By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A new world that, along with the perquisites, presented new perils. There was really nothing for Debbie to do on the set, where she was required to be at all times, and for which she received no compensation. This left her no choice, she says, but to quit her temp job and live off Jena‘s earnings. Then there was the money itself.
“It felt unreal. It felt like, ’This is not gonna last,‘” says Debbie, who’d never made more than $10 an hour. “And scary at the same time, because now I had all this responsibility of handling the money. If you take a young girl like me, which I consider myself when Jena first got involved, it was the first time I had ever really lived on my own, and . . . I got so overwhelmed. I had to take care of all the receipts, and this, and this, and Jena and auditions. It was just too much. It was too much.”
It‘s an old, sad song. “People all too easily claim that events outstripped their capacity to cope with them, and unless you understand the mentality of a stage parent, who is dedicated to living out their ambition through their child, you don’t get it,” says Paul Petersen, founder of A Minor Consideration (AMC), a nonprofit organization made up of former child actors (Petersen played son Jeff on The Donna Reed Show) who give aid and support to child actors “past, present and future.” “Let me quote Lonnie Burr, one of the original Mouseketeers: ‘Just seeing a child in show business tells you a lot about the parents.’ You don‘t see doctors and lawyers [doing this], it’s a waste of time. For most kids in the business, the interview process is, say, 20 interviews to get one job that pays $1,000? That‘s below poverty wage.”
“Almost every child I have ever worked with, the parents are people that don’t have jobs, obviously, because they‘re [on the set] all day,” says Sharon Orick, a video and film producer for 20 years. “And they’re really kind of despised. There‘s almost no one who doesn’t think it‘s gross to work your own kids.”
And it is work: In addition to school duties, children are, depending on their age, permitted to work up to nine and a half hours a day, a cap that is regularly flouted. Jena admits to having worked, at age 11, a 21-hour day; Debbie confirms this.
Federal child-labor laws forbid children under 18 from working more than 48 hours a week, with only two exemptions: children who work in the entertainment industry (a category that includes actors, singers, dancers, circus carnival performers and athletes) or who deliver newspapers.
“They still call it the ’newsie exemption,‘ to prevent you from understanding what you’re really seeing,” says Petersen, who is zealously opposed to what he sees as parents‘ pervasive and sometimes sick exploitation of children. “Premature infants smeared with cream cheese and jelly to re-enact birth scenes. Reconstructive surgery at 12. Ten-year-old boys taking steroids. There’s a whole cadre of plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills who call me in desperation, ‘My God, I’ve got a mother here who wants breast implants for her 13-year-old.‘”
The problem, as AMC sees it, is not merely the parents’ sense of entitlement, but the public‘s perception that what these kids are doing is all glamour and good times. Think about it. How long did that baby in the Pampers ad walk back and forth in a saggy diaper? Does Frankie Muniz, star of Malcolm in the Middle and seemingly a feature film every few months, get enough sleep?
“There is this desire for people to believe that, say, the Jackson family aren’t kids who are being forced to work by their parents, which is something that‘s been very well publicized, but that they’re a family that sings and dances for fun,” says Orick. “If you went to your friendly neighborhood chicken butcher, and he said, ‘I’ve got my six kids in the back and they‘re chopping up chicken parts and putting them in Saran Wrap from 9 a.m. to 10 at night, and that’s why I had them!‘ you’d call the police. You might want to report that to Social Services.”
1997 was a big year for Jena: She‘d finished Bastard, was signed to do Hope, was garnering enough acclaim to override her agent’s requests that she accept roles in blockbusters in favor of smaller projects that interested her.
“I didn‘t really understand why I had more of a connection to Bastard Out of Carolina than, say, The Parent Trap,” says Jena. “Then I realized it was because I’m not really good at playing a normal person.”
And yet success was buying her just that: a normal life. With her earnings, she and Debbie were able to rent their own apartment, where, for the first time, each had her own bedroom. Debbie purchased new furniture, and did not feel guilty doing so.
“We had a partnership,” says Debbie. “The child cannot work without the parent, and the money would not be there without the child. Take one away and the whole system falls apart.”