. “Everyone is fighting an uphill battle.” And with former stars speaking out with such authority, there’s hope that it’s a battle that could one day be won.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, help and support is available.

For alcohol or drug abuse, you can confidentially call the national alcohol helpline Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 or visit the NHS website here for information about the programmes available to you.

If you or someone you know is suffering from drug addiction, you can seek confidential help and support 24-7 from Frank, by calling 0300 123 6600, texting 82111, sending an email or visiting their website here.

In the US, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you can contact your nearest Rape Crisis organisation for specialist, independent and confidential support. For more information, visit their website here.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677. You can visit their website here. NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. They can be reached by phone on 845 838 2040 or their website here.

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