After a long February day on the Los Angeles lot of Disney Channel, Selena Gomez is balancing a plate full of brown-sauce-drenched Chinese food on her lap, shoveling in chicken and vegetables. The 14-year-old's entire life freshly whisked from Texas sits in boxes lining the perimeter of her new home, a rented loft inside a just-renovated downtown industrial building. Her mom, Mandy Teefey, is huddled on the king-size bed in the center of the room, running her still-Texas-based production company from her laptop. They've yet to unpack beyond the odd toothbrush and shampoo bottle, but don't feel too sorry for them: After barely 24 hours of living in L.A., Gomez has already shot a guest spot on Disney Channel's No. 1 show, Hannah Montana one little part in a very big, months-long, years-in-the-making marketing campaign leading up to Gomez's very own starring vehicle, Wizards of Waverly Place.
In two weeks, Gomez will start shooting Wizards, which premieres in October. She plays the tomboyish mischief maker in a family of sorcerers who also run a sandwich shop a character tailored to her specifications. ''I asked that they keep her edgy,'' she says between bites (though she's talking more Avril Lavigne's fashion-sense ''edgy'' than Lindsay Lohan's clubbing-habits ''edgy''). "I don't want to be wearing heels. She wears Converse, and she's cool. I'm not really a girly girl." To wit, she's wearing a baggy white tank top and khaki sweats, her shiny black hair pulled into a no-nonsense ponytail. Still, it's hard not to notice the thick lashes, dark chocolate eyes, and doll face that surely helped seal her fate as a blessed rising star.
Many kids or, heck, even adults have uprooted themselves from their comfy hometowns to throw years and thousands of dollars into the abyss known as TV pilot season in search of an elusive break. But Gomez is on her way to Next Big Thing-dom in a manner fit for a precocious ninth-grade drama student's daydreams. After a two-year courting process that has tried her tween-size patience, she's ready for action—and, more importantly, so is Disney Channel. ''Without Disney, we wouldn't be out here at all,'' her mom says. ''We're a paycheck-to-paycheck family, and they kept paying for everything. I feel guilty sometimes." For Teefey, even this move seems a bit of a gamble—she and her daughter are leaving behind Gomez's stepdad, Brian, with their four dogs and a $140,000 home until they get a better feel for the financial implications. "A house that's, like, half that size here is $800,000,'' Teefey sighs.
But the prospects are good quite good, in fact. With powerhouse representation behind her (she's one of the youngest people on CAA's current roster, which mainly handles grown-up careers), Gomez is about to enter the hit-producing factory that overwhelmed the U.S. with High School Musical last year. It's a machine built around the ever-rising ratings of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, whose shows now attract an average audience of 2.1 million and 1.5 million viewers, respectively. The cable duo's two big winter premieres both scored better ratings than most teen-targeted broadcast shows: Nick's The Naked Brothers Band charmed 4.7 million viewers, and Disney Channel's Cory in the House nagged a record 7.6 million. (The average CW show attracted just 3.1 million last season.) But ratings are only the beginning: The real action is in stores. In the last decade, Nickelodeon's All That and Disney Channel's The Cheetah Girls proved how much kids were willing to spend on merchandise related to their favorite shows. Since then the networks' awareness of kids' market power (and their own desire for cross-platform synergy) has led to an ever larger range of stuff for sale. We're talking not only DVDs and soundtrack albums, but everything from T-shirts to diaries to charm bracelets. Disney Channel paraphernalia raked in $72 million in 2006 (more than tripling 2005's $19 million); Nickelodeon's merchandising yielded a whopping $306 million, according to Kagan Research. All of which makes these shows that many adults have never heard of lucrative in ways even prime-time hits can't touch. (CSI throw pillows, anyone?)
For Gomez, of course, the merch is beside the point. Being part of this machine could lead to all kinds of places. Even Stevens' alum Shia LaBeouf anchors the summer blockbuster Transformers and is bulking up for a major role in next year's Indiana Jones sequel; Kenan & Kel's Kenan Thompson returns this fall for his fifth season on Saturday Night Live. Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana soundtracks have debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's top 200 chart twice in the last year. And don't forget that The Mickey Mouse Club brought us no less than Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling. Yes, that last one is a genuine Oscar nominee, folks.
So how does one get in on this racket? Simple: The best way to get yourself a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show is by playing the sidekick or younger sibling on someone else's Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show. Otherwise, you're stuck taking your chances on an open casting call, where the odds are just this side of winning the lottery. (More on that later.) Hey, we didn't say it would be easy.
Kyle Massey is the poster child for Disney Channel's promote-from-within policy. When he was 10, he'd been going to auditions mainly as something to do while older brother Christopher, 12 at the time, understudied in The Lion King on stage in L.A. Just as the family was about to head home to Atlanta ''my dad said we'd been out there way too long,'' recalls Kyle, now 15 he was hired to play Raven-Symoné's little brother on Disney Channel's That's So Raven. (Christopher, incidentally, went on to play Michael on Nick's Zoey 101.) ''When we cast him, he'd done virtually nothing,'' Disney Channel Worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh says. ''He was just a bundle of unformed humor that spilled out if you didn't channel it in the right place.''
Five years later, Raven has outgrown Disney Channel, and Kyle has graduated to his own spin-off, Cory in the House, a comedy with a typically improbable Disney premise: Cory and his dad move to the White House when Dad's named personal chef to the president. Although Kyle is all jokes between takes, he approaches his work ultra-seriously, something he learned from his business-minded mentor. ''Raven broke it all down for me,'' he says. "I have to be professional. I set the tone on the set.... I have to work just as hard as I did to get the show to keep it.''
Kyle's closest counterpart at Nick, Miranda Cosgrove, has been toiling for three years as mischievous Megan, the little sister on Drake & Josh. Perhaps best known as the snippy band manager in the 2003 movie School of Rock, the 14-year-old will headline this fall's iCarly, about the quirky star of an online show. She's relishing the chance to help shape her character's more urban, Seattle sensibility, though her powers clearly have limits: She did not, in fact, get exactly what she wanted during auditions for her male sidekick. ''I was hoping for a six-foot-tall Gap model,'' she laments.
But let's say you lack those connections or, say, those of Zoey 101 star Jamie Lynn Spears. In that case, there's one recourse: the open call, where, against all odds, future stars like Selena Gomez have been discovered. The year Gomez signed to Disney Channel, for instance, the network held open calls in five cities, tested hundreds of kids, and found...exactly one. ''The bar is so much higher for us than it is in the adult casting process,'' Disney's Marsh explains.
After that mass audition, Gomez was cast in a Lizzie McGuire spin-off pilot. It eventually fell apart, but that little bit of exposure made Gomez a hot commodity. She took meetings with Nick talent reps and auditioned for a pilot and a TV movie there. (''It was uncomfortable,'' Gomez says of her Nick courtship, ''like I was cheating on Disney.'') Soon, Disney Channel flew her from Texas to test for two pilots and booked her in both, with the expectation of picking up one of the shows. ''Disney was like, 'Let's put you in everything we have,''' Teefey says.
What kind of kid catches the eye of casting agents? Marsh recalls that Gomez's audition was ''green, it was rough but she had that It Factor.'' Both networks emphasize that while they love high-energy kids who can deliver a line and get the humor, they avoid overtrained types. ''Like when a kid comes in and they've had eight years of voice lessons and six years of tap dancing, and you wanna hit them in the head with a hammer, they will not be on my shows," says Dan Schneider, the creator exec producer of iCarly, as well as Drake & Josh and Zoey 101. ''We try to cast very real kids who have raw talent.''
Still, execs clearly want kids whose God-given raw talent happens to include a skill like singing, or at least the ability to shill a product line—anything that allows for lucrative multiplatforming. ''We don't look at television as the endgame,'' Marsh says. ''That's the launchpad.... We go into this thinking we are going to build a star; it's not thinking we are casting a role.'' In other words, this isn't just a job, it's a life-altering commitment. Not only must kids be cute, smart, and quick to learn lines, but also dedicated, focused, and in it for the long haul. (That means you, too, Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister.) Both nets take great pains to, essentially, train the kids and their families to deal with the pressures of stardom from day one a process execs credit (at least partially) for their recent alumni's relatively public-meltdown-free track record. ''My mantra is the same: Prepare for the future; this may not last,'' Marsh says. "That means preparing for college, saving your money.... We try to create opportunities to keep them in the family as long as possible.''
The tween stars start their showbiz lives in the cushy confines of a kid-centric workplace. Shooting schedules are built around the legally required limit of five hours per workday (for 9- to 15-year-olds on school days), allowing time for schooling (usually with a tutor). In addition, sets have basketball courts for break time; adult crews feed off unjaded, youthful energy; and Nickelodeon even offers a boot camp for young stars called Talent 101, teaching everything from how to handle interviewers to what a key grip or call time is. ''Kids who are in a movie, like Lindsay Lohan and others, are the only kids in a world of adults,'' says Paula Kaplan, Nickelodeon Networks' head of talent. ''While our stars are at Nickelodeon, it's a world of kids. They spend all day long with each other and with their parents. They're able to build a strong structure with this security blanket around them, so they're well prepared when the real world hits.''
And in many cases, up-and-comers find mentors in the previous generation of stars: Cosgrove learned from her heartthrob TV siblings Drake Bell and Josh Peck how to handle fans ''I get a lot of 10-year-old girls, but it's a whole different level for the boys'' and sought support while filming iCarly. ''It made it comfortable because she got to see [Drake and Josh] go through it before she went through it,'' says Miranda's mom, Chris Cosgrove. ''The pilot was fun because she was ready for it.''
Best of all, the series are all built around making one or two main players into huge names at, industry insiders say, about the same pay ($10,000 to $15,000 per episode, with seasons that can vary from 13 to 32 installments) as an ensemble role on a network show for a kid with little previous experience. (That's a huge jump from five years ago, when networks were likely to pay at least twice as much as the kiddie channels, one agent says.) And though a leading role on a network hit say, Everybody Hates Chris or Two and a Half Men could pay more, those gigs are few and far between. ''I have said to my clients, 'You may not get rich, but you'll get really popular,''' says agent Meredith Fine, whose clients include Haley Joel and Emily Osment, Abigail and Spencer Breslin, and Devon Werkheiser (Nick's Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide). ''You can't buy that kind of publicity.'' (Still, it's good to keep some perspective about fame. ''When people say I'm a star, I'm like, 'I'm a Disney star, sweetie,''' says Massey. ''There's a difference.'')
The odds of success on a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon pilot, once it's shot, are demonstrably better than at the major nets. ''It's called focus,'' says Disney's Marsh. ''It's the difference between the networks doing 84 pilots, picking up 29, putting eight on the air, and one living at the end of the year...and us doing two pilots, picking up one, and pouring every ounce of brainpower into making it work.'' Some credit goes to trusted writer-creators like Nick mainstay Schneider, a former teen star who appeared in the late-'80s ABC sitcom Head of the Class. And once a series has a star, a concept, a carefully revised script, and a pilot, it still must survive research: from weeks to months of kid focus groups' uniquely honest feedback. As Nickelodeon's Kaplan says, ''We don't move fast.''
Once they've made it to the top, tween stars find themselves in a life that moves very fast indeed. It's January and multitasking media darlings Alex and Nat Wolff are getting a lesson in just how fast during a seven-hour day of interviews, interviews, and more interviews to launch their Nick show The Naked Brothers Band. Even in the morning, while still safely tucked away in their West Coast home in a dead-quiet spot in the L.A. hills, the arrival of some pesky reporter cuts short Alex's pretend bath in a box full of Styrofoam peanuts, which he's rubbing into his ringlets to ''wash his hair'' (bits of which will stubbornly cling even hours later). Nine-year-old Alex is expected, naturally, to take up his drums on command, to show off the grown-up-level skill he has to match 12-year-old brother Nat's preternatural gift on piano. And they both prove quick studies at the interview shtick Nat is reflective, Alex pitch-perfect precocious. (Of his jealous classmates, he quips, ''Some kids, like, a grade or two above me say I'm bad at skateboarding because I'm in a show. I'm like, 'Dude, I can do more stuff than you can.''')
Hours later, they've faced down a roomful of journalists demanding to know whether they feel they're ripping off Disney Channel's music-based formula for success (no); whether they really, truly write their songs (yes); whether they've ever watched thirtysomething, the '80s drama starring their mom, Naked Brothers' creator/exec producer/director Polly Draper (once, but it was kinda boring). They've handled favorite-band and cutest-girl questions from teen mags. They've explained to countless TV crews that their name has more to do with playing music straight out of the bathtub (when they were, you know, little) than with any current penchant for nudity.
''It's a lot to expect of a kid,'' Draper says of her sons' workload, which in their case also includes churning out new tunes for each episode. ''To me, it's like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe they're going to have to do all that.'''
There is one truly great unacknowledged advantage of being kid stars, though: They can literally collapse on the floor of the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton when their publicist tells them they're finally done at 6 p.m. Another plus? The clear-eyed perspective that youth affords. "When you're an adult, you need it to go well,'' Nat says. "But for me, the summer [filming the first season] was great, and if we don't do it again, we go back to regular summers. There's nothing that could go wrong right now.''