‘I’m a Cautionary Tale’: Christy Carlson Romano on Surviving Teen Fame and Her Foray Into YouTube

christy carlson romano

Leah Romero

teen queens

In ELLE’s series Teen Queens, we check in with the iconic stars who ruled the stage, screen, and news cycle during their reign.

Disney stars who “fall from grace” is a story that’s been told too many times to count, but that doesn’t make it any less real or tragic: just ask Christy Carlson Romano. In fact, the former child actor, who ascended to fame as Ren Stevens, Shia LaBeouf’s straight-edge older sister on Even Stevens, and voiced the cult-favorite crime-fighting cartoon Kim Possible, is the first to admit that, to some extent, she’s lucky to have made it out alive. “I’m a cautionary tale,” she says via Zoom, before adding, “I struggled privately, and I wanted to find myself before I was able to inspire other people.”

Romano, who battled an eating disorder and body image issues, inspires people in droves on her YouTube channel, where she sounds off on hot-button and impossible-not-to-click-on topics like “The Truth About The Disney Channel,” “My Relationship To Raven-Symoné,” and for those who are curious about a certain controversial co-star, one of her most-viewed videos, “Why I Don’t Talk To Shia LeBeouf.” Clad in false eyelashes, XL hoop earrings, and butterfly clips for a Y2K-themed photo shoot she’s partaking in after our call, she’s keenly aware that this girl—the one I’m looking at over a computer screen—is a mirage. “I was more like the horse girl of that generation,” Romano says with a laugh. “Less glam, more Abercrombie.”

Now, 37 years old, sober, and married with two kids (Romano, aka “Mama Bear” on Zoom, is mother to daughters Izzy, 5, and Sophia, 2, with husband Brendan Rooney), she’s ready to take chances, sartorial or otherwise, even if that means applying multiple layers of lip gloss and wearing resin rings while packing brown bag lunches. “I wouldn’t have worn this then, but it would’ve been cool if I did,” Romano says. Better late than never, I tell her, since what’s old is almost always new again in the fashion world. Case in point: Amazon sells every single early aughts trend, and Claire’s still has the accessories. “I’ve heard that women spiritually lock into themselves in their thirties,” she adds. “I got pregnant, gave up drinking, and decided to stop performing for other people. That gave me a lot of value.”

Here, more from Romano about her Disney days, starting out on YouTube, and the accusations against LaBeouf.

Is “Mama Bear” your nickname at home?

I guess so! My girls still call me “mama,” but I think “Mama Bear” is more of a concept where you feel like you have to really embrace your strength being a mother—whenever you’re super tired or confused or scared, the Mama Bear has to prevail. It’s this instinct that kicks in where you’re immediately removing the child from a dangerous situation. I didn’t necessarily have postpartum depression, but I had postpartum hormones. For a long time I was wearing shirts and hats that said “Mama Bear.” It was like when people wear those shirts that say “Life is Good.” You do what you do to get through it.

You recently left Hollywood for Austin, Texas. How do you like living there?

It’s lovely. The weather’s crazy, but not crazy like hurricanes and floods and fires…as I was moving out of California, there was literally a fire across the street from my house. I was just like, “This is not a good fit for the family.” And change is good. I’m originally from southern Connecticut, but I left for L.A. when I was 16 to start filming Even Stevens. Our first day of shooting was my 16th birthday.

Do you remember your first day on set?

I remember that birthday for sure, because I was heartbroken over a boy back home, and I drove across the country with my mom and two dogs in a minivan. I was emo the whole time.

Did the boy ever circle back?

He was a star football player, a really handsome kid. I remember coming home to visit years later and seeing him at a local bar, but nothing ever happened. I think he knew that his chance had passed. That’s not to say he didn’t have a chance, but I always felt like I was in a different world, sort of like a misfit. I didn’t want to just be friends with industry people—I wanted to be friends with all sorts of people. When you’re growing up, it’s not that easy.

How did you manage to stay grounded at the time and not fall victim to the young Hollywood scene?

I am a cautionary tale to some degree. I struggled privately, and I wanted to find myself before I was able to inspire other people. Now I’m reclaiming some of that. All of the things that you used to do, you try to revisit, even though you’ve grown past it. I wasn’t followed by paparazzi ever. I wasn’t in the scene, I was outside of it. At the time I thought it was humorous, but now as a parent, I look back and I’m like, “These were kids! It was super inappropriate to be remarking upon this stuff.” In some ways, the paparazzi were helpful to get your name out there, then it became this whole nightlife thing. In my twenties, I used to hope that paparazzi would take my picture, because then it might help visibility. There was no social media back then to help your brand.

What were you like in high school?

I wanted to go to a good college. My family was really big on education. A lot of times, I felt like the tutors on set were full of shit—I didn’t like the way they tried to enforce learning—so I would go home after filming and study a different subject every day, and on the weekends, I would do SAT prep after recording my voice for Kim Possible. Honestly, I didn’t have much downtime to get into trouble.

Sounds very Ren Stevens. Did you relate to her at all?

Yes, I was very studious. But the character I was most inspired by was Kim Possible—she was such a positive tape in my mind of “you can do anything” and “you’ve got this.” She was never petty; she was always the bigger person, helping the greater good. I embrace all the characters, though. They made me feel less alone. I wasn’t really in or around people my age. We didn’t really hobnob with the other [Disney] kids.

Do you still talk to Shia LaBeouf? ELLE published the story about his alleged abusive relationship with FKA Twigs.

I think FKA Twigs is an amazing artist—the female voice and body and soul and artistry that’s coming out of women like that is so important to protect, because you can tell that those are women who are sensitive to the world around them. Being with someone like Shia is not compatible for an artistic soul like that. He’s not just lightning in a bottle, he’s straight gasoline. And she is stardust. I don’t think that was a healthy relationship. Past that, how can I remark on anything that may or may not have happened? It seems like their personalities just don’t match up.

Speaking from a sober point of view, and knowing that Shia has struggled with sobriety at times, I appreciate him taking accountability for the actions he took that were bad. That’s me being a big sister. He needs to take accountability for what he did wrong— that’s important. And for his journey as a sober person, it’s good that he can keep doing that and make amends. And of course, by the way, I would never condone anyone hurting anyone.

Are there any other details that you didn’t already share in your video about him?

His relationship with his dad, which is hard because I know how personal it must be for him. If he ever sees me talking about his dad, I’m sure that’s triggering, and I don’t want to hurt anybody, but if I talk about my life, that’s going to come up. I feel like with my YouTube, a lot of people want me to spill the tea all the time, and that’s not my goal. There’s something bigger happening with the conversations and the videos; I’m trying to help people come to understand and broaden out their scope of who I am and what my opinions are. It’s part memoir, part video podcast.

Why did you decide to start a YouTube channel?

For a long time, I struggled with understanding my brand. Then I realized that the nostalgia factor was something that I could extrapolate on and utilize, so I started a cooking show to be relevant, because I wasn’t on TV. It felt like the right way to embrace and approach the YouTube world. With that, I came out and was the co-star to every guest I had, and then I realized it was so continent on the guest themselves, I was never talking about my experience. Now I’m launching a cookbook!

Who else would you want to bring on as a guest?

A lot of people: Mario Lopez, Elizabeth Berkley, Hilary [Duff] would be great. Haylie, her sister, would be awesome—she cooks way better than I do. Raven[-Symoné], Tahj Mowry, Tia and Tamera Mowry. Brenda Song turned me down, which was sad.

Have you ever been approached to reboot any of your shows?

I’m in touch with Disney executives and the creators of all my shows. I definitely have some ideas for new content—I had originally said that Cadet Kelly should be married to a woman, because there was always this conspiracy of her being in love with [Captain] Stone. I can see why a lot of young girls wanting to come out at the time saw themselves represented in some subliminal way, and I’m all for it. That’s how much influence Disney has: if they make something seem totally normal, it’s normal. And that’s what kids grow up thinking is normal. I like to believe that the fandom is still so strong that that may actually bring about reboots that are good.

Looking back on your career, what would you have done differently?

I definitely would’ve saved my money and bought a house. I also probably would’ve waited to go to college so I could be really ready to go to school. But there was so much that I couldn’t understand or grasp. If you don’t have the right parenting strategy or agent, then you can’t really blame the kid for not knowing.

Teen Queens Questionnaire

Name a 2000s fashion trend that should never come back.

Jellies were really cute, but they weren’t super practical—you got blisters in random places. We don’t need jellies to come back.

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Leo DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet era.

What is the wildest rumor you’ve ever read about yourself?

That I was dead. People are so ambiguous; they care, but they don’t care. Nowadays, some are actually listening because mental health is interesting, so they’re interested in where people have been and what have they been doing, but before, they were just like, “Didn’t she die?” And they just discounted your entire life. It’s so not cool.

What are some of your fondest memories from childhood?

I loved going to Hawaii to film the Even Stevens movie. That was awesome, because I had worked so hard for so long. Learning how to throw guns for Cadet Kelly was really cool too; I was in boot camp for a month and a half. And I remember being on stage for Beauty and the Beast and trying not to laugh because the beast’s eyebrow fell off during the most sensitive scene.

Have you ever kept anything from set?

I kept Mr. Pookie [from Even Stevens] and the dog-legged clencher from Beauty and the Beast. Those two things are very sentimental to me.

Which episode of Even Stevens was the most fun to film?

The musical episode still stands out as my favorite. And the one where my cheeks swell up…that’s when I actually got my braces off. My orthodontist is literally in one of the scenes. I didn’t mind doing gags like that, even though I was super insecure, I was like, “I’m on a kids show, let’s have some fun.”

Deputy Editor Claire Stern is the Deputy Editor of ELLE.com.

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