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Demi Lovato’s crisis shows the risks of teen stardom

As the star of the Disney Channel series “Sonny With a Chance,” teen actress Demi Lovato plays an effervescent small-town girl who wins a national talent contest to land a starring role on a popular variety show. As the title character, Sonny copes with a jealous costar, a dearth of fan mail and the hazards of celebrity dating, among other situations only to be encountered by a budding idol.


FOR THE RECORD:
Actress photograph: A photograph of “iCarly” star Miranda Cosgrove erroneously accompanied an article in Saturday’s Calendar section about pressures on young celebrities. The photograph should have been of Vanessa Hudgens, whose name appeared in the caption. —


One facet the upbeat comedy for kids is unlikely to explore is the dark side of teen stardom. The issue nonetheless came to the fore this week with a crisis in Lovato’s personal life that forced her to withdraw a concert tour with the Jonas Brothers to seek treatment for “emotional and physical issues.” People close to the 18-year-old star, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, say she struggled with eating disorders and self-mutilation before her breakthrough role on the Disney Channel series.

These hazards stand to become more commonplace as a growing number of kid-focused shows put kids front and center, according to people who work with young actors.

Unlike years past, when young hopefuls had limited opportunities on prime-time family sitcoms, the media giants in recent years have created an entire industry of television networks and programs devoted to the 20 million children ages 8 to 12 who influence $43 billion in annual spending. That has been accompanied by a rise in “live action” kids shows on channels such as Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and newcomer The Hub that led to demand for child and teenage actors.

“You’re going to see more of this,” said former child actor Paul Petersen, who heads A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit group that offers support for young performers. “And it’s going to become more and more obvious.”

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Petersen isn’t the only one concerned: Demi’s father, Patrick Lovato, said that he has been worried about how his daughter would cope with the pressures of being a child star. But he said he never discussed his qualms with her mother, Dianna De La Garza.

“I kept those emotions to myself because Dianna was so excited, I didn’t want to burst anyone’s bubble,” Patrick Lovato said in a telephone interview from New Mexico. “But always in the back of my mind, I was concerned. Because at that young age, it’s really hard. She worked 300 out of 365 days touring, and then of course when you get back into town, you’ve got all the promotional stuff. I’m sure she sees the things she missed out on, schoolmates and things.”

Lovato’s own show, as well as other tween-focused programs such as Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” and Nickelodeon’s “Big Time Rush,” extol being famous. Ironically, some talent agents, child advocates and psychologists worry that real life in the spotlight is forcing kids to crack.

While declining to comment on Lovato specifically, Disney Channel spokeswoman Patti McTeague said the 24-hour media microscope can magnify existing issues for any actor, especially a teenager.

“So much of what they say and do, especially in their private lives, is chronicled and transmitted to millions of people and the Internet adds a whole new twist,” McTeague said. “Nobody, nobody can live under that spotlight for very long and not have it impact them in some way. Some deal with it differently than others.”

Disney, like Nickelodeon, offers a “Talent 101" course that seeks to prepare young talent for the pressure that might lie ahead, such as being recognized while shopping and managing their image online. The Disney course includes a licensed clinical psychologist and addresses privacy concerns, taking care of oneself (physically and emotionally), coping strategies and security issues.

Disney Channel instituted the course after a nude photo of “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens began circulating on the Internet in 2007, prompting the actress to issue a public apology.

Indeed, online gossip sites feed on the smallest details of teen celebrities’ lives and strip them of privacy. And social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook make it possible for anyone who might be jealous of a young actor’s wealth, success or lifestyle to strike out with savage comments.

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“In the past, superstars could live in an ivory tower. Now, they are connected 24/7 to things people want to say about them and you have people saying nasty things whenever they can,” said Parry Aftab, a lawyer who specializes in cyber safety and crime. “As a teen girl, you still have the issues with body image and self-esteem, so when you add that in with Twitter and Facebook, a million people are saying you got fat last week on YouTube and you’re Googling yourself, it can be horribly overwhelming.”

Of course, not everyone ends up like Lindsay Lohan, the poster child for young stars gone wrong.

Selena Gomez, who has starred on Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” since she was 13 years old and has long had a friendship with Lovato, appears to have avoided the traps of celebrity and took the lesson of the Mouse House boot camp to heart. In public, she appears poised and gracious and uses discretion on Twitter, where she mostly writes about work-related issues.

“I get mad. I get sad. I have all those emotions,” she said in a recent interview with The Times. “But I just like to keep them to myself. I don’t think my fans need to be bothered with if I’m mad or sad about something. I should just be concerned that they are keeping up with my music or I’m making them happy with my show.”

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Lovato didn’t exercise the same restraint, offering personal revelations on her Twitter page, which she abruptly deleted last month without explanation. Her previous messages suggest she was letting the online rock-throwers get to her.

“I love how some gossip sites deliberately post pictures with disgusting angles of me,” she wrote sarcastically in October.

Though it’s not entirely clear what triggered Lovato’s public meltdown, in which she reportedly became involved in a physical altercation with a backup singer while on tour in Peru, people who know the performer speculated it may have been the stress she experienced seeing her former boyfriend, Joe Jonas, with his new girlfriend, “Twilight” star Ashley Greene.

Carolina Lightcap, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, said during a breakfast presentation this week for reporters that production on “Sonny With a Chance” is scheduled to resume in January.

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“Obviously, if we need to change plans we will,” Lightcap said. “We support her getting healthy.”

Dr. Robin L. Kissell, clinical director of the Borderline Personality Disorder Clinic at UCLA, said patients who cut themselves are overwhelmed by emotion, and the only way to release the pain is to make it physical.

“Cutting often comes on in the face of an experience of some kind of loss, whether that’s loss to one’s self-esteem or a very important relationship,” Kissell said.

Dr. John Sharp, medical director at Bridges to Recovery, a psychiatric treatment center in Pacific Palisades, said Disney should offer some sort of confidential therapy for its young stars where they learn how to handle anxiety.

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“You have to talk to somebody that understands the stress you’re going through — like a confidential group of other actors, a number of people within Disney that have come up through the ranks who have become stars and have learned the hard way,” he suggested.

For now, the ultimate responsibility lies with the parents, agents and managers who are supposed to look out for the child actor’s best interests. Disney’s McTeague said the network adheres to California labor laws, which dictate work hours and educational requirements for child actors.

But sometimes, there are holes in the safety net.

“Some of these young actors start to become caught up in the show-business machine,” said John Kirby, an acting coach who has worked with young actors on such films as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and the 2003 “Peter Pan.” “The visibility is so great that honestly, I’m not surprised that so many of them are having problems.”

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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