Get ready to meet Bridgit Mendler and Victoria Justice, the two biggest stars the world has never heard of – at least that segment of the planet that excludes anyone outside the ages of 8 to 14.
But among that coveted tween demographic – the one that made superstars of Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron – Justice and Mendler’s career arcs have been steadily rising for years.
Mendler, as almost any kid with a TV set knows, was the cute vampire who dated David Henrie’s socially inept wizard on “Wizards of Waverly Place.” Justice was the equally cute upstart rival to Jamie Lynn Spears on “Zoey 101.”
Now the two 17-year-olds are getting Sunday night sitcoms, Justice in “Victorious,” which debuts this weekend on Nickelodeon, and Mendler in “Good Luck Charlie,” which had its debut last weekend on the Disney Channel. Both are poised to be kid TV’s Next Big Thing.
Mendler’s character on “Good Luck Charlie” is determined to videotape every significant (i.e. comical) event in the life of her newborn sister, Charlie, while also juggling typical teen problems like annoying brothers, overly protective parents and flaky boyfriends.
At rival Disney, the feeling was the same when a 14-year-old Mendler arrived to audition for “Sonny With a Chance.” The role would go to tween idol Demi Lovato, but Mendler would not go unnoticed.
“Bridgit is a great example of … us finding somebody, knowing that we wanted to do business with her, and then waiting to find the perfect role,” said Gary Marsh, chief creative officer and president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide.
There seems to be a wealth of TV tween stars at the moment, raising the question whether there is room for two more. The Jonas Brothers have their own eponymous show, Miranda Cosgrove has become nearly a household name on “iCarly” and so has Selena Gomez on “Wizards of Waverly Place,” their images plastered all over TV, on lunch boxes and backpacks.
But that doesn’t mean networks can ever stop cranking out new kid stars, media consultant Jonathan Taplin says. The obvious reason: They grow up, as Cyrus, in her last year of Hannah Montana, is quickly doing.
Some of them sometimes also cause embarrassment, as Spears did when she announced she was pregnant as the fourth season of “Zoey 101” was beginning. Or when a nude photo of Vanessa Hudgens surfaced on the Internet when she was starring opposite Efron in the “High School Musical” movies.
They have to have backup, Taplin says of the networks. To prepare stars, Disney puts them through something it calls Talent 101.
"We try and give them a kind of lay of the land of how their lives are about to change and what things they have to watch out for,” says Marsh, adding that the seminar advises them on security precautions and how to behave in public or in front of the press.
Not that looming stardom seems to have had much of an effect so far on Mendler.
“I don’t think it’s something I can really prepare for,” she says of fame. Then, as if to make her point, she snorts with laughter.
During a recent day on the set – “funny hat day,” Mendler explains – she has arrived with her signature long, blond hair hidden under a floppy-eared “Lilo and Stitch” hat.
“I don’t think people can take me seriously in this hat,” she adds, giggling again, “but I like it.”