By Erin Thiele and Barry Neil Shrum, Esq.

From the reality television show, Dance Moms to best-selling Sia album covers (including Chandelier, Elastic Heart, Big Girls Cry and Cheap Thrills), Capezio commercials, to featured judging on So You Think You Can Dance, 13-year old dancer Maddie Ziegler is the hottest teen sensation right now, and appears to be the face of the publicity avoiding singer/songwriter, Sia.

The Pittsburg-native Ziegler began her career performing in Paula Abdul’s reality television flop, Live to Dance, which was cancelled before it ever aired.  So, in 2011Ziegler and her mother made their debut appearance as featured dancers on the Lifetime show Dance Moms, a reality tv show about Abby Lee Miller’s elite competition team.  According to New York magazine writer, Rebecca Milzoff, Ziegler quickly “emerged” as a “polished standout.”  Ziegler begin her foray as the face of Sia in the artist’s video Chandelier, which was released in 2014.

It might seem that her involvement with Sia was a natural next step in her career path, however, it was actually more like being struck by lightning (or in this case, Twitter).  Sia took note of the young dancer’s abilities and informally tweeted to Ziegler, asking her to star in her new video.  At first, as any normal adolescent girl would assume, Ziegler thought the tweet was some sort of prank and didn’t believe that she was being approached by the “real” Sia.  With hindsight as our guide, we now know that the tweet was, indeed, real.  From that rather humble yet fortuitous beginning, Ziegler has now been featured in four music videos for Sia. 

Now Ziegler’s image on the cover of Sia albums is featured everywhere, from Pandora and Sonos, to iTunes and Shazam.  From being a young girl dancing on reality television show to having your photo plastered all over the music scene and everywhere else, Ziegler’s net worth has skyrocketed to well over $2-million. As with all well-placed marketing, using her image is extremely successful at building a brand.  

Her dancing history, combined with her acting abilities, are propelling Ziegler’s current buzz, which only promises to grow louder.  She has been featured as an actor in several Disney videos and television shows, as well as many other network shows.  Ziegler also stars in the upcoming feature film, The Book of Henry, to be release in September, as well as Sister, a full-length movie being directed by her alter ego, Sia.  Last year, Ziegler was named as one of Time magazines “Most Influential Teens,” a title which she continues to build upon.

All of this success is no accident.  It would appear that Ziegler and her mother, Melissa, have had this plan for her life in mind from the day she signed up for the Abby Lee Dance Company at the tender age of two years old.   For the most part (one exception noted later), it would appear from an outsider’s vantage point that her and her mother are doing an admirable job navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of success at such a tender age, even though her mother went through bankruptcy and divorce while most of this was going on.  What lessons can be learned from Ziegler and her mother?

One priority is to comprehend and understand exactly what intellectual properties the child owns and figure out how to protect them.  For Maddie, she possesses not only her rights of publicity, which translate into endorsements and sponsorships, but certain other intellectual assets such as her acting and dancing abilities, which can translate into potential copyrights (choreography is one of the specific works noted as being entitled to copyright in the 1976 Act).  All of these various intellectual properties are licensed and/or exploited through some form contractual arrangement.  In the case of a copyright, a written document is essential to transfer any rights. 

So all you dance moms listen up! You daughter may not be on the album of the next big hit but the likelihood of her being the image for a tights or other dance wear organizations is high. Make sure your contracts are beneficial and legally binding.  Read and understand the contract, more importantly make sure you understand. If you do not, find a qualified entertainment attorney who can help you understand. Don’t sacrifice your child’s legal rights in order to be famous.

Which brings us to the next set of issues related to the age of the child celebrity.  For example, can Maggie Ziegler legitimately enter into contracts on her own behalf, or must she rely on her mother to execute agreements?  Are there ethical and moral issues involved when a parent allows their child to be portrayed in sexually compromising scenes and videos?

With regard to the ability of a child celebrity to sign a contract, each state has different laws regarding the age at which a person can legally enter into a contract.  That age is referred to as the “age of majority.”  Until the child reaches that age, 18 in most states, he or she is considered to be suffering from the “disability” of being a minor.

This has serious implications for the parent who signs on their behalf.  If a parent enters into an agreement on behalf of the child without taking appropriate steps have that “minority” status removed, the child can repudiate the contract when they reach the age of majority in certain circumstances.  In that instance, the parent may become liable for any of the obligations undertaken on behalf of the child celebrity.

Brooke Shields is a shining example of what can happen if this issue is not carefully considered:  In 1975, photograph Garry Gross entered into an agreement with Shields’ mother to take photographs of the 10-year old Brooke for Playboy Press.  Later, in 1983, Brooke was embarrassed by the exploitation of the photographs, and sought an injunction against the photographer from further exploitation.   Even proper execution of a contract by a minor’s parents can cause them great grief later in life. 

Similarly, if the proper steps are not taken to enter the contract, the child may be able to simply repudiate the contract when he or she reaches the age that a state declares them to be an adult.  LeAnne Rime sued Curb Records to repudiate her deal signed by her and her parents in 1995.  Curb sought removal of her disability through Tennessee Courts, since the forum selection clause of her contract listed Tennessee as the choice of law.  Rime claimed, however, that she was a Texas resident at the time and therefore the removal process should have occurred in her home state of Texas.  The court disagreed with Rimes and she ultimately renegotiated her contract with Curb, which may have been the ultimate end game anyway.

In many states, Tennessee (§29-31-101) for example, the so-called “emancipation” of a minor can be performed by certain legal proceedings such that the child can enter into the contract on his or her own behalf.   These procedures sometimes involve the appointment of a guardian ad litem to review the proposed agreement and “bless it,” or in some circumstances the court itself may be the only review required.  A decree is then issued that “emancipates” the minor and removes the disability.  Some states, including Tennessee, allow for a “blanket” type decree, that empowers the minor to do all things necessary to further their career, such as entering into contracts, suing and being sued. 

There is another very real concern the laws address with regard to child celebrities, and that is the money earned while they under the age of majority.  Many states, among them Tennessee, California and New York, require that a certain percentage of that income be placed in a set-aside trust for the child until they obtain that legal age.  But that is, perhaps, a topic for a later blog.

Which brings us to the more delicate issue of morals and ethics.  Maddie appeared in a skin-colored leotard in Sia’s Elastic Heart video opposite a 30-year old male dancer, Shia LaBeouf, who was wearing nothing but boxer-length shorts.  According to Rolling Stone, the two dancers were “cage fighting” in an attempt to portray Sia’s two “warring self-states.”  The release of the video immediately set of a viral barrage of complaints about sexual prevision and pedophilia, which Sia claimed she “anticipated.”  One fan on Twitter tweeted that the video “Smacks of child molestation.”  For herself, Maddie explained that the director and Shia kept insisting that she “bite him harder” and “slap him harder.”

Music videos have always “pushed the boundaries” of what is acceptable, often inspiring trends in popular culture that are outside the norms of society.  Research over the years has drawn a direct correlation between certain types of music lyrics and videos and undesirable behavior and psychological impact in children.  See, for example, Impact of Music, Music Lyrics, and Music Videos on Children and Youth, Pediatrics, Nov. 2009, Vol. 124, Issue 5.  I want to make it clear here that I am not condemning or passing judgment on Maddie and her mother.  My intent is to point out that in certain situations, the child celebrity needs the parent to make the critical decision more than ever.

 If one thing is clear about child celebrities, it is that if they have loving and supportive parents who help them lead balanced lives, they are likely to make valuable contributions to society.  If they don’t, the stress placed upon these teen sensations usually leads to all sorts of problems such as regression, depression, ala Lindsay Lohan, drug and substance abuse, ala early Drew Barrymore, or even worse, suicide, ala Dana Plato.  Parents of child celebrities should make time for them to be “normal” children, helping them to draw the appropriate lines between who they are as the child in the family, and who they are as the “star.”  For every example I can give you of a child star “gone bad,” I can give you two examples of child stars who became well-adjusted adults who are still performing and contributing greatly to the benefit of society, ala Marie Osmond and her Children’s Miracle Network.

History is replete with “momangers” who run, and sometime ruin, the careers of their children.  Just as frequently, an overbearing father can be the source of stress for a child celebrity.  Most often, those stories end in years of grief for their children, who may never overcome the psychological struggle. 

A word to wise “dance mom” or dad would be to brace for a long journey, and prepare early only to be the supportive and loving parents, taking every opportunity you have to cherish your child and create normal experiences for them outside their chosen craft.  Most of all, don’t become greedy or vindictive.   Lindsay Lohan’s parents often fought out her many troubles in the media, which will most certainly fuel the flames.  That’s not good for anyone.

Finally, it can help to find trustworthy professional advisers – legal, financial and even psychological – that can steer you clear of problem contracts and other situations that can cause grief.  In short, be a good parent and carefully decide what your goals are, involving your child in those decisions.  Sometimes the tried and true methods never change.  


A special thanks to my intern Erin Thiele for her helpful contributions to this piece.