Being a Disney Channel star is the dream for many young actors. You become an idol to kids everywhere, fame and fortune knocks at your door, and you will forever be associated with one of entertainment’s most enduring brands. But what if the reality of working for Disney isn’t as fun as it looks? Over the years, many former child stars have opened up about the pressures of trying to follow the House of Mouse’s strict rules and attempting to live up to the perfect, family-friendly image that it loves to promote.
1. Jenna Ortega
Wednesday star Jenna Ortega is a huge name these days, but when she started out as a child actress in the Disney Channel show Stuck in the Middle, her lack of social media presence was seemingly an issue for the House of Mouse.
“When I first started acting, it was told to me by my first agency that I had to have a public platform,” Ortega revealed durning an Actors on Actors conversation hosted by Variety. “When I did television shows when I was younger, they’d take us to media training, or they would call it Disney 101.”
You must post three times a day on social media
Ortega continued, “They would say, ‘Okay, you’re gonna post three times a day. This is how you get the most engagement. This is how you get likes. This is how you build followers. Download these apps as well. Promote our show.’
So, you know it became a business. I would go into some sort of audition or meeting, and it was, ‘How many followers do you have?’” Forcing a child to focus so much on building her brand might sound problematic to many, but it’s clearly something that works for Disney, so it will probably keep doing it.
2. Dove Cameron
The image of Dove Cameron presented in her Disney Channel efforts Liv and Maddie and Descendants is a far cry from reality, but she would argue that’s how Disney wanted it. In 2022 she released a single which took YouTube and Spotify by storm.
Fans especially enjoyed the queer anthem’s ironic title. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I really wanted to call it ‘Boyfriend’ because I’m very aware — painfully aware — of the sort of concoction of who I am in the public eye.”
You have to fit into the Disney mold
Cameron continued, “People are like, ‘But you were blonde, and you were dating men and you were on the Disney Channel.’ Yes, but there were always so many more dimensions. It’s just that the space I was in would never have allowed me to express those dimensions.”
She added, “Arriving at the person I am now; I’m relaxing into the freedom to poke fun at who people think I am.” Of her time at Disney, she added, “I was always the strange outlier who doesn’t belong and who will never fit in.”
3. The Jonas Brothers
Nick, Joe, and Kevin Jonas rose to fame on their Disney Channel show Jonas, which fictionalized their status as real-life brothers in a band. In 2013 Joe told Vulture that Disney always wanted the guys to look as young as possible, revealing, “I had to shave every day because they wanted me to pretend like I was 16 when I was 20.
“When the show was done, I cut my hair off and grew as much of a beard as I could!” They did what the studio wanted, though, as they were scared everything could be taken away in an instant.
You must abide by Disney’s media training rules
Joe was also brutally honest about the contrivances of Disney’s strict media-training tactics. He admitted, “They’d teach you how to change the subject, whenever you were asked an uncomfortable question, by saying something like, ‘Oh, that reminds me of my dog! I have a great story about my dog!
“Playing dumb is the best way of getting out of anything.” The boys also strategized over who would answer which questions: Nick was best with serious stuff; Kevin fielded the fun things; and Nick and Joe would talk about their music.
4. Ashley Tisdale
To be a Disney star, you have to be comfortable with rejection — even if you’re a child. Ashley Tisdale told Buzzfeed that before she landed her iconic role as Sharpay in High School Musical, she had been a regular auditioner for the House of Mouse.
She revealed, “I auditioned for a lot of Disney movies. One of them was Zenon, one with Shia LaBeouf… I can't remember what it was called, but it was a really serious one. I just would always be like the last two and I would never get it.”
Even kids are put through grueling auditions
Naturally, this upset the young actress, and she admitted, “I was so bummed out about it, that I didn't even audition for Disney for a long time after that.” Putting kids through such a potentially damaging process for their self-esteem seems cruel — but Tisdale at least found her happy ending.
She smiled, “Then, to get the High School Musical movie — I mean out of all of them, I’m so glad I got that one. That was like the best experience. So, you gotta keep going.”
5. Olivia Rodrigo
Before Olivia Rodrigo became one of the biggest names in pop, she was a Disney Channel star thanks to her appearances in Bizaardvark and the hilariously named High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
In 2021 she admitted to GQ magazine that she had struggled with Disney’s rules on personal branding, though. She described being a bemused teen sitting in rooms with grown adults asking her to define her brand, which made little sense to her then as she didn’t even truly know who she was as a person yet.
Cultivating a specific image is everything
“It was not fun,” confessed Rodrigo. “I just remember being 14 years old and being like, ‘I literally have no idea who I am. I don’t know what my personal style is. I don't know what I like. I don’t know who my true friends are. How am I expected to cultivate an image?’ That was always hard for me.”
She added, “As a young girl, that was really daunting to me. I felt like if it wasn't able to be seen by other people and it wasn't consumable over the internet or over other mediums, then it wasn't worthwhile.”
6. Coco Jones
Becoming a Disney star as a kid involves allowing yourself to be molded into the corporation’s very specific idea of an all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting entertainment triple threat. If you don’t agree to everything it wants, or simply struggle to adapt to its demands, it can all be taken away in an instant.
Just ask Coco Jones, who at one point starred in the movie Let It Shine, was slated to star in her own show, and was signed up by Disney subsidiary Hollywood Records. In the end, though, the show and record deal fell through.
Don’t be “too much”
When the idea of Jones’ own show was axed, Disney seemingly didn’t know what to do with her. “The record label only knew how to market through TV shows, so trying to figure out how to market me, a black girl who already didn’t fit into these formulas, it all just started to deteriorate,” she explained to Vogue in March 2023.
“It was just shocking, I thought so many things were going to happen,” Jones went on. “When I did put my personality in songs, I’d have to dial it back because it was ‘too much.’ I was acting like a singer, singing songs that I didn’t really like.”
7. Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato rose to prominence in Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance before going on to conquer the music world with hits like “Skyscraper” and “Sorry Not Sorry.” The singer has been very open about the struggles she’s faced on her journey to fame, including an eating disorder she battled with during her time on the Disney Channel. But it was a hard choice to go public about it.
In late 2010 Lovato sought treatment, and when she came out of rehab, she was faced with whether or not to go public about her struggles. She claimed that Disney, unfortunately, wasn’t supportive.
You must keep personal problems to yourself
In 2020 Lovato told Bustle, “I came out of the experience with the choice of talking about my struggles or my journey with the possibility of helping people, or keeping my mouth shut and going back to Disney Channel.”
“And I was like, ‘That doesn't feel authentic to me.’ So, I chose to tell my story.” The implication that Lovato wouldn’t be able to work with Disney anymore if she told the world about her problems is sad — but not exactly hard to believe.
8. Christy Carlson Romano
Apparently, signing a contract with Disney comes with a lot of restrictions on what you can and cannot do in your personal life. Christy Carlson Romano, who played Ren on Even Stevens, says that she would be willing to work with Disney again as an adult — only if it was more on her own terms than it had been when she was a kid.
Romano explained on YouTube in 2021, “They want me to, kind of, audition for stuff, and I’m not necessarily old enough to be, like, the mom of a 12-year-old. I totally get that, and I’ve talked to casting about it, and I’ve been like, ‘Okay, guys, where can you fit me in? Where can I become part of the family again?’”
You can’t go surfing or rollerblade
According to Romano, the list of activities she was banned from doing when she worked with Disney was extensive, and it’s understandable that it would make her think twice about working there again.“Basically you can’t do anything that will make you uninsurable,” she explained.
“You can’t go surfing, you can’t rollerblade, you can’t do high impact sports, you can’t do team sports. You can’t do certain things, unless the executives… have to really evaluate it case by case.”
9. The Sprouse twins
Cole and Dylan Sprouse were Disney superstars when they starred in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and its spin-off The Suite Life on Deck. It seemed like the world was the twins’ oyster — but then they quit the show in 2011 and seemed to leave show biz altogether; they enrolled at New York University, studying photography and video game design, respectively.
What caused them to throw away that Disney life? Well, apparently they didn’t see eye to eye with Disney when it came to making creative decisions. They’ve claimed that the House of Mouse would stifle their creativity and refuse to trust their opinions on the show or their characters.
Disney has creative control, not you
In 2017 Dylan told Vulture, “I mean, we had a really awesome idea for where the show needed to go. We were 18. If that isn’t old enough to know exactly what the show needs, then…well, I would beg to disagree. I don’t think… [Disney was] willing to work with us, really ever. So, we stopped the show.”
The actor even drew a comparison to the Jonas Brothers — who also complained of lacking creative control over their show — by saying, “If they wanted to, they could have told Disney, ‘No.’ Cole and I did this hundreds of times and we ended up alright.”
10. Vanessa Hudgens
If you’re a Disney star and — through no fault of your own — you violate their strict morality code, you might not receive much support. Just ask Vanessa Hudgens, who was seemingly hung out to dry by the company in 2007 when private nude photos of her were maliciously leaked on the internet.
Hudgens was blamed in the media for taking the photos in the first place, while Disney allegedly required her to issue a public apology, rather than condemn the hacker who had leaked the pictures.
You may be on your own if a scandal develops
In 2020 Hudgens told Cosmopolitan magazine, “It was a really traumatizing thing for me. It’s really… [messed] up that people feel like they are entitled enough to share something that personal with the world. As an actor, you completely lose all grip of your own privacy, and it’s really sad.”
The actress added, “It feels like that shouldn’t be the case, but unfortunately if enough people are interested, they’re going to do everything they can to get to know as much about you as they can.”
11. Rowan Blanchard
When Rowan Blanchard starred on the Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World, she didn’t exactly conform to what was expected of a Disney princess. She was outspoken on her social media platforms about intersectional feminism, racism, and economic disparity, among many more social and political topics.
She told W magazine that, while nobody from the company directly had told her to stop promoting her activism “the subtext is always there.” She explained, “I worked for a corporation for four years that is known for silencing and crafting your voice.”
Your voice will likely be silenced
Overall, a corporate behemoth such as Disney is not inclined to like its stars talking about potentially divisive topics in the public arena. Perhaps this is why Blanchard wasn’t too broken up when her show was canceled?
The actress told Nylon magazine, “I feel good about it now in the sense that, as much as I loved my Girl Meets World family, working for the Disney Channel is stressful, and I have more freedom to do what I want and talk about what I want without feeling inhibited.”
12. Bella Thorne
During an appearance on Emily Ratajkowski’s podcast, Shake It Up star Bella Thorne revealed she had almost lost her Disney Channel job when she was just 14 for wearing a bikini at the beach!
She explained, “This stylist that I was hanging out with put this chain on me that’s, like, a body chain…There was a fan, they got a photo of me on the beach. I almost got fired. It was all over the media, it was literally viral in that time. It was, ‘How dare this little girl do this? This is so disgusting.’”
You must promote a virtuous image at all times
Thorne claimed certain parts of the media put pressure on Disney to fire her for violating the wholesome image its actors should always promote, but it didn’t cave in to those demands.
Rather, her bosses had said, “Hey, we’re getting a lot of heat for this. Everyone’s getting heat for this because you’re in a bikini on a beach, so she needs to make sure she goes out in boy shorts and a loose T-shirt next time she’s at the beach.” While they didn’t fire her, at least, it’s not exactly the most enlightened response, either.
13. Zac Efron
For Zac Efron, shooting to fame as the mop-haired pretty boy star of High School Musical wasn’t necessarily a life he had wanted. He became caught up in the family-friendly Disney machine and saw his face plastered on posters on the walls of every teenage girl in America.
But as soon as he could, he tried desperately to take his career in other directions. In 2016 he told Men’s Health magazine, “I was, like, 17. And I said, ‘Guys, you know this is not at all what I want to do?’ And they were like, ‘Really?’”
The squeaky-clean Disney persona will stick with you
Unfortunately, Efron’s Disney Channel past really did affect how people in the industry viewed him. When he met Seth Rogen about potentially starring in foul-mouthed comedy Neighbors, Efron admitted, “I said, ‘I know what you think of me.
“‘I know because I don’t like me, so I can’t imagine what you think.’” Rogen had confirmed his suspicions were correct, saying, “For sure, I assumed he’d be a guy I wouldn’t like very much. But he was very self-effacing and self-deprecating, and I remember really liking him.”
Maintaining a family-friendly image is a prerequisite of any Disney star. Sadly, fear that she could jeopardize this image by revealing she was a lesbian caused Raven- Symoné to keep her sexuality secret for years.
The That’s So Raven star finally came out in 2013, six years after her uber-popular Disney Channel show had ended. In YouTube LGBT testimonial It Got Better, she revealed, “If I did whatever I want, it’s not gonna sell. It doesn’t go with the brand. I was branded at such a young age.”
You may feel like you can’t be honest about your sexuality
Symoné continued, “I didn't want to tell my parents. I had the number-one show on Disney. I had multiple albums. I'd been on tour with *NSYNC. I never thought I would come out, because my personal life didn't matter.”
Being afraid to disappoint her corporate overlords actually led to Symoné dating boys in her teen years, even though she later admitted she’d known she was queer from the age of 12. It was only after leaving Hollywood behind for a period to go to college that she finally embraced her true self.
15. Stefanie Scott
Starring on A.N.T. Farm may have made Stefanie Scott a household name, but as soon as the show ended, she left the Disney bubble and didn’t look back. She wanted to play more realistic, damaged characters, which very much isn’t what the sort of material Disney delivers.
She told Buzzfeed News, “It was hard being a pre-teen and having to sugarcoat everything all the time… It’s kind of hard after a while when you are feeling things and having a rough time in your personal life, and you can't express your emotions through your work.”
You will only play certain kinds of characters at Disney
As other stars have found, though, leaving the bubble is one thing, but changing the way people see you is another. Scott admitted, “If you've been on a Disney show, people target you as being the ‘sitcom funny girl’ who can't take herself seriously and doesn't really have true emotions because they have to be perfect and pure.”
She was determined not to simply sexualize herself either, as other former Disney stars had done. A lead role in horror sequel Insidious: Chapter 3 helped her forge her own path.
16. Shia LaBeouf
It’s long been common for Disney Channel stars to be both actors and pop stars; the company unsuccessfully tried to encourage that career path with Shia LaBeouf too! The Transformers star first came to fame as a youngster in Even Stevens.
In 2007 he was asked by MTV News whether he had ever looked at himself as a potential pop idol. He replied, “No, I went a whole different route. I never came out with a music thing, even though [Disney will attempt to] push you that way.”
The company will likely push you toward music
LaBeouf continued, “I didn't just want to be a churn-'em-out guy. I never really felt like I fit in there. From the moment I got there, all my friends were like, ‘Dude, you're at the Disney Channel!’ It was kind of embarrassing.”
By the time he had turned 16 he wanted to hone his acting craft by choosing challenging projects like The Battle of Shaker Heights instead of Disney fare. He chuckled, “People realized I wasn't going to be coming out with a Kwanzaa album!”
17. Miley Cyrus
Disney expects its stars to maintain a squeaky clean image at all times, and Miley Cyrus fell afoul of this in 2008. Then aged 15 years old, the Hannah Montana star did a Vanity Fair profile and a picture of her wearing only red lipstick and a sheet made the cover.
The New York Post slammed the photo in a front-page article headlined, “Miley's Shame. Here's wholesome Hannah Montana as you never expected to see her.” Disney responded, “Unfortunately, as the article suggests, a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines.”
You may be forced to publicly apologize for going against the Disney image
The corporation reportedly even demanded Cyrus issued an apology to her fans, claiming she had been “embarrassed” about the photo shoot. Ten years later, though — and away from the Disney machine — Cyrus had tweeted that she hadn’t been sorry at all, and in 2023 she doubled down in a TikTok video.
In the footage she reveals the shoot had been deliberately intended to separate her from the cookie-cutter persona Disney had crafted for her, and these days she looks back upon it as a brilliant decision from her make-up artist and legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz.
18. Meaghan Martin
Camp Rock star Meaghan Martin told news website The Independent that she had come to prominence at a time when purity rings were becoming a big thing in U.S. culture. Moral Majority, an evangelical Christian group, was pushing for schools to preach abstinence to teens instead of educating them about sex.
Some Disney Channel stars, like the Jonas Brothers, were wearing purity rings to show they were saving themselves for marriage. Naturally, this nicely dovetailed with Disney’s family-friendly image, so the company was happy for many of its stars to follow the Jonas Brothers’ example.
Disney may tacitly promote evangelical moral standards
Martin revealed, “I was 15 when those questions started: ‘Do you wear a purity ring?’ It was essentially asking whether you were a virgin or not! It’s problematic on so many levels.” She claimed that Disney’s public relations team never discouraged the press from this line of inquiry, even though it made her uncomfortable.
Martin explained, “The publicists who were provided never said, ‘Can you not ask that question?’” She was also asked to describe her “dream man,” which sent very mixed signals to the impressionable young girl.
19. Alyson Stoner
The Suite Life of Zack & Cody star Alyson Stoner worked on a lot of Disney Channel projects as a kid, but she had to go through a grueling audition process for each and every one of them. She told The Night Time Show podcast, “The assumption is that once you're in with Disney, you’re in.
“But I still auditioned for every single thing I got with them. In fact, I was still sent on first calls with people who had never been on an audition in their lives, up until the end. Which was, you know, kind of frustrating.”
You will have to work for every single thing you get
While it’s unclear whether this edict applied to all Disney stars, Stoner certainly knew it was a rule that applied to her. Some may simply see it as the House of Mouse playing fair with its actors, but it’s also understandable why it became disheartening for Stoner.
She reasoned, “I was grateful, but then I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been on 12 shows for you and I’m coming in here auditioning for three different roles and not getting any of them and it’s almost like you don’t know who I am or what I’m capable of.’”
20. Selena Gomez
Disney’s strict edict that all its stars must project a morally upstanding, virtuous image at all times can become a huge burden, especially as these stars get older and want to spread their wings.
Of this period in her development, Wizards of Waverly Place star Selena Gomez told The New York Times, “I’m growing and changing. I was in a relationship, and I was being managed by my parents, and I was still under Hollywood and Disney, and I was being held to this expectation of being the good girl.”
Living up to Disney’s moral standard is often unrealistic
Instead of rebelling against the rules with a sexy photoshoot, though, Gomez had tried to live up to the image — and it wasn’t good for her mental health. In 2021 she told Beauty Inc. magazine, “There was this immense amount of pressure I had growing up that I felt like I needed to be a good role model.
“And then I felt like maybe that was just unrealistic, and my life became very public really quickly, and I didn't know that I was going through my own journey with mental health at the time.”