How to Be a Disney Star in Three Easy, Horrifying Steps
|July 17, 2012||Posted by Jess under Celebrities, Tweendom|
(You don’t have to watch that whole thing. But the longer you do, the more it seems like dark wizardry.)
A while back when I linked my post about Miley Cyrus’s music videos on Twitter, my friend Sigrid asked me if I considered Britney Spears to be a Disney star. I was, I’ll admit, utterly baffled by her question at first, but here’s the thing: I think way more about Disney and Nickelodeon stars than the average person. And I figured if I’m going to discuss Disney and Nick’s starmaking machines and tweendom in general on this blog – and brace yourselves, because I am – I should probably define what I mean.
Two things keep Britney Spears from being a Disney star. For starters, as much as The New Mickey Mouse Club is infamous for breeding a lot of 90s/00s stars, Britney and her fellow MMC alums (Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Keri Russell, and Ryan Gosling, to name the most famous ones) didn’t become household names because of Disney. No one listened to “Baby One More Time” because they remembered Britney from Disney; though the show was a training ground for these kids, it wasn’t by any means their big break.1 It’s important to remember that at the time that The New Mickey Mouse Club was airing, the Disney Channel was still a premium channel. You had to pay for it specifically, which severely restricted the audience for these kids; I didn’t know a single person who got the Disney Channel when I was a kid. (By contrast, everyone I knew watched Nickelodeon.)
But more importantly, Britney’s tenure on the MMC predates Disney’s current brand of starmaking by over a decade. Disney (and now Nickelodeon) packages their stars with a three-pronged technique:
1. Passing their stars off as triple threats regardless of talent level in order to capture multiple mediums: TV, film, home entertainment, album sales, live shows, and of course, merchandise.
2. Deliberately blurring the distinction between “real human being” and “Disney character” in order to promote their stars as Disney products first and foremost.
3. Throwing them all together in a big puppy pile of clear-skinned pre-teens so as to convince their audience that nothing is more fun that being a Disney kid – or, if you can’t be a Disney kid, buying stuff with Disney kids’ faces on it.
What started all this? Two words: Hilary Duff.
The success of Hilary Duff and her Disney Channel show Lizzie McGuire, which ran from 2001 and 2004 and had a theatrically-released feature film, was completely unprecedented. Disney had been making their own programming for ages, including kidcoms, but the stars usually don’t become household names. Hilary Duff became a household name. When a star on a kid’s show is famous among adults, you know they’re big news.2
The problem where Disney was concerned was that while Lizzie McGuire made a lot of money for them, Hilary had the gall to make a lot of money…for herself. She created her own product line, Stuff by Hilary Duff, and essentially branded her own image, so while Disney could still sell shirts with Lizzie’s cartoon avatar on them, their revenue from Duff devotees was split between them and Hilary herself. Her music career, too, didn’t come off as being fostered by Disney, even though she was on the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. It seemed more like an independent project, and indeed, didn’t begin in earnest until after Lizzie McGuire ended (though she was still making Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMS) and feature films for Disney). Hilary Duff was a phenomenon for Disney, but she didn’t belong to them.
I’d argue that Hilary was the proto-Disney Channel star. She was the game-changer, the one who made them realize they needed to package their stars in a new way.
But the first real Disney Channel star was Raven-Symoné. Raven didn’t reach the sublime heights of later stars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, but that’s because the formula was still being shaped. And she’s always given off a vibe of independence; unlike some of her sistren, she doesn’t seem like she was molded to fit what Disney wanted. But she hit the crucial components to Disney (and, as we’ll see, modern-day Nick) stardom:
- a hugely popular high-concept kidcom, That’s So Raven, with a protagonist who shares a name with its star, a theme song performed by said star, and recognition outside of the kid fanbase,3
- a similarly popular DCOM franchise, The Cheetah Girls, which spawned three movies and a recording act, though Raven was only in the first two films,
- a record deal with Hollywood Records,4
- and, most importantly, a sense of being part of the Disney Channel community.
That last bit is crucial, and it’s something that really started during the Raven era. It was no longer enough to show up, film your movie or TV show, and go home. You had to be part of the club. You had to interact with other Disney Channel stars; you had to participate in things like the Disney Channel Games, goofy Olympics-style competitions that mix and match the stable of stars into teams; you had to make guest appearances on other people’s shows or take part in huge “event” crossovers. You had to make it look like you were one big happy family that was always having fun. You had to do things like this:
That video accompanied the DVD release of The Lion King back in 2003, the same year That’s So Raven and The Cheetah Girls premiered. It’s credited to the “Disney Channel Circle of Stars,” but breaking that down more specifically, we have:
- Hilary Duff,
- the cast of That’s So Raven, including, of course, a prominently-featured Raven,
- Kyla Pratt, who voiced the main character on the Disney animated series The Proud Family,
- Christy Carlson Romano, star of the kidcom Even Stevens5 and titular voice of Disney’s new-at-the-time animated smash hit, Kim Possible,6
- A.J. Trauth, who had small roles on both Even Stevens and Kim Possible,
- and Tahj Mowry, who voiced Wade on Kim Possible. I should note here that Raven also voiced a regular KP character, Monique.
I found this video fascinating in 2003, and I find it fascinating now. To be fair, the stable of stars they have here doesn’t quite work yet: their biggest star, Hilary, though heavily featured in the video, can’t actually sing very well, and several of the participants were best known for voice acting and not starring in something with their faces on it. Also, what the hell is an A.J. Trauth, seriously.
But what they’re trying to do still works. They look like they’re having a blast. They make you wish they were there, singing with them. And that’s the key: Disney Channel stars need to make you feel like hanging out with Disney Channels stars is the most fun you could possibly have, so that you’ll try to experience that vicariously by watching their shows and movies, listening to their music, and buying lunchboxes with their faces on them.
Two years later Disney “reunited” the Circle of Stars, this time for the DVD release of Cinderella. The Raven kids and Kyla Pratt were still around, but they filled up the ranks with the casts of Phil of the Future (not so much Disney kids) and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (oh my God such Disney kids). Again, it’s fun and cute and makes you want to dance, but though Raven was still a big show and Suite Life was a steady moneymaker for Disney through all its permutations and its approximately three hundred years on the air,7 Disney hadn’t quite captured the lightning in a bottle they were looking for.
Enter 2006, and the two biggest franchises the Disney Channel has ever – and possibly will ever – had: Hannah Montana and High School Musical.
In my last post, I touched upon how Disney packaged Miley as a product they had somehow created, but let’s take a closer look. Little Miley Cyrus auditioned at age 11 for the role of Lily Truscott, the best friend to protagonist Chloe Stewart/Hannah Montana. She got the lead role instead (after some back-and-forth concerns about how young she was; interestingly, Miley wound up playing older than her actual age, as Hannah is supposed to be 14 in the pilot and Miley is only 12). The character’s name was changed to Miley Stewart – to be fair, in part because Nickelodeon had just started airing Zoey 101 and the names “Zoey” and “Chloe” were considered too similar. (Bonus crazy: Miley’s birth name is actually Destiny Hope Cyrus. She legally changed it to Miley (childhood nickname) Ray (tribute to her grandfather) Cyrus in 2008 at the age of 15. Disney must’ve been thrilled. I’m not being sarcastic!)
But Disney also cast Miley’s famous father, Billy Ray Cyrus, as Miley Stewart’s father, Robby Ray Stewart, and drew repeated, explicit parallels between Billy Ray and Robby Ray (basically, lots of “Achy Breaky Heart” and mullet jokes). Fake Miley and Robby Ray’s relationship was based on Real Miley and Billy Ray’s relationship, according to about a million interviews where Miley talks about how great it is to be on a show with her dad. Miley’s real-life godmother, Dolly Parton, also plays her fictional godmother – but she appears as Dolly Parton, not “Holly Darton” or some other fictionalized version of herself, thus further blurring the lines between Cyrus and Stewart.
Perhaps even more significantly, Disney very shrewdly had Miley and Billy Ray emphasize their down-home Tennessee accents rather than hide them, and incorporated the Tennessee/countrified twang into the show as backstory. Miley Stewart was the little country gal who came to Hollywood and made it big…just like Miley Cyrus had.
The distinction was even blurred musically. In 2007 Miley released a double album called Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus.8 The first disc is pure bubblegum pop as heard on the show, and is framed as being performed by “Hannah.” The second has a small but distinct shift to a more mature, edgier sound and is presented as Miley’s “real” music – she’s shown without the wig on the cover, and eight of the 10 tracks were cowritten by her. I’ve spoken before about how bizarre it is that Hannah Montana, a fictional alias of a fictional character, essentially introduces the world to Miley Cyrus, a real live human being. Fiction should not have ownership over real people. The Stewart/Cyrus split was further confused when an episode of Hannah Montana showed Miley Stewart writing and singing “I Miss You,” a track off Meet Miley Cyrus – the most personal track from an album that was released specifically to create a distinction between the real Miley and the one on the show.
What I’m getting at here is that no one is ever confused about the difference between Miley and Hannah. But Disney has done a lot of legwork to make sure people are confused about the difference between Miley Stewart and Miley Cyrus. If you don’t believe me, try explaining the show to someone who’s never seen it.
The High School Musical franchise, while equally huge, didn’t strip its stars of their identities in quite the same way, but Disney still used it as a cross-promotional tool. Like the photoshoot Ashley Tisdale and Miley Cyrus did, or Zac Efron’s guest spot on Suite Life, or Miley’s split-second cameo in HSM 2, or Corbin Bleu’s recurring role on Hannah Montana and appearance on one of the soundtracks, or the time the characters on Suite Life actually appeared in a fictional production of High School Musical. What I find more interesting about the HSM phenomenon is how some stars embraced their Disney overlords wholeheartedly, like Tizz (she’s not on Hollywood Records, but she recorded plenty of Disney covers; appeared in all three HSMs plus a made-for-TV spinoff, Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, structured around her character; starred in three seasons of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and guest starred on the spinoff; currently voices a lead role in Phineas and Ferb; and still hangs with (considerably younger) Disney types like Selena Gomez) or Corbin (two albums with Hollywood records, the aforementioned Hannah Montana role, his own DCOM Jump In!), while others resisted like crazy. And by “others” I mean Zac Efron, who managed to skip out on the HSM concert tour, attended as few Disney kid gatherings as possible, and was dogged by rumors that he was being difficult on set and that he and his then-girlfriend and costar, Vanessa Hudgens, had deliberately leaked nude pictures of Vanessa in order to get them both out of making endless HSM sequels. Zef is still tarred with the Disney brush at the moment, but not nearly as completely as he could have been, and whether that’s because he was older than Miley when they got their hands on him or because he’s a boy or because he simply resisted harder is up for debate.
With these two huge franchises, Disney could focus on grooming new, pre-branded stars: notably, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Selena in particular is interesting, because Disney picked her up in 2004, three years before she became a major player at the network. She appeared in an episode of Suite Life Original Flavor and had a recurring antagonist role on Hannah Montana; she also filmed two pilots, a Lizzie spinoff and a Suite Life spinoff. Eventually she got the lead role in Wizards of Waverly Place (and, of course, the requisite recording deal with Hollywood Records). The thing about Selena, though, is that I distinctly remember Disney promoting her before the Wizards premiere, with a “Cruella De Vil” music video in heavy rotation and a whole “event” made of her character’s return to Hannah Montana. Wizards, too, got an absolutely huge push, but Wizards of Waverly Place was never the product. Selena was.
Demi, meanwhile, wasn’t as glossily packaged but in a lot of ways she had even more to carry on her shoulders: after starting out on the channel in their “short show” As the Bell Rings (five minute sketches aired during commercial breaks9), she starred in both Camp Rock, which was expected to be the new High School Musical, and Sonny with a Chance, hopefully another Hannah Montana. (Do I even need to mention at this point that she also had a Hollywood Records deal?) The network also capitalized on Demi and Selena’s real life best friend status by putting them in another DCOM together, The Princess Protection Program, and having Selena guest star on Sonny – thus turning a real life friendship into part of the greater Disney narrative.10 The machinery had been perfected.
(Is this video about them being best friends or completely interchangeable? I’m sorry, the part where they switch heads seriously disturbs me. I’m also put off by the switcheroo they pull at the end of the video, where Demi is shown as the princess and Selena as the girl in street clothes, only to have them switch outfits when they turn their backs. It’s supposed to be a cute prank, but it bothers me that two of Disney’s biggest stars are indistinguishable from one another at the right angle.)
The Disney starmaking machinery is still basically the same, but this era was their height: they had Miley, they had HSM, they had Demi and Selena and the Jonas Brothers, and even their also-ran shows at the time were actually quite successful, like The Suite Life. But Demi went to rehab, Miley finished her Disney journeymanship, the Jonii peaked fast and were overthrown in the heartthrob department by Justin Bieber and their show never gained much traction.
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon was on the rise. For years, Nickelodeon had had a much more relaxed attitude towards their stars. They didn’t ask them to engage in forced merriment, and they didn’t hold them to the same kind of morality clause (witness the difference between Vanessa and Miley’s forced public apologies about their various nude/semi-nude picture scandals vs. Nickelodeon’s wishing Jamie Lynn Spears well when she had to leave Zoey 101 due to a teen pregnancy). Nick heartthrob Drake Bell had a reasonably successful music career and performed the theme song to Drake and Josh, on which he played a musician and often sang his own music – but it was his own music, touching on darker themes like domestic abuse and often quite idiosyncratic, and never the forced bubblegum pop of a Disney star.
But the success of Hannah Montana and similar Disney shows caused Nickelodeon to shift their methods a bit. Nick’s biggest producer, Dan Schneider, had always been big into apprenticeship, which is a very Disney thing to do: he spun his All That stars Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, Amanda Bynes, and Jamie Lynn into Kenan and Kel, The Amanda Show, and Zoey 101 respectively; The Amanda Show gave us Drake Bell and Josh Peck, who starred in Drake and Josh, which introduced Miranda Cosgrove, now queen of Nickelodeon as iCarly’s Carly, while Zoey 101 gave us Victoria Justice, now starring in Victorious (and Erin Sanders, who appears on the non-Schneider Big Time Rush.
But then Nick inked a deal with Sony (who own Columbia Records and its imprint, Nick Records) to transform the already-airing iCarly and the in-development Big Time Rush and Victorious into musical acts as well as kidcoms. For three seasons or iCarly, neither Miranda nor her triple threat costar Jennette McCurdy sang beyond Miranda’s vocals on the theme song, despite a soundtrack that included four tracks by Miranda; come fourth season, Carly was singing Miranda’s songs. Big Time Rush is set up to be just as hard to explain as Hannah Montana, with actors playing characters named after them who are members of Big Time Rush but also touring as the members of the real Big Time Rush (so, for example, James Diamond, member of fake Big Time Rush, is played by James Maslow, member of real Big Time Rush, a band created to go hand-in-hand with the TV show Big Time Rush); every episode heavily features a musical number. Victorious boasts an incredibly talented cast that also sings and dances in most episodes (not to mention accomplishing the hat trick of having a protagonist (Tori) and title (VicTORIous) named after the star (Victoria). The relatively new How to Rock, starring Cymphonique Miller – who was featured on Big Time Rush – also ends every episode with a musical performance. Miranda, Victoria, Cymphonique, BTR, and “How to Rock Cast” are all Columbia artists. It’s no coincidence that these four shows are also the most heavily promoted by the network.
Oh, and the crossovers! Victoria, much like Selena on Hannah, was heavily promoted as a guest star on iCarly before she got her own show. Miranda appeared in BTR’s Christmas special to perform a musical number. Victorious’s Liz Gillies’s appearance on Big Time Rush was given a big push, even though the episode was mostly about something else entirely. BTR showed up on How to Rock, and X Factor sensation Rachel Crow, who has just signed to Columbia and whose Nick show is currently in development, is guest starring on BTR this season. And then there’s this:
Sure, that’s part of a crossover called “iParty with Victorious,” but such tomfoolery isn’t limited to the shows themselves; the stars have also been tapped for promotional bits where they pal around and sing together, like this one:
It’s clear that all of these casts didn’t film at the same time, but nevertheless the effect is the same as the old Disney Channel Circle of Stars: look at how much fun these kids are having! Aren’t they talented and cute? (Yes.) Don’t you want to watch everything else they do?
I could go on – I haven’t even discussed how Nick is starting to mimic DCOMs, especially musical ones – but I think the salient points are clear: Disney and Nickelodeon, have, essentially, reinstated the old studio system, where stars were held to a morality clause, promoted the studio above all, and mixed and matched in whatever projects the studio decided to put them in. And again, to be a modern Disney or Nickelodeon Star, you must:
- sing and dance, or fake it as best as you can,
- perform in not just your show or movie, but the overall pageantry of your network, via crossovers, promotional bits, and even at-home YouTube videos,
- and blur the lines between your real self and your character so that you are never, ever off-duty.
So to answer Sigrid’s question 4,000 words and 10 footnotes later, no. Britney Spears is not a Disney star. And with all the other crap she has to deal with in her life, I bet she’s really glad about that.
- Christina Aguilera’s big break actually did come via Disney in a way, since her MMC pedigree got her the gig singing “Reflection” for the Mulan soundtrack and thence her debut album, but she made it big on the strength of “Genie in a Bottle” and not her MMC fanbase remembering her. ↩
- That honor, I’d argue, only goes to five franchises: Hilary/Lizzie, Miley/Hannah Montana, Zac Efron and High School Musical, and That’s So Raven and iCarly, which have a recognition factor among adults based not on the success of their franchises – though they are very successful – but how amusingly tweeny their titles are. ↩
- I had no idea before I started writing this that That’s So Raven was so huge – aside from being the first Disney kidcom to break the 65 episode rule with 100 episodes, merchandise from the show apparently grossed 400 million dollars. Yowza. ↩
- In all, Raven’s recorded four studio albums (only two with Hollywood Records, though one of her pre-Hollywood Records albums was repackaged and re-released by Hollywood Records after the success of her other music for them), a non-Hollywood Records EP, two Cheetah Girls albums/soundtracks, two That’s So Raven soundtracks, and a handful of songs on other Disney movie soundtracks like The Haunted Mansion and The Princess Diaries 2, the latter of which she also cameoed in. I had no idea of the extent of this until I started researching this post. That’s partially due to my interest in Disney starting slightly post-Raven and also my general lack of knowledge of R&B, but I think there’s something to be said about how Disney promoted Raven-the-singer as opposed to her – let’s face it – thinner, whiter compatriots. Short version: the other girls get to sing “Part of Your World” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” while Raven gets “Under the Sea,” what the hell. ↩
- Shia LaBeouf got his start here, but he’s not a Disney Channel star to me because that’s all he did for them, and it was mostly before the trends I’m identifying here became codified. He’s also been smart(?) enough to make us forget his Disney past with a series of, um, misdemeanors and arrests. Good job Shia? (No.) ↩
- Fun fact: I went to college with Christy Romano! We once rode the elevator together. You guys, it’s like I’m famous! ↩
- The Suite Life of Zack and Cody was a clumsy but oddly addictive show about two mischievous twin brothers who lived in the luxury hotel where their mom worked. Ashley Tisdale and Brenda Song costarred with the titular twins, Dylan and Cole Sprouse. It ran for three seasons, then was reimagined into The Suite Life on Deck, where the whole cast minus an always-canny Tizz moved to a luxury ocean liner, for some reason. Stripped of all the charm of the first, it still ran another three seasons. Dylan and Cole are Disney kids to the bone, is what I’m saying here. ↩
- P.S. This album is great. ↩
- I say “commercial breaks,” but as if to prove my point, the Disney Channel doesn’t actually air commercials – just promotional spots and music videos featuring the stars of their shows and DCOMs. ↩
- There’s a side note to be made here about the appearance of authenticity. Demi and Selena used to upload videos of the two of them talking, answering questions, and just generally goofing around directly to YouTube. Even though Disney didn’t control this, the girls still toe the party line – note Selena beginning by assuring us that Jake T. Austin, her brother on Wizards, is really like her brother in real life, you guys! It also benefited Disney by selling the girls’ friendship as real and non-manufactured (which, to give Demi and Selena credit, I’m sure it is), thus promoting any Disney projects that featured both of them. Also of interest is the difference between this shlocky, polished video (that consciously plays up the at-the-time couples of Miley and Nick Jonas and Demi and Joe Jonas) and this rough, more amateur-looking one. Both were played on the Disney Channel, but the latter is far more appealing. Disney experimented with this more “authentic” form of star-bonding, but Nickelodeon kids excel at it. Stay tuned for a post on “Call Me Maybe” and “Windows Down,” because…wow, kids, wow. ↩