I spent my 13th birthday locked in a resort room in Toronto.
It was July 2000, and I was on a press tour to advertise the film “Thomas and the Magic Railroad.” I had been promised a time without work for my birthday, however when I arrived from Los Angeles the night time earlier than, I realized I can be speaking to reporters all day. Working on my birthday wasn’t new to me — I had celebrated my eighth birthday on the set of “Matilda” and my ninth filming “A Simple Wish” — however this was nonetheless disappointing. Aside from a nanny, I was alone.
The subsequent morning I acquired up, groggy from jet lag, and placed on my finest Forever 21 apparel. Two press coordinators checked in earlier than I began my interview: Did I need the air off, or a soda? I mentioned I was wonderful — I didn’t need to get a repute as a complainer. But when the journalist requested how I was feeling, I made considered one of the greatest errors of my life. I advised her the reality.
I don’t know why I opened as much as her. But I had by no means been good at hiding my emotions. (Acting, to me, may be very totally different from mendacity.) And it appeared she actually cared.
The subsequent day, Canada’s newspaper of file put me on the entrance web page of its leisure part. The article started, “The interview hasn’t even begun with Mara Wilson, Child Star, and she’s complaining to her staff.”
The article went on to explain me as a “spoiled brat” who was now “at midlife.” It described the darkish paths youngster stars like me usually went down. It embraced what I now confer with as “The Narrative,” the concept that anybody who grew up in the public eye will meet some tragic finish.
At 13, I already knew all about The Narrative. As an actor from the age of 5, who was carrying movies by age eight, I’d been educated to look, to be, as regular as potential — no matter it took to keep away from my inevitable downfall. I shared a bed room with my little sister. I went to public college. I was a Girl Scout. When somebody known as me a “star” I was to insist that I was an actor, that the solely stars have been in the sky. Nobody would contact the cash I made till I turned 18. But I was now 13, and I was already ruined. Just as everybody anticipated.
There’s one line from the article that jumps out at me now, amid the brokers saying 12-year-olds wanted to be “innocent-looking” and like an “Ivory Snow girl” to get forged and the lurid descriptions of kid stars battling habit. The author had requested me what I considered Britney Spears. Apparently, I replied that I “hated” her.
I didn’t really hate Britney Spears. But I would by no means have admitted to liking her. There was a powerful streak of “Not Like the Other Girls” in me at the time, which feels shameful now — though hadn’t I had to imagine that, when I’d spent a lot of my childhood auditioning towards so many different women? Some of it was pure jealousy, that she was stunning and cool in a means I’d by no means be. I assume largely, I had already absorbed the model of The Narrative surrounding her.
The means individuals talked about Britney Spears was terrifying to me then, and it nonetheless is now. Her story is a placing instance of a phenomenon I’ve witnessed for years: Our tradition builds these women up simply to destroy them. Fortunately persons are changing into conscious of what we did to Ms. Spears and beginning to apologize to her. But we’re nonetheless dwelling with the scars.
By 2000, Ms. Spears had been labeled a “Bad Girl.” Bad Girls, I noticed, have been largely women who confirmed any signal of sexuality. I adopted the uproar over her Rolling Stone magazine cover story, where the first line described her “honeyed thigh,” and the furor on AOL message boards when her nipples showed through her shirt. I saw many teenage actresses and singers embracing sexuality as a rite of passage, appearing on the covers of lad mags or in provocative music videos. That was never going to be me, I decided.
I had already been sexualized anyway, and I hated it. I mostly acted in family movies — the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Matilda,” “Mrs. Doubtfire.” I never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress. This was all intentional: My parents thought I would be safer that way. But it didn’t work. People had been asking me, “Do you have a boyfriend?” in interviews since I was 6. Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute. It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did. Before I even turned 12, there were images of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped into child pornography. Every time, I felt ashamed.
Hollywood has resolved to tackle harassment in the industry, but I was never sexually harassed on a film set. My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.
A big part of The Narrative is the assumption that famous kids deserve it. They asked for this by becoming famous and entitled, so it’s fine to attack them. In fact, The Narrative often has far less to do with the child than with the people around them. MGM was giving Judy Garland pills to stay awake and lose weight when she was in her early teens. The former child actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed stalker. Drew Barrymore, who went to rehab as a young teenager, had an alcoholic father and a mother who took her to Studio 54 instead of school. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of abuse nonwhite actors, particularly Black actors, get from the public. Amandla Stenberg was harassed after being cast in “The Hunger Games” as a character that had been written as Black, but whom some readers of the book series had imagined as white.
The saddest thing about Ms. Spears’s “breakdown” is that it never needed to happen. When she split with her husband, shaved her head and furiously attacked a paparazzi car with an umbrella, the Narrative was forced upon her, but the reality was she was a new mother dealing with major life changes. People need space, time and care to deal with those things. She had none of that.
Many moments of Ms. Spears’s life were familiar to me. We both had dolls made of us, had close friends and boyfriends sharing our secrets and had grown men commenting on our bodies. But my life was easier not only because I was never tabloid-level famous but also because unlike Ms. Spears, I always had my family’s support. I knew that I had money put away for me, and it was mine. If I needed to escape the public eye, I vanished — safe at home or school.
When the article that referred to me as a brat was published, my father was sympathetic. He reminded me to be more positive and gracious in interviews, but I could tell he also didn’t think it was fair. He knew I was more than what that journalist wrote about me. That helped me to know it too.
Sometimes people ask me, “How did you end up OK?” Once, someone I’d considered a friend asked, with a big smile, “How does it feel to know you’ve peaked?” I didn’t know how to answer, but now I would say that’s the wrong question. I haven’t peaked, because for me, The Narrative isn’t a story someone else is writing anymore. I can write it myself.
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