Selena Gomez, "Spring Breakers" and the tricky transition to adult stardom

Raunchiness -- in art or in life -- is a teen-idol tradition. But will it ruin these Disney stars' careers?

Published March 13, 2013 5:48PM (EDT)

Scene still from "Spring Breakers"
Scene still from "Spring Breakers"

The movie "Spring Breakers" has been talked about for months prior to its release -- it comes out in New York and Los Angeles on Friday -- for the way it deploys three tween-friendly stars in a garish, violent tableau. Andrew O'Hehir described it as, in part, "a softcore 'Girls Gone Wild' spring-break special, featuring formerly wholesome teen-oriented stars Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens."

Hudgens and Gomez are especially well-known for their work on the Disney Channel (respectively, "High School Musical" and "The Wizards of Waverly Place"), while Benson stars in ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars." But they're hardly the first Disney-affiliated stars to go rogue in an attempt to get more control of their artistic or personal lives.

Hudgens and Gomez's contemporary, Miley Cyrus, is perhaps the ur-Disney starlet of the century, and has had a rocky ride to adulthood. While Cyrus' show, "Hannah Montana," was still on the air, and when Cyrus was 15, the actress posed wrapped in a bedsheet and with artfully mussed hair in the pages of Vanity Fair. An album, "Can't Be Tamed," all about her wild side, followed, and was a critical and commercial disappointment; Cyrus has recently debuted a platinum-blond mohawk. Despite Cyrus' evident interest in growing up (and remaining part of the tabloid news cycle), her audience hasn't followed her, and actual adults can't be bothered to listen to "Can't Be Tamed."

Before Cyrus came the 1990s "Mouseketeers" of the Disney Channel. The boys among the group -- including Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake -- had relatively smooth paths to adult stardom (Timberlake came away from stripping a woman's top off at the Super Bowl utterly unscathed and makes critically acclaimed music about R-rated pursuits). The girls included Britney Spears, who began rebelling as soon as she began recording, first with a Lolita-themed David LaChapelle photo shoot in 1999, then with endless restatements, in song, that she was not a little girl anymore (as though she'd ever been), then with a much-publicized breakdown in the middle of the 2000s. Her cohort in "The Mickey Mouse Club," Christina Aguilera, has seen her albums sell less and less as they grew more and more explicit and has been mocked for her weight and lascivious persona in recent years. About Lindsay Lohan, whose career began in Disney productions, the less said the better; her commitment to rebellion has been total, and her career has suffered.

In his quest to be taken seriously as an adult singer and actor, Justin Timberlake was able to move fairly seamlessly, while Spears and Aguilera stumbled and Lohan hasn't been able to come back from too-risqué productions and an outré personal life. Until recently, Justin Bieber was coming to be taken seriously by music writers and adult audiences by adopting a more mature sound; his recent travails abroad (missing shows, trying to get into nightclubs) are likelier to be a hiccup than a career-ender.

Meanwhile, the girls of "Spring Breakers" are getting lambasted on "The View" and chastened by Disney executives in the New York Times: these execs, speaking privately, said they "doubted that Ms. Gomez, who will headline the Radio Disney Music Awards on April 27, knew exactly what she was getting into."

Perhaps Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens can end up like Jodie Foster -- a former Disney star ("Freaky Friday") who transitioned to an Oscar-winning film career. But Foster's audience had already seen her in "Taxi Driver," and the roles Foster took after "Freaky Friday" slowly and incrementally got her to the point where she could credibly play an adult. At 20, with no other adult roles under her belt before she strapped on her "Spring Breakers" bikini, and with a fan base that's disappointed when she does something as minor as writing a song about ex Justin Bieber, Gomez would be wise not to cancel on the Radio Disney Music Awards.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Selena Gomez Spring Breakers Vanessa Hudgens