All Grown Up
Sunday December 14, 2008
From the outside, child stardom is a parade of movie premieres, magazine covers and days off school. But what does it feel like from the inside? Christine Sams meets the kids who outgrew the role.Kate Ritchie had been appearing on Home And Away for more than five years when someone moved in close behind her at a Sydney train station. Ritchie was only 14, but she still remembers the open menace of the fellow teenager. "I got off the train, a girl followed me and she thought it might be funny to tip Coca-Cola all over me," she says.It wasn't the first time Ritchie had been bullied as she travelled home from school. Since the age of eight, she had grown up on a prime-time TV show and become used to regular feelings of unease. "It was never the kids I went to school with," says Ritchie, now 30, who retired from Home And Away last year. "It was everybody else."To other children, perhaps, child stardom looks glamorous - a gateway to fun, privilege and skipping school. But those who have been on the inside tell a real-life story of highs and lows. And even when a poppy is not so tall in Australia, it seems we still like to cut it down. "You weren't quite sure what you'd done to deserve it," says Ritchie of the harassment. "I had always thought if you don't gloat and you don't show off, then things will be OK." But downplaying her success wasn't enough to stop the teasing. "I tried to comfort myself by thinking if they feel the need to do something so awful, then they must be having a much harder time of it than I am." Relief eventually came in the shape of P-plates. "I couldn't get a car quick enough," says Ritchie.While current child stars such as Bindi Irwin and Australia's Brandon Walters enjoy their moment in the spotlight, there is only a small group of people who understand what they are going through. Some, like Ritchie, worked for years in one role - she played Sally Fletcher for two decades - while others such as Nicholas Gledhill found fame in one iconic film. "I don't think you're terribly aware of all the repercussions until you're older," says Gledhill, who filmed Careful, He Might Hear You shortly before his seventh birthday and was nominated for an Australian Film Institute Best Actor award for the role. Now 33 and a married father of one living in Sydney's Newtown, he says the film's premiere will always be imprinted in his mind. "I remember the red carpet - they stopped the traffic on George Street - and my mum leaning down to say, 'Remember this.' I also remember falling asleep at the AFI awards," he adds, with a laugh.Gledhill has only seen Careful, He Might Hear You twice - once at the premiere and once as a surprise at a friend's party. He was paid $6000 for the work. "It was about a quarter of what the adults got paid," he says, "but it was a lot of money for a kid my age." With the cash, the seven-year-old paid for a family trip to Disneyland and bought a stereo.Gledhill reflects on the experience as "generally a good thing". Sure, kids at school teased him - "They used to whisper 'Careful, he might hear you' behind me in the line" - but he says he seemed more comfortable on set than his adult co-stars. "It didn't occur to me it was strange; I had no sense of what a big thing it was," he says. "As kids we're much less self-aware and much less self-analytical."But it's not as though child stardom comes without analysis from others. For Nikki Webster, it took one high-flying wire appearance at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000 to cement her instant fame in Australia. Now 21, Webster looks back on the event positively - it was a dream come true for someone who still loves to perform - but there is disbelief about how she was treated by the media afterwards. "We're proud of what happened but still completely shell-shocked by how people treated her," says her mum Tina Webster, eight years after the Olympics. "People forgot she was a child."As an entertainment columnist and reporter, I was as guilty as any journalist of painting Webster as a slightly daggy teenager. Others went further: "So cute you could belt her," wrote one Sydney Morning Herald critic in 2001. "In her first week on the British charts, the sickeningly sweet little miss could manage only No. 64 with Strawberry Kisses. Quite embarrassing," wrote a pop commentator in the Herald Sun in 2002. "The [Olympics] experience was amazing, what it gave her was amazing, but what happened afterwards... for the life of me, I don't know why," says Tina Webster. "She's never done drugs, she finished her HSC, she did all the things that I made her do and for that she got slaughtered." Webster, who was 13 when she appeared during the Olympics, was approached for this story but was reluctant to talk about the effects of child stardom, an indication of how stung she felt by the criticism. She has since opened a talent school in Sydney's inner west and told reporters this year that other child stars should enjoy the ride. "Take everything as it comes," she said. "Don't get too caught up in thinking it's a lifelong career."Nicholas Gledhill still acts - in January he starts filming the zombie film Dead Down Under - but he has a day job in computer programming. "I've spent most of the last 10 years making my bread and butter out of it," he says. "I used to joke that my career went downhill from the age of six."It's a sentiment Debra Byrne may share. After finding fame as a fresh-faced singer on Young Talent Time she succumbed to a heroin addiction in her 20s, before making a successful return to the stage. As another Young Talent Time star, Tina Arena made her debut aged six, but took herself off the show - and out of the spotlight - when she was 16 to go back to school. She resumed her career as an adult and is now a successful singer in Europe.Hollywood star Kirsten Dunst shot to fame aged 12 in Interview With The Vampire. While she has maintained a successful career, Dunst is blunt about the effects of young fame, telling Harper's Bazaar magazine that she suffered from depression, checking into rehab in February this year to treat it. Said Dunst, "I was being nice all the time. When you spend your entire life as a child actor, being told where to go and where to stand, you're performing constantly for people. It definitely breeds the kind of person who's dependent on other people's approval." Perhaps the most common assumption about child stars is that they are the offspring of "showbiz parents" wanting to satisfy their own desire for attention. It's not without foundation - think of the classic US entertainment industry cases. The Jackson 5 were propelled by Joseph "Joe" Jackson, the aggressive father of Michael and his siblings. Dina Lohan has burst into her daughter Lindsay's limelight and child star Macaulay Culkin (who starred in Home Alone) sued his father Christopher Culkin, a former child actor who managed his children's careers. Gledhill says his mother was far from pushy. "A friend of Mum's sent in a photo," he explains. Genetics may have also played a role: he's the son of actor Arthur Dignam. However, he was raised by his mother, with Dignam exerting no influence on his early career.Kate Ritchie agrees it's a common misconception that child stars are being manipulated. "I'm sure people would imagine any child on television has two pushy parents behind them, trying to have associated fame." She says her policeman father didn't want his children to suffer the same "crippling shyness" he did as a kid, and saw acting as a confidence builder. When Ritchie broke into TV she went to high school a few days a week, where she rarely talked about her life in the fictional Summer Bay. "I never waltzed in there expecting to be treated differently, I didn't go in there with an attitude - I was probably a bit embarrassed, you know," she says. "I didn't go to school and tell people all these funny things I was doing, because I wanted to be like everybody else."Gledhill, whose toddler daughter Tigerlily shows signs of an outgoing personality, says parents need to make sure they're supporting their children. "Open up the opportunities but don't ever push," he says, matter-of-factly. "It is a cut-throat industry. It will pull you down a peg or two if you're not careful. That's not a good thing to be handing to your child."There are bountiful examples of child stars who have gone off the rails - Britney Spears with her shaved head (and eventual hospitalisation in January) was a far cry from the cutey who first appeared as a Disney Mouseketeer. Mary-Kate Olsen, who starred with her twin sister Ashley on Full House, may be one of the richest entertainers in the world, but she has battled an eating disorder and rumours of drug abuse.Ritchie believes some child stars suffer more depending on the scale of their fame. "The worst thing that can happen to you is when you're a flash in the pan, when it all happens overnight," she says. The fact that Ritchie's career was slow burning was a help, not a hindrance. As an ensemble member of the Home And Away cast, Ritchie only saw scripts going her way when she was in her 20s, when her character Sally became pivotal to the show. "I appreciate things more because they didn't come to me overnight," says Ritchie. "For a long time, I stood by and watched it happen to everybody else." Tina Webster believes the media need to be careful when dealing with child stars, particularly when it comes to criticism. "You've got your Bindi Irwins, and it [the criticism] is already starting to happen to her. People need to remember she's a child," she says.Even stars who have gone on to greater success, such as Ritchie - who has won two Gold Logies and shaped a new, adult career as a radio host on Nova - seem relieved to move on from the childhood role that shaped their fame. "I'm just glad that I am where I am now," says Ritchie. "It will always be a huge part of me and who I am, but I think what is nice is to have come out the other side feeling like there's so much more for me. In a nice way it feels more and more like a distant memory all the time. But that's certainly not about me turning my back on the show; I'd never do that. I'd never say a bad word about it, because it gave me so much."