The Christy Carlson Romano who greeted me at the door of her Austin home wasn’t the Disney Channel teen whom millions of millennials grew up watching in the early 2000s. She also wasn’t the YouTuber who has gone viral multiple times over the past several months for oddly compelling walking confessional videos where the 37-year-old, clad in tight athleisure, spills her unfiltered thoughts on heavy topics like child stardom, abusive stage parents, and her history with alcoholism and an eating disorder.
The Romano I met looked like an average suburban mom. Wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and jeans, she let me into her house from a porch filled with Halloween decorations. We walked past the living room, where there was a huge dry-erase calendar filled with the schedules for her two daughters, Isabella and Sophia. A black cat winded its way through my legs as Romano offered me seltzer from her fridge.
We were a long way from Hollywood, where Romano found fame starring in Even Stevens and Kim Possible, and from New York City, where she got her start acting on Broadway and once played Belle in Beauty and the Beast. But Romano has never felt so balanced. “I’m happy to be here,” she said of her new hometown. “I’m so grateful to be in a place that I feel like is neutral and I don’t have to think about.”
She had been posting on YouTube since 2019, but her new videos have vaulted her from relative obscurity to almost-weekly coverage in the tabloids. In “How Stage Moms Destroy Childhoods,” she talks about seeing her fellow child stars being mistreated and even abused by their parents. In “How I Lost All My Money,” she reveals that she wasted all of the millions of dollars she had made as a child actor and had to start basically from scratch financially as an adult. In “How Psychics Scammed Me Out of $60,000,” she tells the story about how she, well, got scammed out of $60,000 by psychics.
Now, though, Romano seems to be thriving. She and her husband, Brendan Rooney, moved to Austin from Orange County, California, in 2020. Here, she feels free from the stress of show business, that all-consuming desperate sense that if she wasn’t hustling for her next big break, she was failing.
“If I’m in California, I’m wondering if I’m going to get an audition,” Romano said as we sat on her back deck. “I’m like, OK, I’m here. Do I need to meet with my agent? What do I need to do?”
Romano started working as an actor when she was 6 years old and continued throughout most of her childhood, commuting from Connecticut to New York City for auditions throughout elementary and middle school and skipping high school for Even Stevens and Kim Possible.
“It’s a fine line between cashing in and selling out.”
As an adolescent, she yearned to be your basic, average girl but got even more famous instead. Now Romano has a chance to finally live her life on her own terms, making the content she wants to make without having to play by the rules of “the industry,” as she calls it. Romano has found a niche in mining her own notoriety, opening up about her experiences and sharing them with the masses — even the unflattering parts.
“It’s a fine line between cashing in and selling out,” she acknowledged.
In the process, she’s working through and addressing what growing up in the public eye did to her mental health and raising awareness for what being a child star is really like. “Time is ticking,” she said. “I’ve waited for too long.” YouTube allows her to get to know her audience extremely well, down to what content they really want. “I know so much about my analytics, and I’m learning so much about the community out there. And so it’s cool how connected you can actually be.”
Her goal? Stacking cash, to give her girls the thing she desperately craved for years: stability.
“This is giving me the freedom to enjoy my life with my girls. If I had to be on a set all day and I was there for 12 hours a day, I would literally lose their childhood,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to be there for them. The way that I want to be is sort of like this working stay-at-home mom. And so I’m kind of getting the best of both worlds.”
One of the first things Romano brought up as we settled into our conversation wasn’t YouTube, or the Disney Channel, or her headline-making revelations. It was dance.
Specifically, dance classes for children. Romano is starting to sign up her daughters, ages 2 and 4, for activities, including nursery school and swim class. Inevitably for little girls in suburban America, dance is one of them.
It’s a seemingly simple decision, but Romano agonized over it, describing the process as “triggering.” Dance classes were how she eventually became a child star. One minute, it seemed, she was tagging along to her older sisters’ dance competitions, and then, suddenly, she was on Broadway.
“I was like, ‘Am I going to do this? Like, is the train leaving the station?’” she told me.
In 1998, the New York Daily News wrote a feature highlighting her life as a teen Broadway star. Romano, then 14, had been playing Mary Phagan, a murder victim, in the Lincoln Center musical Parade. The Daily News painted her as a precocious ingenue with a Hannah Montana–esque lifestyle, dazzling audiences nightly before racing back home to suburban Connecticut to attend high school as a first-year student.
“I’ve been maintaining a 95 average, too,” the newspaper quoted Romano as saying, “proudly.”
According to Romano, this characterization was a facade. In reality, Romano said she never was a normal kid.
She told me that her mother had tried to get all of her children into performing, but none of Romano’s three older siblings, who were teenagers when they dabbled in the business, really had much success or enthusiasm for it. Only Romano, driven and eager to please, took to the industry from an early age. At age 6, she was appearing in Annie at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and soon after booked small roles in television shows and movies (she played a trick-or-treater in Woody Allen’s 1996 movie Everyone Says I Love You).
“It’s crazy to think of a child’s childhood essentially being completely derailed.”
It didn’t hit Romano how young she had really been when she started her career until her own daughters were born. As her oldest, Isabella, has gotten closer to the age at which Romano started seriously pursuing acting, she has realized how little control she had over the decision to become a child star, which had a domino effect on her entire life.
“It’s crazy to think of a child’s childhood essentially being completely derailed,” she told me.
In one of her videos, Romano said she only believes parents should seek out acting opportunities if it is an “organic” dream of their children. Was she one of those children? She seems unsure. Instead, Romano remembers her biggest motivator being a desire to please the adults around her. She enjoyed performing, but what was most gratifying was attending auditions and getting immediate positive feedback.
“The thing that I remember the most is making people smile,” she said.
As her career began to take off, Romano attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. A distinct childhood memory is the extensive time she spent on trains with her mother, making the two-hour trip between school and home in Milford, Connecticut. Romano said this left her with a lifelong feeling of being transient, with no place where she truly belonged. In hindsight, she said, that had a real effect on her young psyche.
“I wasn’t good with change, but I was pushed into change my whole life,” she said. “And so that’s why I was always craving normalcy.”
At school with her fellow child actors, Romano dealt with the all-consuming drive to be famous and compete with her peers. When she returned home to the suburbs, she wanted to fit in with her three siblings, who were living relatively average lives, and, she speculates, had a hard time dealing with the fact they were not enjoying the same level of acting success. She also wanted to form real, lasting friendships back home. So that first year at a public high school was everything for her, including a chance to finally put down roots.
“I cherish that year so much because I begged my mom to let me go to a normal high school,” she said.
That taste of a normal life was fleeting. Parade closed due to budgetary issues, and Romano said her agent asked her to come out to Los Angeles to audition for pilot season. Soon after, she got the news every child star hopes for: She had landed the leading role in a Disney Channel series, Even Stevens. Romano, at 16, would be playing Ren Stevens, a popular and high-achieving eighth-grader who deals with hijinks from her younger, goofy brother Louis, played by a then-unknown Shia LaBeouf. (In 2021, his former girlfriend FKA Twigs sued LaBeouf, accusing him of sexual battery and assault. In response to a New York Times article about the suit and allegations that other women have made against him, LaBeouf claimed that “many of these allegations aren’t true” but said he owed the women “the opportunity to air their statements publicly and accept accountability for those things I have done.”)
After landing the role of a lifetime, Romano was devastated. She had finally begun to carve out a space for herself in Connecticut, was dating a boy she was excited about, and was “super sad” about leaving her entire family behind. Her life had seemed like it was starting, and now it was all being taken away.
“I’ve never really unpacked how that must have felt, but I know that it was very traumatizing,” she said.
If she was so unhappy, though, why didn’t she just quit? Sure, her mom always told her if it wasn’t fun anymore she could stop, but Romano said she felt deep down it wasn’t that simple. (I reached out to Romano’s mother for comment both directly and through Romano’s publicist. I was told that her mother was unable to speak to me about what she recalls from this time period.)
“My mom and I became a team … and so I felt like I couldn’t let my teammate down,” she said. “And that might actually not have been the true case. I think my mom would have been just fine if I had stopped doing this. … I didn’t really know whether or not stopping was a true thing to do, but it felt like I’d be letting her down.”
So she went, moving across the country with her mother to Los Angeles. When she arrived, she became part of Disney’s stable of teenage actors who would go on to become some of the most recognizable of the early 2000s: Hilary Duff, Raven-Symoné, and of course, LaBeouf. And while being on Disney Channel was nothing like being a normal high school student, some aspects of it felt like jockeying for a seat at the popular table.
Lizzie McGuire premiered the year after Even Stevens, and soon became a huge hit.
“We did have to compete a little bit with the Lizzie McGuire show,” she said.
Even Stevens never reached the success of Lizzie McGuire, although Romano’s next project, the animated Kim Possible, got better ratings. Romano’s profile also rose when she appeared alongside Duff in the 2002 Disney Channel original movie, Cadet Kelly, which has since developed a cult following.
Still, Romano describes herself as somewhat of an outsider. As their shows took off, Duff and other Disney stars like Lindsay Lohan became more famous, releasing albums and gracing the covers of magazines and gossip columns. “I wasn’t trying to be a pop star right off the bat,” she said. “Hilary and Lindsay, and even Raven, I think they had a lot of big plans and I had no big plans. I was really just trying to go to college.”
For many teens from that generation, the lives of Disney stars became, as Romano put it, almost like a reality show. But Romano was never really in the tabloids.
“I wasn’t invited to the party,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with it, but I legitimately at the time felt like I must not be interesting because [there just wasn’t] anything dramatic going on in my life.”
“Hilary and Lindsay, and even Raven, I think they had a lot of big plans and I had no big plans. I was really just trying to go to college.”
As Romano tells it, she hung around with some of her Even Stevens castmates but didn’t form any deep, lasting friendships.
Her most popular confessional video, “Why I Don’t Talk to Shia LaBeouf,” has 1.8 million views, but doesn’t really divulge any gossip, mainly because, it seems, Romano and LaBeouf never had more than a surface-level relationship.
Romano didn’t want to talk about the allegations against LaBeouf to me, saying she has avoided speaking publicly on it because she just wanted to address “how I knew him.” She said, though, that she knew he had a bad home life, that was worse than even most child stars. “I didn’t see it firsthand, but I knew it was happening and I could hear it happening and I could sense it happening,” she said. But, she added, she had her “own shit going on.” In the video, Romano says that while they were more coworkers than friends, she regrets not giving LaBeouf “a little more time and energy and love,” as she reflects on what he was dealing with behind the scenes.
When Even Stevens wrapped, Romano had a choice to make. She had landed a role in a pilot on a network show, and she had also been accepted to Barnard College in New York. When the pilot ultimately didn’t work out, Romano made a decision that her agent questioned at the time: She decided to go to school. The choice felt like a revelation, something that she had chosen to do on her own, without worrying about what people in the industry thought.
“If there’s one thing I hate is waiting around for Hollywood to decide what to do with you,” she said. “It’s a killer of life.”
For years her life had been dictated by her career. She learned how to ride a bike for a commercial, not on her block for pleasure. If she wanted to try any extreme sports, like skiing or snowboarding, she told me she had to get clearance from the production. If she injured her face or broke a bone, she could create headaches for a whole team of people. Her body wasn’t her own.
“There’s all these considerations, but not for your well-being — they’re for the well-being of the industry,” she said. “It’s basically, almost like you’re in the military, your body belongs to Hollywood, and … that never sat well with me.”
Now, she said, her body and her life would finally belong to her.
Still, Romano said her initial college experience didn’t go so well. She felt so desperate to be normal, she dove right into what she thought she was supposed to do, living in the Barnard dorms. She dated a star athlete for a few months, but when they broke up, she felt “targeted” by others in his social circle. She speculates that most young women would have been able to navigate that situation, but she felt rocked by it.
“I was pretty traumatized from school social hierarchy stuff, that’s pretty normal, but it would [have been] more normal if I had been in high school and dealt with it,” she said. “In college, it didn’t help me learn. I was super distracted.”
When she had the opportunity to audition for Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, she jumped at it. She got the part in 2004 and dropped out of school. After the show wrapped, she spent about five years trying to get back into acting, taking parts in made-for-television movies and voice-acting work, and even working as a traveling acting coach.
It was a turbulent time. At 21, she said, she told her mom, who had worked closely with her on her career up until that point, they could no longer work together, and the two didn’t speak for a year. She felt directionless and was more focused on partying and dating than figuring out what she wanted to do with her life. She wasted her hard-earned money and drank too much. When she went to auditions, she felt angry and entitled. How could she still be grinding so hard to make a living when she had sacrificed so much for this career? She described the period as a sort of “narcissistic purgatory.”
“I think I started to kind of hate this business of acting,” she said.
So at 26, she parted ways with her agents and went back to school at Columbia University. There she met her husband. Rooney was also a later-in-life student, attending college on the GI Bill after having served in the military. She said he had no idea who she was when they met. Their lives couldn’t have been more different, but their experiences — child stardom and military service — were surprisingly congruent.
“I think I started to kind of hate this business of acting.”
“Our baggage matched each other’s baggage,” she said. “We could blend our baggage set together and just roll along with each other to the next stop.”
Still, even after getting her degree in film, with an eye to directing and producing, Romano struggled to figure out how to work in the industry on her own terms. She moved back to California with Rooney, so he could attend the American Film Institute, and “tried a lot of different things.” She even tried interning at ABC Studios, Disney’s parent company, which led to some awkward encounters.
“I was literally sitting at the receptionist desk and the ABC studio executives would come by and they’d be like … ‘Aren’t you that girl?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” she said, describing it as “so fucking weird.”
Despite the awkwardness, Romano found the experience empowering. She learned aspects of the business she had never understood when she was a child actor and felt like she was working toward something.
“I felt really proud of myself, in a weird way, to show them that I was still alive,” she said. “Yeah, I was at the receptionist desk, but I’m still here. It was a quiet … ‘fuck you’ to them. I’m still here. You’re not going to forget me.”
As much as Romano speaks out online about the bad parts of Hollywood and works outside the industry, she still seems to want to be part of it. She has nothing but good things to say about Disney as a company and tells me she’s nervous she would come off as bitter or a “whistleblower” in this piece. “I still believe in the wholesomeness of what Disney represents, and I don’t think that I would ever speak negatively about Disney or even Disney Channel,” she said. She added that she would jump at the chance to do an Even Stevens or Kim Possible reboot if the project felt right: “I’m always willing to do the work and work hard for Disney,” she says.
But Romano couldn’t just wait around for Disney to notice her. As her 30s approached, she began to consider other ways to make money, and she found Comic-Con. It turned out that a lot of nostalgic millennials were curious about what stars like her were up to now. It was an easy and fulfilling way to make money, and also a revelation. She and Rooney discussed how she could tap into this fanbase that she hadn’t realized she had been leaving on the table.
“We would sit there like, This seems to be an overwhelming amount of people wondering what I’m up to,” she said.
“Because of that, I was able to move from a small condo in West Hollywood and into a house in Orange County. And I was ready to have my first baby because of this endorsement.”
The answer to how to tap into that fan interest was obvious: social media. Prior to 2016, Romano’s Instagram account had mainly consisted of photos of herself on set for her various projects, and she didn’t have that many followers. Once she got pregnant with Isabella that year, though, she started to wonder if she had an opportunity to make money off her personal brand. Slowly but surely, she said, she began to understand the algorithm and “started to see what being a part of the influencer game meant.” She shared more of her family, got better at her photo game, and began to think about who her demographic could be. She started treating her social media as a business and soon got her first deal with a baby brand.
“Because of that, I was able to move from a small condo in West Hollywood and into a house in Orange County,” she said. “And I was ready to have my first baby because of this endorsement.”
For the first time in a long time, Romano felt financially secure. It was, she said, a “super cool” feeling.
“When your whole life, you’re white-knuckling what the next chapter of your life is going to be … it’s just kind of a not fun existence,” she said. “That’s why people tell people not to act.”
Now though, with content creation? “The sky’s the limit,” she said.
Romano officially launched her YouTube channel in June 2019 with a series called “Christy’s Kitchen Throwback.” Shortly before launching, she wrote an essay in Teen Vogue, titled “Christy Carlson Romano: My Private Breakdown,” describing many of the struggles she has since shared on YouTube, reintroducing herself to fans after a decade out of the spotlight, and promoting her channel as her comeback.
“The beauty of the entertainment industry today is that you can create what you want to, a privilege that we didn’t have when I was coming up,” she wrote at the time. “With YouTube and the other social media platforms, smart, savvy people with talent can do it all themselves.”
The series took a formula Romano knew had potential from her Comic-Con days — catching up with child Disney channel stars — and married it with her own enjoyment of cooking. She had some viral hits; one video, where she made a recipe from Kim Possible with her former costar Will Friedle and dished on the series, got more than 2.5 million views. However, subsequent videos failed to match its success, even though they featured Disney favorites like Jason Earles from Hannah Montana and Sabrina Bryan from The Cheetah Girls. Romano seemed particularly bummed that a video re-creating the scene featuring “We Went to the Moon in 1969” from Even Stevens didn’t perform either.
By this point, Rooney had graduated from the American Film Institute with an MFA in screenwriting, and he began to work closely with Romano on her YouTube channel. Romano credited Rooney as much of the brains behind her content, saying he has a great mind for “forecasting trends.”
The couple dabbled in all types of content. They did challenge videos, and Romano shared her makeup routine and lifestyle tips. They tried family vlogging, and Romano set up verified Instagram accounts for her daughters (she eventually grew uncomfortable with them being public and made them private). She and Rooney even spent a lot of money on videos where they just gave cash to random people (“I Gave a Fan as Much Cash as They Could Catch,” “I Gave $5000 to Whoever Recognized Me From Disney Channel), for little return.
After the family moved to Austin in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic (for the slower pace of life and to escape wildfire season), it became difficult to film the kitchen series with guests. At one point, Rooney and Romano discussed abandoning YouTube altogether, to focus on Instagram and TikTok, where it is easier to grow an audience. But they decided to press on. She had been finding success with mental health– and advice-themed TikToks and speculated that her audience liked the “vulnerability” of that content.
“And so Brendan had an idea,” she said. “We fused together the concept of this ‘big sister in mental health,’ ‘Christy’s talking about her life’ thing. Memoir.”
In August, she posted the first of these videos, “The Truth About the Disney Channel,” in a style that would become her signature. She walks on the trails near her home, speaking directly to the camera about her life in a seemingly stream of consciousness, off-the-cuff manner (Romano insisted to me that “99% of the time,” the videos are not scripted but her publicist declined to let me observe her film one). This first one got more than 400,000 views. Since then, she has found a large amount of success, getting written up frequently in the tabloids for her revelations and getting hundreds of thousands of views on her channel (her video about LaBeouf has the highest number, with more than 1.8 million).
Finally, Romano was squarely back in the public eye. But she was gaining success by mining her own life and trauma, and by playing into some of the more cringe aspects of YouTube culture, like headlines that are clearly clickbait (“How Katy Perry Got My Record Deal” oversells the real story a bit).
Romano shrugs about that aspect. Her attitude seems to be: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
“That’s the only way to get noticed,” she said, then corrected herself. “It’s not the only way to get noticed, but it’s the quickest way to get noticed.”
The reactions to her videos generate more complicated feelings. She sees the tweets poking fun at her revelations, and some of them make her feel “shitty.” After living without public scrutiny for so long, being back in the conversation can feel triggering at times, but she’s learning to live with it.
“You just have to kind of put your blinders on and just focus on the success of what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s teaching me a lot. So while it is triggering, I think it’s also an exercise in acceptance.”
She also noted that, this time, it’s what she has chosen.
“I had to check in with myself and say, ‘Is this worth it?’” she said. “And it is worth it because what I never did before was have an authentic point of view, and it’s what I regret probably most in my career. … Now I’ve got a story. And so in giving that story a platform … I can start again.”
Obviously, Romano eventually will run out of childhood stories to mine, although she told me she has many more ideas in the bag. (Shortly after our chat, she released two back-to-back: “What Donald Trump Is Really Like” and “What Bill Clinton Is Really Like.”)
But after her story well runs dry, what’s next for Romano and her channel? She said her goal is to get to a million YouTube subscribers and to continue to grow her audience. The hope is that while people may go to her social media accounts for the nostalgia videos or confessionals, eventually they will stay for her. Leaning into being a lifestyle influencer, what Romano called the “Chrissy Teigen part of my life,” has been fun and fulfilling.
“When I get to do that, I actually feel like, my gosh, I am performing again, like, I’m having fun putting these clothes on and putting this image out there,” she said. “For now that’s … that’s good.”
She also said she isn’t done with Hollywood, per se, but she wants to do things on her own terms. Rooney is saving up to start his own agency for social media and trend forecasting, and the plan is for it to eventually have a film arm. The couple would love to make their own feature films, and Romano would love to direct or produce (she’s especially interested in family films). She hasn’t completely ruled out acting again, although, she noted, “I can’t say that people are going to come to me to be in their films.”
“I do love acting. I don’t love the business of getting a job in acting. I think it’s just a racket.”
“I used to love acting,” she said. “I do love acting. I don’t love the business of getting a job in acting. I think it’s just a racket.”
For now, Romano is focused on simple things. She and Rooney are getting to the place now where, she said, “their front door is about as big as their back door,” meaning that they are bringing in about as much money as they are spending. They are leasing their current Austin home, but they are hoping to save up enough to be able to build their own house further from the city. Romano said she now has a great relationship with her mother, who recently moved to Austin to be closer to them and helps out with the girls.
There’s one burning question I can’t get out of my head. There’s no way she would ever let her daughters become child actors, right?
Her answer surprised me. Romano doesn’t want her kids to act, but it’s complicated because she knows that it could be something they want to do. She could use her connections, get Isabella or Sophia an agent, and start booking them work. It’s not what she wants, and the thought terrifies her. But if it’s their dream? Maybe she couldn’t say no.
“I don’t really want it for them, and I will tell them that,” she said, sighing.
She said that when she looks at her girls, with their blonde hair and huge blue eyes, she realizes how successful they probably would be in the industry. That’s what makes it so hard and so scary. She’s not ready for one of her daughters to tell her they want to be just like her. “I’m not ready for that conversation and that concept,” she said. “If I’m not ready, how can I be a good support system for her? … The last thing I want is to put her in a business and then feel trepidatious or cautious … I wouldn’t want to do that to her.”
“Maybe it will never come!” I suggested. “Maybe she just will want to do soccer?”
“That’d be great,” Romano said, laughing, “because mostly I just don’t want to have to relive this experience. I just want to move on, you know. I want to figure out how to bottle the joy that I have right now, making content that makes people happy … I know that I have goals, but like … if I could be here in five years, I’d be happy for that too.” ●