YOUNG, perfect and talented girls are fascinating — thanks to Disney’s winning formula.
But the dissonance between growing up as a Disney princess and adjusting to a happy adult life is stark. It’s a path riddled with discordance and unhappiness, as Disney leaves its young women broken, anxious and addicted.
The first crop of mouseketeers from the mid-90s proved a monumental and evergreen success.
Disney is a star making machine with a powerful track record of creating TV shows and singing careers around young starlets. It’s a machine that has, for decades, proven effective in generating millions and millions of dollars.
But the pressure within the machine is great. The downfall of these starlets is a tale that rinses and repeats like a drug addict’s memoir. Falls from grace take multifarious forms, from awkward nude photo shoots to altercations with the press, battles with drugs and DUIs, to scandalous tell alls and alarming overdoses.
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake – I’ll take you there
The Disney machine
How is a Disney princess made? Wearing the mouse ears is a tough job that begins at a young age. Eager and talented child actors are corralled into TV show roles and coached in acting, singing, dancing, as well as in other strange and detailed levels of personal and professional comportment.
In the ensuing decades since the mid-90s iteration of the Mickey Mouse Club, Disney has refined its formula — it’s not just about talented child actors who are also singers — it’s about parents who are willing to be co-creators in star-making.
Last year Miley Cyrus reflected on the experience of being a Disney starlet with some bitterness.
“I liked being in the Disney universe ’cause I didn’t know anything else,” she said.
“I think now that I’m older, now I realise that’s a lot to put on a kid.”
Outside of their acting duties on Disney’s shows, these child stars are trained in various ways that intermingle their personal and professional lives: what to eat; how to appear innocent during interviews to avoid difficult questions; how to run a social media account. Their friendships with one another are controlled and concealed from the public. If they write music, Disney controls whether it is released or not. Disney controls the lyrics; Disney decides whether or not it is beneficial for Disney.
Much of this was revealed in Joe Jonas’ tell all, which he penned for Vulture in 2013. Along with talking about secretly dating his co-stars, using drugs and being forced to lie about his chastity, he reflected on constantly feeling used and abused by the Disney machine.
“Being a part of the Disney thing for so long will make you not want to be this perfect little puppet forever.”
Hannah Montana opening
Starting out: suicidal at age seven on Barney and Friends
Demi Lovato has spoken candidly about experiencing suicidal ideation from the age of seven, as she starred alongside Selena Gomez in Barney and Friends. From childhood to her teen years, her problems escalated in the archetypal modes of young women with severe issues.
She suffered from bulimia that escalated into severe anorexia. She drank. She did cocaine. She engaged in cutting, leaving severe scarring on her wrists that is often zoomed in on in paparazzi photos.
In 2010 Lovato left the Jonas Brothers’ tour after punching a backup dancer in the face and leaving her with a black eye. “Demi has decided to take personal responsibility for her actions and seek help”, read a statement at the time.
As Lovato ages, her problems have become more severe and life threatening. Her most recent hospitalisation was for overdosing on a cocktail of oxycodone (sometimes referred to by the street name, Hillbilly Heroin) and fentanyl, the same drug which killed Prince and rapper Lil Peep.
Lovato — who is a movie star, a pop star and a Disney princess — “freebased” the cocktail of drugs. This is a method of delivery where the user crushes pills and powders and smokes them off a metallic instrument like a spoon or alfoil, or through a crack pipe.
Lovato’s Barney co-star Selena Gomez has experienced her own personal traumas, suffering from an acute breakdown following her split from Justin Bieber (another child star) in 2014.
A year after her first visit to rehab in 2015, Gomez told Instyle that she was dealing with emotional scars from her life on Disney, which saddled her with constant personal anxiety.
“I think it is really dysfunctional to be in this industry at a young age where you’re figuring out who you are”, she explained. “I don’t recommend it.”
“My livelihood can’t depend on ‘am I liked?’”, she continued. “When I was on Disney, it was like, ‘Oh, they didn’t like it?’ It hurts your feelings.”
Gomez said part of her therapy included spending time with horses. She was back in a different rehab facility at the beginning of 2018.
Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez – Barney & Friends
Growing up is hard to do: breakups and breakdowns
In 2002, after a very public breakup with fellow Mickey Mouse Club member Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears struck out on her own in various strange and sexy ways. She open mouth kissed Madonna at the VMAs, in lingerie. She then married her childhood friend and had the marriage annulled just two days later. Her life and behaviour in this period is well chronicled, but by 2007, with a second divorce under her belt, things were not looking good for Spears.
She checked into rehab but checked out a day later, hitting the streets of Tarzana, California where she entered a hair salon and shaved her head. A couple of days later she attacked a photographer’s car with an umbrella. Spears’ former manager told a court via his lawyer that, “Britney Spears was addicted to speed, methamphetamine was her drug of choice.”
Her breakdown was grotesquely public and is strangely referred back to in popular culture with memes with confused inspirational messages, “If Britney survived 2007, you can handle today”, reads one popular image, which features Spears baring her teeth like a desperate, caged animal.
Elevens years after the event, Britney remains under her father’s conservatorship. He controls her finances and day-to-day life.
Living two lives: Disney stars cultivate escapist habits as twin personalities develop
Miley Cyrus used her 2013 Rolling Stone feature to go into details about her not-so-casual use of drugs. “I think weed is the best drug on earth”, she said, going on to explicate the experience. “One time I smoked a joint with peyote in it, and I saw a wolf howling at the moon.”
Drugs are no joke in Hollywood, and young starlets often forget that their habits are illegal, that they have hordes of teenage fans. Cyrus continued the interview in more detail about her specific predilections. “Hollywood is a coke town, but weed is so much better. And molly [MDMA], too. Those are happy drugs — social drugs.” You get that? Happy drugs. Okay.
A love of escapism makes sense when the pressure is high. Disney starlets are coached from a young age to make decisions based on the brand and the show. Cyrus realised her own dreams were being crushed at the mercy of Disney’s financial desires.
Speaking to Cosmopolitan in 2013, she laboured about the burden she carried trying to eke out her own career while working for Disney, “I’ve never gotten to make a record like [Bangerz] because Disney’s always been on my back [about Hannah Montana] … I was basically carrying two people’s careers and trying to make mine the priority.”
Demi Lovato’s manager Phil McIntyre has spoken candidly about her ability to manipulate and lie in the service of her addictions, saying she did multiple interviews and on air performances while high. She was promoting her sobriety while under the influence. “I was like, you’re so full of it”, he says of this period.
“I could connect the dots and see there was an immense amount of pressure. She was living two lives. Here she was, squeaky clean on the Disney Channel, all types of moral clauses, and just intense [scrutiny] around behaviour. Once the camera stops rolling, she’s living another life, and she couldn’t really be herself.”
Hard drugs: Once you pop you can’t stop
Lovato spoke most candidly about the rampancy of her addiction in her own documentary, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. Like a lot of addicts, her behaviour became criminal and her whole life seemed centred around drugs.
“I was sneaking cocaine on planes, I was sneaking it in bathrooms, sneaking it throughout the night. I went on a bender of like, two months, where I was using daily, I was using while I had a sober companion, and I went through about 20 different sober companions. I would sneak out and get drugs, I would fake my drug tests with other people’s pee.
“There was one night when I used a bunch of coke and popped a few Xanax bars and I began to choke a little bit. My heart started racing and I thought to myself: “Oh my God, I might be overdosing right now.”
Death is the final reality for addicts of hard drugs, and the severity of addiction can be difficult for non-addicts to grasp. As Lovato relapses again and again and her habits become more extreme, as she is readmitted to facilities, her public statements become more self-effacing and bleak — her language more confessional. In her most recent statement, which she released on Twitter, she thanked God for keeping her alive.
Memoirist and personal essayist Cat Marnell has written lengthy essays and chronicled her own addiction at great length. “With years of heavy drug abuse, the scales tipped and my death instincts got more and more powerful than my life instincts, until I found myself quitting my magazine job just so I could withdraw for a year”, she wrote in a piece on the death of Whitney Houston.
“And yet when I am at my sickest, I put a huge amount of effort into fooling everyone: the hair, the makeup, the chatter. You either never see me — I’ve been so busy — or I’m my very best self in public before rushing home to numb out again.”
When you’ve experienced perfection, recovery is an endless struggle
Demi Lovato spoke in 2015 about her struggles with her mental health and her diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder. “There’s no day off in recovery”, she said, which is partly the thrust of the mantra touted by the twelve-step program.
Miley Cyrus seems to have cycled through a half decade of wildness — she’s had her public breakup with Liam Hemsworth, her fetishised and televised performances in rubber G-string onesies. She’s twerked with dildos, straddled giant prop tongues and huffed joints on stage.
Now engaged to Hemsworth and with her third non-Disney album under her belt, Cyrus reflected last year on her experiences with the company. “It’s a lot to put on a kid to have them have to go get their makeup done and also balance school and also have me dress up in a wig as a kid is a little weird.
“I think that’s probably what’s a little bit wrong with me now! I mark that up to doing some extreme damage in my psyche as an adult person.”
Britney Spears has, astoundingly, survived her addiction, breakdowns, and the constant swarm of paparazzi and fans that still shadow her every move. In 2017, she earned US$34M from her Piece of Me Las Vegas residency. Last year she spoke about her breakdown, saying her 20s were an “awful” time for her.
“My life was controlled by too many people and that doesn’t really let you be yourself”, she told an Israeli newspaper. “I wrote back then, that I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. I was trying to please everyone around me because that [is] who I am deep inside. There are moments where I look back and think: ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”
If you need help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14
— Phoebe Loomes is a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @dollyybird
Originally published as The dark lives of Disney princesses