Alyssa Milano On Child Stardom, How Her Activism Began, & Troll-Fighting

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An outspoken, highly visible activist today, Alyssa Milano considers acting her day job.  But if you’re old enough to remember her breakout on 80s/early ‘90s sitcom Who’s the Boss, you know that she was a major tween-to-teen star: The girl who played Samantha Micelli (daughter to Tony Danza’s convention-defying manny/housekeeper) graced magazine covers, recorded pop albums and even released an exercise video, Teen Steam. But the New York City native’s precocious career in the spotlight was completely accidental, beginning at age 7 when she tagged along with her aspiring actress babysitter to auditions for a production of Annie.

“There were kids there on the stage singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and dancing, and [my babysitter] asked me if I wanted to audition,” Milano, now 46, recalls on this week’s UnStyled podcast.  “I had no Idea what that word meant. I was seven. I was my son's age, and I knew 1,500 kids where there. Only four got picked, and I was one of the four.” That Milano subsequently managed to succeed and escape the serious perils of child stardom is a credit to her parents, she tells Christene Barberich, Refinery29’s global editor-in-chief and cofounder.  

“Raising a child in the entertainment industry was not the easiest thing in the world, and I think what they enabled was my own individuality,” says Milano, now a mother of two young kids herself.  “But also, there was no codependency there. [Give] a child enough space to really be who they were meant to be. I think it’s important to just accept it.”

Given that perspective, Milano says she wouldn’t forbid her own kids from pursuing show business careers if they wanted. “Who better than me to raise a child in this industry than someone who's been through it? But luckily, as of right now, neither one of them are showing any signs of wanting to be actors.”

Just as young Alyssa showed a natural affinity for performing, she was similarly drawn to activist work and leveraging her celebrity for good in her teens.  “I got a phone call from Elton John saying that there was a little boy named Ryan White that wanted to meet me, that I was his role model,” she says. White, who died in 1990, was an HIV-positive teen-turned-activist after he was kicked out of his school due to early AIDS hysteria and misinformation.  “We became good friends, and I loved him very much,” Milano recalls of White, who asked her to kiss him on the Phil Donahue Show to prove that HIV-AIDS can’t be transmitted through casual contact. 

“That was the moment that I realized the power of having a platform, how it could affect positive change and how being a celebrity meant that there was a certain responsibility to be the voice of those that had no voice, and to fight for what I believed to be right,” she tells Barberich. 

Ever since, Milano has used that platform vigorously and consistently — more recently as a progressive warrior for the #MeToo movement, a passionate advocate for gun control and a leader of the 2020 Fund, which raises money for grassroots organizations to get out the vote in crucial battleground state ahead of the next Presidential election.  That means that Milano (host of her own podcast, Sorry, Not Sorry)  is constantly dealing with trolls on Twitter and elsewhere. But she’s unfazed.

“Dealing with trolls now at 46 is much easier than dealing with trolls at fifteen, in your face, telling me that I had HIV, AIDS and not being asked to the prom because people thought that I was HIV-positive because I kissed Ryan White on TV,” she reasons. “I have always understood that standing up for things means that you're going to be uncomfortable. I don't think now is any different. I think it's shifted because you’re a lot more accessible with social media. So people have access.”

What also helps her cope is self-care — and a robust support network that includes pop-folk singer Jewel and Milano’s husband, CAA agent David Bulgari. “It upsets him. He trolls my trolls,” she says. “And he's super proud of, like, when he gets them good.”

For the rest of Milano and Barberich’s chat — why Who’s the Boss was a trailblazer in more ways than one, why she hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate, and her childhood in NYC — listen to this week’s UnStyled podcast above and subscribe via Apple Podcasts today.

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