Sudden celebrity was more than a hiccup
Unhappiness led to Jennifer Mee running away, but she says she won't do that again.
By PAUL SWIDER
Published June 20, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Jennifer Mee was a fairly typical 15-year-old girl until she came down with persistent hiccups.
She and her family turned to the media to find help.
Her hiccups have subsided for now, but all the attention opened a Pandora's box of unsolicited advice, ridicule, celebrity and whole new pressures.
Last week, Jennifer ran away from home - not an unusual development for someone her age. But her parents are convinced her celebrity status brought pressure that contributed to her unhappiness.
"It would go to any 15-year-old's head after a while," said Chris Robidoux. "She couldn't go anywhere without people coming up to her. People wanted autographs."
When he saw lots of strangers' numbers on her cell phone, he took it away, which upset Jennifer. He also checked out MySpace, the online community of personal blogs. He didn't like what he found.
"There's lots of parents that trust their kids. I wouldn't recommend it," he said, adding that he found multiple accounts and highly explicit conversations.
The pressure on Jennifer is at least partly the product of today's instant-feedback, celebrity-soaked culture, said Tony Silvia, director of journalism and media studies at the University of South Florida.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "You want the media to help you, but to a certain extent, you give up ownership. You are opening yourself up."
For her part, Jennifer says, her decision to run away had nothing to do with the hiccups, that she has some long-standing disagreements with her parents. Still, she recognizes that her brief celebrity, with national television appearances and people recognizing her in public, had its drawbacks.
"It was interesting," she said. "I met new people. It was more positive than negative. But later, it went all downhill."
In fact, much of the attention was sharply negative.
"I never saw it coming," said Jennifer's mother, Rachel Robidoux. "It's amazing how people can find your address and your phone number."
In comments on a YouTube video, Jennifer was called a slut and a whore, her stepfather Chris Robidoux said. Some writers suggested various sex acts to cure her hiccups.
"There's some heartless people out there," he said. "I got disgusted after a while. Unfortunately, she saw some of that too. She was upset about it."
Jennifer said the family's living circumstances exert their own kind of pressure. Mother, father and five daughters share a two-bedroom home. The closeness was a metaphor for Jennifer's media fishbowl.
"It seems like we live in a little box," she said. "There's no privacy at all."
Jennifer had had enough by June 10, when her sister told her that her father wanted her home. Instead of going home, she walked from the Roberts Community Center on 50th Avenue N all the way to Bartlett Park at Fourth Street and 22nd Avenue S.
She was scared and ran away from some cars that seemed to circle, but her pique kept her from going home. She slept on a park bench.
The next day, she walked back north and spent the day in and around Fossil Park, hiding from passing police cars. Later that night, a neighbor's tip led her parents to her.
She said she wanted to run again, but just started crying instead.
"As soon as my stepdad told me my mom hadn't slept all night, I realized I had done something wrong," she said. "He's a grown man, and even he cried for me.
"I'll never do that again."
Downside of celebrity
Sometimes cases like this are an attempt to recapture attention, said Dr. Stephen Giunta, the director of program development for Directions in Mental Health in Clearwater, which often deals with teens and family issues.
"Teenagers have an egocentric personality to begin with," Giunta said, adding he was speaking generally, not specifically about Jennifer's situation. "They think the world centers around them."
Giunta said kids also tend to internalize events around them, blaming themselves for a divorce, for instance.
Jennifer's parents turned to the media out of desperation, Giunta said, but others not so pressed can still learn from their experience.
"The moral of the story is we should try to minimize the amount of celebrity children experience," Giunta said. "There are no small doses any longer."
Giunta said others facing similar situations should call 211, the Tampa Bay area social-service hotline for parents and teens and families in need.
Silvia, the journalism teacher, suggests the media may have something to learn from this situation as well.
"Do we have an obligation to point out to a 15-year-old that there is a downside?" he asked. "She may need some help, but after that, she may need other help of a different kind."
Media is a category that includes more than the news, Silvia said. The line gets blurred between entertainment and news, and reality TV can make wealthy stars of anyone willing to take the heat.
"You're constantly seeing adults do anything for their 15 minutes of fame," he said. "We used to teach people they had to work hard to get ahead, but now all you have to do is something outrageous. Look at reality TV, look who's rewarded, look at Paris Hilton."
Jennifer's family compares her situation to that of Allison Stokke, a.k.a. pole vault girl, who achieved accidental celebrity and ridicule because of an innocent picture of her someone posted on the Internet.
Since returning, Jennifer has spent a few days with her grandparents to could cool off and think, but she's back home now. The family is considering counseling to try to better understand the whirlwind they've just gone through and how to cope with it.
"We need to do something about all the drama that's going on," Jennifer said. "We need some help so we can be a family and not a bunch of strangers living in one house."
Paul Swider can be reached at 727 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.