Rise of the teen businesswomen

Grammy-winning Lorde is surfing a wave of self-made females. Are teen tycoons taking over?

Arts+Culture Feature
Lorde

By the age you were discovering The Smiths and giving vegetarianism a go, they've become worldwide superstars, conquered Hollywood and launched at least one business. They’re miniscule, have adorable doll-like faces, and work harder than you ever have (you’re not reading this at work, are you?). There is a recent spate of world-famous teenagers – multi-Grammy-award-winning Lorde, Tavi Gevinson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiernan Shipka – who appear to be completely level-headed and in control. This new generation of young women seems to transcend the usual phenomenon of the “child star” and all the problems it usually entails.

“Like professional athletes, would-be performers now begin their formation before they’ve started primary school”

In the 1990s, you could bet money on any given child star having a secret weakness for self-destruction. River Phoenix, Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan all “went off the rails”, industry euphemism for developing a serious drug problem. Before them, Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland died of a barbiturates overdose at the age of 47 after a lifetime of drug and alcohol addiction – which seems to be a natural response to the mixed adoration and vitriol that worldwide fame brings with it.

But for the new breed of teen businesswomen, success at a young age seems to be working – and, crucially, seems to be sustainable. Kiernan Shipka, 14, plays Sally Draper, Don Draper’s pre-teen daughter in Mad Men, one of the most interesting characters in one of the best TV shows of all time. In real life, she is as sensible and diplomatic as Sally is troubled (her favourite place to hang out is Château Marmont). There is no child star breakdown in sight for 16-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz, who – despite her colossal levels of fame – described herself to Dazed as “the happy-go-lucky girl with the happy family”.

The new breed are media-savvy, professional, organised, motivated, inspiring, confident – as well as underage. Feminist singer Lorde, 17, was signed to Universal at the age of 12 and has become a worldwide superstar and won two Grammys (for Best Solo Performance and Song of the Year) thanks to her dark and brooding music and lyrics, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut and Sylvia Plath, as well as Kanye West and Prince. Meanwhile, her friend Tavi Gevinson, 17, entered the public eye at the age of 12 when she founded inspirational teenager website Style Rookie (now Rookie), and continues to give astute quotables in Dazed's interview alongside 15-year-old Hunger Games star Amandla Stendberg. And it's not all business-like posturing: these last two girls especially make their vulnerability an intrinsic part of their appeal. Tavi gave a thoughtful and moving TED talk about how she is still figuring things out, and Lorde has built her persona on being "like that awkward-ass girl in the back of your class". Being a teenager is notoriously difficult at the best of times, but these girls are managing to do it on a world stage with intelligence, humour and honesty.

But this self-assuredness and professionalism also has a darker side. If this is what we are taught to expect from children now, when they don’t live up to these expectations we turn against them. When Quvenzhané Wallis, star of Beasts of the Southern Wild and the youngest ever Academy Award nominee, attended the 2013 Oscars, she acted like any other nine-year-old would have done. Wearing a princess-like dress, she flexed her muscles, pranced around, and generally revelled in the attention she was getting. Instead of timidly smiling and waving, she seemed to be quite pleased with herself and didn't assume any false modesty. Twitter exploded with rage and satirical news hub The Onion called her a "cunt" (and later apologised).

This group of inspirational young women can motivate other young girls to achieve great things – and it's by admitting that they're real human beings just like us, with flaws, foibles and weaknesses. For now though, they're nailing it – and we love it.

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