What Happens to Child Stars?

What Happens to Child Stars?

Image: Josh Gates in Billy Elliot

Debora Krizak speaks to stars of Rent and The Rocky Horror Show who cut their teeth in the industry as children.

Having spent the best part of 2023 performing with young kids, I have often wondered whether any of them would go on to pursue a performing arts career, and at what cost.

When I was a kid, there wasn’t any pressure to be a quadruple threat. Most of us attended regular dance classes, participated in some community theatre and didn’t get our first head shot until we were way into our 20s.

Performing as a career was seen as a pipe dream and we almost certainly needed “something to fall back on”. Now for many children it’s all about pursuing those dreams, whatever the cost, for what may just be a fleeting moment in the spotlight.

For every successful audition, there may be 50 knockbacks. It’s tough enough dealing with that as an adult, let alone as a minor.

If a child performer is the right height, can take direction and has a reasonable amount of natural talent, they’re bound to be given a call-back, which is the opportunity to workshop a role in front of the creative team to determine if they’re the right fit for the show.

If they get a role then it's a huge burden on the families, having to accommodate a child with a full-time job as well as schoolwork, balancing family life, and looking after the rest of the family.

For the young stars, it’s an exciting time in their life. Full time rehearsals replace the usual school hours and they’re surrounded by other like-minded creative people instead of hanging out in the schoolyard playing ball.

Mara Wilson, who was catapulted to fame in the movie Mrs Doubtfire at the age of five and later won the role of Matilda in the 1996 film starring Danny DeVito, writes in her article 7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy:

“Children get used to the love and attention, and then lose it. Adults know that infatuation is fleeting, but kids don’t understand this. Years of adulation and money and things quickly become normal, and then, just as they get used to it all, they hit puberty – which is a serious job hazard when your job is being cute,” or when it hinges on being a certain height or whether your voice has broken or not.

Many thespians relate this - what we call the ‘post-show blues’. We are part of a showbiz family for months, maybe years, and these people become our new families - warts and all. I can only imagine how hard it is for kids to walk away from that type of intense environment. Some former child stars have said that nothing has ever been able to top that intense showbiz experience.  It is sad that they reached their life’s pinnacle at 12.

I spoke with two musical theatre talents about their experiences transitioning from child star to adult professionals.

Kelsi Boyden (Phantom of The OperaWe Will Rock You) started dancing and singing in concerts at three. Her first musical was The Sound of Music in Newcastle with the Metropolitan Players when she played the role of Gretel at five.

“That was the first time I realised that people loved theatre. Audiences laughed and cried at what I was doing and saying onstage. I never wanted to leave the stage after that; it was just electrifying to see people so emotionally moved because of something I was a part of,” she said.

Her first professional contract was playing Debbie Wilkinson in Billy Elliot the Musical.

“I had to move my life from Newcastle to Sydney to play that role and I was 12. It was a life changing experience for my family. It solidified for me that I could do this for a career, and, once I learnt that, performing has been all I have ever wanted to do.”

Likewise, Josh Gates (Mamma Mia!Rocky Horror) got his first taste of theatre at the age of five when he auditioned for an amateur production of Les Misérables. He knew from that moment that it was all he wanted to do. He landed his first professional contract as Young Peter (understudy) in Hugh Jackman’s The Boy from Oz Australian Tour. He then went on to play the coveted title role in Billy Elliot.

Carrying the responsibility of the title role in a show, at such a young age, is not lost on me. I am acutely aware of the demands placed on the young Billys to not only carry the show but to put themselves out there for scrutiny every night. Their emotional intelligence must be as well-honed as their fouettés.

The temptation to compare oneself to the numerous other Billys can be the undoing of talent with children who aren’t as mentally strong. Then there’s the competitive undercurrent as to who is chosen to perform on opening night. And with so many months of auditions and rehearsals, gala openings and press commitments, the amount of attention and focus that is placed on these kids is hard to come down from.

“In retrospect, I was very lucky to be working so young. When I wasn’t working, it was hard to relate to my peers at school. The community of artists that would grow to become like family would move on to other contracts and I’d go back to my regular school in Tasmania, usually re-entering slightly more neurotic every time,” said Josh.

Kelsi Boyden said, “Your whole childhood becomes about achieving your dream of being a performer, so the amount of time, work and ‘blood sweat and tears’ that you put into making that happen may rob you of the time to just be a kid.”

Both Kelsi and Josh have both gone on to successful musical careers as adults, but for every success story, lies an abundance of shattered dreams.

Josh adds, “Even though I can look back now and am incredibly proud of taking on acting as a child, transitioning through the industry as a young adult - it kind of embarrassed me that I’d worked as a kid, or it would give me anxiety that I wouldn’t meet people’s expectations.

“I think having the Billy Elliot credit really helped me get into the audition room, for which I am very grateful. However, I worked hard to be taken seriously as an actor and singer. The ‘ballet boy’ of it all really pigeonholed me. Imposter syndrome was a big one for me.”

Kelsi has found her own set of challenges along the way.

“Sometimes it’s been a bit of a challenge because the people who have been auditioning you for some time still see you as the child in their last show. So convincing people that I’m older and capable of leading a show is a strange feeling.

“People think of you as young and treat you like you’ve always been around. Or they think they know what you can do already, and you don’t get that chance to show them everything you have to offer. That’s the toughest part for me. Underestimation is a killer, but incredibly motivating.”

This strikes a chord with me. I liken it to changing schools in Year 12. Starting afresh where no one knew me, meant I didn’t have to carry the burden of anyone’s perceptions of me. This had a massive impact on my own social and emotional well-being, and I can relate to how those ghosts of the past can be a great motivator.

Image: Rent company.

It's been sixteen years since Josh and Kelsi were child leads. Josh has gone on to perform in Anything GoesLa Cage Aux FollesMy Fair Lady and Jagged Little Pill. Kelsi most recently played Meg Giry in The Phantom of the Opera, Scaramouche in We Will Rock You, and has just been announced in the national tour of Rent. When I asked how the industry has changed since their childhood debuts, it became clear just how little we knew about the impact on children’s mental health back then.

“I am yet to do a show with kids, but it seems there is a lot more care given when the content in the show is intense. Creating a barrier between the character and child is now a big priority. There were a few times when separating myself from roles was hard, and I can look back and see a sort of influence the characters had on me - both positive and negative,” said Josh.

“I see more care being taken with children in shows. Now musicals and TV shows have psychologists and councillors that talk to the kids to help them process what they are going through. It can be a very overwhelming experience, especially if the subject matter that they are performing is heavy or difficult,” said Kelsi.

Image: The Rocky Horror Show. Photographer: Daniel Boud,

I get the sense that it’s somewhat harder for child stars to make the breakthrough from child to adult performer. In Hollywood, the child stars who generally fared better off as adults, usually did one or two projects, and then got the hell out of Hollywood.

Mara Wilson took a break from the industry for 12 years to concentrate on writing. She returned to acting in 2012 and has predominately worked in web series, after finding film acting “not much fun”.

“Doing the same thing over and over again until, in the director’s eyes, you get it right, does not allow for very much creative freedom,” she stated.

Looking back, Josh realizes if there was one thing he could tell his younger self, it would be to breathe more and just give himself a big hug.

“There was a long chunk of time as a young artist when I felt I was constantly holding my breath - scared and nervous I’d make a mistake, embarrass myself or be perceived strangely. As I’ve grown older, I sometimes feel that inner child energy spike up. I tell him to take a big breath, drop into the present and accept that what will be, will be”. 

Career life motto?

Kelsi: “Do the thing that sets you on fire. Life is too short to fill your time with doing anything less than the things that make you feel alive.”

Josh: “If you’re early you’re on-time, if you’re on time you’re late, if you’re late you’re fired.” 

Mara: “For kids who want to act, make sure it’s your choice. Get out when it stops being fun and get an education. CGI technology is improving all the time. Considering all the potential legal hassles child stars can be, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get phased out by CGI children who are voiced by adult actors”.

We can only hope live theatre takes a long time to catch up on technology.

Kelsi Boyden is appearing in the national tour of RENT.

Josh Gates is currently appearing in the continuation of the 50th Anniversary production of The Rocky Horror Show.

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