Child star disaster stories abound. How did Punky Brewster avoid that fate?

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Neal Justin, Star Tribune
·3 min read
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Child stars are destined for disaster. If that's a surprise, you haven't been watching enough TV.

In last year's "Showbiz Kids" documentary, Todd Bridges and Evan Rachel Wood looked back at their early careers with anything but candy-coated memories. "Framing Britney Spears," released this month, shows how the former Mouse­keteer buckled under the pressure, leading to a conservatorship that continues to stifle her artistic and financial freedom. News reports on the recent death of Dustin Diamond reminded us how the actor went from "Saved by the Bell" to time behind bars.

Next month, YouTube will debut "Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil," in which the pop star, who spent part of her childhood frolicking with Barney the dinosaur, opens up about her darkest moments, including a drug overdose in 2018 that has left her with brain damage.

"I was able to finally come out and talk about some of the traumas that I have had in my past and experiences in the industry, some of the reasons that kind of led up to that breaking point," Lovato said during a virtual press conference. "It's not just about substances. It's not just about that journey. It's about self-acceptance. It's about not conforming to what other people think you should conform to."

There's a way to learn that lesson without putting your life on the line. All you need is a little Punky Power.

Soleil Moon Frye hasn't had the most stupendous career since she starred as "Punky Brewster" in the 1980s. She spent much of her teenage years slumming in films like "Piranha" and "Pumpkinhead 2." But she managed to avoid the tabloids, the courthouse and reality shows where she'd have to share a bedroom with a fellow C-lister.

The secrets to her success can be found in "Kid 90," a documentary premiering March 12 on Hulu. In it, Frye revisits fellow child stars, including Stephen Dorff and Brian Austin Green, as they talk about how they emerged from early fame unscathed, at least compared with peers who succumbed to addiction, depression and even suicide.

Part of the winning formula is being surrounded by people who don't always treat you like a mini-adult. In a press conference last week, Frye talked glowingly of how she and her sitcom's young co-stars were allowed to jump off furniture with pogo sticks, ride scooters around the lot and sneak into Johnny Carson's office.

"It was such a dream that we were able to be kids," she said. "I always went to summer camp, always had my childhood, which I think was so incredibly important."

Not that she was a saint. The documentary, which relies heavily on footage Frye shot when she was a teenager, shows her taking drugs even as she and her famous friends spoke on behalf of the "Just Say No" campaign. She battled body-image issues, which led to breast reduction surgery at the age of 16. She lost her virginity to Charlie Sheen.

But bitterness toward the character that made her a star never materialized. That may explain why she was eager to return to the sunny-side-up role in a new reboot now streaming on Peacock.

"Punky has really been such a part of my heart. I never wanted to run away from it," she said. "Of course we go through the trials and tribulations of growing up and wanting to have our sense of self. And yet, for me, I'd say Punky is how I rediscovered so much of my own Punky Power. There were times in my life that I kind of lost some of that. This was an internal compass as my way back."

Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •

Njustin@startribune.com • @nealjustin