First came the reality show. It was 2011, and more than 2 million people tuned in each week to watch 8-year-old Maddie Ziegler and her friends compete on the excruciating yet addictive series Dance Moms. . And that only gets us to 2014.
The demanding work—filming meant Maddie missed 50 days of school one year; she’d often stay up past midnight learning new dance solos—jump-started her career. Suddenly, she was on the radar of people like pop star Sia, who then cast Maddie as the protagonist in her music videos,most famously “Chandelier.”
In the time since, Maddie, now 19, has launched an acting career (see: her recent roles in West Side Story and HBO Max’s The Fallout); plenty of brand deals, ranging from a Fabletics line to a Kate Spade fragrance; and a refreshingly candid podcast, Take 20, with her younger sister Kenzie. She has amassed 4.8 million TikTok followers—many of whom seem genuinely amazed that Maddie has aged beyond childhood—and is about to start filming an intense coming-of-age “traumedy” alongside Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire called Bloody Hell.
It is, and always has been, a lot. There’ve been glitzy highs and miserable lows, a journey of learnings and what Maddie calls “unlearnings” along the way from Pittsburgh elementary schooler to fashion darling walking the Oscars red carpet. But as we Zoom in late spring, there’s little evidence of her legendary hustle; Maddie appears calm, collected. And truly grown up.
I’d love to start with a simple question that’s maybe not so simple at all: Do you like being famous?
I still have a hard time considering myself famous. I know fame is a very wide spectrum, but still, I just don’t think I’m famous. I see people like Rihanna…I always say I’m “well known.”
What’s the difference?
I have a fear of people thinking I think I’m all that, and that’s what I relate being famous to, even though I know that’s not necessarily the case. It’s just easier for me to say “well known” or “in the public eye” because to me, that just seems less intimidating.
When did you realize you were “well known”?
I was 8 and we were in an ice cream store, me and the girls1 from Dance Moms, and people were calling our names. We were weirded out, like, “How do they know our names?” Then I noticed it gradually—everywhere we went, at any dance competition—swarms of people. It didn’t make me excited. In a way, I was kind of embarrassed.
1. That would be Nia Sioux, Brooke and Paige Hyland, Chloe Lukasiak, and Maddie’s sister Kenzie Ziegler. They’re all still tight. Maddie makes a point to say they hang “without the moms.”
How did you cope with that kind of attention, especially at that age? Because you were little!
I felt like, I hope the teachers are taking me seriously, because all these girls are asking me for photos and I’m here to work. It was really hard for me to set the two worlds apart because I absolutely adored when people would come up to me and say they started dancing because of me. The fact that they even cared about me was so cool, but at the same time, I’m like, “Oh, I’m also here to try and win a scholarship.”
How did what aired on the show compare to what it was actually like in real life?
People thought I was a brat because in all my interviews, I would say, “I’m the best. I know I’m going to win.” But that’s because the producer was telling me to say that. I don’t think I’m better than everyone else. I was just doing whatever they told me to do because I thought that’s what you did. They set you up for failure.
I had more stress at that age than I did once I left. I have dissociated so much from that time. I’ll see fans post scenes from Dance Moms and I’m like, I literally don’t even remember that happening. It’s weird because there were really amazing times, but there were also a lot of things that were really, really not great for us kids.
Can you share an example?
The pressure of being known as, “Oh, she’s the girl that always wins,” then to not win or to have another girl beat me was the end of the world. Because that’s what I was taught: to not win or to have another girl beat me was the end of the world. My dance teacher2 taught that if you don’t get the trophy, if you don’t get the crown, you are less than, which is the worst way to train a kid. It carries into other life lessons. We also weren’t allowed to watch our competitors or be friends with them. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of those things.
2. Abby Lee Miller, a coach notorious for yelling at young children, has spent her post–Dance Moms career embroiled in legal and financial woes.
Have you watched the series as an adult?
I did watch a little bit of an episode from the very beginning to show my boyfriend3 because I was like, “You cannot watch this, but I’ll show you what I looked like.” And we both were like, “This is sad. We need to turn this off.”
3. Maddie and 20-year-old Australian singer Eddie Benjamin have been dating since 2019. Their nicknames for each other are “too random and embarrassing” for Maddie to say out loud, so fill in the blank with what you will.
Did you ever want to quit Dance Moms while you were on it?
It is hard when you’re really loyal to your dance group. I was the most loyal girl there; I just wanted to dance. And I loved competing until it became televised and the drama started. Don’t get me wrong—there’s drama regardless if there are cameras or not! But it was heightened. I started to feel like, It’s so peaceful outside of this world. I can’t be in this. My family and I really tried to leave for the last three seasons. But when you’re in a contract, it’s really hard. Eventually, I finally got out.
Your teacher didn’t take the news well.4 Was that awkward?
She was distraught. For the longest time, we felt so guilty. She trained me, she helped me, but also, I knew I would be okay without her and I was sick of being in a toxic environment. I was like, “This is not for me. I can’t do this.” I haven’t spoken to her since.5
4. An understatement, given that Miller locked herself in a room and wept when Maddie’s mom, Melissa, delivered the news in an episode titled “Melissa’s Announcement.”
5. Maddie does not plan on talking to Miller ever again. “I feel at peace,” she says. “Definitely.”
It seems like one thing that gave you an exit was your work with Sia. What did you learn from transitioning into music?
Making mistakes. When I was learning “Chandelier,” it was my first time working with a new choreographer and I was so critical. I was taught you have to be pretty, you have to be put-together. No one can ever see you without a perfectly pointed foot or a straight leg. And what I learned was that your flaws are also beautiful.
I think that was the best time ever in my life. I felt like Hannah Montana, like I was living in two worlds. When I put the wig on, I was this completely other girl. It really helped me love acting. It’s hard for me to be proud of myself because I’m just like, “Oh, that could have been better.” But the Sia videos? I’m proud of them.
That feels like growth.
Totally. Literally, my 8-year-old self would be like, “Round of applause, Maddie!”
How else has your perspective shifted as you’ve gotten older?
I will always be a perfectionist, but not in the way where in Dance Moms you would see me crying and then I just suck it up and get right back to it. I’m going to therapy, talking to people, doing all the things. I’ve learned I’m not going to be in trouble if I’m feeling bad or if I have an injury. That’s the biggest difference. It’s amazing that I’m able to feel my feelings and not just push them down. I’m also just really clean. That’s where my perfectionism has transferred.
Like, into your house?
I just got a new rug in my living room, and every time people come over, I’m like, “I’m sorry, but you need to take your shoes off.” No one cares, but still, I hate to be that person. My boyfriend jokes, “I feel like you like when I make a mess because you like to clean it. You get excited to pull out the vacuum.” And I do.
Have there been other moments lately when you’ve thought, I’m really an adult?
I had to hire someone to come power-wash my balcony and I was like, This is the most adult thing ever! But I kind of have felt like an adult my whole life, which is weird. Even Tonya, my best friend, she’s in her 30s and I relate to her more than I do to 19-year-olds because I had to grow up so quickly. I’ve also always been an old soul. I’m a grandma at heart—I went to bed at 9:30 last night. My boyfriend and I, the second we lie down to watch something on TV, I’m knocked out. He sent me a meme the other day that says when people fall asleep immediately with another person, it just means they feel safe. And now he’s like, “Okay, I feel I’m not going to hate on you as much.”
I know you and Eddie were friends first. Do you remember the moment it turned romantic?
Literally the moment. We were sitting on a couch together late at night. We’d been best friends for a while and both broken up with other people; a little bit of time had passed. We were just talking and he was like, “Yeah, me and you just have so much love for each other, it gets confusing.” I was like, “Yeah, it totally does.” And then we both just looked at each other and I was like, “Oh.” I remember covering my face with a pillow for 20 minutes. I couldn’t look at him. I was like, “This is so embarrassing because we literally just admitted that we love each other!” But we’re kids. Me and Eddie are still kids. We’re figuring it out and we’re just letting it happen.
This is the highest of compliments, I promise, but it seems like you two are goofy together in the best way.
We definitely are. Literally, my sister always is like, “You guys have this language that no one else has and you guys are so weird and say the weirdest things,” but it just makes sense to us.
What do you do together when you’re not working?
He is so good at getting me out of scary moments where I’m just in a rut or I feel anxious or I’d had a little panic attack. We wrestle all the time, not in an aggressive way. But we love UFC, literally love UFC so much. We’ve gone to see Conor McGregor fight many times in person. It’s so out of my element—it’s so violent. I don’t know why I like it. Or we’ll play soccer. I can’t even play, but it’s just fun to do things that have no pressure or expectation attached to them.
On an episode of your podcast, Kenzie6 mentioned she wasn’t sure if you’d be in a relationship because, even as a kid, you were so work-focused.
When I was younger, I never thought about wanting a boyfriend. I was like, I’m a working girl; I don’t have time for this. I was never boy crazy either. Obviously, I loved Zac Efron when I was 8 years old and Justin Bieber when I was 8 years old, but I never thought about real-life boys.7
6. Maddie and Kenzie drop new 20-minute episodes each week. Topics range from “Self-Care Sessions” and “The Dating Game” to “Handling Divorce.”
7. For what it’s worth, Zac Efron and Justin Bieber are, in fact, real-life boys. And Maddie has met them both.
What did you learn about relationships growing up?
My parents just weren’t meant to be together and that’s fine. When I was younger and saw friends’ parents being nice to each other, I was like, This is so weird. Your parents don’t yell at each other? I didn’t understand. Now, seeing my mom with my stepdad, he completes her in an amazing way. It’s cool to see a healthy relationship.
And Mom is literally the best mom. I am a caretaker too, intensely. That is my role in life. This sounds deep, but when my parents divorced when I was 6, I stepped in as the other parent for Kenzie. I loved taking care of her, and I just apply that to all my friendships.
I want to ask about another type of relationship: the one you have with your social media fans. How do you decide what to post?
I’ve actually had a hard time with Instagram recently, where it kind of feels like a chore to me. It’s such a highlight reel already; I don’t want to pretend like this photo was casually taken when I purposely got ready for it and posed for hours. I really admire people who are more honest.
Like, I’ve been dealing with back acne for two years on and off, and I’m so insecure about it at every photo shoot. Eventually, I was just like, Okay, I’m going to put it on my Story. I said, “This is what I’ve been dealing with. Is anyone else going through this, and do you have any recommendations?” I had so many people reach out. I kind of want to use Instagram now as a more conversational thing, where we can talk about things that maybe aren’t always so great.
It’s refreshing to see more celebrities being candid and also setting boundaries. I immediately think of Hailey Bieber, who limited her comments and speaks up when she’s not having it.
I really, really respect Hailey for the video she made telling people to leave her alone. She is such a nice person and so intelligent and so sweet and beautiful. Sometimes when you respond to things, it adds to the fire, so it’s scary doing that.
That’s so true. Do you know Hailey personally?
Yeah, because my boyfriend is opening for Justin right now on tour. They’ve been so nice to Eddie and me. We look up to them as a couple—they’re so amazing and so in love. It’s really refreshing to see that they have that love but that things can be up and down. It’s cool that they talk about it publicly. It’s not relatable to never have a problem.
It’s great to have role models, especially as a celebrity who started as a kid, which can come with its own weirdness.
I literally hit puberty in front of everyone on TV, and that’s a super-weird thing. I started developing boobs and I got my period and my body started changing, and people were like, “Oh, she’s gaining weight. She’s getting fat.” And I’m like, Whoa! I’m literally becoming more of a woman! People have said that I am pregnant before.8 And it’s like, You guys. I’m maturing and you are all probably doing the same thing. They hold you to this version, this idea that they’ve built up in their head of who they think I am. And then anything outside of that idea is really hard for them to comprehend. Sometimes I’ll have moms come up to me and they’re like, “We still think you’re 8 years old.”
8. A YouTube video called “Did Maddie Ziegler Give Birth to a Baby Boy” currently has more than 10 million views. And before you ask, no.
How do you cope with that kind of scrutiny?
I kind of just have to push it to the side. I was thinking about the Kardashians, for instance. Everyone knows them. Everyone knows their kids. I know all their kids’ names. But I know that I don’t know them truly. So I see why people would think they know everything about me…but we have to live our lives. We’re going to slip up. We’re going to make mistakes, but that’s normal.
What’s your main focus in your career right now?
Acting is taking over my world. I love it so much. I don’t know how I’m booking roles because I feel like I’m such a newbie, but I’ve been working really hard at it. I loved doing The Fallout9 with Megan Park. She wrote and directed the movie and she’s an actor herself, and she had an almost all-female team. Just seeing that was the most powerful thing ever. Focusing on a school shooting is such a heavy topic but so important and needs to be brought to the forefront of conversation, so it felt really meaningful to work on.
9. The Fallout is about two teens, one played by Maddie, the other by Jenna Ortega, who survive a school shooting by locking themselves in a bathroom stall. Heavy indeed.
Do you see yourself continuing to gravitate to these darker roles? Would you ever do something like Euphoria?
Yeah! That second season was heavy. I weirdly am most attracted to dark, really emotional roles. I don’t know why. Because I am a really emotional person, but I’m also a pretty happy person.
What else is on your bucket list?
Seeing how Reese Witherspoon has her own production company, that’s really cool. Maybe down the line, I could do something like that. I would also love to go to the Met Gala. Maybe next year, it will be in the cards for me.10
10. Anybody have Anna Wintour’s number?
I think we can guess the answer, but I want to end by asking: If you could somehow press a button and unpublicize your life, would you?
Honestly, no, because I have had too many good moments. Obviously, there are times where I’m like, Ugh, I wish no one knew who I was; I wish I never had to do this. But the good moments still override those. I’ve learned so much. I’ve met so many amazing people. I’ve done so many cool things. I feel like I’ve been on this Earth forever—and I’m not even 20 yet.
Stylist: Cassie Anderson. Hair: Clayton Hawkins at A-Frame Agency. Makeup: Tonya Brewer at Pat McGrath Labs. Manicure: Thuy Nguyen at A-Frame Agency. Cinematographer: Jennifer Cox. Senior producer: Liesl Lar. Editors: Amanda Evans and Heather Weyrick. Fashion assistant: Charlotte Hadlow. Set design: Danielle von Braun. Production: Crawford & Co Productions.
Alexandra Whittaker oversees all of Cosmo's news and entertainment digital coverage—follow her on Instagram here. As the lead of two teams, Alexandra manages stellar writers and editors who deliver your daily dose of celebrity, TV, movie, book, general entertainment and pop culture news. She's known for her strategic coverage calls and celebrity interviewing skills. Awards shows are her favorite thing, and she’s a proud Northwestern and Marquette alumna.