It’s common to hear about child stars that became famous before they were ten years old and end up spreadeagled in front of a Hollywood nightclub a decade later, cameras shoved in their faces, bleached hair extensions clinging to them for dear life. Breakdowns and hot messes are so common that when a child star has a relatively normal life, it’s considered an anomaly.
This story isn’t about famous people, though.
For every child star hounded by paparazzi in adolescence, there’s dozens of that-kid-from-that-commercial who live in anonymity. For every child that becomes famous through genuine talent and luck, there’s dozens of kids who have absolutely no entertainment value but their parents insist that their little Debbie is a star, dammit! For every successful child, there’s kids who are just as talented but didn’t happen to be tall enough or blonde enough and missed out on the role of a lifetime.
There’s many kids who work regularly all their youth but only in commercials or theater so they’re not famous.There is one thing that connects the famous and nonfamous, however: childhood emotional scars. Yay! Stars! They’re just like us!
So why do people get traumatized? What’s so wrong with a job in childhood that gets you out of school, lets you play dress up, and has unlimited free food? Isn’t fame the bad thing that kills people inside and not the industry itself?
You Will Face An Insane Amount of Rejection for a Human Child
In my time acting, I felt like a cute puppy at the pound who loved everyone but was put down because of a bad case of the uglies.
On one hand, this taught me that even if I work hard and try my best, sometimes things don’t work out and that’s life. There were many decisions that were out of my control and maybe it just wasn’t the right time or place for me. I learned to pick myself up and try again. Whenever I would get a job it would reaffirm that, for the most part, I wasn’t the problem and just wasn’t a good fit for the other jobs.
On the other hand, learning this lesson several times a month when I wasn’t even old enough to understand fractions slowly chipped at my self confidence until I was an empty husk yelling “I’ll do anything if you accept me and love me! I will eat a live pigeon! I’ll gobble it up!!!” I was rejected so often that when I was accepted, I couldn’t help but ask, “are you sure?” If someone doesn’t deal with that kind of thing early, it’s a surefire path to low self esteem for years to come. Speaking of self esteem…
Your Largest Physical Insecurity Will Be A Frequent Topic of Conversation
The industry has a unique talent for zoning in on the one thing you hate about yourself and drilling it into your head that you must remedy the thing. Chances are your inner voice is already saying that to you, of course, but it takes on a different level of intensity when several grown adults are talking about your fucked up teeth or humungous hips in front of you. This can also get racist real quick with hair, eyes, skin tone, and whatever else makes you a human being. Too skinny and flat, too fat and curvy, too tall, too short, too alive and whatnot.
I know now that sitting down with a young overweight girl and telling her that she needs to either gain or lose 50 pounds because right now she’s just “visually confusing and doesn’t fit into a type” would be considered emotional abuse in just about any other avenue except entertainment. At the time, however, I just thought that was how life was and all kids have panic attacks in changing rooms and hunch slightly when photographed to fake a deeper collarbone. Obviously it was not healthy behavior but it was encouraged by the people around me. Doctors would say that I was at a normal weight and perfectly healthy (not knowing that I was restricting calories and making myself hurl on the daily, obviously) but my agent would tell me I needed to get smaller, so guess who ten year old me listened to? I know that the etiology of my eating disordered behavior doesn’t rest entirely on the industry but it sure as hell poured gas on the fire and encouraged the illness.
You Will Figure Out What Stereotype You Fit In Very Quickly
Nerd? Jock? Awkward? Airhead?
When you get audition after audition for either a kid with glasses and a lisp who drops her books in the hallway or a girl who eats an entire cheese block while rubbing her tummy and going “Mmmm, Tillamook!” you will realize quickly how the world sees you. I got fat nerd, obviously, but the joke’s on them because now I’m a hot fat nerd.
Again, this also gets racist real quick (I’m sensing a theme here). I’m 99% sure that if I had continued acting I’d be playing some kind of nanny or maid or convenience store worker right now. Or, you know, “Mmmm, Tillamook!” volume two.
Puberty Will Make Or Break Your Career
Puberty didn’t hit me like a truck. That would have been quick and merciful by comparison. Instead, puberty hit me like a bulldozer, slowly but surely destroying everything marketable about myself and also making a mess of everything around me. I was an eleven year old with a visible mustache, love handles, and C-cup breasts. Just in time for middle school!
On the other side, for the majority of the girls around me, puberty came a bit later and meant getting taller, developing a small waist, and filling out curves without looking like a Weeble Wobble. I began noticing a trend during this puberty fest. Good looking boys played the hero. Nongood looking boys played the comic relief. Good looking girls played the cute and sweet girl next door. Nongood looking girls played the Nintendo GameCube at home because their agent dropped them because there were no acting jobs anymore.
You Will Have To Figure Out What You Want As An Adult Quicker Than Others
Having a career as a child is an unusual thing. For child stars, their way is paved more concretely because they found success in their field early, which of course comes with its own pitfalls. Nonfamous kids don’t have that success, however, so they will have to choose if they want to keep trying or pursue a different path altogether. Do they major in theater or branch out? Do they not attend college and focus their energy on auditions instead, risking everything for potentially zero income? Do they leave town or stay? Others might be able to think about those questions for years, but depending on their financial situation, nonfamous kids might have to make it right away. Youth is a quickly depleting resource in entertainment.
You Will Have A Breakdown
Your breakdown doesn’t have to be you driving at 100mph on the wrong side of Sunset Blvd or shooting heroin at Dave&Buster’s. It can be as simple as your grades plummeting. Somehow though, in some way, you will implode upon yourself. It’s only a matter of time. What makes a difference is how severe it is and how you bounce back from that.
My personal breakdown came in college. I had chosen to major in business with an emphasis in cinematic arts because I wanted to make the transition from acting to producing. I realized quickly that the only reason I wanted to be in entertainment was because I was already in it. I’d been acting since I was five and suddenly I was eighteen, living on my own, realizing how weird my life had been and that leaving the industry would mean burning all the bridges I had built over years of persistent work. I wanted to leave but my feet wouldn’t move. I felt like an outsider, icky and gross, and I had all these residual body image issues and trouble accepting love. On top of that, there were some ill-timed family issues so everything was happening at once. It was a perfect storm of existential tailspinning and frat party jungle juice. I didn’t know who I was but at least no one else did either.
All Of The Above Considered, I Am A Stronger Person For It
Everyone I know who did acting as a child is brave. Every single person. Maybe it’s because they’ve faced rejection so much or because they’re used to putting themselves out there. Maybe they’ve always been brave and chose acting for that reason. Maybe the bravery is an act. Regardless, they’re the ones that aren’t afraid to talk to the cute person at the bar and aren’t petrified by public speaking or job interviews.
Would I take it back? In all honesty, I don’t know. I like the person that I am today and that might not have happened without thirteen years of being an actress. I also made good friends and have some fond memories of experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It added color to my life.
But if one day, little future hypothetical BabyGirl Guzman-Zuckerberg says she wants to be an actress, I’ll have three very important words for her.
REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES.
Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.