How Does *Any* Child Star Make it to Adulthood Unscathed?

It’s impossible to think about Aaron Carter without considering the role childhood fame played in his tragic life and too-early death.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 11 2022

15 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: this newsletter contains references to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, child sexual abuse and disordered eating.

In 2013, in an interview with Global News, a then 25-year-old Aaron Carter recounted a recent conversation he had with his mother, Jane: “She said, ‘You know Aaron, you had a great childhood. You had tons of girls screaming at you, and throwing gifts on stage, and you got to see the world. When you did history lessons and stuff, you were there. You got to see the things in different places.’ So I had a great childhood... When I went home off of tours and stuff, I rode four-wheelers and played with my dogs and rode on boats and went fishing and stuff like that. That’s what I did.”

Slim with spiky blond hair and an easy smile, this Aaron was excited, eager to please and—this feels the most tragic—so, so happy to be there. During the eight-minute interview, he candidly recounted his past struggles with addiction, but he was most enthusiastic when detailing his recent wins, which included a successful concert tour and a drama-free 15-month run as Matt in the long-running musical The Fantasticks. He seemed to be sober, responsible and ready to rebuild his career (and life). Most notably, he genuinely appeared to believe—or was at least invested in echoing—the story his mother told about his idyllic childhood.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t true.

Like a lot of child stars, Aaron Carter’s childhood was deeply traumatic

And whatever he may have said, he knew it. In the same interview, Aaron hinted at some of his past struggles, saying, “I started off a very young performer—I started off as a kid. A lot of performers these days who are young, they start off as pre-teens and teenagers, not really as little, little kids, you know? [So] I faced a lot of struggles. Had lots of times where drugs and things like that were presented to me, and I dabbled in those kinds of things. I partook in it. And it got me into a lot of trouble and, you know, I had to start figuring things out.”

‎But the truth about his childhood goes far beyond just ‘dabbling’ in some unnamed substances. Aaron’s first solo musical performance was a cover of Crush On You at a Backstreet Boys show in Berlin in March 1997. He was nine, and it was the beginning of what would turn out to be eight years of almost non-stop work. In September 1997, the song came out as a single. Three months after that, he released an album in Europe, which came out in North America the following year. At 12, he released his second album, the super-successful Aaron’s Party (Come and Get It), which went triple platinum, selling more than 3 million copies. He appeared on Nickelodeon shows and Broadway, recorded two more albums and toured extensively.

As child development psychologist Wanda Behrens-Horrell points out in a Psychology Today article, the experience of being a child working in entertainment alone can be potentially damaging. “Because of the nature of show business, child actors are often exposed to drugs, alcohol and sex at an early age,” Behrens-Horrell writes. “At the same time, young actors must constantly cope with rejection, jealousy, self-scrutiny, obsessive thoughts, and the nonstop need to be perfect.” It’s a lot. But it gets even worse; during much of his career, Aaron was also the youngest protégé of Lou Pearlman, the infamous Svengali figure who engineered pop stardom for the Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync, Dream, O-Town and LFO, all the while exploiting many of them financially and, according to rumours, as well as a few on-the-record allegations, sexually. (Pearlman, who died in 2016 while serving a 25-year jail sentence for perpetrating one of the largest and longest-running Ponzi schemes in American history, denied those allegations.)

‎In 2019’s The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story, Aaron—now looking gaunt and agitated, a far cry from the sweetly enthusiastic 25-year-old of the Global interview—insisted that he never saw or experienced anything inappropriate with Pearlman: “My opinion of Lou being a sexual predator is that that is not true,” he said, at one point staring straight into the camera. “That is so foul. He would come up to you and he’d teach you how to do push-ups. He taught me how to do diamond push-ups so I could build my chest. And he’s a pedophile? Shut up about that, guys.”

How legit is that claim? It’s hard to tell, but it’s worth noting that his insistence on Pearlman’s innocence was a surprise to ‘NSync’s Lance Bass, who co-produced the documentary and fought for Aaron’s inclusion. “We knew he had great stories because if anyone, he was the closest to Lou at such a young age,” Bass said in a 2019 radio interview. “We thought that him deciding to do this, he was going to really tell insane stories that we always heard rumours about, so we were trying to get some confirmation finally.”

And then there was the money—or lack thereof

In addition to all of this, Aaron said he experienced financial exploitation. His mother, Jane Carter, could reasonably be identified as the original momager; according to her ex-husband Bob, she saw two of her five children—first Nick, then Aaron—as “cash cows.” (Though let’s not forget that Bob, who died in 2017, also financially benefitted from his sons’ careers.) At 16, Aaron accused Jane of mishandling his money and began the process of seeking legal emancipation. But he wouldn’t get the full picture of what he later described as his parents’ negligence until he turned 18. 

‎“I made over $200 million in my career before I even turned 18 years old… Under the Coogan Law, [my parents] were supposed to be putting 15 percent of my money into my Coogan Account,” he said in 2016. “I got, like, $2 million when I turned 18 years old. I should have had at least $20 million in my account.” At the same time, he learned that he owed $4 million in tax liens; he was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy in 2013, at which point his publicist explained that “the bulk of the debt [was] from over 10 years ago when he was a minor and not in control of his finances [which] has happened to a lot of people who had fame at such at a very early age.”

Keeping all of this exploitation in mind, it’s no wonder Aaron had so publicly struggled—with drugs, with disordered eating, with his mental health, with relationships, with his family. From the time he was nine (and likely well before that), he wasn’t allowed to fully experience childhood. He was exposed to adult things well before he was mentally, emotionally or physically equipped to handle them. And many of the actual adults in his life wanted something from him, and happily betrayed him in order to get that thing.

And it’s not just him. The trope of the damaged child star is, unfortunately, too real

Aaron is obviously not the only former child star to struggle. In fact, examples of damaged child stars are so common that it has become a trope. A short list: Drew Barrymore got her first acting job at the age of 11 months; she started drinking at seven, developed a drug problem by 12 and had been to rehab twice by the time she was 14. When Full House ended, Jodie Sweetin was grieving the life she’d known since she was five and struggled to adjust to a ‘normal’ life—so she began drinking and abusing drugs. Macaulay Culkin’s early film career was driven by his abusive father. According to an ABC News story from the early 2000s, “Culkin’s father managed his son’s career and is said to have alienated most of Hollywood with his rages and excessive demands… His father would not let him have his own room, forcing him and his brother to sleep on the couch [and] during the movie shoots, Culkin says he and his father would stay up every night, studying the lines the young actor would have to say the next day. It was, he says, all work and no play — a situation that discouraged the young star.”

After Culkin stopped appearing in movies at age 14, rumours swirled that he had ‘spiralled’ into drug addiction, a perception that wasn’t helped by an arrest in 2004 for possession of marijuana and two controlled substances and photos of the star looking gaunt. In 2020, he told Esquire those rumours were overblown, but they had already reaffirmed the idea that child stars can’t adjust to adulthood.

‎More recently, Alyson Stoner wrote a poignant essay about her experience of child stardom. She described the year she was 12 like this: “I am a machine. I'm currently contractually obligated to complete multiple overlapping projects. I'm President of a corporation with salaried family members and multi-vertical teams. Revenue models for billion-dollar media empires revolve around my peers' and my faces, talents and labor [sic]. My body is medically undernourished and chronically stressed, which later will evolve into severe eating disorders, adrenal fatigue and mandatory bedrest. I've learned that it is safer to dissociate in order to survive what my mind and body are subjected to daily. I'll be numb for another five years, but all you will see is the ever-highly-functioning, Smiling Girl #437.”

In August, Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy released an excellent, if hard to read, memoir about her devastating experience of child stardom, a function of both her mother’s abuse and entertainment companies’ exploitative practices. “My whole childhood and adolescence were very exploited. It still gives my nervous system a reaction to say it. There were cases where people had the best intentions and maybe didn’t know what they were doing,” she told the New York Times this summer. “And also cases where they did—they knew exactly what they were doing.” (More on this in a moment.)

Earlier this month, Abbott Elementary’s Tyler James Williams, who first found fame as the titular character on Everybody Hates Chris, talked candidly about the emotional and physical impact of his child stardom. As in, he needed a lot of therapy. “[My brothers and I are] not as chaotic as I think most child actors get the [reputation for] being, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we adjusted well,” he told Bustle. “We had a lot to work through, and a lot of therapists got a lot of money from me. That was the uphill fight and what feels like the fight of my career and life.” Also? Surgery. He experienced such profound anxiety around his attempts to transition to adult roles that his Crohn’s disease flared up badly enough that he needed surgery to remove six inches of his intestines.‎

‎Plus, you know, Gary Coleman, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato…

How many more of these stories do we need to hear before we admit it: child stardom is bad for kids

There are listicles about well-adjusted child stars, too, so it’s not that all kids who seek out careers in entertainment are doomed. But the truth is, the number of fucked up former child stars far outnumber the ones who make it out unscathed—and that’s because there are just too many opportunities for them to be exploited, if not by their parents or guardians then by the very industry they’re trying to break into.

This is a systemic problem and one that has existed for a long time. The first American child star, Elsie Leslie, captured the country’s attention as a four-year-old in 1885. She went on to lead a pretty normal adult life, but the more Hollywood focused on building children into celebrities for profit, the less likely those children would be able to do the same. Their parents were motivated to put them in unsafe situations—or downright abuse them—in pursuit of fame and wealth; the businesses that hired them required they meet unhealthy standards of productivity; the work environments were unsafe and abusive and they were surrounded by people who viewed them as products first, children a distant second.

‎That was true of Judy Garland, whose mother gave her amphetamines so she could work all day and sleeping pills so she could sleep at night starting when she was just 10. (This was so common that amphetamines had a nickname in the industry at the time: “pep pills.”) When she signed with MGM, someone was always monitoring her diet—and giving her diet pills, which she had become dependent on by the time she was 15. When she landed the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “the studio put her on a daily diet of chicken soup, black coffee, 80 cigarettes, diet pills, and amphetamines. Her waist was corseted, and her nose affixed with prosthetics,” according to Refinery29. At the same time that she was being told her body was unacceptable, though, studio execs were sexually harassing her. And these early experiences clearly shaped the way her life unfolded—by the late 60s, she was poor, sick, teetering on the edge of homelessness and struggling with addiction. She died in 1969 of a barbiturate overdose.

Decades later, McCurdy was treated almost identically by her mother and an executive she identifies only as The Creator. It’s widely accepted that this was Dan Schneider, a powerful Nickelodeon producer who oversaw shows including iCarly, Zoey 101 and Victorious. Rumours swirled about his behaviour for years, and he was finally fired in 2018, but it wasn’t until this August that his alleged misdeeds became common knowledge thanks to a Business Insider exposé about his toxic and abusive behaviour. A short list: hiring male-dominated writer’s rooms that churned out scripts featuring sexual innuendo (including a shot in an episode of Zoey 101 that mimicked a sex act), requiring young actors to wear skimpy costumes and asking for on-set massages. In McCurdy’s descriptions of The Creator, she goes even further, saying he gave her massages and forced her to drink alcohol when she was still underage. And recently, Zoey 101 actor Alexa Nikolas alleged Schneider would literally sit in on her wardrobe fittings and paid parents to allow him to take photos of their children’s feet.

‎Is it a shock that Schneider’s job was safe when the network was pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue, and that he seemed to become a liability only when revenues declined? I don’t think so. The fact is, even if we have seen some minor improvements in recent years, as long as there’s an opportunity for entertainment companies to make money from children’s entertainment, they won’t really care that these spaces aren’t truly safe for the children who create that content.

And the end result is more kids get exploited. We only need to look at Aaron Carter to see just how badly that can go. Worse yet, his exploitation hasn’t ended with his death. This week, media outlets have rehashed his tragic life in ways that sometimes felt invasive. Entertainment Tonight reposted a 2017 interview with Aaron where he cried as he spoke about how much he felt he had given to his fans, only for them to say the cruellest things about him on social media. The publisher of his unfinished memoir says they’ll be releasing the unfinished manuscript on November 15, against the wishes of his management team. I’m not even sure I like the fact that producers released his final album early.  

It all feels like a way to use Aaron’s story, talent and charisma to make money for other people—and isn’t that what caused him so much pain in the first place?


And Did You Hear About…

New York’s profile of Jamie Spears, which covers the entire family’s very messy history—and why it’s not surprising he tried so hard to control Britney’s life and money.

The entire Whores of Yore Twitter account (which, yes, is exactly what it sounds like) and especially this thread.

Refinery29 Unbothered writer Ineye Komonibo’s perfect assessment of Drake (a star and a supervillain) and, more importantly, what our refusal to hold him accountable for his misogyny says about us. 

Vogue UK’s Yomi Adegoke on why our society insists on turning women’s body types into trends, which feels especially timely considering the New York Post’s viral article on the return of heroin chic.

The Norwegian princess who’s abdicating her royal duties out of loyalty to her American shaman (ahem, grifter) fiancé.

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