Film and TV

Jonathan Brandis: How life after teen stardom can take a wrong turn

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Brandis in Ladybugs
Then add in the middle-school preference for boys who look soft: big eyes, round cheeks, full lips, thick hair. Muscles and chest fur are scary -- tweens favor male stars who look like their idea of a hot date is a milkshake and a cuddle. The No. 1 insult boys in my eighth grade had for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin, Edward Furlong and, yes, Jonathan Brandis was, "He looks like a girl." Which was especially hard to deny when Brandis came to fame playing a soccer star who dressed in drag and called himself Martha.

See also: How River Phoenix Inspired a Generation

How many of those teen heartthrobs transitioned into adult stars? One. DiCaprio acknowledged the cull in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. "My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose," he said. The suicide is Brandis. The OD could have been any one of several.

Four thousand fan letters every week aside, it's tough being a girly-looking guy with your face all over the newsstands, even if the articles themselves are nice. For one, your face probably won't age into something masculine enough to play adult roles and action heroes -- even DiCaprio has had to disguise his soft features with a thick layer of fat. Worse, teen girls are fickle. When they get a new crush, those letters stop.

"When you've been on covers of magazines for years, when that stops happening, what's your identity?" Tatyana Ali, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star and Brandis' ex-girlfriend, explained in an interview about his death. At least young actresses who never experience that Tiger Beat fan frenzy don't have to surf its sudden dropoff. More of them survive: Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Williams, Dakota Fanning, Christina Applegate, Claire Danes.

Girls, of course, have their own problems: the intense media fascination with their weight and virginity, the dulling de rigueur "naughty" phase. As a culture, we need to stop caring if our teen actresses have sex. Let's start caring about if they -- and their male co-stars -- are happy.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.