Before Wendy Pinchak had a chance to pick up the copies of her family's Christmas card from Kinko's, she received a disturbing phone call from a friend: A photograph of her son, Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak (Over There), who, at the time, had a role on a television sitcom, was being sold on eBay.
"So I go onto eBay, and there's my son and the Christmas card we haven't even picked up yet," says Pinchak. "It's just him sitting in his little [Christmas] outfit." The photograph had been at Kinko's for just a few days. Clearly, someone had decided to profit from her child's image. Pinchak emailed the seller on eBay and demanded he remove the picture. "I think that was my first experience of not having control over things," she says.
Stage parents such as Pinchak confront a unique set of challenges. They must continually assess the legitimacy of those offering to promote their child and make careful decisions to avoid making their child vulnerable to predators. These parents must also monitor online content and their child's real-life interactions with adults, because showbiz kids encounter more grown-ups than do most children. Though a parent's control can extend only so far in our digital age, parents can take precautions to safeguard their children's privacy and security online and in the real world. But when parents' naivete about the entertainment industry mingles with a strong desire for their child's success, safety can be neglected.
"The parents, by and large, constitute the greatest threat to their children--more than the industry, more than the workplace--because if they're not vigilant and careful, they have opened the door to trouble," says Paul Petersen, a member of the Screen Actors Guild Young Performers Committee and founder of A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of children in the entertainment industry.
Veteran child acting coach and talent manager Marnie Cooper says, "Parents are so anxious for their kids that they don't think. People get desperate, and in their desperation they will go to anyone, anywhere. They'll give their home phone number. They'll open doors to [predators]. They're just so eager to work, and that's where a lot of mistakes are made."
Eyes Wide Open
Many beginning stage parents inadvertently put their child at risk. Without realizing it, they release personal information to the general public by listing church or school plays on their child's resumes or by giving the child's Social Security number, home address, and phone numbers at auditions. Paula Dorn and Anne Henry of Biz Parentz, a nonprofit corporation that provides education and advocacy for parents and child actors, advise, "Basic safety and identity-theft concerns center around the amount and availability of personal information." Parents can prevent their child's personal information from landing in the wrong person's hands by not listing such information at auditions and by making simple amendments to the child's resume. For example, Biz Parentz recommends that instead of listing resume credits with the name of a school or church, parents should list the name of the performance group or the auditorium.
"It's not a brilliant move to say where a child goes to school," says Henry. The Biz Parentz co-founder says parents need to be especially wary of listing that information on the Internet--specifically, on their children's websites. Many parents don't consider that anyone in the world could be visiting the site, not just family and friends. As a stage parent, Henry has purchased her children's domain names--a practice strongly recommended to stage parents--but she does not maintain websites for either one, thus keeping sensitive information private. Like many parents in the industry, she questions the value and necessity of child actors having websites.
Stage parent Debbie Boyd, mother of actors Cayden (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D) and Jenna (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), says, "I made a conscious decision. I have their domain names registered and reserved, but I don't really want to have official websites at this point." Boyd made the decision after discovering an unofficial Yahoo fan site devoted to her daughter that contained lewd photography and postings from what appeared to be several individuals detailing their fantasies about her daughter. The FBI traced the postings to Canada, and Boyd learned that all of the comments were made by one person. Because the material originated outside the country, the FBI said it could do little to stop the individual, but Yahoo resolved the issue by shutting down the site.
But the problems didn't end there for Boyd. A friend of Jenna's began impersonating her online through a MySpace account profile. By using information she had gleaned from frequent contact with Jenna, the "friend" fooled many into believing she was the child actor. After that, other school friends posted comments on Jenna's fake profile, and the name of Jenna's school was listed. (Many kids write their school's name on their profiles or blogs on online communities MySpace or Xanga without thinking twice.) Boyd decided to have a talk with her daughter about safety. She sat Jenna down in front of the computer and showed her how few clicks it took to find personal information about her online. Jenna was shocked. "I think she doesn't even want an official website at this point," says Boyd.
Pinchak, who owns her son's domain name and controls all content on his website, also discussed safety with her son. She became concerned after watching him readily speak to strangers who recognized him from his television role. She and her husband explained to Jimmy that although people recognize him, it doesn't mean they aren't strangers. They instructed him to tell fans that approached him, "I'm sorry, you're a stranger," and walk away when his parents weren't around. Pinchak knew the warning worked when a secretary from Warner Bros. approached her son in the front yard with a birthday present and he ran away. Though he overreacted, she knew he got the message. "People are going to feel like they know your child, and they're going to come up to them and be nice and talk to them," she says. "You have to know to tell your child they are still strangers."
This should extend to those who approach the parents claiming to want to represent or photograph their child. In these situations, parents need to be careful not to give out personal information. Instead Cooper recommends that stage parents carry business cards from their manager or agent's office to hand out. Those who don't have an agent or manager should contact SAG, Biz Parentz, or A Minor Consideration to verify the legitimacy of all unsolicited contacts, be it in person, by mail, or online.
Then, once a child begins booking, parents should be a constant presence on the set. "Young performers are subject to an awful lot of adults: not only producers, but managers, photographers, coaches, costume people, wardrobe people--a lot of unknown adults," says SAG spokesperson Ilyanne Morden Kichaven. "I'm not saying that anything necessarily is bad, but it's just a different kind of situation than other children."
Petersen warns that parents of teenagers should be on-set to prevent inappropriate relationships between their child and older crewmembers. This is not a frivolous warning; these have happened. He says teenagers may talk a good game, but most are not emotionally strong enough or experienced enough to cope with adult situations. But parents should also be aware that it's not just adults who pose threats to their children.
Threats From Peers
Sources at SAG, Biz Parentz, and online parent forums say they have received complaints from parents about web designers who purchase the domain names of child actors in bulk, then blackmail parents into hiring them to design their children's fan sites. When the parents refuse, these designers criticize the parents and the kids on website message boards, such as on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
No stage parent or child is immune from negative comments online. One scathing message on Jimmy Pinchak's IMDb message board criticized the boy and his mother, as well as Boyd's son Cayden. "The Boyd kid and Jax look like girls. There [sic] moms are such divas," it reads. When Pinchak initially learned about the scathing comments, she felt hurt. Once she learned that most of the comments were posted by competing teenage web designers, she laughed it off. "What concerned me is that a lot of parents tried to get nasty messages removed, and IMDb would not remove them," says Pinchak. "I don't really get offended at this point, but I think my son would. I think a child would get their feelings hurt, and that's really what concerns me." She realizes it's all part of being in a very public profession, noting, "You have no control over what is going to be said about your child."
Many parents worry that negative comments on the IMDb message board could affect their child's ability to land roles. Casting directors Sharon Lieblein, vice president of talent and casting at Nickelodeon, and Chemin Bernard, who casts the family comedy Just for Kicks, say they use IMDb only as a resource to look up actors' credits, and that most casting directors don't have time to concern themselves with negative online chatter. "I don't even look at that stuff," says Bernard. "In fact, it gets on my nerves because when I print out the resumes, that stuff is on there, and I could care less."
Message boards, much like MySpace, can be a danger because anyone can post personal information about child actors, including their friends and fan-site operators eager to criticize the competition. For this reason, parents should monitor the content of their child's profile on a regular basis, as well as google their child to keep tabs on information in circulation.
Image Is Everything
Cooper says websites can be excellent marketing tools, but parents should never list their phone number, addresses, or location beyond the city they live in. "There are people out there that are just crazy, and if you don't give them the information they need, then the chances are a lot higher that you'll be okay," she notes. She should know: One of her clients recently hired a photographer-manager, then became one of many parents to find shirtless photos of her son on eBay. Cooper believes the photographer-rep took the shots and posted them online. The distressed mother contacted Cooper, insisting that the photographer seemed "nice."
Says Cooper, "I just told her, 'You got to pretend they're guilty until innocent, because you're talking about pedophiles. You're not talking about losing a hundred dollars. I mean, this is your child you're talking about.'" Cooper, a former child actor, warns parents not to be manipulated into allowing photographers to take inappropriate shots of their children. Photos of young boys shirtless or young girls in tank tops will never be required by industry professionals. Parents should also never sign releases that enable photographers to own the images.
Petersen, a former child star from The Donna Reed Show, still finds bare-chested photographs of himself as a teen being bought and sold on the web. "Parents must be incredibly protective over the images they pay for," he says. "They must be very cautious of the permitted uses of those images, and they have to understand that these images will never go away, especially in our electronic age."
"Our electronic age" has also enabled fans to find the addresses of agents and managers of child actors. This means more fan mail from prisoners and other questionable characters. Derek Gade, whose daughter Ariel appeared in Dark Water and currently stars in Invasion, recommends parents filter all fan mail before showing it to their children. "You have to be selective," he says, "There's some fan mail and stuff that comes in that you would not want to pass on to your daughter." One unusual fan letter sent to Ariel was written from a wife on behalf of her husband, admitting that her husband usually posed as a child to receive autographs but that he was mentally unstable and she felt an autographed picture of Gade's 8-year-old daughter would cheer him up. "It just veered way off course from the innocence of just being a fan and wanting a signed autograph," Gade recalls.
Parents are not without recourse, however. Petersen recommends parents report inappropriate or harmful behavior conducted toward young performers to SAG. Ques-tionable behavior includes safety issues on-set, unauthorized use or sale of their children's images, and even other parents who exploit their children for personal gain. When parents find personal information or photos of their children online on an unauthorized site, they should contact those websites and SAG. "Parents in 2005 that think they can pursue a public career through their children and that it's always going to be safe are making a mistake," he warns. Stage parents should consult SAG, Biz Parentz, and A Minor Consideration to learn more about what they can do to protect their children.
Unfortunately many parents neglect to report wrongdoing. Kichaven says SAG finds that actors and their representation are often reluctant to come forward and give statements because they're afraid it will damage their careers. "There's a perception that you could possibly be labeled and blackballed, so it's finding people that are willing to come forward to present evidence--it's a big challenge here," she says.
Cooper says parents can avoid becoming victims by staying on the defensive. "I'd rather you be skeptical than you end up seeing your child's photo on eBay," she says. "It's very, very hurtful that this is the world that we live in today, but those bad apples shouldn't spoil it for [child actors], because there are a lot of great people out there." BSW
Biz Parentz, www.bizparentz.com
A Minor Consideration, www.minorcon.org
Screen Actors Guild, www.sag.org