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Today's Christian, January/February 2007

Grounded in Faith
Who says child stars can't survive in Hollywood? Aly and AJ Michalka and other teen siblings are shining brightly for God—and remembering it's better to give than receive.
By Dan Ewald

Grounded in Faith
Aly and AJ Michalka
Photo: Dean Kiefer

The entertainment industry has a reputation of being cruel to its young celebrities. Drug addiction, eating disorders, and a host of other dysfunctions plague many of the most famous child stars—and the tabloids and showbiz programs regularly profile those former cute child stars now battling physical and emotional demons as adults.

But two unique sets of siblings are debunking the idea that every child star faces a bleak future. Jenna and Cayden Boyd (two up-and-coming TV and film actors) and Aly and AJ Michalka (rising pop musicians as well as popular actors on the Disney Channel) are thriving in Hollywood's glaring spotlight.

Both sets of siblings have three things in common—more important than career achievement, a call to use their money wisely, and parents who keep Christ the center of their homes. And each of them know they're in the unique position of being role models to their young peers. Today's Christian recently chatted with the Boyds and Michalkas about their unique journeys in showbiz.

The Boyds: Keeping It in Perspective
Jenna Boyd, 13, began working in the entertainment industry at the age of 2, when her mother, Debbie, entered her in a modeling search. Print ads, commercials, and a gig as one of the young kids on PBS's Barney & Friends quickly followed. Not to be outshined, brother Cayden modeled Winnie the Pooh clothing for a J.C. Penney catalog, which quickly led to work as an actor.

"I think as Christians it's our job to give back." —Jenna Boyd

Eventually Jenna's agent urged Debbie to temporarily move to Los Angeles so her kids could go on auditions. It worked, and Jenna was cast in movies like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, in which she played the leukemia-suffering Bailey Graffman. Her film career continues to blossom as she is currently in negotiations to play Rambo's daughter in the upcoming sequel Rambo IV. But Jenna is a well-rounded teenager. A straight-A student, she also enjoys ice-skating, horseback riding, and playing the guitar.

Cayden's career took off as well, when he landed a role in director Clint Eastwood's 2003 film Mystic River, but his protective parents carefully monitored the few scenes he was allowed to watch. Oftentimes the material child actors are asked to perform can contain very mature themes. Last season Cayden, 12, had a difficult role on the CBS drama Close to Home. "I played this kid who was abused and got locked in his house for two years," he recalls. "I had to cry a lot." Again, Cayden's parents made sure he wasn't asked to do anything that would be inappropriate for a pre-teen. In 2005, he had a featured role in the family film The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, directed by Spy Kids creator Robert Rodriguez.

Like many young actors, Hollywood stardom is not Cayden's ultimate dream—at least not yet. He says, "I want to act for a long time, but eventually I want to be a Marine and fly F-18s [his dad, Mike, was a pilot in the Navy] or train animals at Sea World." He enjoys doing regular "boy stuff" and adds that his parents make sure that he and Jenna "have a normal life that isn't just about acting."

"We have a standard we want to set—and that means not doing anything we don't believe in." — AJ Michalka

Debbie says that while she prays for her children to keep their success in perspective, she knows she needs prayer as much as they do. "We're human and broken and greedy," she admits. "I have to recognize that I'm just as capable of losing perspective as all the other parents-gone-bad." Many people in the industry push her to manage her children's careers, but she'd rather just work closely with their managers and agents. "Somebody's got to be Mommy in this mix," Debbie explains. "We can find managers and agents, but only one mommy and daddy will care for them like we do."

Both kids are actively involved in church and charitable causes—such as buying toys for children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. "We created a toy drive," Cayden explains, "and used some of our acting money to purchase toys."

Jenna agrees that being able to give financially is a benefit of earning an income at a young age. "I think it's great to be able to do something important, something God approves of, with the money I make," she says. "I think as Christians it's our job to give back."

Aly and AJ: Leaders, Not Followers
Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka are so close that they consider themselves "the first set of twins to be born two years apart." Anyone who has seen their MTV hit songs "Rush" or "Chemicals React" or their Disney Channel movie Cow Belles can understand why. Not only do they look alike, but they frequently finish each other's sentences. But while they perform pop music as a sister duo, their acting careers have largely been separate.

Fifteen-year-old Amanda Joy spent two years on the Fox sitcom Oliver Beene, and two more on the CBS drama The Guardian. As a Christian, she says she's careful about the roles she chooses. On one show, she even offered to pull out due to her uneasiness with a questionable scene. "I didn't feel comfortable with an episode," she recalls. "I talked to the executive producer and said, 'If you still want to do the episode, you're going to have to let me go.' He respected my objections and changed it."

She adds, "When Aly and I read a script, we want to make sure it's something we can show our kids when we get older. We have a standard we want to set—and that means not doing anything we don't believe in."

Aly, 17, is probably best known for her role as Keely Teslow on the hit Disney sitcom Phil of the Future. She believes the music on her and AJ's debut CD, Into the Rush and their recent Christmas album, Acoustic Hearts of Winter, fills a void in the mainstream pop world, where there are so few positive examples for teenagers. "Barely anyone out there can keep that 'role model image' and not lose it when they're older," she says. "People I listened to when I was younger ended up going against what they stood for. It's hard to find artists who are true to themselves all the way into their adult years."

Aly and AJ's music isn't targeted to the Christian market and doesn't specifically reference Jesus. Instead, they try to demonstrate their faith by the way they live their lives in the public eye. "AJ and I have parents come up to us and say, 'Please stay the way you are. Don't change. Our daughters love you and look up to you,'" says Aly. "That encourages me to choose not to do what others have done in the past."

AJ adds: "We're non-conformists in the sense that Aly and I are going to lead the way—we're not going to be followers."

Carrie, their mother, believes her daughters are different from other teens in the media because their emphasis isn't on material things. "There's nothing about money that motivates any of us in this family," she says. "Passion and conviction determine what role you take or what song you write. Money is just the byproduct of that passion. The best thing you can do with it is give."

Aly and AJ recently got to share a ministry experience with a special fan. A 17-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis wanted to talk to the girls while she was in the intensive care unit. Her caretaker sent an e-mail that said, "I don't think [she] has very long to live, so if you can, you'll probably want to visit soon."

"We called her that night and prayed together over the phone," says Aly. "It was incredibly touching and moving." The girls chatted with their fan about her new dog and other issues they could relate to as teenagers. They promised to overnight a care package the next day. "We told her we'd send some new stuff and hopefully would see her at our concert in Seattle," Aly says. "But by the time the package got there, she'd passed away."

When Aly and AJ went to Seattle, they invited the girl's family to the concert. "They came backstage and we were all crying together," Aly says. "It was such a blessing. We didn't even know those people, but it felt as though we did, because the Holy Spirit had somehow moved us. It was like, 'Wow, God can use you in ways you'd never imagine."

Dan Ewald is a journalist, screenwriter, and producer living in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.

January/February 2007, Vol. 45, No. 1, page 52

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