On the road to fame - Parents aim for normal life when kids become stars
Daycare operator and single mom Pam Miller's house is almost
indistinguishable from the others in her well-kept Bothell neighborhood
-- until you peer over the fence that runs alongside her driveway. A
half-pipe skateboard ramp almost fills her narrow side yard, built --
with her neighbors' blessing -- for her son to practice on.
Her son, a slight 11-year-old with level blue eyes and a knit cap
jammed down over longish strawberry-blonde hair, is skateboarding
phenom Sky Siljeg, whose prowess as a rider has attracted a long list
of sponsors and interest from major media such as The New York Times Magazine.
He's won over 30 competitions, writes about skateboarding for
Scholastic Online, has worked on developing kids' skateboards (his new
Skyboard will be marketed globally), is featured on the 2005 video Kids
Who Rip by Rod Parmenter and has earned the respect of riders two and
three times his age.
Sky's appeal as a skateboard celebrity and company pitchman is immediately apparent. While he talks, he fiddles with his fingers like any other 11-year-old boy, but discusses his sponsorship deals with a casual mastery that makes him seem much older. He grins telegenically as he acts out one of his stunts, or "tricks," in his mom's spotless kitchen. When asked how long he has to practice to perfect a move, he pauses for a moment, then replies, deadpan, "The only trick I've ever gotten on the first try was... nothing." The boy who teaches grown men how to skateboard has no problem admitting that he has to work very hard at his game.
Kids such as Sky -- whose achievements are impressive by any standard -- are rare, but certainly not unheard of. Still, from the outside, it's not necessarily easy to understand just how these kids got to where they are. You might assume that children who achieve early success must have extraordinary drive, and you'd be right: The kids interviewed describe themselves as passionate about what they are doing, and most of them say they are motivated not by dreams of making it big but by the pleasure of doing something that they find deeply compelling.
Another big factor is parental involvement. A high-achieving child invariably has a family behind her that recognizes her talent and is willing to do the driving, financial calculations, scheduling and close monitoring for physical and emotional health that go along with having a child with a career. What is striking about the parents of these kids is their clear desire to maintain normalcy in the face of extraordinary circumstances. The stereotype about stage parents who push their child forward at all costs doesn't apply here (perhaps attributable to a more laid-back Pacific Northwest mindset); instead, they exhibit an attitude of stewardship toward their child's talents, thoughtfulness about the meaning of success, and a routine, frankly unglamorous family life.
In mid-January of this year, Issaquah skater Chrissy Hughes traveled to St. Louis to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, also known as "Nationals," in the Novice Ladies category. It was significant achievement for the 15-year-old: She was the sole skater from Washington state, and one of only 12 young women nationwide to compete in that category. (Next season she plans to move up to Junior Ladies, stay there for two years, then compete as a Senior Lady. With luck, that will happen during the run-up to the 2010 Olympics, since the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team is chosen from the top three Senior Ladies' winners at the competition.)
Chrissy's ascendance to even the lowest rung on the Nationals ladder follows years of lessons -- she's been competing since 1996 -- and a weekday round-robin of 6-8 a.m. practice sessions, school, homework and early bedtimes. She skates six mornings a week, 51 weeks a year, and after school on Fridays. She also attends stretch and Pilates classes on Saturday mornings. The straight-A student's homework must be completed on weekday nights by parental edict; otherwise, skating the next morning is off the schedule.
According to Lael Hughes, Chrissy's mother, her daughter fits everything in by managing her time like a pro and by being extremely self-directed. At her level, being at practice daily is a must, and Chrissy gets herself up each day at 5 a.m., waking her mother minutes before it's time to leave. "It's been hard getting up so early," she admits, "but it's worth it."
That self-discipline makes her a determined competitor. Chrissy emphasizes that she skates and competes because she loves it, not to meet her parents' expectations, and she can be hard on herself. "I don't feel any pressure from my parents," she says matter-of-factly. "I put that pressure on myself, telling myself that I have to do well and do my best. I work hard toward competitions to place higher or land that jump that I didn't land before."
Of course, daily skating means a lot of time in the car for Lael Hughes, who jokes easily with her daughter about looking forward to the day Chrissy gets her driver's license so she can drive herself to practice. Hughes relies on carpools and help from a neighbor to juggle the schedules of her other children, Maddie, 13, and Garrett, 10. Neither of her two siblings pay that much attention to what she's up to, adds Chrissy, since they're involved in sports themselves, and Lael Hughes looks blank when asked if her family has made any tradeoffs to support Chrissy's career.
"Not really," she says, adding that she does know skating families who have made tradeoffs. She declines to talk about financing a child in such an expensive sport. It's a turnoff to discuss it, she says firmly; her family is focused on developing Chrissy's talent and is happy to do so.
Leanne Clarke's daughter Addie Land, a senior at Nova High School in Seattle, has appeared in lead roles in two indie films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Evergreen (2004) and The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang (2006). Addie's reviews in Evergreen were overwhelmingly positive (The Seattle Times' Moira Macdonald called her "a wonder," and said that her work in the movie "promises an exciting future").
Addie is now sent "every script with a teenage girl in it," her mother says. But Clarke and her husband, Haley Land, both ceramicists with a booth at the Pike Place Market, have emphasized a lifestyle of simplicity that precluded a lot of driving around to far-flung lessons and auditions when Addie was younger, and they have carefully chosen the projects she works on. "Our challenge is that Addie is one of those kids who is really grounded, not physically self-conscious, never worried about weight," Clarke says. "We [don't] really want to mess with her self-image."
Addie's casting in Evergreen occurred through that combination of hard work and good luck that's familiar to anyone who's had a big career break. In her case, the break has meant that she's been able to skip the round of appearances in commercials that many actors must endure. She began acting in third grade, has taken six years of voice lessons and had been taking senior-level classes at the Seattle Children's Theatre's well-regarded drama program when, according to Clarke, she decided as freshman in high school that she was interested in film work.
Evergreen's director, Enid Zentelis, had contacted Karen Sharp, director of SCT's drama program, for casting leads. The situation was extremely unusual, as Sharp says she doesn't usually have time to work with directors, but Addie was a perfect fit for the part. Her role in the movie paved the way for her role in The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang, a comedy -- yet to be released -- that was directed by Tim Skousen of Napoleon Dynamite fame.
Addie's manager is Sam Maydew of Hollywood's top-notch United Talent Agency (it represents actors such as Johnny Depp), and her agent has asked her to travel to L.A. on occasion to audition for parts. The family's flexible schedule has been invaluable in accommodating the demands of Addie's career. Since they've also made it a priority to have one parent at home as often as possible, it means that someone is always available to supervise her on set or travel with her. And while Clarke says that many familes would have moved to L.A. to support a budding actor's career, that hasn't been an option because it would have been too disruptive to their lives.
"Acting was (and is) an important part of my life, but it wasn't the only thing that mattered to me -- I wanted to have a well-rounded life," Addie says. "I never really had a drive for fame and fortune and I would've been really happy acting on the stage."
After signing with UTA, she's become ever more focused on working in film but adds that she is committed to "my original views that I want my life as a whole to mean something, and I wouldn't be devastated if I'm unable to keep working in film."
She does travel to L.A. on school breaks to meet with casting directors and audition for films, which has at times strained her family's budget. In the period after the 2004 Sundance Festival, Clarke says, "Sometimes people wanted her down there twice within two weeks. Part of problem is that we're low-income, being artists, and for us -- it's like, 'How can we afford this?' We were calling in favors, getting stand-by tickets."
The family's guiding principle throughout Addie's career has been that the acting must fit into their one-car, laid-back lifestyle and not the other way around.
Pam Miller is another parent who emphasizes the importance of perspective when it comes to her son's career. "I've been single most of 18 years," she says. "My income is my job." Taking time off to travel for promotional tours means a loss of school time for Sky and loss of income for her, so she's glad that skate competitions happen mostly on weekends.
Sky's sponsorships have been a tremendous financial boon, however, although Sky has never solicited sponsorships the way some other riders do. "QuickSilver has dressed him since he was 5," Miller says with satisfaction, and adds that he receives free shoes from another company, Ipath, as well as cases of soda from sponsor Jones Soda. Sky understands the implications of being sponsored ("they pay and you represent them in public") and only accepts sponsorships companies whose products he believes in.
She keeps her high-flying child grounded by keeping an eye on him. "He's doing something that he really enjoys...if I saw that he was overstressed or thinking too highly of himself, I'd be doing more to keep him in check." The fact that she operates an in-home daycare also keeps things real, since a photo shoot might be followed by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the kitchen with the kids. And part of skateboarding is falling down. He's already lost both front teeth in a riding accident, which Pam says is a common injury. "Sky's seen [celebrity rider] Tony Hawk go down on his can," she says. "He knows the realities -- he falls down."
When Sky moved into the sponsored class (to compete against other sponsored skaters, most of them adults), Pam told him, "You're not going to win every time," to which Sky replied, "But I get to skate, right?" It explains why these kids, who have experienced successes that many adults only dream of, do what they do, and why parents support their aspirations so wholeheartedly. In the end, it really is all about the skating.
Kris Collingridge is ParentMap's Out and About and Calendar editor.
Kids who have made it big
Recognizing a child with performing talent: Karen Sharp, program director for Seattle Children's Theatre Drama School, says that she looks for a student who can listen and take direction, and takes risks in class. A clear voice is also important. "As kids are growing and developing," she says, "it's really important that projection and also enunciation [are] part of the package." David Van Maren, president of abc Model/Talent/Sport management in Bellevue, notes that children must want to work ("Sometimes, the parents want it more than the kid does, and that's not a good sign.") and that a good attention span, even at a very early age, is a must. Kids must also be very comfortable meeting new people, as most directors will not have patience with long waits while a child gets acclimated to a new situation.
Developing a child's talent: There's not a well-demarcated path to success as an actor for a child. "It's not a math problem," Sharp notes. She recommends that children continue to take classes, which is something even adult actors do, and see live actors perform onstage. She also recommends that students audition with reputable theater companies: "It's a unique experience, so the more you can experience it, the better you get at it."
On family commitment: According to Van Maren, children in modeling or acting must have parents with a flexible schedule. "Auditions happen quickly," he says, "within a 24-to-48-hour time frame." If parents can't drop everything to attend, their children won't get jobs. Karen Sharp emphasizes that parents with children who are doing stage work should be sure they want to make the necessary commitment. "[T]here's a lot of driving, scheduling to do," she says. "Most families who want that for their child are willing to make those sacrifices. But certainly, if you're making that commitment, you have to make it 100 percent."
Parental no-nos: "If parents are overbearing in any way," Van Maren says, "I don't know a single agency that wants to work with them. "I [tell] all agents to run away from those particular parents," he adds, even if their child has talent.
Choosing a reputable agency: Both Sharp and Van Maren recommend that parents work their resources and check out agencies by talking to clients and references. They also emphasize that it shouldn't cost anything to be represented by an agency. Parents should be able to get their children's photos taken anywhere they like, and should beware of agencies that push to have pictures taken with them only. "Kids change so fast," Sharp says. "So be really careful about people who push you to take really expensive photos." Above all, parents should feel comfortable asking as many questions as possible. "If a parent is feeling uncomfortable, there's probably a reason," Sharp says. Answers to parents' questions should be clear and upfront.
Characteristics of high-achieving kids: Dr. Kathleen Noble, director of the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington, notes that intelligence or talent isn't enough, by themselves, to lead to success. "Any talented person must be resilient to be truly successful," she says. "Confidence, curiosity, persistence... a sense of purpose, meaning [and] the ability to fail well" are all crucial components of success at any age.
On keeping perspective: Sharp and Van Maren both say that getting jobs is as much a matter of having the right look, at the right time, as it is of having raw talent. Casting director requirements can be very specific, so children shouldn't take it too personally if they don't get a job. Dr. Noble notes that many children develop later than in their teens. "You look at the most extraordinary high-achieving people in our culture and they do come to themselves after the age of 12," she says. "I think development and expression of talent is a marathon, not a sprint."
- Seattle Children's Theatre Drama School: Drama classes for children at all experience levels. 201 Thomas St., Seattle, WA 98109. 206-443-0807.
- abc Model/Talent/Sport Management: Represents local child talent (as well as adults); has placed young talent in national ad campaigns and projects such as Macy's, Nordstrom, Parents Magazine and the WB's Everwood. 12708 Northup Way, Suite 201, Bellevue, WA 98005. 425-861-8712.
- Robinson Center for Young Scholars: Advising, testing and programs for area gifted students, and educational resources and a reading list to download. 206-543-4160.
- U.S. Figure Skating: Information about figure skating, including the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills program, for beginners.
- American Music Conference: This national non-profit educational association promotes the importance of music, music-making and music education to the general public.