Hilary. Miley. Demi. Selena. And now—Debby.
If you haven’t heard of Debby Ryan, it’s only a matter of time. The scarlet-haired 22-year-old has already starred in two Disney Channel series, earning her idol status for millions of tweens across the country. True to form, she also headlines her own band, called The Never Ending. But her ambitions extend beyond stardom—she's already racked up directing and producing credits and launched her own production company. She also speaks out on behalf of teen relationship abuse.
Ryan may just represent a new brand of aspirational Disney princess. Sure, she’s got the look, but she’s forging a new path—one in which she’s striving to be a Hollywood power broker, proving by example that women can be stars off screen, too.
I recently sat down with Ryan in Beverly Hills, and she was candid about her accomplishments. “There are records that I’ve broken that I don’t even talk about,” she told me. (Her entourage, who joined us for the interview, nodded in agreement, as if to say “preach, girl.”)
Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, Ryan got her first big break in her early teens, when she landed a spot on Barney and Friends. Shortly after she was cast as Bailey Pickett on the Disney series Suite Life on Deck. When Suite Life ended in 2011, Disney gave Ryan her own series, Jessie. Over the show’s four seasons, Ryan earned a co-producer credit on the show. She also stepped up to direct a few episodes, earning the title of Disney's youngest-ever female director.
Along the way, Ryan won more than 4 million Twitter followers and 4 million Instagram followers. She also starred in two Disney Channel movies, 16 Wishes and Radio Rebel—the latter of which she helped produce. And with Jessie coming to wrap this past October, she recently signed on to executive produce the film Jessica Darling’s It List, based off of the popular young adult novel by the same name, through her production company. The movie will be her first major project outside of the Disney Channel.
During our interview, Ryan was refreshingly open about her struggle to demand respect from an industry that, she says, sometimes strains to see past her bubbly Disney persona. Early on, she told me, when she joined the Director’s Guild of America, some colleagues would respond with “Who brought their daughter?”
But she’s learned to revel in being a dark horse. “I like people not knowing what to expect from me,” she said. “I like sitting quietly and taking notes and then being able to build an amazing career.” And now? She’s earning her colleagues' respect. “They’re always going to say things about a powerful woman,” she said. “Let them say it, then prove them wrong.”
Of course, with success comes fame, which Ryan is more ambivalent about, particularly given her impressionable tween fanbase. “Quite frankly, it can scare you into not wanting to leave the house—being so afraid to make a mistake,” she said. “People come up to me all the time and are like, ‘I trust my 8-year-old with you and everything single thing that you do.’ That’s obviously a lot of pressure.”
Unlike many Disney stars who came before her, however, Ryan has mostly remained out of the tabloids—she says she's worked hard to keep her personal struggles private. “I don’t want people to see my success through a filter of what I’ve overcome,” she said.
Throughout our interview, Ryan hinted at obstacles she’s faced but not disclosed. “I am sure there will be a memoir one day, but until then, it’s amazing that people see me as the work that I’ve done and the hearts that I am able to touch.”
Ryan did recently reveal one personal struggle, when she signed on to be the face of the Mary Kay campaign “Don’t Look Away,” which seeks to bring awareness to relationship abuse among teens. The campaign is based on the striking statistic that 1 in 3 teens experiences some kind of mental, emotional, or physical abuse while dating. In joining the cause, Ryan opened up about her own abusive relationship with a male who she says was manipulative, obsessive, and at times violent—throwing objects and locking her in rooms.
“It’s not a secret that I’ve been the 1 in 3 and I didn’t know it at the time,” she told me. “I thought it couldn’t be relationship abuse because this person didn’t physically strike me … but there’s emotional abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, and some of these things are really hard to put your finger on.”
But Ryan is quick to insist that the campaign is not about her—it’s about spreading awareness and helping teens get the help they need. “I don’t do anything for the headline,” she said. That may just be Ryan’s life motto as well.
Fusion is partly owned by Disney’s ABC network.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.