Culture

Child star Jennette McCurdy: ‘It took a long time to realise I was glad my mom died’

In a strange sort of way Jennette McCurdy’s mother, Debra, is getting what she’d always dreamed of: fame. Never mind that the title of her daughter’s memoir is the brilliantly punchy I’m Glad My Mom Died, or that it details Debra’s controlling and abusive ways. “She’d be like: ‘My name’s on a No 1 New York Times bestseller!’” says McCurdy, laughing. “But not recognising: ‘Mom, I don’t know if people are loving you, exactly.’”

McCurdy is a child star who walked away from her career in her early 20s, something she could only do because of her mother’s death. Since McCurdy was six years old, Debra had shaped and controlled her, turning McCurdy into a successful actor; she was on the hit show iCarly, on the US children’s channel Nickelodeon, and its spin-off Sam & Cat. Every aspect of McCurdy’s life was micromanaged, from who she was allowed to see to what she ate; the restricted diet led to eating disorders. Debra would even wash McCurdy in the shower until she was 16, and touch her vagina and breasts (Debra had been diagnosed with breast cancer when McCurdy was two, and said she was checking for lumps), and shave her legs.

Becoming a famous actor was Debra’s dream, not McCurdy’s. When McCurdy, as a child sitting in the back of the car after a bad audition, tells her mother she doesn’t want to do it any more, Debra is enraged. “She was driving so it was, on my part, poor timing,” she remembers, with a laugh. “She started screaming, tears flowing down her face. She immediately went into hysteria, which was how she often met resistance. And I felt then: ‘This is not an OK thing for me to bring up.’”

Jennette McCurdy with her iCarly co-star Miranda Cosgrove in 2007.
Jennette McCurdy with her iCarly co-star Miranda Cosgrove in 2007. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

If her mother’s behaviour reads as abhorrent, then the world of children’s TV doesn’t come across much better, with child stars having to cope with maniacal showrunners and gruelling auditions. There’s a general feeling that it isn’t a healthy place for young people working out who they are. Last month Alexa Nikolas, another former child actor, took part in a protest outside Nickelodeon’s studio in California, claiming that child performers “were not safe” on shows made by the channel. “I try to talk about everything from a personal point of view [rather than] something more systemic,” says McCurdy. “ I absolutely think there are a lot of harsh realities to child and teen stardom.”

McCurdy grew up in Garden Grove, a small city in California, with her parents, grandparents and three older brothers in a Mormon family. They didn’t have much money: her father worked for a kitchen design company, and her mother sometimes worked shifts at Target, although her main job, McCurdy writes, was “ensuring I make it in Hollywood”. Debra’s moods and behaviour were erratic and everyone was frightened of upsetting her. Added to this, the possibility that the cancer might return hung over the family.

McCurdy was home-schooled and had no friends, which meant she didn’t realise until later how dysfunctional her home life was. “I did feel like an outsider, there was layer on layer of shelter,” she says – being home-schooled, being Mormon, being a child actor and working in a world of adults. “I considered myself a second-rate Mormon, I wasn’t as good at being Mormon as the others. I didn’t have school friends, and then in acting, a lot of the moms can be competitive so they don’t necessarily want the daughters talking to one another.” When Debra signed McCurdy up for dance classes (14 a week to improve her chances), she did make a friend and got the chance to see another type of home life. “It was one of my earliest memories of registering what I couldn’t identify then as dysfunction, of ‘my family’s operating on a different frequency’.”

What about other adults around her – her grandparents, father, people at church? Couldn’t they see how harmful Debra was? “My mom seemed hellbent on keeping up appearances. She did a pretty good job of portraying that she and I were best friends, and that we were inseparable.” At home, she says, her grandparents and father would plead with her to get help. She would throw McCurdy’s father out and make him sleep in the car, scream at them or throw something. “The louder it would sound when it broke, the more likely she was to throw that object.” She gives a small laugh. “She never sought help, never worked on any of her stuff. I completely empathise with mental illness, but the fact that she didn’t try to change it, that’s a more complicated feeling for me.”

Throughout McCurdy’s childhood, Debra put everything into making McCurdy a star. She whitened her teeth and tinted her eyelashes, she hustled for agents and managers. Worst of all, when McCurdy showed signs of puberty, Debra taught her calorie restriction and managed her diet “to keep me infantilised”. She was panicked at the thought of her daughter growing up, but there was also a professional motive. If McCurdy could play a younger age, she would get more roles “because you can work longer hours on set and you can take direction better”. Instead of feeling trapped and manipulated, the dieting felt, to McCurdy, like bonding. “Like: ‘This is great. Mom and me are helping each other with our diet plans.’ I didn’t realise the reality.”

Getting roles in commercials and in TV series, McCurdy was not only on her way to fulfilling her mother’s dream, but financially supporting the family. iCarly (2007-2012) became a huge tween hit, and her role as the tomboy sidekick to the main star made McCurdy famous. It was, she says, frightening. “I had been such an overprotected, sheltered kid, with quite a bit of social anxiety, and then to be recognised any time I walked out the door was overwhelming. I grew to resent fame. It was my mom’s wish for me, it was never the thing that I had set my sights on.”

She also realised that it hadn’t made her mother happy, which is all she’d ever wanted. “I thought that that would solve everything. Then I reached the thing that she wanted for me, and she seemed not only unhappy, but she suddenly became jealous of me for having it. I think fame was the first thing that really conveyed to my mom that she and I were separate people. We were so enmeshed, and I think she really saw her identity in me.”

First ladies … McCurdy meets Michelle Obama in 2012
First ladies … McCurdy meets Michelle Obama in 2012. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

Working on the show was not, for McCurdy, a happy experience. She writes about the man she calls The Creator (taken to be showrunner Dan Schneider) and the fearful atmosphere she says he created on set: over-the-top complimentary one moment, verbally aggressive the next (she writes that he fired a six-year-old “on the spot for messing up a few lines on a rehearsal day”). At one point, when McCurdy was 18 and the prospect of her own spin-off show was being dangled, she writes that The Creator took her for dinner where he encouraged her to try alcohol for the first time, and gave her a shoulder massage. She wanted him to stop, she writes, but was “so scared of offending him”. There were parallels between him and her mother; here was another adult she had to tiptoe around, to please. “Absolutely,” she agrees. “Another thing about being a kid in that world is there are a lot of really domineering figures.” (When she left Nickelodeon, she was offered a $300,000 “goodbye” on condition she didn’t talk about her experiences there, which she declined; Schneider left the channel in 2018 after an internal investigation found he had been verbally abusive.)

The experience of performing as a child, seen through McCurdy’s eyes, is mainly a damaging one, especially when it comes to auditioning. “I was not psychologically developed enough to understand that rejection doesn’t mean you’re not worthy, it just means you don’t fit the role,” she says. “I couldn’t separate those two things.” Once she had made it, there were other pressures. “It’s led me to have complicated feelings toward any child-acting experience.”

She thinks it would help simply to have “somebody on the child’s team. There’s agents and managers, network executives, and sometimes [recording] labels if the kid’s also doing music – all these people that, even if they have the best intentions, at the end of the day are making money off this child. If there was somebody who was there strictly for that child’s wellbeing, it would make a difference.”

Even if it is handled very carefully, inevitably being a child star is not a “normal” adolescence. When McCurdy got her first period, she was working and the news got around the cast and crew; she had her first kiss on set, in front of a camera crew, directions being yelled at her. All these firsts are happening in an unreal environment. “There’s this point where the question becomes: what’s reality?” she says. “The worlds bleed into one another and it requires a lot of unpacking after the fact to understand what the fuck just happened.”

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For McCurdy, the next few years would be dominated by eating disorders (anorexia, then bulimia which got so bad she lost a tooth from the vomiting). She drank too much and had dysfunctional and sexually imbalanced relationships, kept secret from her mother until paparazzi pictures of her on holiday with a boyfriend appeared online and her mother sent her an apoplectic email: “You used to be my perfect little angel, but now you are nothing more than a little SLUT.” A fat one too, she added. More emails followed, each more hostile, until Debra told McCurdy that she blamed her for the recurrence of her cancer.

It had returned a couple of years earlier, when McCurdy was 18. At the time she was pursuing, she says with a laugh, “a much-regretted country music blip” (a common path for child actors; McCurdy’s co-star on Sam & Cat was Ariana Grande). Debra’s illness meant McCurdy went on tour without her; it was their first real separation. “There was a feeling of relief that I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, come to terms with at the time, because God did it feel shitty to feel relief that I’m going to be away from my mom for the first time, when my mom also was just diagnosed with cancer and was dying. It made me feel like a terrible person.”

Debra died when McCurdy was 21. The opening scene in her book is darkly comic, McCurdy trying to rouse her mother from a coma in intensive care with news of the only thing that could possibly make her rally – that she is down to her (tiny) target weight. Her death was devastating. “I genuinely felt I had no identity without my mom,” says McCurdy, who is now 30. “I didn’t know who I was. I felt terrified, incompetent and incapable. Eventually, the process for me was realising that those feelings were her conditioning. That was her voice, not mine, but it took a long time to get to a place where I could identify that I was, and am, glad that she died.”

McCurdy and Lucas Cruikshank in the Nickelodeon TV film Fred: The Movie
McCurdy and Lucas Cruikshank in the Nickelodeon TV film Fred: The Movie. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

When the first therapist McCurdy saw raised the idea that Debra had been abusive, McCurdy was furious and never saw her again. It was an idea “that I couldn’t tolerate. My world was seen through this lens of ‘my mom wants what’s best for me, my mom is everything and I am nothing without her’. The idea that she was abusive would mean reframing that, and everything about who I was.”

She began to come to terms with it later, while being treated for eating disorders. Therapy, she says, was “hugely helpful. And solitude – I spent a lot of time alone, really tuning out everything.” Leaving acting (she was in a shortlived Netflix drama) and her related social media presence was a way of distancing herself from an identity Debra had created for her. “I see it now – my identity started when my mom died,” she says.

She worked towards “forgiveness” for several years. “I remember one conversation with my therapist where I said: ‘When will I get there? What’s it going to take?’ I was trying to justify her behaviour, or make sense of it, or empathise with her. My therapist said: ‘What if you don’t need to find that forgiveness? What if, in trying to find forgiveness, you’re still doing your mom’s work?’ It was really what I needed to hear, and felt like a tremendous weight lifted.”

When McCurdy wrote her memoir, which had its origins in a small, one-woman show, she had largely come to terms with her experience. She didn’t want it to be a way of “working through my trauma”, she wanted to write a more objective, entertaining, darkly funny book (it is, and more). Before her own dreams were squashed out of her, she had wanted to be a writer, but her mother’s view, McCurdy reports, laughing at the memory, was that “writers get big watermelon butts and actresses have cute little peach butts – and I want you to have a cute little peach butt”.

Writing the memoir (she is also working on a novel) has allowed her to simply miss her mother, or at least some aspects of her. “I used to really have a complicated relationship with missing her; I’d miss her, then I’d feel angry and that she doesn’t deserve for me to miss her. She abused me, how do I still have love for this person? It was a deeply confused form of grief, and now I’m able to just miss her.”

Debra got her dream, at great cost, but now so has McCurdy.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy is published by Simon & Schuster on 15 September.

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