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Kay Panabaker was just 13 when she landed her dream role on the family-friendly TV show Summerland, but her quick rise to Disney superstardom came to a rather abrupt end. The former child actor later opened up about what led her to quit acting.
Kay Panabaker was on what seemed like a sure path to stardom. As her IMDb filmography shows, she was just a tween when she landed guest roles on shows like ER, Angel, and 7th Heaven. Her big break was definitely getting cast as Nikki Westerly in Summerland, a WB family-focused series that followed three average American kids in the wake of their parents’ tragic and sudden deaths.
Panabaker played one of those three children, giving her plenty of room to stretch her acting muscles over nearly 30 episodes. Notably, the show also provided the then-up and-coming Zac Efron with one of his very first roles — and the young actors shared an on-screen kiss.
After Summerland, Panabaker broke into the world of Disney, a path to stardom for many young actors. She had the lead role in Disney’s 2006 movie Read it and Weep and made a guest appearance on the popular Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Additional guest roles and TV movie appearances dot Panabaker’s filmography in a steady constellation throughout the late 2000s. After a guest appearance on Grey’s Anatomy in 2008 and recurring parts in No Ordinary Family and CSI, Panabaker seemed poised for a long-lasting career.
But her credits come to an abrupt end around 2011. What happened?
Panabaker certainly wouldn’t be the first promising young former Disney star whose career took an unexpected dive. Even those who have seen great success after their stint with the mega-conglomerate have pointed to problems with the industry.
For Panabaker, though, the choice to move away from acting was intentional and pointed. In an interview with Naperville Magazine, Panabaker explained why she left acting behind. “I no longer had that love, that passion,” she revealed. “With Summerland, I loved going to work. I guess my discontentment started several years later on another TV show I was on. By contrast, it wasn’t a good experience.”
She calls the “kicker” one specific incident when a producer commented on her weight. She explained, “A producer told me that they were going to be bringing on a love interest for me, and that I needed to lose weight because of that; I was barely a hundred pounds. I didn’t think this was a good reason for a character to lose weight. It’s not like my character was going to catch a life-threatening disease or anything. I was 21 at the time the show ended.”
With the realities of the industry laid bare and her passion declining, Panabaker decided to step away.
10 years ago… RT @JesseMcCartney: Loved working with these great people! #TBT #Summerland @LoriLoughlin @TaylorCole pic.twitter.com/t6sMLdWqAx
Panabaker wasted no time getting to work on a new career path. Already armed with a history degree from UCLA, she returned to school at Santa Fe College to study animals.
Interestingly enough, Panabaker then went back to Disney — in a totally different way. After an internship at Disney World, she got hired on as an Associate Animal Keeper. Speaking about her new career path, Panabaker explains, “I don’t earn a fraction of what I used to, and yet, I couldn’t be happier.”
While Kay Panabaker stepped away from the bright lights of Hollywood, her older sister — with whom she shares a few credits, like the Disney Channel Original Movie Read It and Weep — is still in the spotlight. These days, many know Danielle Panabaker as Caitlin Snow / Frost in the CW’s Arrowverse.
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