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Would you go back to secondary school? Why we shouldn’t be surprised teen stars had a hard time


by Sarah Finnan
06th Jun 2021

The OC

Would you go back to secondary school? Why we shouldn’t be surprised teen stars had a hard time

They're called the awkward teenage years for a reason. Now imagine yours playing out on the world stage, as Mischa Barton, Sophia Bush and Demi Lovato recently discussed.

Fame is a funny thing. A concept that both terrifies and intrigues me, it’s a lifestyle that few are really cut out for. I myself, am definitely not. The perks of living the high life would not be enough to negate the murky side of the spotlight for me, and while I’d probably enjoy the initial thrill of it, I have no doubts that the novelty would quickly wear off. 

However, like most other teenagers, growing up I had high hopes of becoming an international star one day. Not particularly talented at any one thing, the logistics of how hard it is to make it in the entertainment industry never really occurred to me. Getting bogged down in the details was no fun for anyone, so I spent my days daydreaming about what I’d wear to my first red carpet event instead. 

Inspired by all the young, fabulous stars of my favourite movies and TV shows, I really thought that they had it all. Cool jobs, great wardrobes and their choice of very handsome boyfriends. Being famous looked like a breeze… or at least it did to my then 16-year-old self. Now older and wiser (debatable), I have a very different view of the situation and between Sophia Bush’s comments on young actors being “fetishised” and Mischa Barton’s The OC bullying claims, it’s clear that life as a teen star was not half as glamorous as I imagined it to be. 

Recently asked how much I’d need to be offered to go back to my secondary school days, I can safely say that there is no amount of money that would tempt me to return. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely one of the lucky ones and had a relatively good school experience, but I still wouldn’t want to relive it. Nor would most people I know. Being a regular, unfamous teenager was hard. So why is it any surprise that former child stars would say the same of their teenage years?

TV vs. reality 

Before there was Instagram vs. reality, there was TV vs. reality. A medium that runs on the premise that nothing is as it seems, most of us are aware by now that what we see on the screen isn’t necessarily true to real life. The plots, the characters, the romances – they’re all fictionalised to draw us in… and they succeed in doing so.

However, sometimes the lines get blurred. People become so invested in fandoms that they begin to expect certain narratives to play out IRL too. They project their own fantasies onto celebrities and are almost outraged when they find out that things aren’t as they’d hoped they’d be. Mischa Barton’s revelations as to why she really left The OC are a prime example of this. 

On-screen, everything looked rosy and while there were certain fallouts and flare-ups, most of us assumed that that was the only part of things that weren’t true to life. Surely, they were all BFFs behind the scenes, once the cameras stopped rolling – various photos of the group hanging out at different events and premieres and such also fed into this notion.

But we all remember what it was like to be a teenager. It was cliquey, we were tortured with the desire to fit in, to not just pretend to like “cool” things but to actually be the person who liked these things, to inhabit someone else entirely. A small group of teenagers, flung into the limelight together, working incredibly long days without much to occupy them – of course there were issues.

While we were afforded the luxury of letting friends slip away gracefully (or not so gracefully as the case may be), teenage stars had to deal with friendship fallouts all while balancing contractual agreements, public expectation and their careers. Commenting that she was left feeling “very unprotected” by the “amount of invasion” into her personal life, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for young talents such as Barton. They’re called the awkward teenage years for a reason and no one wants them to play out on the world stage. 

All work, no play 

Working some of the longest hours out of all the cast, it’s quite easy to forget just how young and impressionable Barton was at the time. Only 16 years old when she first began filming on the show, she essentially grew up on set. Of course, from the outside looking in, it seemed as though she was living the dream. But, when you sit down and really think about it, you realise that young performers (singers, actors, dancers etc.) essentially forfeit their childhood in favour of their careers. She and her castmates were teenagers, playing teenage characters, but they were being treated like actual working adults. And not only that, but they were expected to deliver as such too. 

Recently speaking out about her own experiences working as a young actress, Sophia Bush described it as “scary and intimidating and confusing”. A guest on the Chicks in the Office podcast last week, the conversation turned to where she got her start with Bush admitting that it’s only in hindsight that she understands how vulnerable she was at the time. 

One of the most successful series of the early noughties (along with The OC), Bush played Brooke Davis throughout the entirety of One Tree Hill’s nine-year run. Saying that she often talks to her former castmates about how teenage girls just don’t talk or behave how they all had to on the show, she dubbed it “icky”, comparing it to “some gross older man’s fantasy”.  Later discussing how being so young affected her, Bush went on to say, “We felt like little kids and when we look back now we realise how young we were and how naive we were”. 

“It was weird because, in some ways, we were treated like adults. Looking back on it, we can see the ways in which we were fetishised. We had this lens of adultification put over us – this idea that we were supposed to know everything and have answers, and be, ultimately, professional when we didn’t even know what the technical terms were”, she continued.

“We were kind of looked at as pawns. We had grown-ups who we trusted, who now we understand were being really controlling and manipulative. Grown-ups who didn’t want us to be close because they thought we would band together and ask for more money. Those were not things we were aware of at the time.”

Money matters

While we were making pocket money babysitting the neighbour’s three-year-old, they were out in the workforce with the big dogs, hiding behind the pretence that they knew what they were doing. 

Unable to leave work at the office so to speak, life was complicated on set but that often bled into home life too – skewing family dynamics not always for the better. Demi Lovato admitted that being the breadwinner of their family had a detrimental effect on their relationship with their parents. Chatting with Drew Barrymore on their podcast, Lovato opened up about the tensions of being a child star.

Landing a role on Barney and Friends at just eight years old, Lovato told listeners that both they and their parents were ill-equipped to deal with fame. “When they would try to ground me at 17, I would say, ‘I pay the bills.’ And I cringe now when I think about that attitude,” the singer admitted. Something Barrymore can certainly relate to, she got her first big break as Gertie in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. at the tender age of six.

“I think it’s the parent-child dynamic that gets completely reversed. And no wonder you won’t take an order from an authority figure who’s no longer an authority figure because you’ve now reduced them down with finances and responsibilities,” Barrymore added. “I mean, I’m having amazing realisations about my own kids and how little I understood what boundaries were. I didn’t have them growing up.”

For the vast majority of us, working was a choice, a luxury almost. Our first jobs afforded us a certain sense of freedom that allowed us to feel like adults – they gave us our own responsibilities, our own disposable income. Most of us probably weren’t even making minimum wage when we started out, but it was enough to sustain us as it was our money to use how and as we wanted. Teen stars had much bigger sums of money to contend with, and the fact of the matter is that money changes people – adulthood equips you for this, but it’s a hard fact to face when you’re young and unawares. Family fights are much easier to settle when they’re over doing the dishes and not who foots the monthly electricity bill.

We look back with rose-tinted glasses, but life back then wasn’t as glorious as we remember it, and I can certainly understand why no one is in a hurry to repeat their adolescence.

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