The Disney Channel has a “machine” in place to crank out young stars. They accomplish this through TV shows, original movies, and a record division (many of their stars both act and sing). The machine is very good at what it does, as quite a few popular performers have emerged from it over the years. Stars in their stable have squeaky-clean, wholesome images, and they are expected to be role models to kids who tune in.
The thing about child stars, though, is that they eventually grow up. And when they grow up, they have to re-establish themselves as adult actors. They can’t get by on mere kid cuteness anymore. That requires an image shift. The easiest way to achieve this is to take the most anti-Disney role available, in the hope that it will get audiences to see them in a new way.
Below, we look at some former Disney stars who attempted to make that shift, starting with the least provocative and working our way up. Here are 13 Former Disney Stars Gone Naughty.
13. Ashley Tisdale – Scary Movie 5
Ashley Tisdale had a career before Disney, but it was the TV movie High School Musical that made her a star. She also appeared as the superficial Sharpay Evans in High School Musical 2, High School Musical 3, and the spinoff movie Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure. Later, she had a co-starring role on the network’s series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Tisdale was so charming that she won viewers’ hearts even when playing a snooty character.
A two-episode arc on Sons of Anarchy helped usher in the start of her “adult” phase. The first really big step, however, was a lead role in Scary Movie 5. The final installment in the often raunchy spoof franchise features Charlie Sheen jokes, tired Paranormal Activity references, and fifteen full minutes of bloopers and outtakes over the belabored end credits. Tisdale definitely has a sense of comic timing, but it was poorly utilized in this uninspired sequel. She hasn’t headlined a movie since.
12. Bella Thorne – Blended
Seventy-five episodes of the Disney Channel series Shake It Up! were sufficient to turn Bella Thorne into a teen celeb. The show followed two adolescents with a shared dream of becoming dancers on a local TV show. Interestingly enough, Thorne reportedly had no dance experience before being cast. She did, however, have singing experience, which was good since Shake It Up! spawned a soundtrack album. Thorne and co-star Zendaya (who recently signed on to star in Spider-Man: Homecoming) recorded the song Watch Me, which stalled at #86 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2011.
Three years later, the actress was no longer a Disney regular. Instead, she teamed with master of lowbrow humor Adam Sandler for Blended. The big conceit is that everyone thinks her tomboy character is a male until she goes from ugly duckling to swan. By the story’s end, she trades in her boyish clothes for a dress. Blended, like most Adam Sandler films, is filled with offensive fat jokes, gay jokes, and crotch injury jokes. Thorne remains likable onscreen, but it’s hard to deny that a juvenile Adam Sandler movie is not the best avenue to take in order to establish oneself as a mature performer.
11. Aly Michalka – The Roommate
Aly Michalka was a regular in Disney TV movies before scoring the role of Keely Teslow on Phil of the Future. Keely is the only one who knows that lead character Phil and his family are actually visitors from the future. She also becomes his love interest. Michalka gave off a girl-next-door vibe that fit in perfectly with the wholesome Disney image. Together with sister AJ, she also released several pop CDs.
The good girl image was blown to pieces in 2011’s The Roommate, a low-budget Single White Female ripoff. Michalka is a supporting character, a party girl named Tracy who often appears in revealing clothing. Aside from getting to play the sexpot, she also scores a fairly memorable scene of violence, when the movie’s psycho lead character, played by Leighton Meester, attacks Tracy in the shower and rips off her belly button ring. Ouch!
Playing a “hot” character in a violent horror flick was certainly miles away from Disney fare, but it’s unlikely anyone remembers The Roommate with fondness, if they remember it at all. Michalka can currently be seen as a supporting character in the CW series, iZombie.
10. Corbin Bleu – Nurse 3D
Corbin Bleu is another High School Musical graduate, having played the athletic Chad Danforth in the series. The actor additionally appeared on a couple episodes of Disney’s Hannah Montana and was the lead in their TV movie Jump In! While perhaps not as big a “name” as his HSM co-stars, Bleu exuded a nice-guy quality on screen, while also showing talent as both a singer and an athlete.
Bleu’s most notable naughty role came in 2013’s Nurse 3D, an unapologetic exploitation film about a deranged nurse (played by Paz de la Huerta) who murders cheating husbands. He plays the boyfriend of the sexy blonde “good” nurse (Katrina Bowden) to whom the “bad” nurse finds herself attracted. If any young High School Musical fans saw Nurse 3D because of Bleu’s involvement, they certainly got an eyeful — the movie is filled to the brim with graphic violence and female nudity. He also gets stabbed in the neck at the end, which might have been traumatic for some. Truth be told, Bleu’s part is underwritten — the film is far more concerned with the women — but he gets credit for his willingness to appear in something so gleefully sordid.
9. Hilary Duff – Younger
Hilary Duff became a hero to young girls everywhere thanks to her starring role on Lizzie McGuire, Disney’s series about a girl and her animated alter ego. The show ran for 65 episodes and spawned a big-screen adaptation, appropriately titled The Lizzie McGuire Movie, that earned more than $55 million at the box office. Duff also starred in the Disney Channel movie Cadet Kelly and recorded several albums for Disney-owned record labels, scoring the hits So Yesterday and Wake Up. In many respects, Duff was a quintessential Disney star: perky, multi-talented, and wholesome as a cool glass of milk.
After leaving the Disney machine, Duff continued on in youth projects, starring in the forgettable movies The Perfect Man and Material Girls. These days, she’s busy reinventing herself. Her current project is the TV Land series Younger, created by Sex and the City mastermind Darren Star. Duff plays Kelsey Peters, an ambitious book editor, in a show that features plenty of sex, blackmail, infidelity, and death — things Lizzie McGuire never would have known about, much less had to deal with. By and large, Younger represents a solid step forward in Duff’s desire to take on more mature roles.
8. Nick Jonas – Scream Queens
Once upon a time, the Jonas Brothers were the biggest thing around. The musician siblings were Disney staples. They had their own Disney Channel movie franchise (Camp Rock and Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam), their own Disney sitcom (Jonas), and their own theatrically-released concert movie (Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience) from Walt Disney Pictures. Their CDs, distributed by the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, topped the music charts. The Jonas boys were about as vanilla as teenagers could be. They even famously wore purity rings to proclaim their chastity.
These days, Nick Jonas no longer wears his purity ring, for understandable reasons. When he’s not singing sultry songs about being a jealous lover or getting close to a woman, you’ll find him acting in some rather edgy stuff. Jonas appeared on the FOX horror/comedy series Scream Queens playing Boone Clemens, a gay frat boy who, shall we say, ends up with some blood on his hands. Jonas got some solid reactions for the role, showing that he could be more than just a boy-band member. He will be seen on the big screen later this year in the drama Goat, a dark true story about fraternity hazing. With his music and his acting choices, it’s clear that Nick Jonas isn’t interested in being a poster boy for innocence anymore.
7. Selena Gomez – Behaving Badly
Former Barney & Friends cast member Selena Gomez came fully into the public’s awareness via Wizards of Waverly Place, the long-running sitcom about magical siblings. It even won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. The show aired for four seasons, eventually spawning a TV movie. From there, Gomez continued in tween fare, co-starring with Demi Lovato (who we’ll get to in a minute) in the Disney Channel movie Princess Protection Program, as well as appearing in the theatrical motion pictures Ramona & Beezus and Monte Carlo.
In 2012, Gomez took a major step toward adult stardom as a cast member of the very racy Spring Breakers. She portrayed the “good girl” in a group of hard-partying college students who fall in with a gangster while on spring break. Two years later, she made another R-rated picture, Behaving Badly, that solidified her desire to no longer be a Disney princess. She plays Nina, the high school hottie and fantasy figure for a geeky male student. That guy (of course) bets a classmate that he can bed her. The movie, which boasts a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, attempts to find humor in sex-obsessed priests, nymphomania, prostitution, and other distinctly non-Disney subjects. (If you’re in the mood to roll your eyes, here’s the trailer.)
Gomez once again plays a character who is slightly angelic in the midst of all the raunchiness, but her appearance in Behaving Badly indicates a genuine step away from the kiddie comedies in which she made her name. Additionally, Gomez’s thriving musical career has been built on highly sexual songs and videos, like Hands to Myself. She has obviously kissed Waverly Place goodbye.
6. Demi Lovato – From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series
Like Gomez, Demi Lovato got her start alongside the purple dinosaur Barney. When she was slightly older, Disney cast her as Sonny Munroe in Sonny with a Chance, their program about a teenager from the Midwest who gets the opportunity to join her favorite sketch TV show. Lovato quickly developed a large fan following, thanks to her cheery nature and huge smile. Disney capitalized on her popularity, having the actress star in their TV movies Princess Protection Program and Camp Rock (opposite the Jonas Brothers).
Lovato eventually got more into music — and serving as a judge on The X Factor — than acting, but she did recently take a small role in two episodes of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series. Based on Robert Rodriguez’s ultra-violent vampire movie, the show cast her as a sexy, leather-wearing, gun-toting badass. Not only did Lovato get to engage in some action, she even had the opportunity to do something unfathomable on the Disney Channel: drop the F-bomb. Her bid for adult recognition is even more visible in her successful pop music career. The hit single Cool for the Summer, for example, is an ode to bi-curiosity. Clearly, Demi Lovato is dedicated to naughtiness.
5. Zac Efron – Neighbors
When Zac Efron made his debut as Troy Bolton in 2006’s High School Musical, you could practically hear the hearts of millions of young girls fluttering. Efron was a good old-fashioned heartthrob: handsome, athletic, talented, and possessing an All-American quality. The two HSM sequels confirmed that he was the real deal. As he got older, adult women started swooning as much as tween girls had previously.
Efron’s non-Disney movie career failed to flourish, though. TRansitional films like 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud didn’t pull in big audiences. It wasn’t until he embraced his naughty side that he found a true hit. Neighbors cast him as Teddy, the ultimate college frat boy who becomes embroiled in conflict with the couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) living next door. Neighbors depicts Efron drinking, taking drugs, having sex, and doing all the things Troy never would have taken part in.
Surprisingly, the actor demonstrates a real knack for this type of comedy, giving a performance that is funny without veering into caricature, and it would seem he’s found his nitch. January saw him teamed with Robert DeNiro in the appropriately titled Dirty Grandpa, and he will next be seen in the Neighbors sequel and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, followed by the (reportedly) R-rated adaptation of Baywatch.
4. Vanessa Hudgens – Spring Breakers
Efron’s love interest in High School Musical was Vanessa Hudgens, who was also his girlfriend in real life for a time. The actress captivated fans young and old with her beautiful singing voice, winning personality, and movie star looks. Unlike some of the other Disney starlets (e.g. Tisdale and Duff), she also projected substance and depth onscreen. You didn’t have to look hard to see that she had something special, and young girls related to her in a big way.
That’s why it was so shocking when Hudgens agreed to star in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. She plays a bored college student who, together with friends, robs a chicken restaurant to fund a spring break trip, then falls under the spell of a rapper/drug dealer named Alien (played by James Franco). The role finds Hudgens drinking, doing drugs, using a gun, screaming obscenities, having a swimming pool threesome with Franco and co-star Ashley Benson, and even doing a brief bit of nudity.
At the time of Spring Breakers‘ release, there were reports of her young fans going to see the movie thinking it was more like an updated Beach Blanket Bingo, then being horrified by the hardcore adult subject matter. Many went online to condemn her for appearing in such an intentionally provocative film. It made sense, though. Hudgens has always had a glint of mischief in her eyes, and Spring Breakers made everyone look at her in a whole new light.
3. Shia LaBeouf – Nymphomaniac
Even Stevens ran for three seasons and told the story of a family with two conflicting siblings, one of whom was played by a young actor named Shia LaBeouf. His character, Louis, was known for pulling pranks and engaging in disgusting behaviors like picking his nose. LaBeouf displayed natural comedic skill in the role, effortlessly making even the most absurd of jokes work. The show ended, but it didn’t take long for him to establish himself outside the Disney corridors. His talent was too great to be ignored. Roles in feature films like Transformers, Disturbia, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turned him into a mainstream star.
But LaBeouf was a rebel, and apparently one not entirely comfortable with blockbuster success. He retreated to independent films, especially those that contained challenging subject matter. His naughtiest role was in enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac. Designed specifically to make audiences uncomfortable with all manner of sexual activity, the movie features LaBeouf’s character taking a girl’s virginity. The extremely graphic, nudity-filled scene inspired the actor to toy with the press, implying that the sex was real and suggesting that he won the role only after sending von Trier pictures of his privates. Regardless of whether either of those claims are true (and they probably aren’t), there’s no doubt that Nymphomaniac ranks among the naughtiest projects any Disney alum has ever tackled.
2. Miley Cyrus – The Night Before
Perhaps no performer on this list has been more closely associated with Disney than Miley Cyrus. Her long-running show Hannah Montana was nothing short of a phenomenon. Ratings went through the roof, and Miley’s face was plastered over every type of merchandising tie-in imaginable. A theatrically-released Hannah Montana movie followed, as did a smash hit 3D concert documentary, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. The latter was so popular that it ranks among the highest-grossing concert docs ever.
As far as movies go, we’re cutting Miley some slack here. Most of her films have stayed firmly in the PG-13 realm. She did, however, do a cameo in last year’s Seth Rogen holiday comedy The Night Before, a movie that celebrates drug use, friendship, the yuletide, and using drugs with friends during the yuletide. Her big scene entails dispensing some profanity-laden romantic advice to Joseph Gordon-Levitt before singing the hit song “Wrecking Ball” with him. In real life, Cyrus makes up for the naughtiness she hasn’t shown a whole lot of onscreen. She has made no secret of her drug use, while her live performances and music videos are often filled with sexual innuendo. She also has no compunction about being photographed nude or nearly-nude, either. Somewhere, Hannah Montana is clutching her pearls.
1. Ryan Gosling – The Believer
What’s the most un-Disney-like thing you can imagine? Drug use? Swearing? Sex? Nope, the answer would be “going full Nazi.” And that’s just what Ryan Gosling did in The Believer. The actor got his start as a cast member on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake. After his time on the show ended, Gosling kicked around in various bit parts on different TV shows.
Then, in 2001, he played the role that would establish him as one of the most talented and risk-taking actors of his generation. The Believer was a character study that cast him as a young Jewish man who turns into a Neo-Nazi. The role required Gosling to shave his head, wear clothing emblazoned with swastikas, and spout anti-Semitic dialogue. He was nothing short of electrifying in the role, and critics and audiences sat up and paid attention. Once the movie hit DVD, it found a much bigger audience than it did in theaters. Gosling quickly became an in-demand actor, going on to deliver acclaimed performances in comedies (Crazy Stupid Love), dramas (Half Nelson), and romances (The Notebook). But his career was really launched into overdrive because he had the courage to leave his Disney days behind and play the kind of character most actors would be too terrified to go anywhere near.
Do you have any other favorite examples of former Disney stars who went naughty? Let us know in the comments.