As I picked up Hayley Mills’ memoir, Forever Young, tried to recall when I had last been so excited about a celebrity. Ah yes, it was a few years back, when Mills was making her first stage appearance in New York, in a rather sitcomish off-Broadway play. Since I cover theatre, I not only grabbed a press seat, but asked for an interview with Mills. There was little press interest in her at the time, but there were a lot of middle-aged women lining up to see how one of their childhood idols was looking and acting in her 70s.
Someone once said you never want to meet your childhood idols.
We spoke on the phone, and Hayley was delightful and expressed many of the same sentiments as are in the book. “I loved the Disney Studio, and Walt, and there was never any exploitation,” she told me. “Still, I had to forfeit friends, as I was always leaving my boarding school and struggling to catch up. There was a price to pay, and that kind of fame can be very isolating. I am only grateful I didn’t become famous in the time of social media.”
I recall that she seemed genuinely touched when I told her how she’d mattered to me and so many others. “It has been absolutely wonderful to have so many people, after the show, saying how they grew up with me,” Mills said. “I think it takes them back to either a happier time, or to their adolescence, and all that meant to them.”
Which makes even more sense now.
Remembering Hayley Mills and Other Childhood Idols
The pandemic’s haunting ability to force many of us to reassess our lives—then, now, and in the future—makes a memoir like this one hit hard. I don’t know about you, but it feels like yesterday that I had my hair chopped to look like Susan and Sharon in “The Parent Trap.” And when my best friend and I, one holding a guitar, the other at a piano, were lip-synching to “Let’s Get Together.”
Hayley was not the first star that influenced me…nor would she be my last. I donned Mouseketeer ears from the day I first watched those talented kids. (Sharon and Doreen were my favorites) Then there was Sandra Dee mooning for Moondoggie while riding the wild surf. No, I didn’t take up the sport, but there I was begging my mom to buy me a Gidget- type swimsuit.
Later, saying bye-bye to my adolescence, my poor mom was sewing me sexy Ann-Margret-style tops. Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda were probably the last of the celebrity set who had me changing my hair and clothes dramatically. While time has lost meaning over the past year and a half—even days and dates need to be constantly checked—the innocence of the way, way back, as Hayley Mills said, brings happier memories.
Brushes With Fame
By now, my own history includes some of the people I wanted to emulate. Once, awaiting a musician to interview, I noticed the receptionist was a rather homely woman named Doreen. It couldn’t be the former Mouseketeer, could it? Indeed, alongside her desk was a picture of the Club of which she was once a part.
There were a lot of middle-aged women lining up to see how one of their childhood idols was looking and acting in her 70s.
I interviewed a rather bloated and lonely Sandra Dee when her career was well behind her. I exercised alongside Fonda in her aerobics studio, campaigned for her husband, and, when writing a profile for US Magazine, refused the editor’s insistence that I ask why she’d had breast enhancements. And there I was laughing with Hayley Mills about finding a place our cell service worked best. (She ended up in the hotel’s closet for our interview.) They had all battled the ups and downs that come with fame.
Someone once said you never want to meet your childhood idols, meaning they will likely disappoint. I say it’s nice to reach the age when we can be grateful for what they meant to us growing up, and newly grateful that they turned out to be merely human.
Michele Willens’ collection of essays, From Mouseketeers to Menopause, will be released in December.