Trust Christy Carlson Romano when she says she knows how it looks to have uprooted her family from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas during the pandemic. “It seems like the basic bitch journey of quarantine,” the former Disney Channel actor says with a self-deprecating grin. But also trust her choice in words when she says she needed space — space from Hollywood, space from the childhood memories bound to the city, and space for her two young daughters to be able to grow up out of the public eye. Far from a complete retreat to the wilderness, ATX offered dusty hills and pockmarked lakes already paved by fellow celebrity expats like Haylie Duff (they’re neighbors, and reconnected after the move), Robert Rodriguez, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, and Joe Rogan before her. It probably didn’t hurt that Texas, unlike California, has no state income tax.
“We were like, ‘Well, this place is just kind of an oasis, philosophically,’” Romano, 37, says over Zoom from her new home, which she shares with her husband, film writer and producer Brendan Rooney, and daughters Sophia and Isabella, ages 2 and 4. “It’s just very good vibes only. [...] I had a codependent relationship to staying in LA so that I could be there for the ‘right’ time. Like, ‘How could the right opportunity come along if you’re just not there?’”
Romano spent years waiting for the phone to ring with the perfect part. It never did, so she turned to YouTube. “I think those people that are stuck under the gun of traditional Hollywood models, agents, managers, and the false hope of a future that probably doesn’t exist anymore,” Romano says. “That is like the foot on their neck.” Soon, Austin was playing host to the actor’s blossoming channel, a patchwork of cooking videos, cosplay, Disney Channel nostalgia, and recently, heart-on-her-sleeve confessionals that bait viewers with juicy titles (uploaded the week after we spoke: “What Donald Trump Is Really Like” and “What Bill Clinton Is Really Like”). The 8- to 10-minute-long missives (timed just so to capitalize on the service’s monetization requirements) consist of off-the-cuff monologues that live at the intersection of fame and mental health. Tea, usually just barely steeped, is spilled. Memories are picked over like meat on the bone. Headlines — like “Why ‘Even Stevens’ star Christy Carlson Romano no longer talks to Shia LaBeouf” and “‘Even Stevens' Christy Carlson Romano Reveals She ‘Made and Lost Millions’ After Disney Career” — quickly followed.
“There’s a fine line between making authentic content that strikes a chord with people emotionally and just going balls to the wall with a bunch of press stunts,” she says. “I have to… not trick the algorithm, but I have to clickbait. I have to game it. And it’s only because it’s in the best interest of getting the videos out there. I mean, that’s just the game.” Romano estimates “hundreds of thousands of dollars” have been invested into the overall production costs alone. Then there’s the emotional investment. “I had given my husband resistance on being vulnerable on these videos because I was like, ‘Well, but what if I don’t get hired anymore traditionally?’ And he’s like, ‘But you're not getting hired now.’”
In the prescient words of Karlie Kloss, Christy Carlson Romano is looking camp right in the eye, and it’s working, to the tune of nearly 400,000 subscribers (with another 700,000 more on TikTok) and millions more combined views. Austin’s trails play host to Carlson and her cameraman as she strolls, sips her Starbucks, talks — never scripted, she promises! — and chips away at your perception of her as “just another Disney Channel star” (or, as she puts it in one deliciously titled video, “Am I Irrelevant?”). The pandemic’s nostalgia wave has marked a boom time for celebrities like Romano who came of age (and fame) before the rise of social media properly galvanized fandoms. In the same way pop culture recycles itself on schedule, what’s old will always be new again, leading to a wealth of reboots, rebirths, reunions, and the opportunity for stars of the past to reinvent themselves as beloved favorites of the present. The downside, of course, is that this requires them to keep hustling in the celebrity ecosystem, trying to win on their own terms — and waiting to see if it will work.
Romano’s cultural footprint began with her classic Disney Channel Original Movie, Cadet Kelly, which aired in 2002. Even Stevens, in which Romano starred alongside a then-unknown Shia LaBeouf (who would later make the film Honey Boy inspired by this distressing period in his life), ran through 2003. The animated behemoth Kim Possible, in which Romano voiced the title role, improbably lasted only four seasons, wrapping up its run in 2007, though a beloved Kim Possible interactive game lived on at a Disney theme park until 2012. Tickets sold like hotcakes for Romano’s run as Belle in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, which came with a Times Square billboard advertising her face to the masses. At one point, her Connecticut hometown even named a holiday (Feb. 22, 2005) after her.
That’s the best part about it. You control your own production destiny.
She kept acting (and directing) long after Disney stopped calling, but nothing broke through the mainstream. “Back then, your body, your name, your everything, even your points of view became IP,” she says. “For a long time, I was pushing that away.” (She also pushed away most of the money too, as she shared in that August video titled “How I Made And Lost Millions Of Dollars.”) After her Disney shows ended, Romano went to college, enrolled in acting classes, wrote an only loosely fictionalized novel, and continued acting in smaller-budget projects. She even directed a film (2016’s Christmas All Over Again), written by her husband.
This and the rest of her history is now the subject of her YouTube channel, which zooms through topics including: her sobriety (five years and counting), a disappearing record deal, how a psychic scammed her, her eating disorder, and why she ran away from Hollywood. “I was struggling with my identity and not really understanding my self-worth,” Romano says of the time she spent in Hollywood. “I became humble when I had an awareness of how much I’ve been given. And I became grateful, I think, when I looked around and was like, ‘I can talk about this now.’”
It’s a lesson that’s inspired her to build her budding mini empire at home. Her husband, Rooney, is a fellow film school grad (they met in a Columbia-Barnard screenwriting class). Talking in late October over Zoom from their production office (before a series of brand partnership calls taken by Rooney force her onto a nearby couch), Romano speaks frankly and openly about the economics and logistics of being a creator. She and Rooney (who just started a channel of his own) have been bulk-shooting videos after their YouTube contacts advised her to do so to avoid burnout, so every Thursday and Friday, you’ll find the Romano-Rooneys walking around Austin shooting in 20-minute increments with a pop-up changing room they bought on Amazon for on-the-go outfit swapping. Every week, they also carve out time to assess “the health of my channel,” diving deep into the analytics and demographics by polling subscribers about their wants and needs, likes and dislikes. “I’m the network, I can give myself the green light,” she says. “That’s the best part about it. You control your own production destiny.”
I don’t think I’ve dealt with the trauma of getting involved in becoming a professional at a very early age.
After years of feeling at the whim of others, this control is reassuring. “This is my life experience. And if it has a value to my demo, if you want to call it that, then the people who are the fans and the supporters want to hear this stuff.” That’s a large part of why Romano’s videos don’t merely live and die on social media; once you’re hooked, you’re sold on her brand of radical honesty. “Her kindness and happy vibes make her a rare gem in Hollywood,” says longtime friend and fellow actor Duff, who first met Romano on the set of Cadet Kelly 20 years ago, adding that it’s “her open, honest candor” that’s drawing people to her videos. “She really lets people in and who doesn’t love that?”
Becoming famous and being put on display at a very young age, Romano says, is a scar that hasn’t faded despite years of therapy and shaking off the shadow that a decade of people-pleasing had cast on her outlook. “I don’t think I’ve dealt with the trauma of getting involved in becoming a professional at a very early age,” she says of entering the industry at age 6. “I remember having a really hard time being a preschooler, having to do auditions and sit for hours on a train to go from Connecticut to New York and feel the pressure of looking cute and going into a room with strangers that are judging your every move. I mean, it's one thing for you to be a cute kid with a ton of personality. It's something entirely else to... I don’t want to use the word fetishize it. But it does that. It fetishizes the fact that you’re young and cute and then, ‘Let’s make money off it,’ right? It's not a childhood anymore at that point. I’m not completely condemning it, but I would like us to understand that children working in a professional adult environment is child labor.”
Romano is rare among former child actors in her willingness to speak so openly. “About 99% of [other child actors] are not going to open up the way that I’ve been choosing to open up about the industry and stuff, because I think they’re concerned that they’re not going to get work or that maybe there’s skeletons in the closet,” she says. Videos like “Why I Don’t Have Famous Friends” and “Why I Can’t Let Go of Kim Possible” tackle sensitive subjects like childhood bullying and an unwavering loyalty to the House of Mouse over the decades that has yet to pay off in spades like it has for fellow early ‘00s breakouts like Raven-Symoné — who, in 2017, snagged a reboot of That’s So Raven (Raven’s Home enters its fifth season next year). This reticence is especially understandable considering how social media often takes glee at tearing down so-called “relics” or “blasts from the past” whenever their names bubble to the surface. “It’s really toxic to talk about ‘throwback’ actors because it’s also coming from the place of, ‘Well, when are they going to die? When are they going to OD? When are they going to fuck up again?’” she says. “That’s not how you reward somebody who’s given you their childhood, but also your childhood memories.”
That said, Romano knows she can’t stay in the past if she wants her brand to move forward — and she does want that. “It doesn’t just have to be, ‘Christy, say that thing, do the thing! When did we go to the moon? Call you, beep you!’” she says. “Like, great: I get it! That content’s already been made. There’s a lot of other stuff I want to talk about.
For now, Romano is content to continue building buzz — and to remind people she not only exists, but thrives. “When you think about the impact that I had, I used to joke that I was the most unfamous famous person I knew,” she says with a smile. “And now that I know my brand, it’s about building the brand back up.” Gesturing to the white board behind me, she shows a board covered with notes about her goals, including cracking the million-subscriber mark as well as turning their small-scale studio into something much bigger than a YouTube channel. “People are starting to fall into the Christy Romano rabbit hole,” she says. “Now that we’re doing more production stuff, we have a bunch of cameras and a bunch of gear. We are able to, at some point, go and shoot our own feature film now. We know the value of what we have.”
Photographer: Parker Thornton