A Child Star is Born

Ask the Expert, Featured Article


CREDIT: CC Image courtesy of Frappe Maker Fan on Flickr

Despite Joe Jonas’s scathing report of his Disney years and Miley Cyrus’s twerk-tastic career turn, there are still plenty of child star success stories—enough to have some parents wondering if they might be raising the next Zendaya.

Breaking show business is tough, to be sure. But it’s doable, and there are countless agents, directors and producers who are constantly on the lookout for the next great talent. Think your child has what it takes? Read on for a step-by-step guide to launching your twinkling child star into show business.

Step 1: Learn the ropes.

Community theater is good for a lot more than artsy summer camps and a way to make new friends; it’s often the key to gaining experience and building a resume that will lead to more (paying!) work down the road. “From my experience, doing small productions or taking classes that end with productions gives kids the joy of theater,” says Kate Mullen, a 30-year veteran of the entertainment industry who now works as a kids’ talent agent in Dallas, Texas. “It allows them an experience where they can explore [all aspects of theater] without flaw or judgment, and they get valuable experience in working together as a team on a common goal. For the young, it’s all about building in a love of performance.”

That love of performance is critical because, as most are well aware, show business is notoriously fickle, and the perseverance to slog through one audition after another can only result from a true passion for the art. Additionally, opportunities to work behind the scenes (on lighting or other stage work) look great on a resume, says Marie Mascia-Rand, whose son Zach had performed in 14 local theater performances before landing on Broadway at age 9. “Stage work will be of greater value than ‘extra’ or ‘background’ work on TV or film, and likely more fun,” she adds.

Step 2: Find an agent.

Once your child has started to gain some performance experience and has proven that she is really interested in the industry and also has the talent and discipline to succeed, it’s likely time to find an agent. The good news is that even if you live outside of New York or Los Angeles, there’s probably a local agent who can help get your child’s career off to a solid start. The secret to finding the right one, says Mullen, is to ask the right questions and trust your gut.

“You’ll know [when you’ve found the right agent],” Mullen explains. “You will feel comfortable with them, not intimidated or like one client in a million clients. You should be able to ask them questions and get satisfactory answers. Are they telling you things that are too good to be true?

Did you do an Internet search on the person or company? What are the reviews? What are they assuring you they can/will/do provide for your child for the money you pay them either in a fee or percentage? Remember this person is working with your child, and you want to be able to trust them with your child’s best interests.”

Step 3: Spend wisely.

If you and your child are serious about a long-term career in the show business, it’s important to treat it as a business and understand that some financial investments must be made. But it’s extremely important to ensure that you’re investing in the right things.

Securing headshots for your child will be one of the first costs after signing with an agent. A professional portfolio shot by a photographer with experience in children’s modeling can make a huge difference first impressions and landing gigs, as can paying for classes or coaches who can continue to develop your child’s talent. “The only thing parent’s can control is to prepare their child as best they can, and the best way to do that is to build a good, strong team around the child: an agent, vocal coach, dance instructor and acting coach,” says Mascia-Rand. “Most parents in the business will say that this is an entire family commitment that often results in sacrifices for everyone in order for the career to work.”

So how can you avoid being taken advantage of? “Ask for the resumes of the agents, teachers and coaches involved, and always ask about the use of funds,” explains Mullen. “If it is an agent that works on percentage, ask about the placements they have done or are doing. Ask them if they are actively promoting talent and for about how much of the day. Ask them how many children they represent. Too few and you may not have enough business; too many and you may never get called.”

Mullen also advises parents to be cautious of talent expos that charge thousands of dollars and can’t guarantee any positive outcomes. “At one expo I worked, I noticed that the agents really wanted 13- to 19-year-old girls and guys who were 5-feet-9-inches to 6 feet tall and weighed 110 to 125 pounds—NOT your average 13-year-old!” she says.

“If you do choose the expo route, find out their percentage of placements. In many opinions, spending $3,500 on a week-long trip to LA for pilot casting season is better spent than on a weekend at a talent expo in Omaha.”

Finally, Mullen adds, “You do not have to pay a cent for your child to be cast in legitimate productions. If someone says, ‘Yes, but you must take this $300 workshop for the role,’ say no!”

Step 4: Look for bigger and better opportunities.

Speaking of pilot casting season, as your child continues to get more work in the industry, opportunities will begin to open in larger markets. And the good news is that you may not have to uproot your family and relocate initially.

“If your child is really talented, an agent or manager will be willing to work remotely with him or her,” says Susie Mains, a renowned talent agent who launched the careers of Tobey Maguire, Tia and Tamera Mowry and Katherine McPhee. “How this works is that when there is a project that your child is right for, the agent or manager will send the sides (audition pages) for the character and the breakdown (description of the project) so that your child can go on tape and hopefully get a good enough response from casting that they will request that your child fly to Los Angeles to meet the producers and director.”

Ultimately, you may find it beneficial to travel to New York or L.A. for extended periods of time, like pilot season, which happens at the beginning of the year and is the time when networks are casting for new content and shows. Children can attend up to two or three auditions each day, and it is an opportunity to meet directors and producers face-to-face. “Keep in mind that it’s always better to be in the room in person [for an audition],” adds Mains. “Going on tape for a project is good if you can’t physically be in L.A., but it’s not the best way to audition.”

Step 5: Manage your expectations.

The roller coaster of excitement that show business brings can quickly take its toll on a family when expectations aren’t carefully managed. Even the most talented kid will face rejection, so it’s important to keep things in perspective.

Remember that you are raising a child first and an actor second, always,” says Mascia-Rand. “It is important to keep your child grounded and for auditions to be fun. It is said that for every 100 auditions, a child will land one job.

“Remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Building a career takes time, money, energy and persistence, and no one is an overnight success. Each audition, each time in front of a casting director, is an opportunity for your child to learn. Remind them to listen carefully, and they will learn a great deal!”

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