Hairspray Live! - Season 2017
Credit: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

For as long as there’s been a Disney Channel, there’s always been one reigning network star—and with names like Miley and Selena, Demi and Zendaya, and the brothers Jonas having long since graduated to household status, it’s high time adults met the next ascendant in line. Or Descendant, if you want to get technical.

Dove Cameron made her debut on the network in 2013 playing dual roles as the titular twins on the family sitcom Liv and Maddie—characters whom she helped develop with significant autonomy at just 15. The show caught its core audience early and hard and finished an impressive four-year run earlier this year, but long before then, Cameron beamed into the channel’s prolific TV-movie realm, starring as the daughter of Sleeping Beauty baddie Maleficent in 2015’s Descendants. The teen-villains-in-high-school concept surged online and quickly spawned spin-offs and a sequel (airing July 21), which once again features Cameron as the face of the franchise. Meanwhile, stage turns in NBC’s Hairspray Live! and this summer’s always-starry Hollywood Bowl production of Mamma Mia! have only helped expose Cameron to the world as a new reigning teen queen worth watching.

“It’s been the most incredible boot camp/college experience,” Cameron, 21, says of her education as a modern Disney star. “It’s awesome in the actual sense of the word—like, truly, inspiring of awe—to be a part of something so exclusive that could have easily been somebody else. I’m sure there will be more of us, and I don’t think I’m anything insanely special, but to be considered a part of something like this will never wear on me. I don’t think I would have access to the parts of me that I now have access to, or be as evolved as a human, if Disney Channel had not said, ‘Go.’”

Disney Channel's "Descendants 2"
Credit: Bob D'Amico/Disney Channel via Getty Images

Indeed, it’s an exclusive club, but Cameron’s path to fame diverges from that of her predecessors, if only because the modern range of duties for teen stars has evolved (since the days of Hilary and Raven) to include heightened expectations for social media performance and, especially lately, a certain amount of woke activism. To the former, Cameron has cultivated a Twitter and Instagram personality somewhere between mom-approved role model and mile-a-minute theater-geek insomniac. “Everybody has access to so many more people and platforms now, I think it’s a lot more for fans to process, and it’s harder to do well,” Cameron says. “But at some point, somebody told me, ‘You need to tweet more relatable stuff. Nobody cares about your existential journey. You need to tweet about your favorite bubble gum.’ And I tried that for a month and literally didn’t know how to do that. I’m a normal 21-year-old, and I’ve always had a good internal dialogue with myself. And I realized when you’re in order with yourself and you’re friends with yourself, it’s not as difficult to connect with and be good to other people.”

And being socially aware is of no new concern to Cameron, and that’s all to do with her upbringing. Growing up in Seattle as the second daughter to a pair of jewelry importers, Cameron spent large swaths of her youth in India and France. She was raised “semi-spiritual”—part Catholic, part agnostic, casually influenced by Buddhist and Hindu values. “I was never the kid who was super sheltered in American culture thinking the world was fuzzy,” she explains. “So much of my childhood was just spent splayed out on the floor of these huge warehouses and marble cutteries in India. I went to Paris a lot growing up because, by blood, we’re crazy French, and my parents wanted their kids to have two feet in their culture. So there was a lot of travel, a lot of different religions and cultures and classes. I’ll never be able to be such a secular thinker simply because of what my parents did growing up and being raised in a way that taught me you’re no better than X, Y, or Z. I’ll never be able to undo that, nor do I want to.”

The portions of her childhood on the ground in America certainly contain the ingredients that are expected of a modern millennial actress—lots of theater and musicals in grade school and early exposure to the appeals of television (for the record, she’s a That’s So Raven and Phil of the Future kind of girl). Structure wasn’t present for her and her sister, so she created it for herself as a budding writer, drawn to journaling by her mother (now a poet and novelist) and by the outlet that narrative thinking offered to a 14-year-old. But within her childhood, Cameron’s experience is also wholly singular by certain tragedies that shaped her at an early age. Family members died when she was younger—“in weird ways that shouldn’t happen,” she adds—and her father died by suicide when she was 15, just months before her Disney Channel debut. He’s not a subject she regularly discusses, but one she’s gained deeper insight into as the years passed. “He took his own life, and he also was closeted, which we only found out after he died,” she shares. “When I found that out, I was like, everything adds up. He was such a sensitive person. He had bursts of anger, but he was also so beautiful and he designed jewelry and went to the Peace Corps. So I’d really like to write a movie about him one day, because my dad was just the most fascinating human being.”

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As a result, Cameron turned inward. She and her mother had moved to Los Angeles, and she entered her freshman year at Burbank High with a fair amount of depression. “I couldn’t make friends—didn’t want to, really,” she says. “I would just be head down in my journal walking around my school campus. I think a lot of kids go through a depression like that, but mine was definitely brought on. But at the same time, I was like, I want to be an actor. Psychologically, I thought that anybody that looked at me too long was seeing into me and invading my space, and I felt very vulnerable, so I locked myself in this emotional nobody-can-touch-me kind of zone. And the only way I could really get out of that was by being somebody else.”

Acting was the out, though it might sound counterintuitive to a teenager trying to wrangle her place, and Cameron was auditioning for TV roles but facing frequent rejection primarily on the basis of not being funny (“which is funny in and of itself because that’s all I do now,” she laughs). She was on the verge of ditching the dream when, as it so often happens, her one last try resulted in her big break: Liv and Maddie came in, albeit under an entirely different title (Bits and Pieces) and logline, and Cameron was unexpectedly cast. “I crumbled and panicked, because I knew everybody would think it’s a dream come true, but I was having genuine panic attacks because I knew that Disney Channel was an overnight thing, and my dad had just died, and I was not trying to be in front of everybody because I couldn’t even process myself,” she recalls. “But I was sobbing to my mom, who helped me weigh the pros and cons, and I finally got clear-eyed when I realized that Disney Channel is for kids. And I love kids. And I was going to get to work with kids all the time. And I started to cry all over again. Because what a treat, to be able to be someone for kids, to be a good role model, to be a big sister because I never was one.”

Hairspray Live! - Season 2016
Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC/Getty Images

Over time, Cameron didn’t just leave her shell, but demolished it. Liv and Maddie, in which Cameron pulled double duty as popular tomboy Maddie and giggly fashionista Liv, proved to be a major learning experience, and not just in its technical challenges (playing twins, it turns out, is not so easy). The series and its popularity offered an accelerated education for Cameron as a nascent star meeting the world, despite simultaneously playing catch-up to figure out who, exactly, the world was meeting. “The first time I got recognized, I had a panic attack and had to go into a Nordstrom for half an hour and cry,” she says, now laughing. “Humans are not evolutionarily prepared to get that much attention.” Somewhere between the whirlwinds of her TV series and the instant boom of the highly-rated Descendants, Cameron found herself. “It’s lovely now, because I’m very stable in myself. As a person who loves people, there’s a large part of you that wants to stop and connect, because human connection is absolutely addictive and the best part of it all. Even when you are anxious, even when you’re running late and catching a flight and you’re absolutely going to lose that job if you don’t make this plane, I’ll see a little girl in the corner holding her iPhone, and I will absolutely want to be like, ‘Come to me!’ I would never want to take that part away from my job.”

In the coming year, there’s likely to be more coming down the Disney Channel pike, but Cameron is at a point in her career where she’s considering life on the other side. Hairspray Live! certainly helped, announcing her to the larger community as a voice to watch in the theater world. (Casting directors, take note: She’s not a fan of the ingénue roles.) There’s a possible Broadway run on the horizon, along with a debut studio album and attachment to two big-ticket movies, all of which should put her on a path well beyond Disney Channel, if all goes according to plan. At the moment, though, everything is hush-hush—excluding, of course, the millions of fans already clamoring for her next move.

2015 Disney TV movie
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes