In a New York Times opinion piece published Tuesday, Feb. 22, the Matilda actress reflects on her childhood in the spotlight, and how it parallels the life of the pop star.
As Mara notes, she and Britney came from different backgrounds, with the singer dancing and singing about love and heartbreak onstage, while she was a precocious child starring alongside Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. But Mara describes feeling that she and Britney's lives followed the same trajectory.
The now-33 year old actress calls this phenomenon "The Narrative," describing how society assumes "anyone who grew up in the public eye will meet some tragic end."
Mara writes that she and her parents went to great lengths to ensure she never followed down the "dark path" that other child stars succumbed to, describing how she shared a room with her sister and attended public school to instill a sense of humility and normalcy.
Moreover, the Matilda actress witnessed "many teenage actresses and singers embracing sexuality as a rite of passage, appearing on the covers of lad mags or in provocative music videos." From a young age, she says she decided "that was never going to be me."
Nonetheless, Mara says she was "sexualized," despite "intentional" efforts to act in family-friendly projects and wear child-like clothing. "People had been asking me, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' in interviews since I was 6," she shares. "Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant's arrest for soliciting a prostitute."
If it wasn't reporters asking her inappropriate questions, then it was adult men sending her love letters. Mara remembers, "It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did."
She adds, "Before I even turned 12, there were images of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped into child pornography. Every time, I felt ashamed."
Now, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment committed by those in positions of power is no longer enabled by the industry, and some individuals are being held accountable in a court of law. But Mara points out, "My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public."
The actress reflects on why her life ended up so differently from Britney's, despite the "familiar" experiences they went through. Mara says it all came down to the support she received from her family and friends.
"But my life was easier not only because I was never tabloid-level famous, but because unlike Ms. Spears, I always had my family's support. I knew that I had money put away for me, and it was mine," she says. "If I needed to escape the public eye, I vanished—safe at home or school."
Mara also rejects the idea that she or Britney knew what they were getting into when they became public figures. As she sees it, the path these stars takes "often has far less to do with the child than with the people around them."
To see what other child stars have said about growing up in the spotlight, read our gallery here.