Being a teen idol is exhilarating. You’re on top of the world, maybe on the cover of Teen Beat or Tiger Beat, selling lots of albums, or in hit movies. But teen idoldom has plenty of drawbacks: being young, these stars are often unable to comprehend the consequences of any missteps — and their mistakes play out on the world stage. Idols may have to cope with the short-lived nature of stardom, and some find that their careers introduced them to demons they were never able to shake. Here’s a look at seven teen idols of the past decades, the lows they experienced and what was waiting for them on the other side.
David Cassidy came to fame at age 20 as a member of the Partridge Family, a 1970s television show that produced songs like “I Think I Love You.” Thanks to the series, he launched an incredible solo career. During “Cassidymania,” Cassidy’s fan base, mostly made up of girls in their early teens or preteens, was so adoring that he was sometimes smuggled into his own concerts, (A security letdown at a Cleveland event resulted in him having to crawl to escape his fans!) At a London concert in 1974, a crowd surge resulted in the death of a 14-year-old girl. It could have made Cassidy quit if he — worn out by a demanding schedule and the unceasing attention — hadn’t already decided to do so.
Cassidy returned to performing a few years later. He made music and appeared on stage and TV, but never reached the same level of success. And alcohol became a problem: he was arrested for drunk driving in 2010, 2013 and 2014, and went to rehab in 2014. In February 2017, after he forgot the words to a song during a performance, it came out that he had dementia, like his mother and grandfather. He was 67 when he died of liver and kidney failure in November of that year. His daughter, Katie Cassidy, tweeted that his last words were, “So much wasted time.”
In the late 1970s, some execs decided to make Leif Garrett — who’d been working as an actor — a singer thanks to his strong appeal to teen girls. His new career included a big hit in the disco single “I Was Made for Dancing.” But Garrett didn’t like the style of music that he was working on. With no ability to branch out into the rock he preferred, he became depressed, and sought an escape via drugs and partying. Then, after taking Quaaludes and drinking, he crashed his Porsche in November 1979. His passenger, a friend, was left paralyzed.
Garrett was under 18 at the time of the accident and received probation. But the guilt and upset affected the rest of his life. He followed a path from coke and pills to opium, and eventually ended up on heroin. Garrett’s career also declined. A 1999 Behind the Music special was his most successful appearance onscreen – he reunited with and apologized to his injured friend on the program. Though he tried to restart his career after Behind the Music, it was the cycle of arrests, stays in rehab and relapses that brought Garrett more attention in the 2000s.
By 2006, Britney Spears — whose music career took off when the single “…Baby One More Time” became a hit in 1999 — had sold millions of albums and reached the teen idol pantheon. Then, after the breakdown of her marriage to Kevin Federline, she began partying with people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, and became an object of even more focused tabloid fascination. After a couple of brief attempts at rehab, 2007 saw Spears in a complete meltdown: from shaving her head in February to attacking a photographer’s car with an umbrella to an embarrassingly bad performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in September.
By 2008, Federline had won custody of their two sons, upsetting Spears. In January 2008, she was twice taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. On the latter visit, she was kept on an involuntary psychiatric 5150 hold. Due to her alleged substance abuse and an undisclosed mental illness, she was placed under a conservatorship later that year, basically meaning that her father and a lawyer were given control of her estate and finances. Today the conservatorship is ongoing, and Spears has managed to rebuild her life. She shares custody of her sons with her ex, put on a well-received show in Las Vegas and even impressed viewers with another performance at the VMAs.
At the age of 11, Lindsay Lohan was cast in the movie Parent Trap (1998), which made her a young star. Her winning streak continued in films like Freaky Friday (2003) and Mean Girls (2004). Lohan seemed on the cusp of transitioning to stardom as an adult — but then her partying got out of control. With no one to set limits — her father, with whom she had an uneasy relationship, had a history of legal troubles; her mother, who’d worked as Lohan’s manager, rarely said “no” to her daughter — she became tabloid fodder.
The paparazzi, of course, was there to capture all of Lohan’s nightlife exploits. They were also there in 2007 when she made an initial attempt of rehab (one of many), and faced the first of what would be multiple arrests. By 2012, she’d been charged with DUIs, reckless driving, a hit-and-run and theft, and had gone to jail several times. Having been chewed out by film productions for not showing up to work, she was rendered uninsurable and pretty much unemployable. Lohan still attracts public attention, but her career has never recovered.
Corey Haim was a talented child actor who became a teen idol in the 1980s, thanks to roles in movies like Lucas, The Lost Boys and License to Drive. The latter two films was made with friend and fellow star Corey Feldman, during a period when they became known as The Coreys.” Haim was sexually assaulted when he was around 14, something he revealed years later. He was scarred by the experience, in part blaming himself; it was likely a contributing factor in his drug use and addiction issues.
Years after Haim had aged out of the cuteness that had enthralled teenage girls, he tried to revisit past glories with the 2007 reality show The Two Coreys, made along with Feldman. The series also revealed his ongoing substance abuse issues. Haim died in 2010, at the age of 38. His death initially appeared to be a drug overdose — he was found to have a stash of illegally obtained prescription pills — but was actually the result of pneumonia.
As he went from child actor to teen idol via appearances in 1980s movies such as Gremlins, Stand by Me and The Goonies, Corey Feldman lacked family support. In his 2013 autobiography, Coreyography, he shared that his mother had forced him to take diet pills to keep his weight down. Feldman has also revealed that he was molested by some of the men around him in his career. In an attempt to self-medicate, he used drugs and alcohol, eventually turning to heroin. Fortunately, rehab worked for him in the 1990s.
Feldman has spoken out about the abuse he suffered, though attempts at crowd-funding a film about pedophiles in Hollywood fell short. The Los Angeles Police Department decided in 2017 that any crimes committed against Feldman fell outside the statute of limitations and closed its investigation. Feldman has not publicly named all of the powerful abusers he claims to be aware of, citing the need to protect his family.
Frankie Lymon, a teen idol in the 1950s, demonstrates that young stars share similar problems, no matter what the generation. Lymon went from vocalizing with others on street corners in Harlem to landing a record contract at age 13. His group, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, had a hit with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (1956), which featured Lymon’s soprano. In addition to hit records, the group toured and appeared on TV.
When Lymon split from the group to pursue a solo career, he didn’t have the same kind of success – his voice changing made things more difficult. And though he was a teenager when he’d started, he’d lived an adult’s life on the road — getting involved with older women and taking drugs and became a heroin addict. He relapsed after a stint in rehab in 1960, then tried to get sober again in 1966. In the January 1967 issue of Ebony, Lymon shared his hopes for a comeback, but he died of an overdose in February 1968.
A+E’s two-hour Biography documentary special, ‘David Cassidy: The Last Session,’ premieres on June 11th at 9pm EST.