The trappings of fame can be hard for most fully grown adults to handle – let alone young children.
The concept of a “child star” predates film itself, with child actors and performers finding fame on theatrical and vaudeville stages.
It was with the advent of Hollywood that children were first elevated to true national stardom, however: performers like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney became bona fide celebrities long before reaching adulthood.
But fame usually comes at a cost, one that is only intensified when its subjects are still at a young and vulnerable age.
Celebrity can be incredibly damaging for many child stars, with mental health problems and addiction often associated with the pressures of the spotlight.
In some cases, child stars have managed to navigate successful adult careers in the industry, such as Jodie Foster or Demi Lovato. Others have been driven away from the spotlight completely.
Here is what 10 former child stars had to say about surviving their childhoods in show business.
Doctor Who and Rare Beasts star Billie Piper first found fame as a teenager, releasing her debut No 1 single “Because We Want To” at the age of 15. Piper has since spoken openly about the difficulties she faced in the spotlight, telling Desert Island Discs that life was “incredibly lonely” and “unbelievably unsafe” as a child star.
Writing in The Big Issue, she also said: “My teenage years are a period of my life that I’m reflecting on now for the first time in my adult life. There’s a lot of missing pieces to be honest, which I think speaks for itself... Those first few years were totally thrilling and I just felt like I was living a dream of mine. But I was often in very strange, very adult situations that I wouldn’t subject my own kids to at 16.
“Actually, my real take-away from my 16th year is just how exhausted I was, because I was a teenager going through everything a teenager goes through, but very publicly.”
Singer-songwriter Demi Lovato has long been open about the toll that fame took on her mental health, following her early success as a child star on the Disney Channel. Discussing the subject with fellow former child actor Drew Barrymore, Lovato said: “There’s no manual on how to raise a child star. And when the child star retorts back after the parent says, ‘You’re grounded for sneaking out at 3 in the morning,’ whatever, I retorted with, ‘Well, I pay the bills. What are you going to do? What are you going to do to keep me grounded?’ It was challenging.
"I always rebelled against authority ‘cause deep down inside, I was always like, ‘I’m paying the rent around here,’" she continued.
“Your adult peers are, like I said, going to a bar after work or whatever, and you’re 17, thinking, ‘Well, what do I get to do to play?’ "I had this mentality of, if you’re going to work me like an adult, I get to party like one. But the reality was, adults weren’t partying like I was.”
Aguilera was a star on the Disney Channel’s New Mickey Mouse Club before rising to global prominence as a musician. Speaking to Health magazine, Aguilera recently reflected on her early teenage stardom. “In some regard, I wasn’t happy with a lot of things, and it’s scary to face those feelings that, under normal circumstances, you don’t have time to face because everyone is going, going, going,” she said. “That grind is praised, but I think we’re all understanding that having moments to self-reflect and just breathe are crucial.
“When I’m not working, there’s a heavy amount of guilt that I feel. It’s been embedded in me since I was little — you’re shamed if you don’t want to keep up. As a child [entertainer], you’re all pitted against one another, and other children are all about that grind too. It’s a weird space to grow up in.”
After enjoying considerable success as a child actor, Mara Wilson stepped back from the Hollywood limelight. She has since candidly discussed her experiences as a child actor on social media, and in her memoir. In a New York Times op-ed, she wrote: “I mostly acted in family movies — the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire. I never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress. This was all intentional: My parents thought I would be safer that way. But it didn’t work.”
“It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did,” she continued. “Before I even turned 12, there were images of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped into child pornography. Every time, I felt ashamed.”
“Hollywood has resolved to tackle harassment in the industry, but I was never sexually harassed on a film set,” she said. “My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.”
One of the biggest child stars of recent years, Daniel Radcliffe was catapulted to international fame when he was cast in the Harry Potter film adaptations. Speaking to The Mirror in 2016, he said: “Ultimately, the hardest thing about growing up in the spotlight, it’s not the easy access to drugs or the strange, sort of pandering world you enter into.
“The difficulty is trying to work out who you are while constantly coming up against a perception of yourself that everybody else already has,” he continued. “I think it’s very important, especially when you become famous young, to work out who you are without fame and without that as part of your identity, because that will go. Fame does not last forever. For anyone.”
Cheaper By the Dozen star Alyson Stoner got into the industry particularly young, and has spoken about the effects that stardom had on her self-image and physical wellbeing. “I started working in entertainment when I was six years old,” she told YouTuber Michelle Khare. “Being in the public eye growing up brought a lot of criticism especially about my appearance.
“We strive to keep this illusion of unattainability. But behind the scenes, we’re hurting ourselves to reach that limit. I ended up going to rehab for three different eating disorders: anorexia, exercise bulimia and binge eating. I believe it was just a response to a chaotic and unpredictable environment.”
Haley Joel Osment
Speaking to The Independent in 2019, Haley Joel Osment, the actor best known for his roles as a child in The Sixth Sense and Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, said: ““I think sometimes there’s an expectation for there to be that darkness. But I think there are a lot more stories of people who had positive experiences working as children and didn’t have that kind of clichéd storyline going forward. And that’s been the case for me.
“I realise that I’m very lucky,” Osment continued, “because there were other kids who maybe didn’t have parents that looked out for them, or worked on film sets that were not wholesome, or where they were not protected. But that was not my experience.”
Born into the world of celebrity as the daughter of musician Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus reached massive success as the star of the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, before transitioning to a hit pop music career. Speaking to Marie Claire, Cyrus has said: “I was an adult when I was supposed to be a kid... so now I’m an adult, and I’m acting like a kid.”
“I was told for so long what a girl is supposed to be from being on that show,” she added. "I was made to look like someone that I wasn’t, which probably caused some body dysmorphia because I had been made pretty every day for so long, and then when I wasn’t on that show, it was like, ‘Who the f*** am I?’”
Another former Disney Channel star, Selena Gomez spoke out about stepping into the spotlight at a young age in an interview with GQ. “We’re easy targets. Every single kid who was brought up like this is an easy target. It’s disgusting, because it’s interesting to grown adults that these kids go through weird things because they’re figuring out, ‘Do I like this? Do I love this? Maybe I love this person. Oh, I’m exposed to this, people are reporting my every move and this and that because of Instagram and Twitter and you can find out everything,’” she said.
“Because it’s, I don’t know, fun, maybe? It’s like watching a car crash as you’re driving past it. You want to watch it.”
She continued: “I chose this. So I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Oh my God, poor me, I didn’t have a normal childhood. I don’t give a f*** about that.”
Often cited as one of the great child acting success stories, Jodie Foster has been drawing critical acclaim since her earliest years on screen. Speaking to PorterEdit in an interview in 2018, she reflected on her early years.
“The weird cauldron that made me – working from the time I was three years old, supporting my family by the time that I was seven, super-strong mom, over-confident personality, celebrity young enough that I learned to be stand-offish … I think there’s a whole bunch of reasons why I didn’t have the same path as someone who came to Hollywood at 22 with two cents in her pocket and just wanted more than anything else to be an actor,” she said. “It’s just a different life.
“If there’s anything that I have to be a role model about, it is prioritising my own self-worth and psychological health above all. And if not, I don’t know where I would be today,” she added. “I mean, there is a carpet of ex-child actors who did not make it.”
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