Don't hitch your economic wagon to a 5-year-old star. Every parent thinks their own 5-year-old is the smartest, the cutest, the most perfect.

           But when MCI recently announced that they would hold a national TV commercial casting call for 5-year-olds at the Mall of America, suddenly parents of 300 little ones thought their progeny could snare fame and lucre--forgetting that "lucrative" and "5-year-olds" are near antonyms.

           Little Amanda Mary Kate is angelic: lambent blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and a sprightly smile of mischief and grace. No wonder her print advertising feeds her college fund. In 2009, Amanda Mary Kate will matriculate wherever she wants. For the time being though, she perches beside her mom, herself immaculate.

           MCI wants the kids to draw themselves talking on the phone. Amanda Mary Kate draws a very small person on a very empty page and abandons it. Is she nervous? She shakes her head, her curls flipping on her shoulders like wavelets lapping the sun. Mom watches her, adoringly.

           Nearby, Brendon has white-blonde hair, but none of Amanda Mary Kate's experience. No matter, Brendon's mom says, because the family is moving to Japan. "They're crazy for blondes over there. We're going to put the money in a college fund--his father and I don't see how we can pay for it otherwise."

           The Lynhurst twins, Michelle and Melissa, are quite literally climbing the walls, tables, and benches, responding to their parents pressure and enthusiasm. "We came up with something cute this morning," says mom, repeatedly, "but whether they'll do it is another thing." Dad is a singer with a blonde mustache and high hopes for the gene pool. DNA aside, all he can do is try to keep the girls' hair bows in place, while all around 5-year-olds squirm, crawl, and chirp staccato clips of information.

           "Yes. No. I don't know. Nothing." These are 5-year-olds' answers to any question. They don't elaborate. They don't, as a rule, tell stories. If you ask them an unattractive question they will ignore you, or slide under the table and crawl away. That is why 5-year-olds have parents. Parents alone know why a 5-year-old auditions, what he hopes, where she lives, and what it thinks. Question a 5-year-old, and Mom answers.

           The wise grown-ups at MCI'S agency know that. So they drag the wee ones and their drawings off to closed group auditions, and question them in front of a cloud-painted scrim with nothing but prop telephones to play with. Then their true natures come shining through. Little girls with carefully sprayed and curled hair bunch their skirts up in their hands and hike them towards their ears. One boy spends his entire audition with his shirt-tails in his mouth. Another lies down and pretends to sleep. Hopping throughout an audition is common, as is battering peers with a rolled-up drawings, or lowering headbands over the eyes like Lt. Geordi La Forge.

           The casting directors specialize in working with children, and perfectly illustrate the difference between the reality and the idea of children. One casting director is a blonde Nathan Lane. "Grandma's on the phone!" he shouts, "Ring ring! Pick up the phone!" The child picks up the phone. The casting director assumes a crackly, hilarious old-lady voice. "Hello, Johnnie? I'm so happy you called. How are you?" Then, everything falls apart. Most children, at this point, become extremely wary and alert. Many pick up the phone and expect their grandmother to be on it. Clearly this man is insane. He is shouting in various voices. He thinks he is their grandmother. He thinks the toy phones are real. Everything they have heard about "strangers" comes flooding into their minds--many slam down the phone and refuse to proceed with the audition. Of course, MCI is looking for children who are comfortable and charming in front of lights, cameras, and strange adults. A rare child indeed.

           Under pressure, most of the little angels resort to pop-culture non-sequitur. One young man wants to talk on the phone to President Clinton about "french fries," and laughs madly. A boy in a snazzy bowl cut wants to join the Power Rangers to "kick butts." Or they plagiarize one another: If one kid in a group wants to speak to his grandma on the phone, every child after him will too. Ditto for Cinderella, and more mysteriously, Elton John. A girl wants to speak to her best friend Corinne, so the next child wants to speak to his best friend Corinne. He can't think of anything to say to his best friend Corinne on the prop phone. He protests that he doesn't know anyone named Corinne. He starts to cry. In one group, a child volunteers the joke: "Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?" and three more offer it up too. (He hadn't any guts.)

           When the Lynhurst twins step up under the lights, Mom and Dad's coaching is forgotten; they devolve into whispering and poking at each other. Brendon had better be loved for his golden tresses in Japan, because he is stricken totally mute before MCI's cameras. But worst of all, perfect, ladylike, angel-eyed Amanda Mary Kate balls her drawing up into an unsalvageable wad, sticks two fists into her underpants, and crouches and hops all around her auditioning group like a teeny-tiny, sweetly obscene Sumo wrestler.

Next Page »