I spent my 13th birthday locked in a hotel room in Toronto.
It was July 2000, and I was on a press tour to promote the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad. I was promised a day off for my birthday, but when I arrived from Los Angeles the night before I found out I was going to talk to reporters. all day. Working on my birthday was nothing new to me.I had celebrated my eighth birthday on the set of Matilda and my ninth set of A Simple Wish but it was still disappointing. Other than a nanny, I was alone.
The next morning I got up, groggy from the jet lag, and put on my best Forever 21 outfit. Two press coordinators arrived before I started my interview: Did I want the air to be off or a soda? I said I was fine, I didn’t want to have a reputation for complaining. But when the reporter asked me how I felt, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I told him the truth.
I don’t know why I opened up to her. But I never managed to hide my feelings. (Acting, to me, is very different from lying.) And she seemed to really care.
The next day, the leading Canadian newspaper put me on the front page of its entertainment section. The article began, the interview hasn’t even started with Child Star Mara Wilson, and she’s complaining to her staff.
The article went on to describe me as a spoiled child who was now in my 40s. He described the dark paths that star children like me often took. He was embracing what I now call The Narrative, the idea that anyone who grew up in front of the public eye will meet a tragic end.
At 13, I already knew everything about The Narrative. As an actor from the age of 5, who wore films at the age of 8, I had been trained to appear, be, as normal as possible all it took to avoid my inevitable fall. I shared a room with my little sister. I went to public school. I was a Girl Scout. When someone called me a star, I insisted that I was actor, that the only stars were in the sky. No one would touch the money I earned until I was 18. But I was now 13 and was already ruined. As everyone expected.
There’s a line from the article that jumps out at me now, amid officers saying 12-year-olds have to look innocent and look like a girl Ivory Snow to be dumped and the grim descriptions of children. stars struggling with addiction. The writer asked me what I thought of Britney Spears. Apparently I replied that I hated her.
I didn’t hate Britney Spears. But I would never have confessed to loving him. There was a strong streak of Not Like Other Girls in me at the time, which is a shame now even though I didn’t had believe that, when I spent so much of my childhood auditioning against so many other girls? Part of it was pure jealousy, that she was beautiful and cool in a way that I never would be. Above all, I think I had already absorbed the version of the story that surrounded him.
The way people talked about Britney Spears was terrifying to me then, and it still is today. Her story is a vivid example of a phenomenon I have witnessed for years: our culture builds these girls just to destroy them. Fortunately, people are taking notice of what we have done to Ms. Spears and are starting to apologize to her. But still lived with the scars.
In 2000, Ms. Spears was called a Bad Girl. The Bad Girls, I observed, were mostly girls who showed any sign of sexuality. I followed the tumult his Rolling Stone magazine cover, where the first line described her honeyed thigh, and the fury on AOL’s message boards when her nipples appeared through her shirt. I’ve seen many teenage actresses and singers embrace sexuality as a rite of passage, appear on the covers of boys’ magazines or in provocative music videos. It was never going to be me, I decided.
I had been sexualized before anyway, and I hated it. I mostly played in family movies the Miracle on 34th Street remake, Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire. I have never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress. It was all intentional: my parents thought I would be safer this way. But it didn’t work. People had asked me, do you have a boyfriend? in interviews since the age of 6. Reporters asked me who I thought was the sexiest actor and about the arrest of Hugh Grants for soliciting a prostitute. It was cute when 10 year olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It wasn’t when 50-year-old men did it. Before I was even 12, there were pictures of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped in child pornography. Each time, I was ashamed.
Hollywood has decided to fight harassment in the industry, but I have never been sexually harassed on a film set. My sexual harassment has always come 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 in law, so it’s good to attack them. In fact, The Narrative often has a lot less to do with the child than it does with the people around him. MGM gave Judy Garland pills to stay awake and lose weight when she was in her early teens. Former child actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed stalker. Drew Barrymore, who went to rehab as a teenager, had an alcoholic father and mother who took her to Studio 54 instead of school. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of abuse non-white actors, especially black actors, experience from audiences. Amandla Stenberg was harassed after being cast in The Hunger Games as a character who was written as Black, but whom some readers of the book series had imagined as white.
The saddest thing about Ms. Spearss’s breakdown is that it never needed to happen. When she split from her husband, shaved her head, and furiously attacked a paparazzi car with an umbrella, the narrative was forced on her, but the reality was that she was a new mother struggling with major changes in his life. People need space, time, and care to deal with these things. She had none of that.
Many moments in Mrs. Spearss’s life were familiar to me. We both had dolls made of us, close friends and boyfriends sharing our secrets, and grown men commenting on our bodies. But my life has been easier not only because I was never famous at the tabloid level, but because unlike Ms. Spears, I always had the support of my family. I knew I had money set aside for me, and it was mine. If I needed to escape the public eye, I would disappear safely at home or at school.
When the article calling me a brat came out, my dad was sympathetic. He reminded me to be more positive and courteous in interviews, but I could tell he didn’t think it was fair either. He knew I was more than what this reporter wrote about me. It helped me to know that too.
Sometimes people ask me: how did you end up OK Once someone considered a friend asked, with a big smile, how do you feel to know that you have 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 is no longer a story someone else is writing. I can write it myself.
Mara Wilson (@MaraWilson) appeared in the films Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire.
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