Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright Ph.D., R.D.

The Ugly Side of Child Fame: From JonBenet to Corey Feldman

What the JonBenet indictment and recent biographies say about child stardom

Pushy stage parents have been around since the dawn of Hollywood but today the definition of “stage parent” extends beyond traditional acting scenarios to encompass overly driven sports parents, child pageant moms and any obsessed adult involved in a child’s activities. The idea that the parent lives vicariously through a child’s performance in an activity is coined “Achievement by Proxy.” (ABP).

Normally, ABP is a healthy, enthusiastic support of a child’s performance in an activity that brings pride to the parent or other adult, like a coach or mentor. However, ABP can warp into the pathological Achievement by Proxy Distortion (ABPD), in which a child is placed in a potentially exploitative situation in order for the adult to reap social or financial benefits. There are four stages of ABPD* with the final stage, abuse, reflecting the most extreme manifestation of ABPD. As we will see, Jon Benet Ramsey, 1980s child start Corey Feldman, and Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Francis all seemed to have suffered from ABPD at the hands of adults involved with their careers.

It has been 17 years since 6 year old tot beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in the basement of her Boulder Colorado home. Court documents released today show that in 1999, a Colorado grand jury voted to indict her parents on charges of child abuse resulting in her death. However, the documents do not directly accuse John and Pasty Ramsey of killing her. Instead, the documents allege that they permitted JonBenet to be placed in a dangerous situation that led to her death and accused them of helping the unknown killer. The couple was not officially indicted because the district attorney refused to sign prosecution documents due to lack of substantial evidence. Third party DNA and other evidence were found at the scene. Evidence also suggests that JonBenet was sexually assaulted by an unknown person.

The curious question these new JonBenet papers raise is what exactly was the “situation which posed a threat of injury to the child’s life or health, which resulted in the death of Jon Benet Ramsey, a child under the age of 16?” Some will point to JonBenet’s participation in child glitz pageants. In 1996, few Americans had seen a child pageant star so the initial JonBenet photos were shocking. Many suggested that JonBenet’s pageant stardom was alluring to pedophiles. Others have suggested that Patsy Ramsey was an aggressive pageant mom and that she was abusive, yet there is no evidence to support this claim. Further, indictments are not convictions and it should be noted that the Ramsey’s have not been convicted of a crime. However, is what happened to JonBenet a manifestation of a severe case of ABPD?

I describe “Princess by Proxy,”(PBP) as a form of ABPD in which the pageant mom lives vicariously through the child. In PBP, each pageant crown is a notch of pride on mom’s ego and drive for fame and fortune. Extreme child pageant moms like Karen Kataline’s mother, push their children to perform and drain them of their personhood. ( Mrs. Ramsey may have had a bit of PBP, but to what extent?

When Mr. Ramsey was asked in a 2012 interview about Toddler’s & Tiaras, he said, “It’s just very bizarre and it certainly—Pasty and Jon Benet didn’t approach it that way. We-they did it for fun.” Mr. Ramsey stated that he thinks it is wrong to put your child on public display. He recounted a strange incident just days before JonBenet’s murder as an example. Mrs. Ramsey was atop a convertible with JonBenet during a Christmas parade when a strange man approached the car and made them uncomfortable. Mr. Ramsey says he now regrets allowing his daughter to compete in tot pageants because of the attention it might have attracted. It is unlikely that the truth of JonBenet’s death will be uncovered, however, her life may have been touched by severe ABPD because of her participation as a tot beauty queen.

The popular 1980s actor Corey Feldman has described his childhood stardom as a living hell in a new memoir entitled Coreyography. Mr. Feldman talks about how his troubles started at home in early childhood where lived with his severely depressed and drug addicted mother and dysfunctional father. By the age of 4 Mr. Feldman was berated by his mother about his so-called physical flaws. Corey’s mother chastised him about his hair color…apparently he was “supposed to be blond” and lecturing him about his weight, calling him “fat” and forcing him to consume diet pills. Feldman describes an episode in which he was caught sneaking two cookies at the age of 5. As punishment, his mother made him stand in the corner for an hour, this was followed by a verbal assault. By the time Corey was 7, he was working as a successful commercial actor and served as the family breadwinner. His mother refused to let him ride a bike lest he become injured and spoil her financial gravy train. Yet, Feldman cites episodes in which his mother physically abuses him with a wooden pole and threatens to kill him. Mr. Feldman goes on to talk about his child sexual abuse at the hands of adult men and his struggles with drug abuse. Mr. Feldman had few, if any, stable and caring adults to help him with his difficult home life.

According to a New York Post article, Mr. Feldman is quoted as saying, “What would I say to parents of children in the industry?” he writes. “My only advice, honestly, is to get these kids out of Hollywood and let them lead normal lives.” Mr. Feldman is now the father of a nine-year old son and he focuses on more positive things. He has been sober for years and continues to act and create music. His story is a textbook example of the most severe form of ABPD.

When Melissa Francis was eight years old, she won a key role on Little House on the Prairie. By all appearances, Ms. Francis, now a Fox Business anchor, was leading the charmed life a popular Hollywood child star. But according to her book, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, Melissa’s mother was a neurotic and extremely competitive woman who pushed her daughter’s Hollywood career for her own personal pride. The long-term cruelty wielded by her mother, coupled with the pressure to perform, left Ms. Francis to question the value of pushing children to succeed, and wondering at what point does help turn into harm?

Today, Ms. Francis is no longer in contact with her mother and she credits her relatively normal upbringing to interactions with Michael Landon and other members of the popular show who served as a source of positive support and encouragement. Her story shows that children who suffer from ABPD can overcome the damage with positive support from caring adults.

These three cases of child stars represent various forms of severe ABPD. Parents considering their children for a career in Hollywood, on stage or in pageants need to remain diligent and protective of their children. The pursuit of childhood stardom need not come at the health and well being of a child.

*Achievement by Proxy Stages:

Stage I, Risky Sacrifice: In this stage the adult loses the ability to differentiate his own needs for success from the child’s developmental needs and goals. The parent will take an extra job, mortgage the house or move to support the child’s activity or talent. This puts pressure on the child to perform since mom and/or dad has invested in them.

Stage II: Objectification. In this stage, there is moderate loss of the adult’s ability to differentiate there needs from the child’s. The child becomes an object rather than a person and thus, pressure on the child to perform to earn money, fame or success is amplified. Excessive focus on the sport or activity isolates the child from social interactions. Winning at all cost is the mantra.

Stage III: Potential Abuse: In this stage, there is a severe or complete loss of the adult’s ability to distinguish their needs for success and achievement from the child’s. The child is completely objectified and goals are pursued without regard to short and long term potential physical and emotional damage. Playing or performing despite a severe injury; failing to report sexual abuse by an involved adult for fear of reprisals; and/or displaying the child in a sexualize manner are some examples.

Stage IV: Distinct Abuse: This stage occurs when the ability to differentiate adult needs from those of the child leads to damaging behaviors toward the child that have a life threatening impact and/or can cause severe lifelong emotional or physical scars. Physical abuse at this level may include encouraging the child to take physical risks to perform an activity, physically hitting the child as a threat to perform and/or use of drugs to maintain a particular appearance. Eg: giving a child diet pills. Emotional abuse includes verbal lashings in an attempt to improve the child’s performance. Sexual abuse involves the adult using sexual coercion to maintain power and control over the child. An example of this is a parent who overlooks child sexual abuse by a coach, mentor or other powerful adult in control of the child’s career in an effort to maintain the child’s performance, financial earning power and/or fame. Exposing children to sexual exploitation is another example. For more information, please see Tofler IR. Et al. Clin Sports Med. 2005;24:805-828.

Recommended Reading:

Cartwright, MM. Princess by Proxy: What child beauty pageants teach girls about self-esteem and what we can do about it. JAACAP. 51 (11): 1105-07, 2012.

Cartwright, MM. Child beauty pageants: what are we teaching our girls? Psychology Today Online. August 12, 2011.…

Chang J. JonBenet Ramsey’s father regrets letting her in pageants, says ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is ‘bizarre.’ March 13, 2013.…

Feldman, Corey. Coreyography. 2013.

Francis M. Diary of a Stage Mothers Daughter. 2013.

Getlen L. The childhood hell of ‘The Lost Boys.’ NY Post October 19, 2013.

Kataline K. Fatlash: Food Police and Fear of Thin. 2012.

Stranglin D. ’99 grand jury indicted Ramsey’s in Jon Benet’s Death. USA Today. October 25, 2013.…

Tofler IR. Et al. Clin Sports Med. 2005;24:805-828.

Wolpert S. Popular TV shows teach children fame is an important value, UCLA psychologists report. July 11, 2011.…