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 learned I would 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 with 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 make a name for myself as a complainant. 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 had never been good at hiding 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 Mara Wilson, Child Star, and she’s complaining to her staff.”
The article went on to describe me as a “spoiled brat” who was now “in my forties”. 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 8, I had been trained to appear, be, as normal as possible – whatever 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 had to insist that I was a 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 the officers saying 12 year olds had to be ‘innocent’ and like an ‘Ivory Snow girl’ to be thrown away 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 back then, which is shameful now – even though I didn’t had believe that, when I had 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. I think above all that 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 we still live 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 outcry over her Rolling Stone magazine cover story, where the first line described her “honeyed thigh,” and the fury on AOL bulletin 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 starred 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 that did not work. People 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 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. This was not the case with 50-year-old men. Even before I was 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 movie 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 okay to attack them. In fact, The Narrative often has a lot less to do with the child than 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 take into account the amount of abuse non-white actors, especially black actors, experience from the audience. Amandla Stenberg was harassed after being cast for “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. Spears’ “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. Spears’ 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 – safe 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 being OK?” Once, someone whom I 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 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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