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How the TikTok Generation Inverted the Dynamic of Child Stardom

For nearly a century, the child star generally followed a certain trajectory. Only in recent years has the power structure completely flipped.

TikTok/Ringer illustration

Once upon a time in Hollywood, children were treated as set props. The adolescent stars of the 20th century were seen through the lens of the adults who’d cast them. They were portrayed as caricatures of innocence who complemented life on the big screen, but never dictated it. As former child star Christopher Walken once described it: “They’d just bring kids in and stick ’em around like plants.”

Today it’s the inverse. Media has overflown from the traditional vessels of film and television, spilling out into tech platforms and far over the heads of the gatekeepers who once scouted and molded young talent. On the internet, culture is largely driven, consumed, and championed by extremely online teens and college students who are the directors, choreographers, and stars of their productions. Eleven-year-old Iain Armitage gets paid $30,000 per episode of Young Sheldon, but 8-year-old YouTuber Ryan Kaji is estimated to make around $5,200 per minute on a single video. The most followed person on TikTok—a fast-growing video sharing platform with over 2 billion downloads—is a 16-year-old dancer from Connecticut named Charli D’Amelio. After amassing 17 million followers on the social network, she and her family signed a contract with United Talent Agency. Though her parents are both very active on their personal TikTok accounts, their appearances on Charli’s feed are nevertheless brief—what your traditional casting director might call “supporting roles.”

It’s exactly this rapid shift of power from adults to young entertainers that makes Showbiz Kids, a new HBO documentary directed by Alex Winter, all the more fascinating a record. (Full disclosure: Showbiz Kids was produced by Ringer Films.) By piecing together interviews with former child stars, archival clips, and footage of two aspiring young actors, Winter illustrates how expectations of children in Hollywood have shifted alongside cultural norms and the demands of the industry. He paints the quintessential “showbiz kid” as precocious, talented, and tortured, simultaneously in awe of their success but powerless to the machine that makes (and breaks) it.

Showbiz Kids’ wide range of interview subjects offer a crash course of the last 100 years in film and television, as told by the now-adult selves of its youngest entertainers. That begins with 1920s film legend Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary) and ends with the young Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce (both of whom tragically passed during post-production of the project). At first, it would seem their trajectories are completely alien to one another: Cary was a famous 4-year-old who was often roughed up for laughs in silent movies, and was quickly ejected from the industry as she grew up; Boyce was a break-dancing tween idol whose coming-of-age was broadcast on social media and a nationally televised sitcom. But their stories are united by a common theme: the profound struggle to sort one’s public persona from their private identity. “Your entire adolescent life is for the entire world to see,” Boyce says. “That’s when you go through your awkward phase. That’s when you go through ‘What am I? I don’t know what I want in this world.’ And everyone’s watching you.”

The evolving perception that young people are just as nuanced and interesting as their adult counterparts—if not more—has led us to an entirely new paradigm of child stardom. The latest generation of talent has wrangled the once unwieldy media landscape that exploited their predecessors and bent it to their will. Though the public appetite for access to their personal lives is greater than ever, these entertainers now fundamentally understand that whatever attention they receive can be funneled back to the thriving independent business that is their personal brand. With the help of social media, they’re in on the game.

To understand how we got here, you can, of course, blame Disney. The Mickey Mouse Club launched in 1955, shortly after television had overtaken radio as a dominant public medium. The daily one-hour broadcast included recurring news, “featured careers,” cartoons, and serial drama segments. Most crucially, it was made for children and starred 24 young “mouseketeers” who sang, danced, and acted in skits. (In the 1995 documentary, The Mickey Mouse Club Story, a former Disney publicist said that one of the show’s producers would recruit talent by quite literally lurking around local school yards.) These child actors soon became celebrities in their own right: “They were like the Beatles in those days,” Disney vice chairman Roy E. Disney says in the documentary. “This was a really serious worship of this gang of really nice, kind of average young kids.”

Despite its popularity, The Mickey Mouse Club was ultimately cancelled in 1959 because of a dispute between Disney and ABC. Thirty years later, however, it relaunched on the precipice of another revolutionary medium, illustrating just how drastically American culture had reshaped its understanding of adolescence. The show’s singing and dancing teen stars were no longer dressed like dolls and assigned circus-like performances. Rather, they embodied a new kind of independent teen who had their own personal style, taste in music, and social life. Cutesy song-and-dance numbers were reimagined as poppy R&B performances with hip-swinging choreography. The show’s serial soap opera, “Emerald Cove,” followed the melodramas and romantic entanglements of high schoolers. And, much like TikTokers satirize the “VSCO girls” and “e-boys” of the current teen generation, the show poked fun at overly chatty party girls and zonked out surfer bros. Most notably, the show was a lightning rod for emerging talent: In the five years it ran, its cast members included Keri Russell, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake. They may not have realized it at the time, but their early exposure on television primed them to become both superstars of an emerging social internet and the fascination of the aughts’ booming gossip industry.

Along with teens’ heightened autonomy came an increased awareness of their own public perception. Tori Spelling, another child star from the same era, recalls that jolting realization in her 2008 autobiography, Stori Telling. Spelling had already landed small acting parts on The Love Boat, T.J. Hooker, and Saved by the Bell. But, at the age of 12, she still maintained the kind of innocence that left her picking her nose and snort-chuckling freely. One day, as she primped her hair for a family portrait, she asked her mother whether she was pretty. “You will be when we get your nose done,” she replied. In Spelling’s reflection, this exchange was the beginning of her Hollywood bootcamp, and one she internalized as she embarked on her career. “What I learned about my ugly nose was true times a million,” she wrote decades later, in her signature valley girl dialect. “The details of my life were and would always be considered public property.” You could call the nose job she got at age 16 a business decision.

That a young star like Spelling shaped her appearance in the image of mainstream beauty standards to get ahead, may have, at one time, been considered overly shrewd. In fact, Teddy Wayne sought to satirize this kind of child star business acumen in his 2013 novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. The protagonist is a YouTube-famous, Justin Bieber–esque 11-year-old whose entire being is attuned to his ultrapublic existence. His savvy mom-ager Jane instructs him to say “hella” in interviews with the press to make up for the “conversational accent” he had leftover from being raised in St. Louis. While on tour, he sizes up the people he encounters by “demo” and refers to unauthorized paparazzi photos as “candids.” A few controversies along the way only strengthen his ticket sales and livestreaming numbers, and a final performance at Madison Square Garden crescendos with a viral encounter from his estranged father. By the novel’s close, Jonny has become more ambitious and steel-hearted than ever, and the reader is left with the unsettling feeling that his newfound cynicism will only make him more famous. In 2013, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine was an entertaining critique of our cultural wasteland. Today, it reads like an outdated blueprint for the average social media influencer’s ascension to fame.

Today’s aspiring young entertainers are not naive. They understand social media as a system of measurements and a potential ticket to stardom in the same way a young Kim Kardashian did. And they possess an almost frightening entrepreneurial instinct to harness the exploitative power of media for their own profit. In an August 2019 survey that asked more than 3,000 children to select their preferred future profession, the overwhelming majority of Americans bypassed the choices of professional athlete, musician, and astronaut to select the title of “vlogger.” Many of the former child stars in Showbiz Kids express a certain longing for private development, and a pressure to perform and conform. Teen stars like Spelling consider that spotlight as a rude, but inevitable part of the entertainment industry. The TikTok generation, as if the cautionary tales of former child stars have been written into their genetic code, understands that their public identity is a business asset in the entertainment industry—and they are more than happy to exhibit it. As one 1950s Mousketeer put it in the Mickey Mouse Club documentary, “Children’s worlds in the ’50s were small, today they’re not.” Rest assured that when the child stars of the internet are ready to tell their stories, they’ll do so loudly.