Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment's video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.
Even if she hadn't entered the entertainment industry at a young age, Mayim Bialik would never describe her childhood as normal. "I don't know if I felt normal growing up," the actress and outgoing Jeopardy! guest host tells Yahoo Entertainment. "But I don't think that had to do with the fact that I was a child actor — I think that I came from a really unusual family. So nothing felt normal for me. I always felt different." (Watch our video interview above.)
As Bialik explains, her parents her parents were first-generation immigrants, who lived in a tight-knit community of European Jews in the Bronx before moving to San Diego, where she was born in 1975. Growing up, she remembers that her mother and father still spoke in their native language and celebrated different holidays than her peers. By the time she got into acting as a "moody, mopey" teenager, she already felt like an outsider — feelings that were enhanced when she started popping up on television shows.
"Being on television definitely ... made me feel like more of an outsider," she says now. "Being in the public eye is definitely abnormal. But there was a lot about my life that was still normal: I was still treated like a normal kid who had to go to school, and do my chores and be picked on by my brother."
Still, it's one thing to appear in guest spots on TV shows on Doogie Howser, M.D. or small roles in hit films like Beaches. It's an entirely different level of abnormal when you're suddenly the star of your own hit series. That's the lifestyle bump that Bialik experienced when she was cast as the title role on the beloved '90s sitcom Blossom. The actress was 15 years old when the show debuted on NBC in 1990, and turned 20 when it aired its series finale in 1995.
That five-year period was filled with experiences that most "normal" teenagers rarely have, from acting opposite celebrity guest stars like Arsenio Hall and Alex Trebek — whose shoes she filled on Jeopardy this month, as one of the guest hosts that's been emceeing the long-running game show since Trebek's death last November — to trips to Paris. "We filmed Blossom in Paris, and that's a place I never would've gotten to go to [except] for work," she says. "It really broadened my concept of the world."
Bialik credits the Blossom crew, as well as her parents and manager, with helping her keep a level head amidst those job perks. They also shut out the kinds of negative influences that led other child stars down dark paths. "I definitely felt protected on the set of Blossom. I never saw drugs or alcohol or anything like that. It felt like a very safe place to grow up. I've been very lucky in that sense."
The years following a successful series can be particularly perilous for young actors as they try to transition into adult roles. Bialik navigated that transition by leaving the industry altogether, opting to pursue higher education instead. "Because I come from an immigrant background, the emphasis on education was just so important that I knew that was something I wanted to do," she says of her 12-year break from acting. During that time, she studied neuroscience at UCLA, ultimately earning both a bachelor's degree and a doctorate. "I got to meet people of all different shapes, sizes, colors and socioeconomic backgrounds and really had a super-positive experience — very different from being in the industry."
When Bialik did return to acting, she followed a similar trajectory to her child star days, starting off with recurring roles on series like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Secret Life of the American Teenager before joining the main cast of the blockbuster CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. She's currently headlining the Fox comedy Call Me Kat, which returns for its second season this fall.
In her private life, she's strived to give her two children the same sense of the abnormal normal that she grew up with. "My kids definitely have a love for theater and for plays. I think it might be something that my older son is interested in later, but they both have so many other interests, and I think they've seen how complicated it is to be a public person. I always tell them, 'If you're interested in acting, make sure that you have a vocation as your back-up. Do something else because not every actor is employed: most actors are not employed!'"
And, Bialik adds, "Growing up in front of millions of people is not easy."
Jeopardy! airs weeknights at 7 p.m. on ABC.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: