Life After Child Stardom -- Not by the Numbers
Two Former Child Stars on Living Their Second Acts in the Classroom
Nov. 24, 2006
Not every child star ends up in rehab or washed up or in jail. The infamous few who have struggled have become a cliche for all young stars, but there can be life after acting.
And two of the biggest sitcom stars of the early 1990s are perfect examples of how to find a second life offscreen. The University of California at Los Angeles is just minutes from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but it also seems a world away. In the world of academia there, two former child stars found out just how brightly they could shine -- away from the camera lights.
In the early 1990s, Mayim Bialik was known to millions as the eponymous star of "Blossom," one of the highest-rated shows on television at the time. In many ways, Blossom was a role model for millions of kids, helping them navigate through the growing pains and pitfalls of adolescence. She became a household name, but even today, Bialik believes her success was something of a fluke.
"I was always kind of unusual-looking," Bialik said. "I wasn't the generic blond-haired, blue-eyed, McDonald's commercial kind of kid."
But it was those unusual looks that landed Bialik her first big break, playing a young version of Bette Midler in the movie "Beaches," a role that would change her life.
"It kind of exploded from there," she said. "I would not have gotten a series … if I had not been in 'Beaches.' I don't think that would've happened."
"Blossom" premiered in 1991 and ran for four years. When the series ended, Bialik was ready to try something new, and that meant college at UCLA, where her star would rise again, in a very surprising field for an actor: neuroscience.
From Stardom to Science
Bialik is now completing work for her Ph.D., choosing to write her thesis on a strange DNA disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, which drives its victims to rant, scream, and destroy their homes in a desperate search for food.
"I really felt like, maybe I can bring something novel to it as a neuroscientist, and maybe add something to the field," Bialik said.
And if you believe that acting and science are mutually exclusive, Bialik has a theory on that too.
"I'd like to think that even as a neuroscientist, you're constantly engaging creativity in new ways … tapping into [your] more artistic side, because you're telling a story with your thesis," she said.
At 30, Bialik's own story now also includes a husband and a 1-year-old son. She still dabbles in acting and is pitching a sitcom, but she maintains that her second act in life began with science.
"I've had professors say, 'How could you give up the money? How could you give up the fame? How could you give up the prestige?'" she said. "I believe strongly in following your path and being creative in your life and listening to what your soul wants to do. … I'm really happy that I've been able to do both things, to kind of live in both worlds."
The Years After 'The Wonder Years'
Mayim Bialik isn't the only actor living a second life in the world of academia. When we last we saw Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper, the puppy-love couple from the hit TV series "The Wonder Years," they were heading in different directions to see what life had to offer. Like Winnie, the character she played on "The Wonder Years," Danica McKellar went in search of new opportunities.
McKellar also managed to make a graceful transition from TV star to academic star at UCLA in another brainy field -- mathematics.
"It just grounded me, and made me feel good about myself for something that had nothing to do with glamour or fame," McKellar said. "And I found out I was pretty good at it."
She wasn't just good at it. McKellar was a math whiz. She helped solve a physics problem that will now forever bear her name: The Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem.
"Now I'm in the Journal of Physics forever and ever," said McKellar.
But even with her success in math, McKellar's love for performing was always part of the equation. So she ultimately decided against a career in academia and returned to acting in movies and television shows like "The West Wing."
And for the past five months, she's been in Dallas, writing and acting in a new mystery series for the Lifetime Movie Channel called "Inspector Mom."
"It's a combination of those two sides of the brain," McKellar said. "You need to know how people respond to situations emotionally and how the clues have to be divulged and at what point. All of that is very much problem solving. It's a puzzle. It's a math problem."
McKellar has a Web site where she helps solve problems sent to her by fans, and she's writing a book geared toward getting girls interested in math. As for living in two different worlds, McKellar enjoys the opportunity to pursue both of her passions.
"It's a real challenge to be able to reinvent yourself, to find that you're not just resting on your laurels but you're actually still a person who's alive and growing and doing things that matter," she said.