As I stood alone in Christy Carlson Romano’s West Austin living room, waiting for her to come downstairs, I had one question on my mind: Would she be wearing her eyelashes? The 39-year-old Disney star turned nostalgia influencer often dons falsies when shooting for her various social media accounts, and in some Youtube and TikTok videos, her fake lashes are so thick that she seems barely able to open her eyes. But there was no videography on the day’s schedule. It was a normal Wednesday afternoon, on which Romano’s husband, Brendan Rooney, was holed up in the couple’s home office and her two young daughters, Izzy and Sophia, were on their way to the library with the family’s beloved nanny, a tall, fashionable woman who let me into the house in the first place.
Romano’s family moved from California in the fall of 2020, part of a wave of minor celebrities who relocated to Austin during the COVID-19 pandemic (the list includes Haylie Duff, Adrian Grenier, and James Van Der Beek, all three of whom seemed to have called the press as soon as they unpacked their boxes). The Hill Country quickly became a prominent part of Romano’s online identity. She and her husband produced a series of YouTube videos that had Romano meandering along various Austin-area trails, in full makeup, her face contoured for the gods, waxing poetic about her career as a child actor in iconic pieces of millennial pop culture such as Even Stevens, Kim Possible, and Cadet Kelly. The titles for these videos were shameless: “How Katy Perry Got My Record Deal,” “Why I Don’t Talk to Shia LaBeouf,” “How I Lost All My Money.” They worked—the Shia video alone has over two million views—and Romano’s frank monologues, which were always more nuanced and reasonable than the video titles suggested, kept people clicking. The vlogs, which BuzzFeed called “oddly compelling,” propelled Romano back into the public consciousness, at least for a bit.
To keep the momentum going, she launched two podcasts within a month of each other: I Hear Voices, in which she and her Kim Possible costar Will Friedle talk voice-over acting, and the celebrity interview show Vulnerable. This February, Romano and her husband announced an entire podcast network, PodCo, with a slate of early aughts easy-listening shows that includes a series hosted by nineties heartthrobs the Lawrence brothers, as well as podcasts that revisit episodes of Even Stevens and Wizards of Waverly Place one by one. (Selena Gomez not only guested on an episode of the Wizards pod, but also posted about it on her Instagram grid. Not just her stories, her grid.) Romano and Rooney seem poised to build an empire out of the oversharing reminiscences that gave Romano’s career a second life, a move that one podcast-industry analyst called “shrewd.”
In recent years, many a recognizable but unbooked “celebrity” has clung to the cash-stuffed life raft that is millennial nostalgia. The iTunes charts are stacked with rewatch podcasts for long-canceled but once beloved shows; a much-abbreviated list includes Boy Meets World, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, Laguna Beach, The OC, One Tree Hill, New Girl, Saved by the Bell, and Scrubs, which I didn’t even realize people liked that much. There are two competing podcasts hosted by cast members from The Office. Jonathan Bennett, who played the love interest in Mean Girls, went from teaching spin classes to starring in Hallmark holiday movies after he embraced his nostalgic relevancy and released a Mean Girls–themed parody cookbook (The Burn Cookbook, not bad) in 2018. Formerly maligned early aughts celebs Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan have used the growing market (and more-forgiving modern attitudes) to rehabilitate their images and revitalize their careers. Even the corporate world wants in on the action. “Super Bowl Ads Bank on Gen X and Millennial Nostalgia,” read a recent Newsweek headline, referring to commercials that referenced Zoolander, Scrubs, and Caddyshack. Alicia Silverstone slapped on her yellow plaid Clueless skirt suit and collected what we can hope was a massive paycheck.
Christy Carlson Romano isn’t subtle in her attempts to cash in on this trend. Her desire for you to like and subscribe is evident before you ever watch a minute of her content. Everything she does, from her video titles to her makeup to her cooking shows (Christy’s Kitchen Throwback, in which she prepares food with other former child stars, and Celebrity Kitchen, in which she prepares food in character as other former child stars), is a play for clicks from the 27-to-42-year-olds who grew up plunked in front of the Disney Channel. In the past decade, she’s racked up 350,000 YouTube subscribers and over one million TikTok followers, the kind of numbers Mean Girls’s Jonathan Bennett would kill for.
A nearly forty-year-old woman who releases videos with titles like “Ellen DeGeneres STIRS UP CONTROVERSY in The Kitchen * Scary” and “My 9/11 Story” seems desperate for any and all attention we might be willing to toss her way. That she’ll readily admit embarrassing details, like how psychics scammed her out of $60,000 or how she was bullied by “a really huge star” when they both attended Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School, only adds to her apparent thirstiness. From the outside, it’s hard to tell if Romano is in on the bit.
When Romano eventually joined me downstairs, she looked indistinguishable from the well-to-do West Austin mothers I used to babysit for. She wore wide-legged, camel-colored linen pants and a cozy, striped turtleneck sweater, with skinny sneakers, big hipster glasses, and enviably thick brown hair that went all the way down her back. She wasn’t wearing fake eyelashes, or much makeup at all, making her face far more approachable than the yassified version online.
“Oh my God, thanks for coming by,” she told me, with the energy and earnestness of a lifelong theater kid. The house was big, airy, and sharp, but not cold, with cozy couches and fake-fur blankets. A mosaic-covered Longhorn skull hung above one of the living room’s two gas fireplaces. There was the right amount of leather and rawhide—not quite kitschy, but enough to say “We’re Texan now.”
Romano was comfortable in her surroundings, and clearly happy to be in Texas. She seemed well on her way to natural assimilation, having earned initial bona fides by surviving the February 2021 freeze and solidifying her Texanhood by developing strong, if strange, opinions about her favorite H-E-B-brand products. (“I was really deep into their caffeinated waters, which you’ll see me clutching in a lot of my videos,” she told me.)
During our hours together, Romano was self-assured. She dropped f-bombs, and she chastised tailgating drivers when we drove to get coffee. She talked about how she decorated her house during the holidays—a Nightmare Before Christmas theme from Halloween onward. She was willing to make fun of herself; she herself called her Instagram feed her “basic bitch content.” (TikTok allows her to delve deeper into “the mental health stuff.”) She revealed that she keeps detailed spreadsheets, graphs, and various other analytics to monitor the engagement on each of her channels.
It all made me wonder about the heavy-lidded Romano who exists online. That persona is a product, and the more attention she can draw, the greater her value on the nostalgia market. Romano knows this, and maybe she’s at the mercy of the Hollywood system, a former childhood star forever locked into the attention economy because she doesn’t know how to value herself any other way. Or maybe she’s a stone-cold strategist in Mickey Mouse ears playing stunted millennials like a fiddle.
Romano entered the media business at the age when the rest of us were entering first grade. She booked her first commercial at six, got cast as an orphan in the touring company of Annie shortly afterward, and was acting on Broadway by the time she was fourteen. Disney came calling shortly thereafter, and by the early aughts, Romano was riding high as one of the channel’s biggest stars. (When I told my siblings I was interviewing Christy Carlson Romano, they flipped. When I told my dad I was interviewing just “someone from the Disney Channel,” he didn’t even know what that was.) She was a major player in several seminal pieces of millennial pop culture: Even Stevens, a family sitcom that both Romano and I think was one of the channel’s more “intellectual” offerings (it was my favorite when I was a teen); the secret-spy animated series Kim Possible; and Cadet Kelly, which was like Private Benjamin for tweens and the Disney Channel equivalent of a major crossover event, since it also starred Lizzie McGuire’s Hilary Duff.
When Romano graduated from the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan (where she was classmates with Scarlett Johansson and Macaulay Culkin) she took a break from acting to “do the Claire Danes/Natalie Portman thing” and go to college. (Inspired by another A-lister, Angelina Jolie, her first major was international relations. “I loved human rights,” she says.) Three semesters into her studies at Barnard College, Disney summoned her to Broadway to play Belle in its production of Beauty and the Beast. But after eight grueling months of eight shows a week, Disney dropped Romano as quickly as she had dropped her college career.
“I was not castable for Disney anymore when I was nineteen,” she says. It was painful. “When you’re a kid, you actually think, ‘Oh, that’s my family. I’m part of the Disney family.’ And they even tell you, ‘You’re part of our family.’ So you get all warped in your head. ‘Well, why aren’t they hiring me anymore?’ ”
Then Romano mounted her first unsuccessful attempt at a career pivot. She was no longer a child star, so she thought she’d become a sex symbol instead. She “begged” to be on the cover of Maxim, but she never got the spot. “When you were on Maxim back then, people would book you from that. I felt ugly, like, ‘I’m not hot enough. I’m not good enough.’ ” (There’s never been a good time to be a teen girl, but in hindsight, the early 2000s were particularly cruel.) Romano still had a record deal and a book deal with Disney-owned companies that were good for about a million dollars, but she burned through that money before the year was out, just as the Kim Possible and Even Stevens residuals started to dry up. She started acting out in a way countless other young women have done when they are finally out from under Disney’s thumb. “My twenties were my teen years,” Romano says. It turns out that even early aughts celebrities speak in early aughts pop culture references; she tells me she was “the Samantha” of her friend group.
She moved back to L.A., where she quickly exhausted her savings. Her life revolved around acting classes and bars. She took roles in films she isn’t particularly proud of, mostly so she could qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance. At 26, accepting that a successful on-camera career was officially a thing of the past, she decided to go back to Barnard and finish her degree. It was there, in a screenwriting class, that she met her future husband. Brendan Rooney had just gotten out of the Marines and was going to Columbia on the GI Bill. “He really woke me up,” Romano says. “He was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been in a war. I was deployed to Iraq. Your little s— about being a child actor is nothing.’ And he really had the tough talks that I needed.”
After she graduated, Romano moved back in L.A. to be with her now husband, who had gone there a year ahead to get his master’s in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. They were two creatives with expensive degrees and a mountain of student debt in a town full of them. Then Romano got pregnant and found herself needing baby stuff, with no clue how to afford it. “A friend of mine said, ‘Just throw stuff online and then use your social presence,’ ” she recalls.
The baby, it turned out, was good for engagement. Romano and Rooney were making solid money for the first time in years, and they decided Romano would build a nice little nest egg for their growing family with what she calls “the content lifestyle stuff.” She isn’t the only celebrity who’s made such a pivot, but perhaps for the fans who’ve grown up alongside her—and seen Romano’s peers get dragged through the tabloids for drug abuse, romantic scandals, confusing accents, or worse—there’s something especially comforting about watching Romano throw a bangin’ Little Mermaid–themed birthday party for her four-year-old.
Being a momfluencer helped pay the bills, but Romano didn’t want to set her children on the path to fame that had traumatized her and so many of her peers. At the time, noted basketball wife Ayesha Curry had transformed herself into a food celebrity with her show, Ayesha’s Home Kitchen, and Romano and Rooney thought that was a good angle for them. “My grandfather owned a big famous Italian bakery, and so we came to the intersection of nostalgia and food,” she says. The result was Christy’s Kitchen Throwback, which debuted in 2019 and featured Romano making simple dishes with other former child stars. The video’s titles were always SEO-friendly, referring to Christy as Kim Possible and naming her guests only by their most recognizable identifiers: “Kim Possible & Youngest Lawrence Brother Bake a Pizza!” or “Kim Possible + High School Musical STAR Make Creme Brulee!” Romano says the video titles are all Rooney. “I’m the muse, I would say. And my husband is the visionary,” she asserts.
They tried launching Celebrity Kitchen, with Romano cooking in character, including in one episode in which she pretended to be Shia LaBeouf making a cotê de boeuf. Much to Romano’s disappointment, viewership was too low to make it sustainable. “Brendan and I still think those were the funnest pieces of content that we’ve created,” Romano told me. “They showed my dynamic range as an actor.” (I’ll give it to Romano that her Harley Quinn/Margot Robbie and Ellen DeGeneres impressions were legitimately funny, but not because they were good. Rather, they were just my favorite kind of stupid.)
The couple first fell in love with Austin when they passed through it on a road trip, driving cross-country so Romano could make comic-con appearances, one method by which they paid off student loans before hitching a ride on “the sponsored content train.” Romano was tiring of the West Coast scene. At a fundraiser, she overheard a child actor say, “My mom’s been nice or whatever, so I guess I’ll buy her a Louis Vuitton bag for Christmas.” Romano didn’t want her daughters to grow up in that world. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this to my kids. We need a change, and a new perspective.’ ” The family officially abandoned Southern California for Austin in fall 2020.
At the height of the pandemic, in a new city, in a new home, which had a kitchen that wasn’t quite as production-friendly as the old one, it was time to find another replicable YouTube series. It was Rooney’s idea to film Romano walking through Austin’s woods, speaking straight to the camera in a one-person version of the meandering conversations the two of them have on long walks and drives. Romano put on her eyelashes and athleisure and got to stepping.
Right away, the videos were extremely popular. Few of Romano’s cooking videos had cracked a couple hundred thousand views, and the vlogs were racking up millions. The Shia LaBeouf confessional alone got Romano coverage in Insider, the Hollywood Reporter, and the UK’s Daily Mail, none of which had paid attention to her kitchen throwbacks. After that, she became the subject of at least two or three articles every time she revealed a juicy piece of personal information (the sort of press attention that Jonathan Bennett would kill for).
But the videos weren’t just compelling for the tea. The Shia LaBeouf video, for example, isn’t actually that salacious; Romano is just fondly but soberly discussing a former coworker the way one might talk about an old high school classmate. The video in which Romano explains how she lost all her Disney money is actually a pretty helpful explanation of how she became financially literate. (If anyone can get millennials, America’s poorest generation, to start thinking about assets versus liabilities, it’s a former Disney Channel star.) The titles of her videos are like responses to the thousands of questions Romano has received from fans over the years, and each ten minutes of talking is an effort to bring some substance to the conversation.
Romano’s current career pivot has been all about leaning into that substance. After officially closing her hiking chapter with a dramatically titled “My Final Vlog” video in February 2022, she launched her two new podcasts, which would allow her to release hours of truth telling and tea spilling per week instead of just one ten-minute video. Vulnerable would specifically focus more on the topics of mental health, trauma, and survival. Romano knew she was good at opening up about her own struggles, and she wanted to help people if she could. But she also knew it was good for business. “I don’t know what my possibilities are, but I know it’s rooted in authentic-ness,” Romano told me. “Be authentic, but monetizing.”
During our time together, Romano did seem authentic: Not only did she let me into her home, she showed me every square foot of it, launching into an enthusiastic tour and discussion of the couple’s new digs (“We were really impressed with the open concept”), their old place (“What we had before was a three-tier in Lost Creek, a Greenbelt kind of house”), regional architecture (“I think it’s a Texas thing to have the master on the first level”), the pool’s shape (“kidney bean is different”), and her family’s diverging design aesthetics (“If I had it my way, every room would be funky”).
We wound our way through her daughters’ bedrooms, met the family Bengal cat, Jumanji, and found ourselves in the (upstairs) master bedroom, one corner of which had been transformed into a makeshift Zoom and podcast studio. Romano had been forced to move the operation up from the downstairs office, she told me, because someone called Gigi, whom Romano described as “sort of like our great-grandmother,” had been staying on the pullout over the holidays. She showed me the box in her closet that holds her old dog’s ashes. She told me that her husband’s $129,000 Tesla was “not something that I would’ve chosen for my car, but if it’s what my husband needs to be a high-performing part of my team, then I support it.”
Romano seemed to enjoy the Tesla too. She drove me around in it, flooring it for half a second so I could see just how fast that bad boy could go. “What is this, Top Gun?” I shouted, before Romano took her foot off the gas and we went just as quickly back to a normal speed, with the cars in front of and behind us none the wiser that we had briefly made Austin’s Emmett Shelton Bridge a highway to the danger zone.
From behind the Tesla’s aviation-style yoke steering wheel, Romano waxed poetic. “If you see my content, I give people what they want. But I also talk to them about the moral of the story.”
Her most recent career moves have certainly satisfied both aims. The PodCo recap shows are blatant fan service, and Vulnerable is a chance for Romano to dive deep into her traumatic childhood and the moral of her own story. She hopes to extend that to a memoir, something respectable, like former Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy’s recent best-seller I’m Glad My Mom Died. Romano’s also pivoting to actual activism, working with other grown child stars like Missy Elliott’s former dancer Alyson Stoner to get legislation passed that would better protect kids in the industry, not just from the industry itself, but also from the parents who might force their children into it. They’re in the process of setting up what Romano is calling a “coalition,” though nothing has been etched in stone yet.
But you can’t be a successful advocate without a platform, and millennial nostalgia is an inexhaustible market. Just weeks after PodCo’s launch, on Friday morning, 2 of its shows were among the top 25 podcasts in Apple’s TV & Film category, with Wizards of Waverly Pod at number 2. Vulnerable, at number 50, was beating the recap podcast for Gilmore Girls. Romano is taking advantage of it all. Her social media accounts are full of videos with the Lawrence brothers and her Even Stevens costars, whom she refers to as her brothers.
Recently, Romano posted a TikTok using a filter designed to make one’s face look like its teenage version. In the video, she stares at what sort of looks like the girl who was so long ago seared into millennial subconsciousness. A robot voice reads the caption “I knew this filter would break me,” as Romano first looks lovingly, then sticks her tongue out, before covering her mouth as if to cry.
It was, once again, hard to tell how authentic Romano’s authenticity was at that moment. The video cut off before any specific emotion came through—only an eleven-second glimpse at the Ren Stevens we used to know and love. Engagement was good, though. Fifty-five thousand people liked it, and it got over a million views.
When I finally worked up the courage to ask Romano about her eyelashes, she burst into laughter. “Dammit, I was going to put them on for you!” she said. “Aesthetic production value, that’s my background,” she added, referring to her college studies. “To me, putting on a certain kind of makeup, or a certain kind of outfit, if it’s going to get me views, I’m perfectly fine doing that.”
Hair and makeup: Tara Cooper; styling: Stephanie Coultress O’Neill and Aubrey Blocker; clothing provided by Estilo Austin.