Maddie Ziegler, after getting her start on the reality show Dance Moms and then branching out to other dancing and acting projects, has been in the spotlight for over a decade. Now, at 19, she's getting candid about the impact of being in the public eye from such a young age.
Ziegler told Cosmopolitan that she was just 8 when she had the realization that she was well-known, after people had recognized her while she was out getting ice cream with friends. Instead of having fond memories of it, she said she was "weirded out" by the experience.
"It didn’t make me excited," she said. "In a way, I was kind of embarrassed."
Even still, the teen says she has "a hard time considering myself famous," although she's certainly faced the repercussions of being a public figure. That, paired with the intensity of her dance teacher Abby Lee Miller, who was notorious for yelling at the young dancers, made for a uniquely difficult upbringing.
"I had more stress at that age than I did once I left [the show]. I have dissociated so much from that time. I’ll see fans post scenes from Dance Moms and I’m like, I literally don’t even remember that happening," she said. "It’s weird because there were really amazing times, but there were also a lot of things that were really, really not great for us kids."
While the high stakes surrounding each of the young dancer's performances made for good television, Ziegler explained that growing up in that environment has had an impact on her even as she gets older.
"My dance teacher taught that if you don’t get the trophy, if you don’t get the crown, you are less than, which is the worst way to train a kid. It carries into other life lessons," she said. "We also weren’t allowed to watch our competitors or be friends with them. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of those things."
After deciding to leave the show and the dance studio, Miller was "distraught," Ziegler said. "For the longest time, we felt so guilty. She trained me, she helped me, but also, I knew I would be okay without her and I was sick of being in a toxic environment. I was like, 'This is not for me. I can’t do this.' I haven’t spoken to her since."
But even as she continues to work in Hollywood, Ziegler explained the challenges that she's faced to move beyond the image of a little girl that so many people came to know her as. She's also faced body shaming throughout the years.
"I literally hit puberty in front of everyone on TV, and that’s a super-weird thing. I started developing boobs and I got my period and my body started changing, and people were like, 'Oh, she’s gaining weight. She’s getting fat.' And I’m like, 'Whoa! I’m literally becoming more of a woman!' People have said that I am pregnant before. And it’s like, 'You guys. I’m maturing and you are all probably doing the same thing,'" she explained. "They hold you to this version, this idea that they’ve built up in their head of who they think I am. And then anything outside of that idea is really hard for them to comprehend. Sometimes I’ll have moms come up to me and they’re like, 'We still think you’re 8 years old.'"
In her personal life, however, Ziegler has made an effort to evolve from who she was during her Dance Mom days. Most notably, she's worked on showing herself some grace after recognizing that she's her biggest critic.
"I’m going to therapy, talking to people, doing all the things," she said. "I’ve learned I’m not going to be in trouble if I’m feeling bad or if I have an injury. That’s the biggest difference. It’s amazing that I’m able to feel my feelings and not just push them down. I’m also just really clean. That’s where my perfectionism has transferred."
As for removing herself from the public eye completely, Ziegler still has big dreams to chase, which include stepping into the Met Gala red carpet at some point and participating in "meaningful" work as an actress.
"Obviously, there are times where I’m like, Ugh, I wish no one knew who I was; I wish I never had to do this. But the good moments still override those," she said. "I’ve learned so much. I’ve met so many amazing people. I’ve done so many cool things. I feel like I’ve been on this Earth forever — and I’m not even 20 yet."
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