When pop legend Michael Jackson died earlier this year, newspapers, websites and TV screens were filled with images from every stage of the singer’s life.
Journalists pawed over his 45 years in the limelight, from the early days performing on stage with his brothers in the Jackson 5 to the worldwide success of albums, right through to the latter years characterised by controversy surrounding his relationship with children.
Jackson, who performed from the age of five, is one example of a child star who grew up in the full glare of publicity and had a number of personal issues.
Dr Jane O’Connor is an expert in child stars at the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Education. The Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Family Studies says Jackson was one of a number of child stars who have spoken about not having a childhood due to the demands of the show business lifestyle.
“Michael Jackson described himself as the Peter Pan of pop and said he did not have a childhood so relived that time as an adult. This reinforces the idea that childhood is a special time that cannot repeat and if you miss it, then there can be a lot of problems with the adult identity.”
There is a dominant idea that there is a curse surrounding child stars. They are often described as having ‘too much too young’ or being ‘scarred for life’ by success, ending up as drug addicts, alcoholics or anorexics.
While some have gone on to have a stable and successful career as an adult, such as actress Jodie Foster, there are many high profile examples of stars who have had public meltdowns before they hit their 20s. Jane cites Drew Barrymore as an example of a star who had the public problems associated with fame at a young age, such as drug addiction and alcoholism. The actress entered rehab twice before she turned 14, but came through the other side and built a successful adult career.
But where does the interest around child stars come from? In her book, The Cultural Significance of the Child Star, Jane says the phenomenon of a ‘wonder child’ is nothing new.
“Having a few children in every society that are adored is a universal human feature. If you look at ancient civilisations and legends there are always stories of wonder children. There is a huge power impressed upon these children. In my PhD thesis, I linked this to Carl Jung’s theory of the child archetype which suggests all human beings have the need to tell similar stories and one is the story of wonderful children, such as Hercules and Merlin.
“In contemporary Western culture, the manifestation of this is the ‘child star’. There is a need to have a child to symbolise all that is good, beautiful and innocent. They become public property and we project a lot of our desires of what is good on these children.”
But Jane says when you look at the experience of these children in the limelight, things start to unravel. They suddenly have power usually associated with being an adult.
“Childhood is a private space, when you are not economically active and do not have a professional persona, but child stars transgress those boundaries. They are, in some cases, supporting their family, and are open to the same mud-slinging aimed at all celebrities. They are outside the protective boundaries of childhood and that can be very damaging to the emerging identity of the individual.”
Another recurrent refrain from child stars is that they ‘just wanted to be normal’.
“Children hate to feel different and left out of whatever their peers are doing. They say that they wanted to be in show business when a child, but did not understand the implications for the rest of their lives of having a famous face or a recognisable name.”
But the people who would have some idea of the potential implications of fame are the parents, and they are often characterised as the stereotypical pushy mum or dad.
Dr O’Connor continues: “Parents are often defensive about being accused of being a pushy parent. For example Charlotte Church’s mother said her daughter wanted to be a singer and she just wanted to help her. It is the ubiquitous line of defence, but parents have to enable children to be involved in show business.”
Charlotte Church is a good example of a so-called rebellion against the media image of the perfect, innocent child. Known as having ‘the voice of an angel’, the young Welsh star sang classical and religious songs and was adored. But when she became a teenager, she rebelled against the angelic image, was pictured smoking and was often portrayed by the media as enjoying a party lifestyle before she settled down and had children. But it is hard to see what the TV presenter did as being particularly extreme.
Jane, who joined the University in 2007 and teaches a module on children in the media, says: “We expect these children to be special and they disappoint – by just being normal. We project symbolic significance on them, embodying hope and goodness, and then they turn out to be a normal teenager.”
There are more opportunities than ever before for children to step into the limelight, with reality shows such Britain’s Got Talent allowing youngsters to audition. In the latest series, a child burst into tears on stage, raising questions about whether children should be protected from the pressures of stardom. Jane says our dominant ideal about children is they should be protected from the demands of adulthood, but the child star seems to fall outside of that.
It is generally illegal for children to be taken out of school to work – except if they are shooting a film or performing in the theatre. There are safeguards in place for child actors regarding the hours they work and that they must be suitably chaperoned, but these laws date from the 1960s. There are calls from some quarters to review these policies.
A common problem for child stars is eating disorders. One half of the Olsen twins, Mary- Kate, had a high profile battle with anorexia, as did 1970s star Lena Zavaroni, from Opportunity Knocks, who tragically died from the disorder.
Dr O’Connor says there is value placed on looking cute, but adolescents do not always have that same power. She also identifies a phrase associated with child stars that they are a ‘has been at 10’ which is a lot to cope with if you are starting to become an adult. This may explain why some stars such as Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin, marry at a relatively young age.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for the current crop of child stars, including the 11,000 youngsters who have appeared in the Harry Potter films. One of the most iconic child stars, Shirley Temple, went on to become a UN ambassador. For Jane, one of the key insulating effects for the child star is to have another string to their bow. Emma Watson, the actress who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, was recently pictured heading off to America to start studying at Brown University.
And Jane O’Connor says that one suspects the actress will be fine, suggesting there is life after childhood stardom.