Before child influencers, a 1920s movie star sued his mother for wages
He broke into Hollywood at 18 months old, gurgling and crying on cue in the silent comedy film “Skinner’s Baby.”
At 4 years old, he shot to fame playing the role of a pitiful, innocent street urchin in “The Kid” alongside Charlie Chaplin.
The child soon became “the nation’s No. 1 box-office attraction,” according to The Washington Post archives, lighting up the screen in some of the top grossing films of the 1920s, such as “Oliver Twist” and “Daddy,” before age 10.
But in his early 20s, when Jackie Coogan tried to access his life’s earnings, he learned that he was almost penniless. At the time, a minor’s wages belonged solely to their parents under California law.
Coogan sued his mother and her husband in 1938, accusing them of squandering his money. The suit didn’t win Coogan the $4 million he thought he was owed, but a year later, the Coogan Law — protecting child performers from losing their earnings to their parents or guardians — was put into effect in California, and other states soon followed suit.
While child performers in Illinois are protected under similar modern laws — which mandate that employers deposit 15 percent of a minor’s gross wages into a Coogan account, a special, blocked trust fund account — child influencers in the state did not have this legal protection until earlier this month.
On Aug. 11, Illinois became the first state to ensure that children who are shown on social media are paid for their work. The legislation “creates a private right of action for child influencers against their parents that featured them in videos and did not properly compensate them,” according to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s website. It also gives child influencers the right the request a permanent deletion of any video that features them.
The sharing of children’s lives without their consent on social media began with mommy bloggers in the 2000s. Parents used their experiences with their children and stories from their kids’ lives to generate income.
As YouTube, Instagram and then TikTok became popular, the public documentation of children’s lives became an industry worth millions. The channels or vlogs can feature an entire family, either parent, or even just the child, as is the case of Ryan Kaji, a top-earning influencer who has his own toys and clothing line at Walmart and Target.
In 2020, Ryan, who began appearing in YouTube toy videos at age 3, pulled in more than $29.5 million, according to the Guardian.
It was while watching child influencers on social media during the pandemic that Illinois teenager Shreya Nallamothu thought about how child vloggers are not protected under labor laws, WGLT in Illinois reported in April.
Nallamothu began an independent study in August 2022, exploring how child influencers can access money they generated once they turn 18. With the help of a teacher, Nallamothu turned the study into a memo and sent it to state Sen. David Koehler (D). The senator took an interest and became one the sponsors of the bill that passed this month.
When it takes effect next July, the Illinois law will give child influencers the right to half their earnings from videos or online content. The content must be made in Illinois and generate at least 10 cents per view, and kids must be featured or talked about in at least 30 percent of it within a month. Account holders need to save the child’s earnings in a trust until they’re 18; if not, the child can sue.
Like today’s child influencers, whose parents and guardians have learned to monetize their faces and brands outside vlogs, Coogan was one of the first kid stars to monetize through endorsements.
Known for his baby face and long bangs, Coogan’s visage was used to sell pails of peanut butter in the 1920s (you can still get one, minus the peanut butter, as a memento for the small price of $207). Pencil cases with Coogan’s lithograph portrait in an engineer’s cap were sold in red or green — a yellow version of the case was used to sell hard candy by Boston Confectionery Co.
None of the earnings from these deals, however, were available to him when he became an adult.
Just a few months before the lawsuit against his mother, Coogan married Betty Grable, an actress and dancer. “Nobody but me knows how rough things really have been for Jackie,” Grable said, in a quote used in Coogan’s 1984 obituary in The Post. The couple lived in a luxury apartment, but Coogan auctioned their furnishings. “A guy has to eat, hasn’t he?” he asked.
During the legal proceedings, public support lay with Coogan, according to Peter W. Lee’s essay in Boyhood Studies. “Coogan’s legacy as a kid gave him public sympathy — and the California Child Actor’s Bill which bears his name,” said Lee.
Hollywood, however, was less sympathetic. Coogan’s “betrayal of his long-devoted mother re-tendered him unemployable,” according to Lee, and the young man was blacklisted. His relationship with his mother apparently thawed after the lawsuit — in 1940, a year after the Coogan Law was passed, a freshly divorced Coogan moved back in with her.
Later, after serving in the U.S. Army for a few years, Coogan returned to the screen. His most iconic adult role was playing Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” TV series in the mid-1960s.
Like today’s child influencers, Coogan became an international sensation through his charm and hard work.
Nallamothu, the teenager who pushed for the Illinois law, told the Associated Press in May that without such laws, “there’s a lot of exploitation that can happen within the world of ‘kidfluencing.’” Now, lawmakers in other states appear eager to push for similar laws.
“The bottom line here is that children should not be exploited,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Torren Ecker (R) while advocating for a similar bill in his state. “And both their childhoods and their work should be protected from unscrupulous individuals who want to take advantage of their celebrity and subject them to onerous working conditions while not being sound stewards of their earnings.”