But in Taylor’s case, the wild-child persona she projects in public is at odds with the private Taylor who friends and teachers remember from her days growing up in Potomac and in St. Louis, where she was born. Taylor and her younger sister, Sloane, now 14, took after-school dance classes at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in St. Louis.
“I actually taught her for about a year before I even knew she was little Cindy Lou in the Grinch,” recalls Tracy Dupre, a longtime instructor at COCA who for about two years coached Taylor in jazz dance starting when the girl was 8. “I had no idea. She rarely talked about it. …And that was the thing about her. There would be no way that you would know that she was actually a child celebrity.”
Dupre says Taylor was unusually hard-working and determined to do well as a dancer. “She gave her 110 percent in every class. If she couldn’t get a step right, she always asked,” Dupre says. “…Teaching through the years, there are only a few students that really stick out, and she was one of them.”
It was clear Taylor had a passion for the arts, but Dupre also sensed that the actress’ mother was prodding her. The Momsens, who still reside in the Potomac Crest neighborhood where their daughter lived while in middle school, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I don’t want to put a label on it,” Dupre says of Taylor’s mother, “but I could just tell how she was tailoring them, mentoring them. Any mother that puts their child at age 2 [in a modeling agency], you kind of know which path that mom is going to try to shoot their kid.”
Lee Nolting, another of Taylor’s St. Louis teachers, offers a different slant. She credits Colette Momsen with encouraging the girl’s enthusiasm for performing. Taylor was “not someone that everything came easy to in dance,” says Nolting, now the artistic director in dance and principal talent recruiter for COCA. She remembers Taylor as “mature beyond her years.” She could tell that Taylor practiced at home and was “really…serious about the work.”
As for Colette, “Taylor’s mom was always very smart about what Taylor needed,” Nolting says. “She’d come [to rehearsals] and say, ‘What could I do to make this a better fit for her?’ ” Taylor’s father, Michael, would show up at rehearsals sometimes, as well, something “a lot of fathers don’t do.”
Taylor declined to be interviewed for this article. But she has spoken publicly on the subject of her parents several times. “My mom never forced me into acting,” she told The New York Post in January 2009. “She saw the opportunities for me and said, “If it’s something [you] like, [you] can do it.’…It was always me asking, ‘Mommy, can we do another movie?’ ”
Less than two years later, Taylor changed her story. “My parents signed me up with Ford [Modeling] at the age of 2,” she told Revolver magazine in November 2010. “No 2-year-old wants to be working, but I had no choice. My whole life, I was in and out of school. I didn’t have friends. I was working constantly and I didn’t have a real life.” In the January Kerrang! magazine, she backpedaled a bit. “I love my mom and dad,” she said. She added, however, that she was a “legal adult” who could make her own decisions. “I graduated high school two years early,” she said, “so I’m responsible for myself under some weird New York State law.”
The Momsen family moved to Potomac in 2004. At Herbert Hoover Middle School—which Sloane, an aspiring actress, now attends—Taylor bonded with a small circle of friends and engaged in normal teenage activities, including skating at the Cabin John Ice Rink and meeting up at the Emporio dance club in Bethesda on Sundays, a weekly party organized by local kids.
“For the time that she lived here in Potomac, she lived a relatively normal childhood,” says Milone, the former boyfriend who is now a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. He dated Taylor in the sixth and eighth grades, but largely has lost contact with her since.
If Taylor’s movie work brought in big bucks, the Momsens didn’t flaunt it. She grew up in a semidetached house, which the Momsens bought for $865,000, and both she and her sister attended public schools. Today, a less-than-new gray Jeep Grand Cherokee can be spotted in the family’s driveway.
There was little that made Taylor stand out from other girls her age—except, maybe, her love of rock music and her slightly bohemian fashion style, with ripped jeans and tank tops in a school where a more traditional style of dress was the norm.
Taylor “was a cool person back then, likable,” Milone says. “She didn’t judge anyone.” Three years ago Milone was offered $400 for his middle school yearbook with her picture. When he called her about it, Taylor pleaded with him not to sell—a request he honored. She was modest about her acting career, and that kept her grounded, says Nadia McDowell, one of Taylor’s closest friends at Hoover. “I think she wanted to be known for more than that,” says McDowell, now 18 and living in New Zealand. “She wanted to be known as Taylor, the girl.”
Despite what Taylor said in that November interview, friends say her parents helped her balance her school life and blossoming career. School functions came first, and she traveled on weekends to film or audition so she didn’t miss out on anything. Acting “didn’t affect her middle-school life very much,” says Daniela Baeza, 17, another friend who is now a senior at Churchill, “because she’d always go on ‘vacations.’ ”
But McDowell says it wasn’t always easy for Taylor to keep up this balancing act, and she sensed Taylor felt as if she was “missing out on something.” She trusted few people, and it was hard for her to keep up her friendships, McDowell says.
“A part of her enjoyed life on the road, and a part of her just sort of wanted to live a normal life like any girl her age,” Milone says. She was a “kid with a hectic life, to say the least. Stressful…a lot was expected of her.”