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When I was interviewing at Teen Vogue five years ago, the rumor was you had to be a Twilight fan to get the job. Back then, it was the billion-dollar box office franchise that defined the emerging power of Young Hollywood. Kristen Stewart, pre-feminist Emma Watson — these were the poster children for success — not because of what they cared about in real life or who they wanted you to vote for but because they fit Hollywood’s cookie-cutter image of the time. They landed the big-budget roles, hit the right red carpets, had access to the right stylists and didn’t say things that pissed off their impressionable fan base or their parents — at least not in public. In those days, when a teen star made headlines outside the confines of her role, it was salacious, troubling and, in many cases, career-threatening. Think Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and the Kristen Stewart circa Twilight-sex-scandal.
Now, a new cast of young, outspoken luminaries is flipping the script on the industry’s old-school power structure and giving new meaning to the role of an influencer. Stars like Amandla Stenberg, Rowan Blanchard and Yara Shahidi, once defined by the visibility of their onscreen projects, now lead a new class of savvy, socially conscious thought leaders whose political and cultural views lend to their projects a uniquely valuable social currency. Today, it seems, what a young celebrity stands for in real life is as important as her role onscreen — if not more.
What led to this toppling of convention? One unlikely tipping point: Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking phase. Cyrus was the Madonna of the 20-tweens. Her gyrating posterior, her misguided politics and, well, her ever-present tongue represented a jarring rebellion that parents weren’t quite ready for but was the exact jolt of independence that American youth were craving. To some, her antics reeked of post-Disney, post-adolescent attention-seeking; a cry for a new, grown-up identity. To her fans, it signaled the necessary dismantling of a system that told us pretty could only look a certain way and that only well-behaved girls can win. In her radical defilement of convention, Cyrus managed to claim a new kind of credibility with an audience that craved authenticity over perfection.
In 2014, she founded The Happy Hippie Foundation, which set out to support homeless and LGBTQ youth. To bring awareness to her cause, she walked the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards that year with Jesse Helt, a homeless teen, and had him accept her VMA on her behalf. Since then, more socially minded stars have emerged. Zendaya’s perfectly worded clapback to Giuliana Rancic’s disparaging remarks (linking the Disney star’s Oscar locks to marijuana) back in 2015 will go down in history as forever shifting the mainstream conversation around black hair. Shahidi has leveraged her character on ABC’s Black-ish to address police brutality and to frequently campaign for girls in STEM. And Stenberg, who is now headlining three heavily anticipated film projects, rose from Hunger Games child star to millennial thought leader after her viral 2015 Tumblr post schooled the world on cultural appropriation.
This doesn’t mean fame is a free ride for anyone with an opinion to share. Practicing free speech on an open platform is a perilous path for any public figure, and there are no get-out-of-jail free passes in the court of public opinion. (Case in point: Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi debacle.) The rules are still being written on leveraging your visibility in Hollywood to elevate issues of importance without sacrificing your career. But at a time when everything is politicized, the largest threat to a budding star today may be the paralyzing fear of not saying anything at all. There will always be a measure of calculated risk-taking in manufacturing fame, especially in a deeply divided political climate. The difference now is — thanks to social media — the star is calculating those risks for herself.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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