Politics & Policy

Life in a Showcase

Bravo to the real, working child actors.

Meet Duncan Nutter, a fey, mannequin-faced fellow who’s moved his seven children and long-suffering wife from rural Vermont to Manhattan, the better for the kids to realize dad’s dream of their being stars!

”Tell me something you’ve been separated from and how it made you feel,” he hisses to one of his weary offspring on the way to an audition. “This is the kind of s**t they’re gonna ask you!” When Duncan remembers the cameras are rolling, though, he affects a bubbly enthusiasm. “Oh my G*d,” he gushes about his kids, clasping a hand to his face. “They’re just fascinating creatures!”

Duncan is the only dad in Bravo’s appalling, riveting new six-part series Showbiz Moms & Dads, which originally was just called Showbiz Moms even though Duncan was in it from the beginning. (New episodes premiere Tuesday nights, with repeats Fridays and Sundays.) You can understand the original oversight; the guy always seems on the verge of bursting into the “One Singular Sensation” number from A Chorus Line. On the other hand, he’s not the only parent here to give Mama Rose a run for her money, and maybe not even the worst.

There’s also beauty pageant mom Debbie Tye of Florida, shoving candy into her exhausted four-year-old daughter’s mouth (“A pixie stick is a pageant breakfast!”), and poking wires in the crying preschooler’s braids so she’ll look like Pippi Longstocking. “It just sort of hurts when you put ‘em in,” Debbie explains. Then there’s grim-faced Debbie Klingensmith, also of Florida, who looks like she’s been rode hard and put away wet but still has enough energy to choreograph dance routines for her son Shane, who she thinks could be the next Backstreet Boy.

But the most jaw-dropping showbiz mom is Tiffany Barron, a hothouse specimen of clueless parenting in full flower. Hapless, martyred Tiffany spends her days driving spotty, 14-year-old Jordan to auditions through the bleached-out landscape of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. (Porn capital of the U.S.A., just to add a dystopian footnote.) “Jordan, what did I say about eating lunch?” Tiffany asks as the girl demands a fast-food detour.

“In my opinion–everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, right?–in my opinion, your sandwiches suck!” Jordan yells from the backseat.

At one point, Heidi Fleiss shows up and offers Jordan some friendly, practical advice: “You’re 14? Don’t start having sex for money yet.”

The Hollywood Madam’s appearance is a satisfying touch, as I always thought that the most telling incident in the Heidi Fleiss saga was that, after her sister’s arm was nearly severed (and the car totaled) during an accident in which the teenaged Heidi was driving, her parents bought her a brand new Jeep. Spoiled Heidi’s father, Dr. Paul Fleiss, is a popular pediatrician in my neighborhood, known for his anti-circumcision/pro-family bed theories.

My friend Amy Alkon, a syndicated advice columnist who’s always tangling with the parents of badly behaved children in cafes near her Venice-beach home, calls this indulgent style of child-rearing “go-right-ahead mommying.” The other day, she stepped in when one of these oblivious moms plopped a howling, chair-kicking toddler down on a stool and then went to stand in line for coffee.

“You need to be quiet,” Amy told the child. “It makes it not nice for all the other people here if you’re making all this noise.” Miraculously, the child did indeed quiet down, perhaps shocked into silence by a stranger’s disapproval.

“My reward for my triumph for drive-by parenting?” Amy recounted on her blog. “His mother marched over to my table, shaking with rage, and demanded, ‘Did you just reprimand my child? It isn’t your job to reprimand my child!’ I agreed with her–no, it isn’t my job–and what a shame that the person whose job it is isn’t doing it.”

Parents of badly behaved children are often stunned when other people don’t find them adorable. Jordan of Showbiz Moms doesn’t seem popular with casting directors, and mom doesn’t react well to their suggestions. “I have a bitter taste in my mouth about Hollywood,” Tiffany sighs to the camera, after being told her daughter needs to work on the acne.

Probably not coincidentally, the only normal, likable showbiz mom in the series is Hollywood agent Kimberly Moseley-Stephens, an insider whose daughter is actually an actor rather than a wannabe, unlike the rest of the kids on the show. This Jordan is a little pro at age eight, with two feature films and a recurring role on the Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven under her belt. The difference isn’t surprising to anyone who’s spent time with real working child actors.

In my experience, most are far more polite and mature than typical coddled modern American children–too many of whom are chauffeured around to soccer practice or ballet lessons by their slavishly devoted parents without being expected to do so much as a load of laundry in return.

Working child actors, like most kids of generations past, have a job to do, and they’d better do it responsibly and pleasantly or they won’t have it long. I still remember, when Malcolm In the Middle premiered on Fox, how solicitous the older boys on the show were toward the youngest during interviews.

At another TV press tour I noticed the young star of Fox’s Oliver Beene playing quite nicely with a small girl he’d just met in the hotel pool. Boys in their early teens often brush off younger kids as pesky, but this one patiently helped the little girl (who looked about six) swim, plus cheerfully answered all her questions about airports.

I once had lunch with actresses Lisa Vidal (of Lifetime’s lady cop show The Division) and her younger sister Christina, most recently in ABC’s police drama 10-8. Both got into the business quite young, Christina at age 11 when she was cast in the Michael J. Fox movie Life With Mikey. Both struck me as remarkably professional, courteous, and well raised.

“Sometimes I’d run off somewhere and they couldn’t find me,” Christina recalled of her first role. “I’d tell her, ‘Christina, you never leave a set without telling an A.D. [assistant director] or P.A. [production assistant] where you are,’” explained Lisa, still sounding faintly scolding.

Lisa regularly refuses roles she feels are demeaning, and doesn’t want her little sister taking them either. When Christina was around 12, Spike Lee offered her a part in Crooklyn. But Lisa didn’t think the script’s language was suitable for a young girl.

Lee called their mother at home to say it wasn’t wise for Christina to start turning down roles so early in her career. “He didn’t understand that we’ve got certain values that we want to try to stick to even though we’re in this business,” Lisa said. I wish those still trying to get into this business would value their own behavior as seriously.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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