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Taking stage parenting in a whole new direction

'I Know My Kid's a Star' is just one on-screen arena that lets parents put their worst foot forward.

April 27, 2008|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

There's no denying that Rocky DeMarco is a tragic beauty, and there's no denying that it takes one to raise one. On VH1's "I Know My Kid's a Star" (10 p.m. Thursdays), Rocky was, until her elimination, the parent who had seen too much. A sometime model-actress-stuntwoman with highlights and clip-on pieces in her hair, tight shirts, short skirts and a variety of distressed cowboy hats, she cut a striking figure. And she knew it.

"Rocky," said one of the judges, "wants to be the next child star."

That was, of course, bad news for her daughter, Hayley, a charismatic and petulant kid given to saying things such as "My mom drives me up the wall!" and "I don't care if I'm uncomfortable, I just wanna be rich and famous. I don't care if I die, I just wanna be rich and famous."

Hayley is 9.

"I Know My Kid's a Star" is clever, pitting pairs of would-be child stars and their would-be stage parents against one another -- professionally, in several small competitions, and domestically, in one big house. Hayley rarely nailed the challenges laid before the children, but she possessed an ineffable charm -- words such as "toughness" and "chutzpah" were used to describe her -- that for a while kept her in the judges' good graces.

Hayley ostensibly had the most to gain from this reality show, but in truth it was her mother who emerged victorious. After being repeatedly told -- by the judges, and by the other parents, who disliked her -- that she was outshining her daughter, Rocky went into distress mode. She gave herself a (relatively) conservative haircut and started dressing for church more than for the Sunset Strip. No parent in the house learned, or feigned, humility more quickly than she.

By the time she and Hayley were eliminated, in the fourth week, Rocky had begun a true transformation. And instead of holding Hayley like a security blanket, as she had throughout the competition, after elimination she picked her up and carried her gently back into the house -- just like a mother should.

Teaching parents how to parent again isn't the explicit goal of "I Know My Kid's a Star," which will conclude May 8, but it is the most mesmerizing part of this often transfixing show. Watching precocious children can be draining, something that is clear to many of the parents here; it's the adults, namely those who funnel their own hopes and aspirations through their children, who make for engrossing, and sometimes terrifying, television.

Those parents who began the show most in tune with their children's happiness were among the first to be eliminated. Kevin, in a heavy metal band, seemed genuinely in awe of his pop-minded daughter, Devon, 10; after she flubbed an audition, he said, "I do not like to see sadness in her eyes." It's a jarring expression of love on a show that has little use for it.

Instead, it's the more troubled parents who make the most sense. When explaining to Hayley why they're getting scorned by the others, Rocky says, "[Your] mother's talented, and you are a star." And alarmingly, she's totally right.

Almost without exception, the kids shine when their overbearing parents are removed from the equation. When the adults are breathing down the kids' necks, "I Know My Kid's a Star" verges on televised child abuse. "Kid Nation" has nothing on this.

And "Kid Nation" was never this fascinating, though "I Know My Kid's a Star" hasn't been quite the same since the departure of Rocky and Hayley, who left in their wake a sea of bickering mothers and kids with little depth. Most of the tension has revolved around Gigi, a former dancer, and her daughter, Alai, 12, who appears to wish to be anywhere but on this show. Gigi pushes Alai to the point of menace, but Alai remains stubbornly, maybe affirmedly, blank.

This week, the remaining parents and children do a live interview on host Danny Bonaduce's radio show. When Bonaduce asks which child will end up in rehab first, two parents are quick to finger Mary Jo, who is 12. And Cheyenne, 11 -- who has stood out as the most talented child and who's been trained by her mother, Helene, an acting coach -- does a shocking impression of her mother that's notable less for its verisimilitude than for its emotional accuracy. It is the sound of unreasonable expectations, cramped into a small space, and then boiling over.

It's going around

"IKnow My Kid's a Star" arrives at a moment when stage parenting has resurfaced as a hot-button issue. This year's most popular "American Idol" contestant, little David Archuleta, has been hounded by rumors about the difficulty of his father, Jeff. "Idol" judge Simon Cowell suggested David wasn't choosing his own songs, and Naomi Judd, a judge on "Star Search" when Archuleta was a contestant a few years back, recently told the "Today" show that Jeff was "the worst stage dad" and urged the father to "leave him alone." (In a recent interview with usmagazine .com, Jeff denied the allegations.)

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