The original Gidget and late ’50s, early ’60s cutie pie starlet Sandra Dee would have turned 70 years old today. We doubt the actress would still be willing to brave a surfboard in her senior years, but the scenario is funny to imagine given Dee’s clean-cut, wholesome image that often pegged her as a total square. While her peers were slinking across the big screen, Dee was busy perfecting her lifelong role as the wide-eyed ingénue and singing innocent songs about falling in love.
However, the performer’s career proves appearances can be deceiving. The teen idol struggled with drug and alcohol problems, and an eating disorder her entire life — having started starving herself as an up-and-coming model early in her career.
We looked at other Hollywood, chart topping teen idols whose clean-cut images betrayed their messy and often tragic lives. Although many fans assume their favorite stars are practically invincible, these teen talents prove the shocking truth about humans: we’re all flawed.
A former vaudeville singing act, the always self-conscious Judy Garland grew up in Hollywood next to studio sirens like Ava Gardner and Lana Turner never quite feeling like she fit in. At just thirteen years old Garland was primed to be an eternally youthful, girl next door type, and her iconic role in The Wizard of Oz reinforced the image in the minds of audiences everywhere. While Garland’s stellar singing voice and bright smile were starting to take over the screen, studio giant MGM was busy feeding the actress pills to keep her on task, leading to a lifelong addiction. Despite her struggles, Garland was one of the few teen idols who made a successful leap from young superstar to adult actress.
Singer-songwriter Ricky Nelson is credited with popularizing the term “teen idol” after Life Magazine used the phrase to describe the “Poor Little Fool” vocalist in 1958. He was an overnight sensation who further secured his wholesome image on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (he played himself). Think of it like America’s first realty television show — and the young Nelson’s good looks fit right in with the picture of idyllic 1950’s American family life. That changed when the singer discovered drugs, which became worse as his star rose. Parties, groupies, and managers who acted more like dealers encouraged Nelson’s bad habits. His reckless lifestyle and messy relationship life soiled the star’s clean-cut image.
Before Pat Boone became known for his wacky Obama citizenship conspiracy theories and calling liberals “cancer,” he was a pop rock Billboard artist that made wholesome teen girls swoon. The performer — who, ironically enough, got famous for his R&B covers performed by African American singers — was the second biggest charting singer of the late ’50s (right behind Elvis), and he eventually segued into a film career. Apart from his recent bizarre ramblings that have transformed his old-fashioned façade into something much uglier (or perhaps just revealed it to be so), Boone faced struggles with alcohol before committing himself to Christianity completely. We’re not sure the big guy upstairs is helping him in the love and acceptance department, though. P.S. We still can’t believe the formerly squeaky clean singer dressed up like a leather daddy and made a metal album.
Frankie Lymon was a soprano teen sweetheart who made his first hit single at only 14 years old. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was The Teenagers’ most famous tune, and Frankie was a standout success in the years that followed. It wasn’t easy feat given the African American singer grew popular in the racially tense 1950s, but his clean-cut image — complete with letter sweater — and innocent lyrics helped. When Lymon attempted to go solo, he didn’t find a warm reception from audiences as his signature voice started to change with age. While the singer tried to save his career he was fighting a heroin addiction and jumping into the beds of women more than twice his age. “I was never a child although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star. I was a man when I was 11 years old doing everything that most men do. In the neighborhood where I lived, there was no time to be a child,” he once shared. Lymon tried to make good in his early 20s, but by 25 he lost the struggle due to a heroin overdose.
Paul Anka crooned his way through the late 1950s and ’60s with hit songs like “Diana” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” His catchy, timeless, and romantic tunes were easy to relate to. Anka had a way with audiences thanks to his boyish charm, and his vocal chops and writing talent (he penned famous songs for folks like Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra) made him a teen idol hit. Anka showed his true colors, however, when a rage recording surfaced in the 1980s — that went viral years later online — in which the singer flipped out on his crew and band. He told the gang that he was “the only important one on that stage,” and added hilariously that he could “slice like a hammer.” Al Pacino spoofed the quotable lines in Ocean’s Thirteen, and we’ve been laughing ever since.
Being openly gay in the 1960s wasn’t unheard of, but for a Hollywood star or popular singer it was still scandalous. Although Rebel Without a Cause star Sal Mineo came out of Hollywood’s closet, his protégés — like the innocent, aw-shucks Bobby Sherman, famous for playing sweetie pie Jeremy Bolt on late 1960’s sitcom Here Come the Brides — didn’t always follow suit. Mineo’s 2011 biography revealed that the actor’s longtime girlfriend reportedly caught Mineo in bed with Sherman sometime after he took the young hopeful under his wing to help start Sherman’s singing career. We can’t say for sure if the whole thing is just a rumor, or if the duo had some kind of fling. Either way, Sherman’s saccharine sweet image would have turned sour for many of the teen idol’s female fans in the less tolerant 1960s had his lifestyle not matched his wholesome appearance.
Although Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce arguably struggled the most post television sitcom fame, his TV brother David Cassidy was the biggest teen idol of his siblings. Eventually Cassidy became huge as a solo act, but his clean-cut persona crafted on the popular network program followed him, shaggy haircut be damned. A nude Annie Liebovitz photoshoot for Rolling Stone in 1972 shook things up when the article revealed Cassidy drank, smoked pot, and partied. Also behind the singer’s winning smile were reportedly devastating feelings of isolation brought on by the pressures of fame. Times of London columnist Janice Turner wrote of the teen idol:
“The most troubled person I ever met was David Cassidy, the teen idol of Jackson’s era, unhinged long ago by his fans. For five years girls slept outside his house, followed him everywhere, ripped his clothing, forced him into isolation, made his life empty and lonely. And then, abruptly, when he was no longer the pretty boy du jour they deserted him.”
Bucking 1970’s hard rock music trends, The Carpenters came on the scene with warm romantic ballads full of lush melodies and a thoroughly wholesome image. Singer and drummer Karen Carpenter tried to hide her lifelong struggle with anorexia while topping the charts with songs like “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Behind her perfect façade, Carpenter’s troubling obsession with her body image often revealed itself — sometimes physically and other times in interviews like this one where she talked about being on a “water diet.”
Before his life spiraled out of control from drug addiction, 1980’s teen dreamboat Corey Haim was flashing his cute smirk on screen and dominating the days of Tiger Beat and Bop. The more crushable of the Two Coreys, Haim always came across as the more likable of the duo whose boy next-door looks and seemingly good-natured innocence wooed audiences. The actor had a slight bad boy edge — then again, the neon 1980s made everyone in Hollywood seem just a little sleazy — but it was nothing short of charming. Whether playing the younger brother trying to keep his family together (and away from vampires) in The Lost Boys, or as the underdog misfit struggling for acceptance in Lucas, people rooted for Haim. Sadly drugs were starting to consume the actor at a young age. He started drinking beer on the set of Lucas (at 14 years old). “I lived in LA in the Eighties, which was not the best place to be. I did cocaine for about a year and a half, then it led to crack,” Haim once shared. In an interview with Larry King, Haim admitted that the 1988 movie License to Drive — in which Haim was only 16 years old at the time — was his “breaking point.”
Tiffany and Debbie Gibson
Before the days of nude cell phone pic leaks and celebrity sex tapes, singers Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were trying to break free from their pop princess images by posing nude in Playboy. Although the fleshy photoshoots didn’t happen until years after each mall performer’s popularity had cooled completely, it was amusing to watch pop fans dissect lyrics and try to find the “slutty” subtext behind songs like “I Think We’re Alone Now.”