Annette and Cecile Dionne admit they don’t know much about the online world of pint-sized content creators dubbed “kidfluencers.” But the sisters, who turn 85 on Tuesday, can tell you a thing or two about the perils of childhood celebrity.
Within hours of their improbable birth on May 28, 1934, the Dionne quintuplets were thrust into the spotlight as reporters staked outside their family’s isolated farmhouse in northern Ontario to see if any of the premature infants would make it through their first few days.
But in what is believed to be a first in recorded history, all five identical girls survived through infancy, and Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie and Yvonne Dionne grew into an international sensation.
At the peak of their Depression-era fame, the quintuplets were hailed as a salve to the gloom of financial austerity, both as emblems of hope and golden geese pouring money into Ontario’s coffers.
But all that attention came at a personal cost, say Annette and Cecile, the two surviving Dionne quintuplets. And as social media has made growing up more public than ever, the sisters have a warning for parents: childhood is a precious time that shouldn’t be exploited for profit.
“(It can cause) lots of damage,” Annette told The Canadian Press in a rare interview earlier this month. “Children need help and love, and everything we can give to them.”
As they’ve aged, the media-shy sisters have worked to put their complicated childhood behind them, only returning to the public eye to make sure their past is recognized and the misfortune they endured isn’t repeated for today’s children.
“I realize that many times bad things (happened) because money was the big question,” said Annette. “It’s very hard to fight against it.”
When the quintuplets were merely months old, the Ontario government took them away from their cash-strapped parents, who already had five children before their brood doubled overnight, in the name of protecting the girls from exploitation.
It then installed them across the street from their family’s homestead near Corbeil, Ont., in a nursery-meets-exhibition where millions of tourists lined up to observe the girls through one-way glass, pouring an estimated $500-million into the northern Ontario economy.
The girls were also featured in advertisements for products including Colgate dental cream, Palmolive soap and Baby Ruth candy bars, and on the big screen in three Hollywood films.
Today, childhood stardom has adapted to social media, where so-called kidfluencers as young as five are paid to peddle products in sponsored YouTube videos and Instagram posts.
Annette and Cecile expressed unease about this new era of youngsters being raised on display, particularly for commercial gain, but were weary of prescribing solutions given their lack of familiarity with the subject.
Speaking by phone after recovering from a fall in her Montreal nursing home, Cecile said she felt the issue should be studied more deeply by experts.
Annette said parents need to put their children’s wishes first when it comes to seeking the spotlight, while also ensuring they are properly educated.
“The children should be sure of their choice to become a star,” she said. “They need lots of understanding and advice.”
In the 1990s, the quintuplets received a $4-million settlement from the Ontario government after raising concerns about the alleged mismanagement of a trust fund that had been set up to provide for their future.
But Annette and Cecile question whether government authorities have truly learned from the past in living up to their responsibility to protect children from abuse, pointing to the case of couple charged with the mistreatment of a seven-year-old girl who died last month in Granby, Que.
“I hope that it doesn’t happen again, but I know that these kinds of things haven’t been entirely resolved, so it will happen again,” said Cecile. “But I hope that there will be better care for those who were abused.”
Even through the tough times, the sisters said they are thankful to have had each other. While Annette and Cecile don’t see one another in person often, they speak on the phone regularly, and recently got together for an early birthday celebration.
In addition to the dozens of cards he’s received for the sisters, Carlo Tarini, a communications specialist and family friend, gave Annette and Cecile a book, “The Dionne Quintuplets: Growing Up,” thinking the 1930s title would make a fitting gift for their 85th birthday.
Sitting in her home in a Montreal suburb, Annette couldn’t help but crack a smile as she flipped through black-and-white baby photos of her and her sisters lying in a custom-made cradle for five, squirming in separate wooden feeding chairs and sprawled out on a blanket.
“It is a story that is a very sad story, but through that I found very sweet moments, and I’m very grateful,” she said. “I realize that it was a gift to have my sisters, because we love one another very fondly.”