Remembering Aaron Carter: America’s Beloved and Embattled Former Child Star

Photo Credit: Michael Bezjian

The indelible public image of Aaron Carter, who died on Saturday, November 5th at age 34, will be that of the smiling child with bleach-blonde hair standing either next to his brother Nick (of Backstreet Boys fame) or next to Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan (his relationships with them as a teenager was an unending subject of press fascination). Yet behind the perfectly tailored public image lay a life of almost unimaginable strife – of a man forced to project that he had it all while his world fell apart. In a video that’s circulated widely on social media this week, an adult Carter tells the truth about his 2003 MTV Cribs appearance. In said episode, Carter – sporting a backward baseball cap, a graphic tee, and cargo shorts – confidently welcomes cameras into his 17-acre Florida compound. It seems like the stuff of teenage dreams, but years later he revealed that just hours earlier he had been told his parents were divorcing and thus everything he was showing off would soon cease to be his.  

Carter will, perhaps, be best remembered for his musical output. His self-titled album – released when he was just 9-years-old – boasted two Top 10 hits in the U.K. and has since been certified Gold in multiple countries. Listening to this collection of sunny, bubblegum pop songs now is a profoundly odd experience. Not just because these songs clearly were never aimed toward an adult audience, but because of how jarring the contrast is between the song’s sunny outlook and the reality of the exploitation Carter faced as a child star.

Photo Credit: Jive Records

Following the release of 2002’s Another Earthquake! – which was widely considered a commercial flop – Carter would wait for another decade-and-a-half until he re-entered the music scene, though in that time three greatest hits albums would be released by his label – seemingly as nothing more than a cash grab for Sony. 2018’s Love found the image of the smiling, bleach-blonde teen replaced with that of an emaciated, tattooed Carter sporting neon-blue hair. It was an image the public was unequipped for and largely uninterested in – both the album and its lead single failed to chart.

The music itself was a mixture of trap, pop-punk, R&B, and a lot of EDM-infused pop that stayed true to the contemporary musical trends of the mid-to-late 2010s. Though it failed to establish a distinctive musical identity for Carter, it hinted at the sort of emotional sincerity that childhood Carter would never have been able to incorporate into his output. One wonders if, with more time, the former child star would have hit on a sound and style of songwriting that did justice to his past tribulations and attempts at salvation.

Photo Credit: Sony Music / Z Entertainment

The further you look into Carter’s life, the darker things get. His story is emblematic of that of so many child stars. In keeping with California law, his parents were supposed to keep at least 15% of his savings in a “Coogan” account that he would then have access to as an adult. Had such happened, the ubiquitous child star would have received $20 million upon his eighteenth birthday (according to Carter himself). Instead, he received just $2 million and later discovered that he owed double that amount in taxes. In 2013, he declared bankruptcy and as a result found himself once again a subject of media fascination. 

The abuse was seemingly a near-constant in Carter’s life. He alleged abuse from his brother Nick (which Nick unreservedly denies) growing up, as well as from his late-sister Leslie; who herself died of an overdose in 2012 at just 25-years-old. In 2019, courts granted Carter a restraining order against his ex-girlfriend Lina Valentina after she reportedly threatened to stab him – and in 2020, his then-girlfriend Melanie Martin was arrested for domestically abusing him. His upcoming memoir allegedly sees Carter tell of finding Michael Jackson sleeping at the end of the bed when he was a child – though Carter’s team has decried the supposed leak as a “cash grab.”

Photo Credit: Andre Csillag

The public image of Carter – consisting of the sort of charming, faux-rebellion that child stars have long marketed – dissolved quickly as Carter entered his late 20s and early 30s. Struggling with drug addiction and mental health struggles (Carter was diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia as an adult), his health declined rapidly. Before checking into rehab in 2018, the 6-foot-tall, 30-year-old weighed just 115 pounds. His stint in rehab – though seemingly successful, if only brief – served to further the media circus that surrounded his life.

Post-rehab, Carter put on 45 pounds and attempted to repair familial relationships, though in rare public appearances he still seemed broken by his childhood fame and its fallout. As he tried to navigate his identity and find financial freedom in his early 30s, he continued to be derided by the media – accused of queerbaiting when he came out as bisexual in 2019 and shamed for creating an OnlyFans account over a year later (which was seemingly a last-ditch attempt to secure a reliable source of income).

Photo Credit: Nogen Beck

In this sense, Carter’s story is emblematic of the fate that befalls so many former child stars – no longer malleable and easily marketable, the media knew not what to do with Carter, other than to turn him into a source of unrelenting mockery. It’s that which ultimately seemed to break him – in 2017, a visibly distraught Carter seemed unable to wrestle with the hate, and even death wishes, that he received daily. “I don’t understand how I dedicated 22 years of my life to my fans…”, he started tearfully, “…And now they turn on me.” Asked if he regretted celebrity, he declared mournfully, “I didn’t have a choice.”

Written by: Tom Williams

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