Break the Internet ®
Christy Carlson Romano Wants a Queer 'Cadet Kelly' Reboot
by Ilana Kaplan
20 January 2022
Christy Carlson Romano spilled the tea in 2021: about why she and Shia LaBeouf aren’t friends; how she lost $60,000 to psychics; how she could have been Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. The former child actress who helmed her career on Disney as perfectionist Ren Stevens in Even Stevens, the strict “villain” Jennifer Stone in Cadet Kelly and the voice of Kim Possible spent the majority of the year dishing on her life behind the scenes — connecting the hunger for celebrity gossip with broader life lessons on YouTube. And she’s gone viral for it.
Romano, though now, is far from her days at Disney. Well, at least in terms of working. Currently, she’s sporting a crewneck sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse’s signature icon emblazoned on it. “I was like, ‘I'm going to wear it ironically because PAPER understands,’” she chirps over Zoom from her home office. Based in the Austin Texas area, Romano has enough sprawling land around her to spread out. Pivoting toward the window of her office, she insists on showing me her daily view teeming with the greenery often captured in her videos. “When you think of Texas you're like, ‘flat and hot,’” she explains. “That's just not the way Austin is. It's very lush and there's water.” And it’s where the magic of making her video content happens.
Born in Connecticut, the former child actress made her Broadway debut as Mary Phagan in the musical Parade before landing her role as Ren. For years, she’d balance a handful of Disney projects, try her hand at a music career and even pen a novel. Romano found herself confronting demons along the way, struggling with depression, self-harm and addiction. After getting married and before getting pregnant, she’d make the decision to be sober. “Mentally I had drank every drink and partied at every party,” she says of her revelation. “I had seen and done a million things, and I'd had my heart broken a million times.”
Her relationship with Hollywood had transformed, too. She moved into more voice acting roles and TV films and movies. But after a while, Romano felt like she was being typecast as “the bitchy brunette.” She could do it, but she felt like the talent pool was too big and “it was too complicated to vie for the opportunity to work.” Instead, she decided it was time to start working for herself. In 2011, she enrolled at Barnard College where she earned a film studies degree, which has helped in establishing her platform.
The current iteration of Romano’s YouTube channel is a departure from what it was a few years back. In 2019, Romano began her first foray in the digital space with Christy’s Kitchen Throwback, where she’d invite former Disney co-stars and childhood actors to cook with her. From what she could tell, her audience “didn't want her to do off-the-cuff stuff:” They craved splashy, curated content. Ironically, it’s the opposite of what has helped her channel take off now. Romano struggled with how to present herself because her audience knew her from a particular era. ”I'm not all that different of a person [now], but I think that your emotional range changes as your life experience grows,” she says.
But it became a challenge to secure celebrities and incentivize them. “We were starting to pay people to come on the show and that felt a little inauthentic to the show itself,” she recalls. Her views weren’t spiking and “ad-wise I wasn't making a ton of money with this high production value.” So she began testing out content. Romano ended up pivoting to a giveaway show, but she was no MrBeast. She attempted reaction videos, but the celebrity coordination aspect was, again, a challenge.
She considered leaving YouTube, but in the interim, she was also building her TikTok presence. A video of Romano speaking to her younger self, called "Big Sis Advice," went viral for its candor from the perspective of her younger self and current self: “It was me checking in mental health-wise with a person as if we were FaceTiming.” During the TikTok video, she was also walking and moving — something inherent to it that she felt appealed to viewers. And then there was the added isolation of COVID. “I realized quickly that what people were wanting and what they're really needing since the pandemic is to feel like they have someone to talk to,” she explains. “They need that connection, they need that community.”
Romano, who had long avoided discussing her Hollywood experience, had an epiphany for what to do next: "Let's give the people what they want. Let's talk about Shia LaBeouf. Let's talk about 'Circle of Life.' Let's talk about what it's like to have stalkers. Let's give the people the stories that they never knew I had inside of me." It was pretty easy since “the media runs with it.” But for Romano, there was a strategy behind it. She ultimately decided that while perhaps the gossip or Hollywood history element would lure people in, she wanted “to extract a bigger purpose” from her 10-minute videos. “I'm trying to provide somebody with something more than just a tea element,” she says.
It was her video about LaBeouf, titled “Why I Don’t Talk to Shia LaBeouf” that went viral — a meditative visual that featured Romano telling her story while walking a path in nature. (Those walks have become hallmarks of her videos now.) The clickbait headline garnered the attention of Disney fans and older millennials, and from there, Romano was on the road to a rebrand. For her, she needed to muddle through the discontent and confusion she endured, and find a throughline into her present-day career. “It's like, ‘How do you lean into the past, but also embrace it and make it okay and positive?’” she asks. And more importantly, she didn’t want it to be “cheesy.”
You might be wondering if Romano is worried that she’ll run out of stories to share. At the moment, she block-shoots five episodes, which covers her for a while. And because she’s been in the entertainment industry since she was six years old, she has roughly 20 years of stories. Still, she treads lightly with her past and others. “There's some lines that just don't need to be crossed, not because I don't want them to be crossed, but more or less because there's no value to them,” she says. Some of her audience, she’s found, want her to add a “sense of conspiracy” to her videos.” But she’s here to talk about her lived experience. The reason why she believes her approach works is because she has authority on the topic she’s discussing on her channel, which adds value.
Despite highlighting certain celebrities in her videos – like LaBeouf, Hathaway or Hilary Duff – Romano has yet to hear from anyone she’s included in her storytelling. She’s happier, she says, that it hasn’t happened. “I probably would feel really self-conscious about making any other videos if it came back to me and they were having any kind of opinion,” she laughs. Regardless of what stories she shares, she still has a lot of empathy for the famous people in them. “I still have a respect for them because I know where they're coming from,” she says of her peers.
For Romano, the Disney characters that have defined her career have remained on her mind. Just like fans have long-theorized that there were queer undertones between her character Jennifer and Duff’s Kelly, she’s thought about it, too. “I personally believe that Jennifer Stone [in Cadet Kelly] would be a really interesting character if she was married to a woman and she was the principal of a school,” she says, before adding, “And there was a Kelly student that came and then she had to deal with that again.” The actress believes it could prompt a reboot that way. She believes it "would be a big deal for Disney” and for representing the LGBTQ+ community in the military as long as it wasn’t “for an inauthentic play.” And Ren? Romano thinks she’d be working in politics and found the man of her dreams.
With her re-storytelling, Romano has reflected on her own experiences working at Disney and what she wants to do to pave the way forward. “What I appreciated about Disney was that they always really did try to make sure that the kids were okay,” she recalls. All film productions, she believes, would benefit from having a social worker or an advocate on set “that would protect the mental health of the children.” Through her conversations on YouTube, she wants to endorse that. “I never would've probably thought to advocate for that kind of thing, unless I came to terms with some of this drama,” Romano says. While she thinks people want her to disparage Disney, she won’t – she’s fond of the network. She just wants the entertainment industry to be better for the next generation: “It's just bigger than the topic of, ‘Did Disney fuck you up?’ It's more or less, ‘What is the industry doing as a whole to protect kids?’”
Whether her videos center celebrities in them or not, Romano’s channel will remain a place to share her own metamorphosis with the ASMR backdrop of her Austin hikes. If her audience is there, she wants to be the “safe space” for them: “I'm the big sister who figured it out.”
Photo courtesy of Christy Carlson Romano