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When a young artist appears to be struggling with drugs, alcohol or mental illness, do the managers, publicists, agents — the artist’s “team” — ever get involved and ask the client to seek help?
Having grown up in the industry, I would have to say the answer is yes … and no. This is for a multitude of reasons, none of them particularly tidy or comfortable.
Of the members of the team who would be most likely to get involved, my money would be on the manager, as they have a unique role in the artist’s life. My father, Thor Arngrim, was a personal manager from the ’60s through the ’80s, and I saw firsthand how that job differs from other forms of representation. As I explained in my book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated: “The publicist might spin the story of your arrest to the press and try to make you sound innocent. But the manager will come before the cops arrive, flush the dope down the toilet, give the girl cab fare home and wipe the prints off the gun.”
In my father’s day, a manager’s role was one of classic enabling. The motto was, “Give the client what he wants,” and if what the client wanted was to shoot heroin into his eyeballs, then the manager’s job was to fetch the needle. This is an exaggeration, of course, but not by much. Some managers have such a symbiotic relationship with their longtime clients that they don’t just look the other way when it comes to their clients’ drug use, they’re direct participants — if not the suppliers — and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever suggest rehab.
Another factor is wanting to preserve the romantic image of the out-of-control “mad artist.” But of course they’re crazy, they can’t possibly be expected to conform to the norms of society. Besides, they can’t really be sick if they’re still working. If you go to rehab or AA, then you’re saying you actually are an alcoholic or drug addict. The client can be drunk, stoned, pass out in public, get arrested, wake up in the hospital — but these things can be explained away to preserve the celebrity’s unreal image of perfection. Stars get hospitalized for things like “exhaustion” or “dehydration,” as if all luxury hotels and private jets ran out of beds and bottled water.
I do think the new generation of representatives is starting to abandon the archaic concept of “image at all costs” in the name of sanity and preservation of life. There clearly are managers who grasp this concept. The case of Demi Lovato stands out. She and her people, including the folks at Disney, were very public about her seeking professional help for both eating disorders and cutting — which not only helped Lovato but likely many of her teenage fans as well.
Which brings us to another issue: Not all of this “acting out” is necessarily drug- or alcohol-related. Sometimes, what we’re seeing is a severe reaction to trauma or PTSD. Young celebrities are not immune to the risks of physical and sexual abuse. Often their risk is greater. And sadly, managers, parents and producers are only too happy to cover up these uncomfortable situations as well.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There are a lot more places for a young artist to turn to for help now than there were in my day: The Screen Actors Guild has the Looking Ahead program that helps young artists with the transition to adulthood. Former child actor Paul Petersen, of The Donna Reed Show, runs an organization called A Minor Consideration that offers support and assistance to young performers and their families.
Whether it’s drugs, booze or abuse-related trauma, it pretty much comes down to the same thing: Deal with it now, or deal with it later. And if your team advises later, get a new team.
Arngrim starred as Nellie Oleson in Little House on the Prairie for nine years.
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