Photo courtesy: Chicks With Guns Magazine/Karen Curly

Four years ago, Taylor Momsen quietly slipped off to New York City for an acting audition during spring break—without telling her friends at Rockville’s Herbert Hoover Middle School. “It’s like she lived a double life,” says Joe Milone, Taylor’s boyfriend at the time.

A movie veteran by first grade, Taylor was unassuming on campus and played down her second life. “Most of the girls at our school were like insanely preppy,” Milone says. “Tiffany necklaces and Tiffany bracelets, pink polos and stuff.” Taylor didn’t follow the crowd—but neither did she work at standing out in it.

What a difference a few years make. That spring-break audition ultimately led Taylor to a standout portrayal of high-society wannabe Jenny Humphrey on CW’s Gossip Girl—an acting gig that took the teen from her home in Potomac to an apartment in New York, and from a low-key existence in middle school to the front pages of tabloids and gossip websites.

Jenny pales in comparison to Taylor’s real-life alter ego. The young actress has morphed into the garter-belt-and-stiletto-wearing front woman of her own rock band, The Pretty Reckless. She wears revealing corsets, signature heavy black eye makeup and stringy blond hair nearly to her waist. She makes raunchy music videos, stripping down to her underwear in one before appearing to burn up. She smokes and swears at photographers.

On New Zealand radio last August, she joked about having sex with a priest and discussed her penchant for masturbation. At a concert in New York last October, she pulled down her low-cut shirt to reveal bare breasts covered by X-shaped tape, and a gold necklace with the word “Slave.” And in February, she attended the premiere of Justin Bieber’s movie Never Say Never, dressed as a dominatrix.

For now, she’s still a Gossip Girl series regular—but she has appeared less often recently for what sources call “creative reasons,” and there has been talk of trouble on the set. Tim Gunn, of Lifetime Television’s Project Runway, guest-starred opposite Taylor on an episode that aired in October. He called her “sad” and “pathetic,” and said she annoyed the director and crew and paid more attention to her phone than her lines.

The Bethesda area has seen its share of celebrities over the years. People still talk about bumping into Wonder Woman Lynda Carter at Montgomery Mall, and knowing Goldie Hawn when she was a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. But never before has it seen the likes of a Taylor Momsen.

She practically grew up in front of the camera. Her mother, Colette, a former flight attendant, signed her up with the Ford modeling agency when she was only 2. At 3, Taylor appeared in a national “Shake ’N Bake” commercial, and at 6 she was cast as Honey Bee Swan in The Prophet’s Game, a 1999 thriller starring Dennis Hopper.

Her big screen breakthrough came in 2000, when she landed the plum part of Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, playing alongside Jim Carrey and earning praise for her performance as his button-nosed foil. The film grossed more than $340 million worldwide, put the young actress on the map and led to roles in We Were Soldiers (2002) with Mel Gibson, Spy Kids 2 (2002), Saving Shiloh (2006), Paranoid Park (2007) and Underdog (2007). But it’s Gossip Girl and The Pretty Reckless that landed her in the tabloids.

At 17, Taylor isn’t the first teenager to stoke rebellion. But while her peers are pushing the boundaries amid the relative safety of family and friends, Taylor has left her parents behind in Potomac and is coming of age in a media petri dish.

Is she a good girl gone bad? Or does her hardcore image say something larger about fame today—that to get noticed, you need to keep pushing the envelope?

Cooper Lawrence, nationally syndicated radio host of The Cooper Lawrence Show, a program about pop culture with 2.8 million listeners, and author of The Cult of Celebrity (skirt! books, 2009), says Taylor is all about branding. It takes a lot to stand out in today’s crowded entertainment market. Increasingly, young people have become accustomed to seeing racy images everywhere, from YouTube to reality TV.

“You’re talking about a bunch of teens who are easily distracted,” Lawrence says of Taylor’s fan base. “I think if you want to capture their attention and be their icon, you have to do something incredibly provocative.” 

Taylor “speaks to the misunderstood 16- or 17-year-old,” Lawrence says—the girl who is a bit edgy, but still loves her parents without being a mama’s girl.

Miley Cyrus, who appeared in her own raunchy video recently, has the corner on the more mainstream crowd, while Justin Bieber is the David Cassidy of 2011. How fitting that Madonna chose Taylor as the face of the Material Girl clothing line for Macy’s last year. “What’s left,” Lawrence asks, “other than being the next Madonna—being the one who does something inappropriate at a young age?”

That’s not to say that bad behavior by young performers is necessarily just an act. There are plenty of cautionary tales of once successful young entertainers unable to cope with the pressures and problems of stardom, a prime example being Lindsay Lohan. In the last three years, the star of such movies as The Parent Trap (1998) and Freaky Friday (2003) has faced two DUI incidents, a stint in jail and been in and out of rehab.

While other kids are getting their first job at 15, working at a fast-food restaurant, these kids are the stars of a show, meeting with TV network heads. “A lot of kids are not capable of having enough of a sense of themselves, and enough adaptive mechanism, and parents who are protective,” says Dr. Michael Brody, who is based in Potomac and chairs the celebrity section of the Popular Culture Association and the media committee of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Children are not small adults. They don’t have the capability, emotionally or cognitively, to deal with a lot of these issues. And that’s why you see these crashes…later on.”

Dr. David Elkind is professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University and the author of The Hurried Child (1981). “A lot of rebelliousness is a sort of mourning for a lost childhood,” he says.