Christy Carlson Romano Proves That The Road To Happiness Is Rarely A Straight Path

Christy Carlson Romano Proves That The Road To Happiness Is Rarely A Straight Path

When Christy Carlson Romano arrived on set wearing a white button-down shirt French-tucked into distressed denim jeans with white converse sneakers and a big smile, I thought “Yep, she’s one of those cool, chic women.”

Most of us know Carlson Romano from the Disney Channel, where we saw her as Ren in Even Stevens, Jennifer in Cadet Kelly, and as the voice of Kim Possible in the eponymous television series. She has performed in several Broadway shows, including the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and last year, she went viral for her walk-and-talk YouTube vlogs where she shared intimate details about her life (think: how she made and spent a million dollars in one year, almost joined a cult, overcame an eating disorder, and, of course, her inside scoop about working with the Disney Channel). Carlson Romano has since moved on from Disney life, taking her career in completely new directions. She’s pretty frank about the hardships she faced growing up in Hollywood and how they’ve impacted her life. I was able to sit down with the former Disney star to learn about how she made her way through the darkness into the light, now spending her time as a wife, mother, podcaster, and content creator. 

Paula Gallagher: You’ve overcome quite a lot, from financial difficulties to a drinking problem to career ups and downs. Why do you think these challenges are common among child actors? 

Christy Carlson Romano: The entertainment industry is not kind. It’s such a competitive business, and there’s no infrastructure for mentorship or a way to ensure that kids have a support system, so they spiral down. I think that a lot of child stars are at risk of some kind of identity crisis because they don’t often have the kind of support system that will help them mature. As these kids grow up, they’re not quite certain how to manage their self-worth or their money – they definitely don’t have a support system educating them about their finances.

I found a lot of that in myself. My parents weren’t very good with money. I didn’t really even understand what a dollar was. The whole concept of money was very triggering to me. I think that’s because you’re growing up trying to connect the time that you dedicated away from your childhood to making money. We say things like, “Oh, I sacrificed my childhood,” even if we do have good parents. Okay, so you sacrificed your childhood, and you’re kind of saying it cheekily because you were paid off: You made enough money to justify sacrificing your childhood. But by no means is working in an adult environment the same as having a childhood; subsequently, your life doesn’t have the structure of a typical childhood.

Part of the reason I moved to Austin was because I had been waiting around my whole life for the opportunity, the moment where I was in the right place at the right time. I really started to resent my art form because I couldn’t find pleasure in being part of the industry. For me, when I went back to college at 26, right before I met my husband, I thought I was at my rock bottom. But even after I met my husband, right up until I had kids, I struggled with addressing things about my drinking. I went cold turkey with alcohol when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, and it was then – that moment I was waiting for – that I decided to take my life back.  

PG: Child actors, especially those who were on the Disney Channel, have gotten quite a bit of press about their traumatic childhood experiences. Are there measures in place to protect child actors in Hollywood? What do you think could be done better?

CCR: Advocacy for child actors is a complex issue, and it should be treated as such. The brain of creative children is working at a very unique pace because they’re learning dialogue, they’re handling rejection, and they’re often displaced from their family. There really aren’t any truly stable child actors unless their family has been in the business for a long time and they have independent money so they don’t have to worry about whether the child’s career is thriving or not.

The Screen Actors Guild has a program for child actors called Looking Ahead. It’s always had trouble getting funding, but it’s a safe space where kids who are joining the union can take part in things like financial fluency classes and can meet with on-staff social workers to discuss concerns or issues they have. They take themed field trips together and create an environment similar to a homeschool group. The whole program is tailored specifically to the experiences of an actor or creative child.

But it’s not just the business of acting that’s hard on children; production overall is another challenge. There are things that these kids experience on set that can be very troubling. For example, if they’re in a horror movie, they might have to see somebody die or sit next to a scary thing. There’s some crazy stuff that kids have to go through, so there needs to be more support there.

Looking Ahead is doing all that it can, but they’re fighting an uphill battle. So many agents and managers are like, “Don’t rock the boat. Don’t talk about this. You’re going to be labeled ‘hard to work with.’” But now, more than ever, mental health is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, so people need to start coming together on this issue, especially those who have experienced the same thing. My idea is to create a hotline, like the suicide hotline or a mental health hotline, specifically for child stars. There would be a number that child actors could call to connect them with help in a way that’s private. It doesn’t have to be a brick-and-mortar thing; it could even just be the spirit of advocacy initially. It’s going to take a while for us to really have clarity on how to fix the problem, but over time I think we’ll start to see more and more people taking part in this, especially since part of my message and my content has become more aligned with this type of advocacy.

And while we always talk about the emotional effects of being a child actor, the issue of self-worth is more pervasive. There are countless kids who aren’t visible to the public because they don’t make it in Hollywood, but for every Selena Gomez, there are 20 girls who didn’t book her role on Wizards of Waverly Place. And those kids still had issues with finding themselves. So this isn’t just about famous kids; this is about all kids who are looking to have a healthy relationship with the arts.

To read Christy Carlson Romano's full interview, purchase Evie's second limited edition print magazine here.