When we were kids, almost all of us harbored this secret desire to be a Disney Channel star. We practiced singing in the shower, made up dance moves in front of the mirror, and spent our falling asleep hours rehearsing monologues and interview responses. Disney Channel stars were the coolest, and the shows they got to work on looked like they would have been so much fun to be a part of.
As we’ve grown up, our career interests have changed and most of us have jobs that have nothing to do with singing, dancing or acting. And maybe that was all for the best. These 15 dark confessions by former Disney Channel stars have us feeling pretty thankful that we never got our “big break” after all.
Cole Sprouse spent years on the Disney Channel, working alongside his brother Dylan Sprouse on shows The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and The Suite Life on Deck. But he confesses that his time on the kids' channel really held him back quite a bit when it came to personal growth. He told ASOS magazine, "I started in this industry, on this huge platform that oftentimes psychologically disrupts many of the children that come out of it. As a teenager, I had horrifying social anxiety. I was homeschooled, raised on a sound stage, I had absolutely no understanding of how to interact with people my own age."
His struggle with social anxiety was one of the driving factors in his decision to take a break from showbiz and attend NYU. It was an experience that definitely made a difference, “I don’t have to deal with anxiety as much as I used to. It’s the scariest thing, but you have to look it right in the eye and understand it’s not going anywhere. Once I found a confidence in myself and how I interacted with the world around me, all of a sudden, people weren’t criticizing me the way they used to when I was consistently thinking about it.”
Cole wasn’t the only one who felt like working on the Disney Channel had a negative effect on his life. His twin brother, Dylan Sprouse seems to agree that it wasn’t always easy. Dylan confessed in a YouTube Video, and again to Vulture magazine, that it was hard to be taken seriously and treated with the respect you deserved by the network. Apparently, shortly before they cut ties with Disney for good, the Sprouse brothers pitched an idea to the executives about how the show should evolve going forward and where it could go.
Dylan said, "When we had pitched our idea, it was kind of this situation where they had almost laughed in our faces.” The studio then came back to the brothers, a year later, and pitched the boys' original idea back to them but refused to give them producer credits. This belittling behavior was enough for the Sprouses to decide it was time to walk away, and they stopped filming The Suite Life on Deck in 2011.
Sisters Alyson Michalka and Amanda Michalka were among the few Disney Channel stars that did more singing than acting. They appeared in the Disney Channel Original Movie Cow Belles and often made guest appearances on other Disney Channel shows, but their big thing was their music. The network aired one of their concerts and often featured their music videos during commercial breaks. Disney even heavily promoted their debut album, Into the Rush.
But the sister’s were left disillusioned after working with Disney. In an interview, AJ said, “We had experienced so much as kids and I kind of feel like we learned a lot about the industry that put a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth, whether it was a couple of people we worked with or whether it was just trying to find the right inspiration or what have you." For that reason, they took almost a decade off of working on music in a professional setting in order to clear their head of the Disney debris.
Most of the content on the Disney Channel is aimed at a pre-teen/tween audience. So it makes sense that they’d want most of their characters and content to appeal to that age. Which is all fine and good, until you realize how old some of the stars actually are. Joe Jonas spent two seasons playing a fictionalized version of himself on Jonas. While the show did great things for the band and brothers’ popularity, they didn’t always love it. Joe (who was twenty when the show began filming) particularly hated pretending to be younger than he was. He confessed to hating his show, saying, “It ended up being some weird slapstick humor that only a 10-year-old would laugh at. They took out the kissing scene that Nick had. I had to shave every day because they wanted me to pretend like I was 16 when I was 20.” The pressure from the channel to be “young and a moneymaker” took a toll on him, and by the time the show wrapped, he was eager to put it all behind him.
Joe wasn’t the only former Disney Channel star who didn’t care for the pressure that was put on him to act a certain way at all times. Selena Gomez has spoken out on more than one occasion about how much pressure the child actors are put under by their network to be perfect and appealing. She told InStyle, “I think it is really dysfunctional to be in this industry at a young age where you're figuring out who you are. I don't recommend it... When I was on Disney, it was like, 'Oh, they didn't like it?' It hurts your feelings."
She reiterated these thoughts to the Huffington Post saying, “It was beautiful and tragic. It was everything that every teen goes through, just on a bigger scale. It literally was like high school." Honestly, we’re really glad that, if nothing else, we missed out on this ungodly amount of pressure to make a franchise work as a 15-year-old. It sounds awful.
Both Miley Cyrus and her father Billy Ray Cyrus have been very open about the fact that they hated working on Hannah Montana, and, if given a do-over, would definitely not do it again. While that may break some of our nostalgic little hearts, Miley, in particular, has a really good reason for wishing Hannah had never existed.
She revealed to Marie Claire that working on the show gave her body image issues, saying, “From the time I was 11, it was, 'You're a pop star! That means you have to be blonde, and you have to have long hair, and you have to put on some glittery tight thing,' Meanwhile, I'm this fragile little girl playing a 16-year-old in a wig and a ton of makeup. It was like Toddlers & Tiaras." Ugh! We’ll take having our awkward stage in relative privacy any day.
She might be a newer Disney Channel star after becoming a main actress on A.N.T. Farm, but it doesn't look like the Mouse has changed their ways much in recent years. She said the whole Disney experience can be quite restrictive, in fact, something many other stars echo.
"It was hard being a preteen and having to sugarcoat everything all the time. That’s one of the hardest things, not being able to express myself in a certain way or being stuck having to promote something or say something you don’t believe in," she told Buzzfeed. "I didn’t want it to stop there and be labeled as ‘a Disney girl.' I quickly realized I wanted to do more. If you’ve been on a Disney show, people target you as being the ‘sitcom funny girl’ who can’t take herself seriously and doesn’t really have true emotions because they have to be perfect and pure.”
Bella Thorne's been EVERYWHERE since her Disney days - both on the big screen and the small. But way back when she appeared on all three seasons of Shake It Up alongside her co-star Zendaya. To some of us, the two were BFF goals, and we were just as envious of their apparent off-screen friendship as we were of their on-screen one. But Bella confessed that things weren’t always as picture perfect between the two as they seemed.
“Zendaya and I were put in a very unfortunate position where we were kind of forced to compete against each other. Which made the whole first season of the show just very awkward for us. We wanted to love each other, but yet we were constantly being put against each other. It was, 'Who's better at this?' and 'Who's better at that?'” They eventually talked it out and worked through it, but being put in a position where you constantly feel like you have to earn your keep couldn’t have been fun at all. She's also called Disney a "puppet master," claiming, "People will ask me, 'Who are you now?' But this is who I've really been — you just didn't see me before. I was just a puppet. I wasn't allowed to make my own decisions or think for myself in any way." That's not good.
Kelli Berglund was one of the stars of Lab Rats and Kickin’ It. She owes a good chunk of her career to Disney, and while she’s the first to admit that, and be thankful for the break it gave her, she’s confessed that working for The Mouse wasn’t always an easy time in her life. She told Lapalme Magazine, “You sort of know what you're signing up for when you step into the 'Disney machine.’ Being a teenager and growing up can already be tough enough as it is. … Try having your awkward years put in front of a spotlight for the whole world to see. The biggest pressure probably comes from trying my absolute best to please everyone while still trying to figure out exactly who I am." We can’t imagine trying to meet such high expectations like that at such a young age!
You’re sure to recognize blonde cutie Ross Lynch from Austin and Ally, but he hopes that’s not all you recognize him from. The actor discussed how frustrating and lonely it could be to have people only associate you with your on-screen persona. Disney pushes their child actors to be so seamless with their characters that Ross found many people expected him to be the same in real life as he was on the show. “People start to think that because you come from Disney that you're a certain way... You're perceived to be such an angel, and really you're just an actor that booked a job. But everyone thinks that it's who you are like they found you. They, like, raised you. But really it's just a good job." Facing that kind of misconception all the time has to be annoying.
Disney expected big things from its stars, but one thing we keep hearing over and over was that they weren’t willing to give these young actors an equivalent amount of respect. Alyson Stoner started out on Mike's Super Short Show before having guest turns on everything from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody to Phineas and Ferb and Camp Rock. She was a regular Disney legend but says she wasn’t always treated that way.
“The assumption is that once you're in with the Disney Channel, you're in. But I still auditioned for every single thing I got with them. In fact, I was still sent on first calls with people who had never been on an audition in their lives, up until the end. Which was kind of frustrating. I was grateful, but then I was like, ‘Man, I've been on 12 shows for you and I'm coming in here auditioning for three different roles and not getting any of them and it's almost like you don't know who I am or what I'm capable of.’"
Leaving the Disney Channel can be just as difficult as staying in it. Hilary Duff and her mom/manager Susan Duff learned that the hard way when they walked away from Lizzie McGuire in 2003. At the time, Lizzie McGuire was the highest rated show on the network, and the movie was raking in big bucks at the box office. But when they sat down to draw up contracts, the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms. Hilary’s mother told Entertainment Weekly that “Disney thought they’d be able to bully us into accepting whatever offer they wanted to make, and they couldn’t.” Going on to say, “They weren’t giving Hilary the respect she deserved.” Disney shot back, saying that, “Hilary now had 'T-R-O-U-B-L-E' stamped in front of her name.” Hilary and her mother were understandably upset that the media giant would publicly berate a 15-year-old like that, especially after the said 15-year-old had earned them millions of dollars.
Sometimes it’s not the Disney Channel or the network executives that are the ones dialing up the pressure or causing the drama. Sometimes it’s the stars’ own on-set guardians. In a 2016 interview, Shia LaBeouf addressed some of the drama that plagued the set of his breakout Disney Channel show Even Stevens. Shia’s father, Jeffery, caused a stir when he was accused of sexual harassment by one of the actresses, and again when he used a gay slur directed against an executive. He also revealed that his dad offered him marijuana and cigarettes and that “drugs were always around.” Confirming once and for all that Hollywood can be seedy, even when working for the most squeaky-clean children’s network out there.
Disney has such a strong brand, which is great for the channel and its consumers but can feel a little suffocating for its actors. High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens had this to say about the difficulty she faced when it came to moving on from the company. “High School Musical was incredible and it was so fun and it gave me so many fans which I'm very, very thankful for. But it also closed people's minds up as to which characters I could portray. So for a while, I was kind of struggling and fighting for these roles that I just desperately wanted. It was hard and it was a struggle, but then again life is always a struggle." After several years of trying to shake the image, she feels like she has and is now in a position to be taken much more seriously. Spring Breakers definitely helped.
Demi Lovato has been one of the most outspoken Disney Channel alums, and she isn’t afraid to reveal the dark underbelly of the network. Once, when discussing her exit from Disney, and how necessary she felt that it was for her mental health, she said this, “We joked around that it was Disney High, except we all were shooting shows and really overworking. I joke that I sometimes have PTSD after leaving the channel because if my schedule starts to get too busy, I rebel and I get bitchy." Any job that puts that kind of pressure on you to be “on” all the time can’t be a very enjoyable one. We don’t blame her for high-tailing it out of there after a while!
Raven-Symoné had the most successful show on the Disney Channel in the early 2000s. That’s So Raven drew in the most viewers each week, was the first show that was allowed to reach 100 episodes, and had the biggest budget. But that kind of professional success didn’t come without some loss of personal freedom. For one thing, Raven never felt like she could reveal that she was gay. “I knew I couldn’t say it out loud because, “I had the number one show on Disney, I had multiple albums, I was on tour with *NSYNC. People had bucket lists, my bucket list was finished at 18. I didn’t want to deal with that.” She never thought she’d come out because “my personal life didn’t matter,” she said. “It was only supposed to be sold as the Raven-Symoné brand.”
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