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The Nepo Baby Debate

Famous for all the wrong reasons, the Nepo Baby debate is (not surprisingly) a touchy subject amongst celebrity parents. Are these celebrity-spawn kids-with-benefits or truly talented? Author and founder of Hayley's Comet Theatre School in London, Hayley Doyle gives her take on the topical subject...

Twenty years ago, I was preparing to graduate from drama school. Everybody in my class was given the opportunity to perform at the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End. We were granted just one minute each to showcase three contrasting characters and accents. Agents, casting directors and industry professionals were invited to watch. A booklet was comprised of our headshots, resumes and stage names. While the majority stuck to their own name, its not uncommon to change it. For a start, you can’t have the same name as somebody else already registered with actor’s union, Equity. Many choose to use their middle name or take their mother’s maiden name. However, there are no rules. You can call yourself anything, without reason. It crossed my mind to change my name. What if I discarded my real surname and became, Hayley Bonham-Carter. Not only did it have a good ring to it, but suddenly, the name stood out. It would spark a question. Is she related to…?

Needless to say, I didn’t reinvent myself as the pretend daughter of one of Britain’s most respected actresses. I didn’t decide to adopt DiCaprio or Clooney in the hope it would get me recognised. Get my foot in the door. Nah. I decided to make it on my own! Hmm. Perhaps my career would have paved out quite differently if I’d taken the chance. After all, the industry is swarming with nepotism babies; those in power, with jobs and benefits thanks to friends and family connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, right? The stigma is real, though. Somebody’s success is celebrated when they’ve come from nothing, working their way up from scratch. It’s considered a fine and honest achievement. When your dad happens to be the CEO of the company were you just got a promotion, there’ll be more than the odd eye-roll coming your way.

Recently, the surface was scratched as popular young actors like Riley Keough, Maya Hawke and Dakota Johnson were revealed to be the offspring of Hollywood royalty. The general public’s eyes were opened to how much nepo babies dominate the showbiz world. But this isn’t a new phenomena. It’s never been a secret that Liza Minnelli is the daughter of Judy Garland or that Michael Douglas has that famous dad, Kirk. Jamie Lee Curtis called herself the OG nepo baby, landing her first 2-line part at the age of 19 and winning her first Oscar 44 years later. She received criticism and posted on Instagram defending nepo babies, saying, “It’s curious how we immediately make assumptions and snide remarks that someone related to someone else who is famous in their field for their art, would somehow have no talent whatsoever.” I loved Apple TV’s Bad Sisters and in particular the character of Becca; she was so watchable, interesting, truthful. A quick google of this “unknown” actress told me that her name is Eve Hewson and she is the daughter of Bono. I sighed. Typical. But why did the fact that she has a famous dad suddenly make me think less of her?

Nepo babies don’t just exist in Hollywood, either. It’s working for the family business, following your mother or father’s footsteps. All four children of Tom Hanks work within the movie industry and he has defended his nepo babies saying, “This is what we’ve been doing forever. It’s what all of our kids grew up in. If we were a plumbing supply business or if we ran the florist shop down the street, the whole family would be putting in time at some point, even if it was just inventory at the end of the year.” Sure. While Mr Hanks has a point, it’s much easier for somebody who has no direct connections to a plumber to gain the right qualifications and make a living from plumbing, especially if they happen to be good at the job. Not every drama school student lands a decent role in a HBO series. In fact, it’s rare and relies on a frustrating amount of pot luck. So it’s no surprise that Johnny Depp managed to annoy social media when, in regards to his daughter Lily-Rose’s rising star, he compared her to being the child of a doctor wanting to go to medical school.

Coming from a background in acting myself, and making a career within the arts industry, I can vouch for the vocational feel of this type of work. When you’re making art, you don’t clock in and clock out. There’s no nine to five. You live and breathe the work. It’s not just a job; it’s part of your identity. You talk about it over dinner, enthusiastically. And talk about it at the pub. On the school run. People not in your business ask about it and also want to talk about it. The work defines you in so many ways. I didn’t grow up in an artsy family, though. At times, they wondered where they’d found me! So I have no connections, no godfather who happened to be the director of a Hollywood blockbuster. There was no family business for me to fall into; my parents left their work firmly at work. But what about my children?

Well. I sing and dance around the house. A lot. Sometimes I am learning material for work, sometimes I am acting the fool. I also talk about what I write all the time. Over dinner. With friends. With other parents. People tell me they’ve read my books, my articles. We discuss. My kids will be picking up on this, somehow. While I might have set hours where I sit down to work or go into a rehearsal room, I am my work. I can’t leave it alone. Even when I’m on holiday, I might choose to listen to songs that I fancy teaching or incorporating into a show, because I genuinely love it. So it might not be a surprise if my children decide to take a similar pathway one day. And if I happen to know somebody who can help them succeed in some way, will I ask a favour? Or will I fear being judged of nepotism? Even within my small, non-A-list world? We all remember the kid who’s mum worked as a teacher in the school, right? Yep. The kid who never got into trouble.

Speaking to the Radio X Evening Show, Noel Gallagher said, ““The whole nepotism thing, I mean it’s human nature to help your children out.” Although his daughter Anais was given a leg-up into the world of modelling and photography, he believes she has the talent. “She’s good at what she does, her photographs are really, really good and if she was terrible, I wouldn’t be doing it for the sake of it, because I think if you’re knowingly just giving your kids something to do and they’re not really good at it, I don’t think that’s very healthy.”

A few years ago, I was on the audition panel seeking new students for a top UK drama school. A young woman auditioned with an instantly recognisable surname; she was related to a well-known acting family. Unlike the other candidates, she wasn’t well prepared and didn’t have enough natural talent to pull it out of the bag. Still, she was given more time. More consideration. I was appalled that my peers were trying to ooze benefits out of her work, making excuses for her like, “well, she’s had a long journey.” I fought the corner for those who’d been already dismissed but were more worthy of a place and in the end, rightfully - in my opinion - she didn’t get in.

There are some nepo babies who can play victim, though. They say they have to work twice as hard just to prove themselves (a-hem, Gwyneth Paltrow)…Come on! Everybody has to prove themselves. Just because somebody didn’t get their job via good connections doesn’t mean they get more chances to fail. Allison Williams, star of M3GAN and Get Out - better known as Marnie from Lena Dunham’s Girls - happens to be the daughter of famed journalist Brian Williams. While she admits she’s benefited from nepotism, she also believes that doesn’t take anything away from her work. She recently said, it simply “means that it’s not as fun to root for me.”

Nepotism, and all the talk of nepo babies, seems to be yet another thing that’s holding up a mirror to society. We look into it, as if we’re staring at ourselves, comparing who we are to what we’re seeing, and then wondering, why isn’t my life like THAT? It goes hand-in-hand with the obsession we have with knowing every single detail about every single human on the planet, eliminating mystery or wonder. It’s riddled with an increasingly dangerous societal disease; Comparisonitis. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to enter into a new age of acceptance, where we learn to understand where we have come from, what has made us who we are and what we’re capable of. Maybe that way, we’d stop pouring negative energy into disliking somebody for supposedly having the upper hand without having to stretch.

Or, I could just start afresh as Hayley Bonham-Carter. See where that takes me.

Never say never…


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