Whatever Happened To '80s Child Star Jenny Lewis?

With a preponderance of classic family films and squeaky-clean sitcoms, the 1980s required the services of a great deal of child actors. Jenny Lewis benefited from that environment to become one of the most prominent young stars of the period. From 1983 and into the early 1990s, Lewis popped up all over episodic TV and in the movies. She's probably most known for a handful of roles in cult favorites and notable projects, including Hannah in the comedy "Troop Beverly Hills," Haley in the video game road trip movie "The Wizard," Becky on Lucille Ball's final sitcom "Life with Lucy," and a nefarious scout on an episode of "The Golden Girls."

Lewis pretty much quit acting in the mid-1990s in order to follow other creative passions. But while she hasn't been on screens as much as she once was, she remained famous and became a highly important figure in arts and culture. Here's what became of Jenny Lewis after she grew up.

She quit acting as a young adult

Jenny Lewis' career as a young actor peaked in 1989. That calendar year saw the theatrical release of both "Troop Beverly Hills" and "The Wizard" and the broadcast of her one-off episodes of "Just the Ten of Us," "Roseanne," "Free Spirit," "Baywatch," and "Have Faith." As the 1990s beckoned and Lewis moved into her teen years, she started to take on less acting work. Following recurring roles on two short-lived early '90s series, "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Shannon's Deal," Lewis made only a handful more appearances by decade's end. She was part of the cast of the ensemble teen drama "Foxfire," had a minor role in "Pleasantville," and guest-starred on "Get Real" and "Once Again" during the 1999-2000 TV season. 

And then Lewis was done, actively and consciously retiring from acting when she was in her early 20s. Her last major film role from her youth came in "Don's Plum," an independent movie shot in 1995 but released in 2001, and at that, only outside of the U.S. due to legal issues concerning other members of the cast and crew.

She formed and fronted Rilo Kiley

Jenny Lewis decidedly made a fresh start in the late 1990s. After estranging herself from her mother, she embraced music full-time, a calling since she started writing lyrics at age 10 and teaching herself to play guitar as a teenager. In 1998, Rilo Kiley coalesced in Los Angeles as a four-piece band, built around Lewis on lead vocals. After building a following as the band in residence at Spaceland, a club in the fashionable Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake, Rilo Kiley would influence the sound of 2000s indie rock with its second, third, and fourth full-length albums "The Execution of All Things," "More Adventurous," and "Under the Blacklight," respectively, showcasing Lewis' hard-to-categorize blend of folk, guitar pop, country, and classic rock with her verbose, poetic lyrics. "We play the music that inspires us. Obviously people are going to scramble to find some sort of category to put us into, and if it's indie pop that's fine with me," Lewis told The Wood (via defgav).

While only minor successes on the charts — "Under the Blacklight" peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard album chart, marking Rilo Kiley's best performance — the band was a hit with music writers and acquired a cult following. Critics ranked Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes," "Silver Lining," and "It's a Hit" among the best singles of the 2000s. 

Rilo Kiley has a tumultuous history

Jenny Lewis told Rolling Stone that Rilo Kiley was more than a band or a creative vehicle; it represented her "first chosen family." But familial relationships can be complicated. Lewis and lead guitarist Blake Sennett, a couple when Rilo Kiley got together, ended their romantic relationship in 2003. They continued working together as the co-heads of Rilo Kiley, and insisted they were still best friends, however tricky it could get. "I suppose it's a bad idea to have your business partner and your musical collaborator and your best friend and your lover be the same person," Sennett told Spin, while Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard observed that "Jenny and Blake have a very volatile relationship."

By 2007, it all came undone, when Sennett left Rilo Kiley. "I just felt like there was a lot of deception, disloyalty, greed, and things I don't really want to submit myself to," Sennett told Spinner (via Rolling Stone). The band itself went on a permanent hiatus in 2010 and officially split in 2011, although the clashing creative heads of Rilo Kiley played the group's hit "Portions for Foxes" at Coachella in 2015. As late as 2019, Lewis was amenable to a reunion. "I'm open to anything these days. My mantra is 'yes,'" she told NME. Indeed, Lewis and Sennett played together again, at the Rock-N-Relief livestream event in 2021.

She's got a prolific solo career

As Jenny Lewis was the primary vocalist, main songwriter, and most previously famous member of Rilo Kiley, a solo career was a foregone conclusion. Well before her band broke up and long after, Lewis has routinely released new music under her own name. Free of the group and its particular rock-oriented sound, Lewis is able to explore and experiment with new musical avenues. Her 2006 solo debut, "Rabbit Fur Coat," bears similarities to an old-fashioned country music album, while 2008's "Acid Tongue" plays like a gritty Americana record. Her 2014 release "The Voyager" is a more straightforward pop-rock venture, 2019's "On the Line" is moody and introspective, and 2023's "Joy'All" is its own thing, comprising songs written during pandemic-era lockdown via a Zoom songwriting class led by alternative rock star Beck.

Critics heap praise on Lewis' solo work as much as they do her Rilo Kiley productions. Songs like "Just One of the Guys" and "She's Not Me" are among the most well-regarded songs of the decade. Her solo work has even outperformed Rilo Kiley's on the Billboard album charts. All five of Lewis' LPs reached the Billboard 200 album chart, with "The Voyager" peaking at No. 9 upon its release in 2014.

She worked for the Postal Service

Between Rilo Kiley album cycles, Jenny Lewis joined with other luminaries of the 2000s indie rock world to form a successful if short-lived supergroup. Ben Gibbard, frontman and songwriter of Death Cab for Cutie, began work on an electronic music project with Jimmy Tamborello, also known Dntel. They traded digital audio cassettes of their work back and forth by mail, inspiring the name the Postal Service. When the Postal Service needed a female vocalist as a counterpoint to Gibbard, it enlisted Lewis. The group played a handful of concerts in 2003 and recorded one album, "Give Up," which over the course of two years, sold more than half a million copies, making it the second-best-selling album in the history of grunge-breaking Seattle label Sub Pop Records. The album was boosted by frequent TV and movie use of the singles "Such Great Heights" and "We Will Become Silhouettes," the latter of which prominently features Lewis.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Give Up," Gibbard reconvened the Postal Service for a tour that stretched through 2023 and into 2024. Lewis, an integral member of the band, joined up for the entirety of the tour.

She collaborates a lot

In addition to leading Rilo Kiley for well over a decade and putting out multiple solo albums, Jenny Lewis is also in the habit of making collaborative records and forming side projects. Her 2006 album "Rabbit Fur Coat" is credited to Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. Lewis, a Los Angeles neighbor of Leigh and Chandra Watson, amplified the backup singers' act to the point where they began to release their own well-received country-folk albums.

Singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice contributed to "Rabbit Fur Coat," and then Lewis played on Rice's first album, "Trouble Is Real." He became an official member of Lewis' solo-era backing band, they both played on more of each other's albums, and they both appeared on Elvis Costello's "Momofuku." In 2009, they stopped working with others in order to work with just each other, formed a duo called Jenny & Johnny, and put out a record, "I'm Having Fun Now," in 2010.

In 2016, the indie rock supergroup Nice as F*** unveiled its first album. A stripped-down, post-punk throwback, the self-titled LP features Lewis, Tennessee Thomas of the Like, and Erika Forster of Au Revoir Simone.

She's worked in film music

Apart from releasing music created from her point of view, under her own name and with her various bands, Jenny Lewis found another channel for her songs: visual media. While she pretty much gave up appearing in front of the camera in films and television shows, she's worked on the production side, writing, performing, arranging, and selecting music for the screen. In 2008, Lewis composed and sang "Barking at the Moon" for the Disney dog movie "Bolt." On the 2013 independent film "Very Good Girls," Lewis served as both soundtrack supervisor and score composer. Lewis told Uproxx that she sought to provide an additional "strong female voice" to the movie, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen and directed by Naomi Foner. She wrote and played on the almost entirely instrumental soundtrack, singing just a little backup and bringing in other vocalists.

The 2015 romantic drama "Song One" concerns the intersecting lives of two songwriters, and it needed original folk-pop tunes. Producers called on Lewis and her Jenny & Johnny collaborator Johnathan Rice to write the "Song One" songs from the characters' perspectives. "And this came at a time when I was experiencing my own sort of writer's-slash-creative block," Lewis told Under the Radar. "For me, to step outside of my own narrative was almost a relief."

She's dealt with loss

Three-year-old Jenny Lewis was spotted in a restaurant by an agent who thought they could make the child a star. They did, and Lewis made a lot of money acting in films and TV in the 1980s, which her mother, Linda Lewis, parlayed into funding a drug-selling business. "I think my mother was selling coke in the early '80s. She may have been Ricky Nelson's dealer," Lewis told Rolling Stone. Her mother also spent Lewis' money on an extensive collection of luxury items while preparing and selling drugs out of the house.

In the late 1990s, the musician cut off all contact with Linda Lewis. Jenny Lewis didn't reconnect with her mother until the parent lay dying in a hospital bed. From August to October 2017, Lewis visited her mother 19 times before her death at the age of 70. "She had liver cancer. From untreated hepatitis C. She was a lifelong heroin addict and also mentally ill and... just a really sad situation," the musician said.

Lewis also lost her father, Eddie Gordon, who wasn't an active parent of presence in her life until right before his death. A professional harmonica player, he performed on Lewis' 2008 album "Acid Tongue" and died shortly thereafter.

Jenny Lewis got back into acting a little

Actively and emphatically leaving Hollywood behind in the late 1990s to focus on making music, Jenny Lewis turned out to have just taken an extended hiatus. Semi-retired from acting in 2008, she took on her first gig in eight years, a tiny part of a few lines as a voice performer, playing an assistant to a television director in Disney's animated "Bolt." Two years later and with little fanfare, Lewis lent her voice to another cartoon, portraying a teenage girl named Amy in an episode of the animated series "American Dad!" 

On the scripted talk show parody "Comedy Bang! Bang!," Lewis popped up in a cameo as herself, a potential new bandleader, in a 2014 episode. And in late 2015, Lewis contributed to the music and portrayed a hotel restaurant server (and talented singer) in "A Very Murray Christmas," a Netflix holiday special starring Bill Murray — her most substantial adulthood acting role. Lewis told The Hollywood Reporter that she "manifested" the part — her voicemail greeting message was, for a long while, "It's almost Christmastime."

Jenny Lewis is a fashion icon

Not only did Jenny Lewis' music influence the sound and scope of 2000s American indie rock, but her look inspired a generation. Lewis combined thrift store and second-hand finds, campy and self-referential '70s rock star looks, and casual glamor to create a unique sensibility, which she shows off in her stage outfits, in music videos, and when she's photographed for interviews with music and fashion magazines. "The more comfortable I felt onstage, the more comfortable I felt showing my body," Lewis told Vanity Fair about how she initially chose what to wear on stage when first performing with Rilo Kiley. Then she slowly began to adopt more revealing, form-fitting, and brighter-hued, eye-catching fashions. "It was empowerment," she said. "I think of pink as being very empowering, and I didn't really get there until my 30s."

Lewis just going for it, and ignoring the rules her mother taught her when she a child — like how redheads shouldn't wear pink, and that shorts and short-sleeved shirts were to be avoided — encouraged others to follow her lead. Among the 2000s and 2010s trends popularized or perpetuated by Lewis: swimsuit-like bodysuits, sequined tops and dresses, large floppy hats, old denim jackets, big plastic sunglasses, sailor collars, and the bangs-centric hairstyle.

She's a comic book character

Having established herself as a star of television, film, and music, Jenny Lewis turned to another medium in 2019: comic books. That year, Archie Comics brought back an obscure 1990s title, "Jughead's Time Police," in which the crown-loving title character travels through history righting wrongs. In reviving this '90s cultural relic, editors decided to write in a pen-and-ink cameo from another fondly remembered person from that decade — Lewis, a child and teen actor in that time. 

In the fifth issue of the run, drummer Jughead and his Riverdale friends participate in a "battle of the bands" and encounter Lewis. "I was just strolling by, wanted to wish you good luck," Lewis says in a speech bubble (via Rolling Stone). "Riverdale... I could probably live here." Jughead and the other Archie characters go starstruck, calling Lewis, variously, "songstress of our collective feelings," "the fashion idol of my youth," and "all-around babe." Lewis, who authorized the appearance, thanked issue writer Sina Grace on X, formerly known as Twitter, remarking that her line of dialogue "I could probably live here" is "one of my three epitaph choices."

Jenny Lewis had some high-profile romances

Throughout her adult life, Jenny Lewis' romances have been a subject of interest and speculation to followers of indie rock and celebrity news. The early years of Rilo Kiley saw the band co-directed by Lewis and Blake Sennett, another former child actor (best known for playing bully Joey the Rat on "Boy Meets World"). Their romantic relationship ended in 2003, and Lewis refused to comment on a subsequent, rumored relationship with fellow indie rock icon Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. After she collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard in the Postal Service, Gibbard denied that he wrote the hit "Such Great Heights" about Lewis, and explained that their connection was purely platonic. "Jenny and I have a Luke-and-Leia relationship," he told Spin. "All those romantic insinuations — about her and Conor, or her and anybody — those are all just guesses." Another ambiguous Lewis encounter: She went on a date to a movie premiere with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

One collaborator whom Lewis will confirm she dated is her Jenny & Johnny partner Johnathan Rice (pictured). During the composition of her album "On the Line," the couple's 12-year romance came to an end.