A bunch of kids are sitting around, listening to Bush’s “Come Down,” while one particularly pretty girl takes a hit off a passing bong. “Okay, I’m about to lose it now,” she giggles. “I’m on a little bit of a bad trip.”
The only difference between this and a million other teen-basement-hangout scenes of the last 15 years? The cellphone camera shooting every second of it, the female voice behind it saying, “I’m gonna document the shit out of this,” and the major consequences of said documentation. The 18-year-old sucking hallucinogenic smoke through her perfectly-painted red lips was Miley Cyrus — the reigning queen among Disney princesses. And though the substance was reported to be the perfectly legal natural herb salvia, and though Cyrus has been struggling to leave behind the squeaky-clean image of her just-concluded hit Disney Channel show Hannah Montana, the implications were, as with anything the starlet does, major. The video pinged across the web in no time, hit major news shows, and yet again caused concerned parents to (over-)react.
When every move you make could cost a major company a million bucks, a puff of mood-altering herbs becomes both fraught with peril — and exactly what you need.
That might be why growing up Disney has become — fairly or not — synonymous with drug-and-alochol-fueled rebellion. Onetime Parent Trap star Lindsay Lohan and former Mouseketeer Britney Spears made the trajectory from wide-eyed wunderkind to tabloid-baiting club kid a Disney-grad standard. But the Mouse factory has churned out its share of other troubled teens as well: Mischa Barton, The O.C. star who also headlined popular Disney Channel movie A Ring of Endless Light, has endured a string of substance-related problems, including a 2007 arrest on charges of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. More recently, Demi Lovato cut her fall 2010 tour short to enter rehab for “physical and emotional problems.” (Though Lovato’s reps say that contrary to rumor, her problems did not include substance abuse.) It happens enough — and prominently enough — to beg the question: Does Disney drive kids to drugs, alcohol, and possibly, eventually, addiction? Is there, as many have suggested, a so-called Disney Curse?
One thing is for certain: One well-trodden path out of the Magic Kingdom passes directly through the Realm of Massive Public Rebellion. (Somewhere between Frontierland and Future World?) Even as far back as the original Mickey Mouse Club of the 1950s — which I chronicle in my book Why? Because We Still Like You — many Mouseketeers (the original Disney kid stars) felt they had to resort to drastic measures to shake their Mouse ears for good, whether in the eyes of the public or in their own minds. The direct route — cutting a more adult record, taking on edgier roles — rarely works on its own. With innocence so tightly woven into their superstar images, unraveling can seem the only option. Original Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey pioneered the “take it all off to prove your adulthood” model by posing nude for men’s magazine Gallery — twice — during the 1970s. Her co-star Lonnie Burr has written extensively (including in his memoir, Confessions of an Accidental Mouseketeer) about his bouts with depression and attempted suicide due to what he calls “showbizaphobia” — a lifelong pressure to perform and an inability to live up to the massive expectations of stardom.
These days, almost every former Disney-ite deploys the sexy-photo-shoot gambit whenever he or she decides it’s time to shake off the kid-star shackles. Britney Spears, Zac Efron, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, and Miley Cyrus have all rushed to show us vast expanses of their post-pubescent bodies to catapult themselves to greater notoriety. But the partying? That might be a bit more complicated.
In today’s everything-is-documented culture, drinking and drugging — if caught on camera or leaked by unnamed sources to gossip bloggers — serves as another form of that very-public rebellion that screams “I’m ready for my Oscar-baiting role as a heroin addict!” But the flipside is true as well, and probably more accurate: While some reckless clubbing might be an act in itself for the cameras, most of it is likely normal youthful experimentation run wild with excess resources and plenty of enablers. It’s also likely a reaction to the incredible pressure anyone would feel when carrying a billion-dollar industry on your fledgling singing/acting/merchandising possibilities. Disney stars aren’t the only ones who feel this — just look at the long, sad history of child stars in general: Corey Haim, Michael Jackson, and Gary Coleman, to name a few.
So while Disney itself isn’t doing anything to make its stars into ticking addiction bombs — indeed, it’s been supportive of Lovato’s rehab in the midst of a concert tour — its star-making model is colliding with a toxic media environment to make substance abuse all the more likely. (Though it should be noted that plenty have escaped the Disney machine unscathed by scandal: Anne Hathaway, Hilary Duff, Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Ashley Tisdale, Jodie Foster.) After Miley’s bong video hit the web, her famous dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, tweeted, “Sorry guys. I had no idea. Just saw this stuff for the first time myself. I’m so sad. There is much beyond my control right now.” The only real way to control it? Don’t let your kid be a child star to begin with.