Along with most of Disney's other major enterprises, Disney Channel has always managed to be a defining piece of nostalgic glory for so many of us. Who could forget the days of Lizzie McGuire demanding a bra? Or, Ren and Louis singing about gym and influenza? Or, perhaps most memorable of all, those brilliant cast renditions of classic Disney songs?
Many of these stars have grown up to go on to lucrative careers in entertainment, and some have even spoken out about how their lives on the Disney Channel affected them for the long haul.
Here are 10 Disney stars who opened up about what it was really like behind the scenes of some of your favorite childhood shows.
1. Miley Cyrus
She may be known as a provocative pop star these days, but it's hard to forget that Miley got her start on one of Disney's most successful sitcoms, Hannah Montana. Now that she's achieved transitioning from child star to mature entertainer, she's gotten real about what life was like playing the fictional pop star.
"From the time I was 11 it was, 'You're a pop star! That means you have to be blonde, and you have to have long hair, and you have to put on some glittery tight thing. "[I] was made to look like someone that I wasn't...Meanwhile, I'm this fragile little girl playing a 16-year-old in a wig and a ton of makeup. It was like Toddlers & Tiaras. I had f---ing flippers [or fake teeth]."
She also admitted to working 12-hour days and potentially developing "body dysmorphia" as a result of playing her alter ego for so long.
2. Selena Gomez
Like Miley, Selena Gomez has rocketed to superstardom over the past couple of years by landing major starring roles (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) and releasing hit records. When asked about her time on Disney Channel, playing the main character of Wizards of Waverly Place, Selena looks back at the experience with a a mix of emotions.
"It was a blessing. it was beautiful and tragic. It was everything that every teen goes through, just on a bigger scale. It literally was like high school."
Journalists prodded her even more about shedding her Disney roots when she starred in Harmony Korine's dizzying drama Spring Breakers, and she admits that being on such a sanitized show made her pursue more unexpected roles:
"Disney is a machine, and I’m grateful for it, but I feel like being part of that environment made me crave the reaction from other projects even more. Creatively this is where I wanted to go."
3. Joe Jonas
Out of all the former Disney stars, Joe Jonas penned the longest and most elucidating response to living life in that very specific bubble. He talked about everything from smoking weed for the first time with Miley to forcing a relationship with Demi Lovato for the sake of the fans and his brand.
Mostly, he talked about the pressure he felt working as one of the faces of the Disney empire and the feeling that he just couldn't mess up.
Being a part of a company like that comes with certain expectations. Not overtly, but there was a subtle vibe. We were working with Disney in 2007 when the Vanessa Hudgens nude-photo scandal happened. We heard that she had to be in the Disney offices for a whole day because they were trying to figure out how to keep her on lockdown. We'd hear execs talking about it, and they would tell us that they were so proud of us for not making the same mistakes, which made us feel like we couldn't ever mess up. We didn't want to disappoint anyone—our parents, our fans, our employers—so we put incredible pressure on ourselves, the kind of pressure that no teenager should be under.
This is just a small excerpt from his 2013 essay from New York Magazine (now available in full on Vulture), and not everyone stands by his account.
4. Dylan Sprouse
In response to Joe Jonas, Dylan Sprouse of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody fame had this to say on his personal Tumblr:
"First, I think it’s bullshit that they were being robbed of choice or creativity. If they wanted too, they could have told Disney “NO”. Cole and I did this hundreds of times and we ended up all right. The only reason they didn’t is because, like many of the people on that channel, I think they fell for the allure of fame. Granted, Cole and I had been acting our entire lives, so we saw it as a means to an end (money making) rather than an opportunity to become successful."
In Dylan's view, many of his fellow stars got caught up thinking that Disney would call all the shots, and that would result in instant, long-lasting fame. It sounds like the Sprouse twins had a little more creative control over their show and really benefitted from their time on the small screen.
5. Hilary Duff
During an interview with Pride Source, Hilary Duff discussed how it was "torturous" to try to break out of the shadow of Lizzie McGuire. People associated her with the relatable character for years after the show went off the air, leading her to take a break from show business for a bit (she's now back with the hit show Younger).
"I don't think during the filming it was torturous. I loved it during the filming. I just didn't know what a success the show was gonna be, and after that - four years, five years after that - and I was still Lizzie McGuire to people and that was super annoying. Now it's not. I don't care now. I'm grateful for it."
From my perspective, I love that Hilary is able to be pretty honest about how Lizzie McGuire affected her without forgetting how much it helped her. Without that little animated girl on her shoulder, I don't think she would have anything close to the amount of success she enjoys today.
6. Demi Lovato
According to Demi's interview with Allure Magazine, Disney asked her to fix the gap in her teeth when she was filming Camp Rock, a cosmetic procedure she now wishes she hadn't gone through.
"I signed with Disney Channel when I got Camp Rock, and I had a gap between my two front teeth. They were like, 'Would you be willing to fix it?' I wish today that I hadn't, because my gap was really cute."
7. Vanessa Hudgens
Like Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens joined the cast of Spring Breakers to shatter the image of the cute, wholesome Gabriella that so many of us remember from High School Musical. The fear of getting pigeonholed in that type of role (as so many Disney stars do) made her want to provoke audiences.
“I want people to look at me not as that girl from ‘High School Musical,’ but as an actress they admire. With ‘Spring Breakers’ I’m looking for a reaction for sure. I want to shock people.”
One of the more recent newcomers to Disney stardom, Zendaya starred in two big shows, Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. In an interview with Yahoo, She reiterated Dylan Sprouse's point that if you have a strong point of view, Disney is absolutely willing to work with their young stars to create the best product.
"I can say what I want and be assertive. I can have a really, really strong voice and presence on my own show and be listened to. That's the coolest part. I have more control; I have more freedom to make [K.C. Undercover] something that I'm proud of."
9. Bella Thorne
Zendaya's co-star on Shake It Up, Bella Thorne felt like her time on Disney Channel encouraged too much competition between the two leads at a time when they were two young girls trying to find their place in the business. She claims the pair wanted to be friends but were frequently pitted against each other.
"Zendaya and I were put in a very unfortunate position where we were kind of forced to compete against each other [during Shake It Up], which made the whole first season of the show just very awkward for us. We wanted to love each other, but yet we were constantly being put against each other. It was, 'Who's better at this?' and 'Who's better at that?'"
I wonder if part of this struggle is just being young in an industry that will always hierarchize people. Many parts of an appearance-driven field would be difficult for any kid.
10. Shia LaBeouf
In an interview with MTV, Shia LaBeouf admitted he was embarrassed by being on Disney Channel, specifically the fact that the higher-ups would push their stars to start singing careers. Because of this apprehension and his lack of vocal talent, Shia actively avoided the typical Disney route, and it definitely seems to have worked out for him.
"I went a whole different route. I never came out with a music thing, even though [Disney will] push you that way...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 [making fun of me], like, “Dude, you’re at the Disney Channel!” It was kind of embarrassing."
Overall, it seems like there's no "one size fits all" experience on the Disney Channel, but considering these actors/singers are still managing successful careers, the House of Mouse still appears to be a good starting ground for young stars.