The Age of the Messed Up Child Star Is Over
If the gloomy narrative surrounding millennials is really true—you know, that one about them being entitled and lazy—no one told Demi Lovato. This month, the onetime Disney Channel star discussed mental health reform with legislators on Capitol Hill, appeared on MSNBC in the wake of the Umpqua Community College shooting, then returned to the promotional trail for her fifth album, Confident.
Although she’s just 23, Lovato’s career already is more than a decade old, and since her early days on Barney & Friends the singer has traveled a rough road. She’s confessed to having intermittent suicidal thoughts from age 7, admits that she started cutting herself at 11 and by age 18 had already done a stint in rehab for self-harm, substance abuse and an eating disorder. Certainly, one logline of her life sounds like a classic tale of child star woe: Disney ingénue turns to illicit substances to alleviate internal shame, hits rehab before she turns 20. By the time Lovato cleaned up, only one of her songs had cracked the Billboard top 20, and she was a prime candidate for one of those VH1 “Where Are They Now?” specials, another on a long list of fallen child stars.
Instead, Lovato decided to claim her narrative before someone else could. She made all of her confessions before TMZ could, and for the past four years—since coming out as bi-polar—she’s been candid and forthright about her struggles. So while your instinct may be to dismiss Confident, released Friday, as just another I’m-All-Grown-Up Project from a child star, like Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” or Jessica Biel posing topless for Gear magazine when she was 17, it represents something far more substantial: the start of a new era in celebrity culture.
For the first time, the pop culture stars of the moment are digital natives. Lovato and her contemporaries—people like Selena Gomez (23), Justin Bieber (21), Karlie Kloss (23), Cara Delevingne (23), Taylor Swift (25), Emma Watson (25), Tavi Gevinson (19), etc.—grew up with the Internet. They were raised with broadband, and came of age alongside smart phones and social media. Before they were even conscious of it, they were steeped in the art of digital branding—a gross term, but a valid one—and more than any generation of celebrities have been able to shape their own narratives. Who needs the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to shame Apple when you have the bully pulpit of a Tumblr account?
Lovato may not be the biggest celebrity by any conventional social-media metrics (it’s hard to touch the numbers of people like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber), but that’s exactly what makes her the embodiment of this phenomenon. Beyonce has Twitter and Instagram, but she doesn’t really need it; for workhorse performers like Lovato, those outlets help create a conversation that’s as present as Rihanna’s even if you’re not churning out number ones at the record pace she does. And they can help turn your private struggles and imperfections into professional gold.
The New Child Star
“Child Star” has long been a pejorative, a shorthand warning for what the Hollywood meat grinder can do to young and impressionable performers. It’s a designation that suggests one is only a star as long as he or she is a kid, and upon hearing someone described as a “Child Star” you can’t help but think something was stolen from them—a career, or innocence, or a substantial sum of money.
But what if that didn’t have to be true anymore? What if the factors most fundamental to the decline of a rising star —sudden, massive exposure combined with the social isolation that comes along with it—could instead be used as their most powerful tools for success?
Like we said, Lovato never went out of sight. She took three months off for rehab but otherwise has been in the studio or in front of the camera for 13 years. This means that since disclosing her battles with substance abuse and mental health, Lovato has brought her fans with her every step of the way. Her transitions from one phase to the next never jarred or surprised them, because they have simply grown up together. There doesn’t have to be an aggressive assertion of maturity to prove who you are to your fans when they’re always in the conversation with you, and if more young stars can utilize their personal media channels with Lovato’s effectiveness, the trope of the Tragic Child Star could become a part of Hollywood lore.
(Obviously, there are exceptions to this. In extreme instances where declining mental health is involved, as with Amanda Bynes or even Britney Spears, no supportive Twitter community is going to correct your chemical imbalances. And as for Justin Bieber, considering the number of people in his position who have succumbed to the temptations of drugs and alcohol, the fact that Bieber basically got really annoying in public for a year hardly makes him a fallen idol—it makes him 19.)
Joan Crawford famously said, “I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” In the mid-20th century, her ethos was a perfect distillation of the celebrity icon. If the public could see you, it meant you were at work; your personal life was kept behind closed doors. Crawford doubtless would be horrified by the demands of the digital age, which prizes a seemingly impossible marriage of transparency and flawless authenticity, lest you be ostracized as a “try hard.”
But Lovato took the pitfalls of social media and celebrity—the constant surveillance, the fear of being seen somewhere inappropriate or, worse yet, the fear of not being seen at all—and turned them into assets. The constant gaze could be directed toward helpful causes and photos once considered a source of shame could be turned into statements of empowerment. And you have to abide by just one rule to make this work: Tell the truth.
Lovato doesn’t rattle off number-one hits like Katy Perry. Her best Billboard performance before Confident was hitting number 10 on the Hot 100 chart twice. She isn’t a fixture of the Hollywood scene or a member of Taylor Swift’s #Squad. She’s just honest about her past and her personal struggles, something that makes her genuine and relatable—the ultimate compliments in the parlance of contemporary celebrity worship (see: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Amy Schumer)—and as such has cultivated a visibility that far exceeds her on-paper performance.
Stand For Something
Pop stardom hit peak Stepford levels during the boy-band boom of the late 1990s, which led to a backlash: If you’re not a “real person” in 2015 you can GTFO, but where we previously had to rely on Rolling Stone and People to give us our gossipy updates we now have mainline access to the people we love.
But Lovato has used her platform for more than just relatably dorky photos, and her most important role hasn’t been one of pop star, but activist. Taking up the fight against inequality and publicly standing against bullying are becoming commonplace, and celebrities are expected to not only do well for themselves but do good for others. Lovato has accepted this with aplomb by detailing her own personal struggles and turning her public platforms into megaphones for speaking out about depression and bi-polar disorder, and to rail against bullying and online harassment. Her Twitter and Instagram feeds are dotted with standard fare like pictures of her dog, Batman, and weird-face selfies, but they also show her advocating on Capitol Hill for increased mental health awareness and posing nude and sans maquillage in Vanity Fair. This may sound superficial, but when you consider that Instagram has become the chosen battlefield to combat body shaming, an eating-disorder survivor demanding to be photographed by a national magazine without any makeup, retouching or supplemental lighting is in its way an act of protest.
Sometimes you just have to say fuck the photoshop… #CONFIDENT #vanityfair A photo posted by Demi Lovato (@ddlovato) on
Lovato may be loud, but she’s by no means alone. Those lazy millennials that people whine about are more socially responsible than any previous crop of It Girls and Boys we’ve seen before. Top model Karlie Kloss used Instagram to announce her national Kode with Karlie scholarship for young women and girls interested in computer programming; Selena Gomez has been using the photo-sharing service to promote body positivity and denounce online bullying. Miley Cyrus, 22, uses her direct-to-fan platforms to promote her Happy Hippy Foundation, which serves at-risk LGBT and homeless youth. Facebook and Twitter have given Emma Watson, a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, a major platform to promote the UN’s global gender equality initiative, HeForShe. And Lena Dunham might be a shade older than the rest, but the 29-year old Grand High Priestess of millennial feminists everywhere made headlines with her self-published newsletter by having Jennifer Lawrence, 25, contribute an essay on the wage gap between men and women in Hollywood.
She Represents The New Establishment
Lovato’s willingness to bare and even celebrate her scares in public has earned her tens of millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter. But instead of being an anomaly, Lovato represents the new normal. Lovato and her fellow young tastemakers—overwhelmingly women—are actively fighting to take control of their stories online. It’s a powerful industry statement when someone like Patricia Arquette uses the Academy Awards stage to advocate for women earning equal pay, but when that same message can be communicated by a young celebrity and get re-blogged and retweeted and favorited and shared, that means the combined tens of millions of young women getting their news from Twitter and Facebook feel empowered by their idols to demand more in their own lives. (Arquette is amazing, but if I’m 19 I’m a lot more interested in what J. Law has to say on the subject.) And just as this new breed came of age as oversharing and opt-in privacy became commonplace, their young devotees will grow up knowing that using the Internet for activism and social awareness is not only accepted, but expected.
In November, 2012, Lovato tweeted “I really wish we could go back in time when artists were known for their work. Not their personal lives.” Considering the success she has found weaving her private struggles into her professional life, one suspects she might not write the same thing today. Reclaiming her identity from “victim” to “survivor” is the bedrock on which her surprising career is built. It’s the element that distinguishes her from the heavily populated arena of female pop stars. In this day and age, you have to have a brand identity, and as much as Lovato is a pop star, she’s also a crusader—and as far as personal narratives go, that’s a pretty good one to get stuck with.
A photo posted by Demi Lovato (@ddlovato) on
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