There’s no shortage of stories of celebrities gone bad, but when Dana Plato—Diff’rent Strokes’ sweet-as-pie Kimberly—went off the deep end, fans took notice. Her short life became a series of tragic checkmarks of how not to manage a career. There were the drugs, the adult films, the video store hold up, and so much more. The public couldn’t stop watching this fragile life shattering in slow motion right before their very eyes.
1. She Had A Rough Start
On November 7, 1964, Dana Michelle Strain was born in Maywood, California. But her life didn’t get off to a smooth start. For one thing, Dana’s mother, Linda Strain, was single, and to make matters worse, she was only a teenager. But the trouble didn’t end there. You see, Dana had to fight for her mother’s love and attention.
2. She Had Competition
When Dana Plato came into this world she had an unwed teenage mother as a caregiver. But there was something else: Her mother was already raising an 18-month-old child. Linda Strain must’ve been struggling to cope raising two girls on her own, because when she looked at Dana, all she saw was another mouth to feed. That’s when she did the unthinkable.
3. She Wasn’t Wanted
When Dana was just seven months old, her mother—at her wit’s end—gave her up for adoption. Dana’s new parents were Dean and Florine Plato, and they gave her a new last name and a new home in the San Fernando Valley. However, they were far from perfect. For Florine Plato, Dana became more of project than anything else: she was determined to groom the little girl into a star.
4. She Had A Stage Mom
After Dean and Florine divorced, Plato was once again in the care of a single parent…but this time she got too much attention. Florine was intent on getting her daughter into show business, and took her on countless auditions. Well, the hard work paid off as Plato appeared in more than 100 commercials. But Florine Plato wasn’t satisfied: She wanted her little girl on the big screen.
5. Her First Films Were Horrors
When Plato was only 13, she did her mom proud and appeared in Exorcist II: The Heretic and Return to Boggy Creek in the same year. Both films were horror sequels and both received equally horrific reviews. Her next feature film, California Suite, fared better, and the star studded film got numerous nominations and even a few wins. But this was nothing compared to the fateful appearance that would change her life forever.
6. They Gonged Her
Soon after her film debut, Plato auditioned to be on The Gong Show—the infamous TV talent show where judges gonged performers they didn’t like. Plato was part of a cheerleading team and during her audition, a TV producer noticed her. The squad didn’t make it on the show, but the producer offered Plato a role in a different production, The show’s title was Diff’rent Strokes and Plato was up for one of the leads—but there was something standing in her way.
7. She Had Another Passion
Around the same time she was contemplating working on Diff’rent Strokes, she was also considering trying out for a spot on the US Olympic Figure Skating team. She was still just a kid and facing a life changing decision: skating or acting. She chose acting—what teenager wouldn’t? But this choice would later prove to be a huge mistake.
8. She Found A New Family
After landing the role on Diff’rent Strokes, Plato quickly settled into playing older sister Kimberly Drummond to her two young adopted brothers: Arnold and Willis Jackson. Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman played the boys, and the three became close while on set together in a world of adults and production companies. As it turns out, they would need one another in more ways than one.
9. She Wilted Under The Pressure
Almost immediately, the show became a huge hit, and the three young stars were suddenly faced with instant stardom and a life in the spotlight. But this success had a dark side. Like other child stars, they were living in a strange world where they were still children but earning salaries larger than mom or dad’s, and at the same time working to keep their show on top. In order to cope with the looming pressure, Dana and her TV brothers started down a dangerous path.
10. She Started Down A Dark Path
Soon, Plato and her young costars delved into booze and drugs. It was their way to release the stress of expectation that weighed them down. It was a particularly difficult time for Plato, and at one point it got so bad that it sometimes took her five hours just to get sober enough to go to work. But where was mom during all this?
11. She Grew Up In A Bubble
During this time, Plato’s mother was very protective of her daughter, but this made things worse, not better. Although Plato’s mother just wanted to make sure she was normal, Plato later said that her mother kept her in a bubble and that she never taught her about “reality and life skills.” Indeed, Florine was so paranoid about her daughter, she was afraid someone would kidnap her. Turns out mom should’ve been watching out for trouble closer to home.
12. She Didn’t Give Him A Cent
Since her adoptive parents’ divorce, Plato’s father Dean didn’t involve himself much with his daughter. But once she became famous, he suddenly wanted a piece of her. In an extraordinary twist of events, Dean sued Dana for support. I guess he figured she owed him for adopting her. Luckily, his attempt to sue was unsuccessful, and Dana would soon be supporting someone else instead.
13. She Married Young
While still appearing as Kimberly Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes, Plato met and married rock n’roll guitarist Lanny Lambert. Plato was only 18 years old at the time. Producers of the show were likely unexcited about Plato’s marriage—what would the fans think? So you can imagine how they felt about Plato’s next announcement: her pregnancy.
14. She Got Written Out
A pregnant teen didn’t jive with the kind of show Diff’rent Strokes was. Dealing with race issues was tense enough—but teen pregnancy? Probably not. But it wasn’t just her pregnancy that got Plato in trouble with the show. The media had also gotten wind of her drinking and drug use. Soon they decided to write her off of Diff’rent Strokes altogether. But Plato’s reaction to her dismissal wasn‘t what you’d expect.
15. She Didn’t Want To Be Alone
Plato’s on-screen father, actor Conrad Bain, had a chat with Plato after she announced her pregnancy. He said that Plato had actually planned the pregnancy and was happy about it. But then she said something eerie. She said once she had her baby she would “never be alone again.” But sadly, after having baby Tyler, she got the exact opposite of what she’d wished for.
16. She Suffered A Tragic Loss
In 1988, Plato lost two loved ones in a single week. She and her husband decided to separate just as her mother lost her fight with a brutal illness. Doctors had previously diagnosed Plato’s mother with scleroderma—a rare skin disease—and after she succumbed, Plato was alone all over again. In one fell swoop, Plato suddenly had no husband, no mother, and no job.
17. She Gave Up Control
Plato was under a lot of stress due to her mother’s passing and the separation from her husband. Bogged down by money issues, she signed her power of attorney to an accountant. It was a way for Plato to focus on healing from her losses without having to think or care about her financial situation. This was a huge mistake. Her accountant dealt her the greatest betrayal.
18. She Got Swindled
Plato was at an emotional low, and then it just got worse. Plato’s accountant disappeared with almost all of her money. After all her hard work and saving, he left her with just $150,000. To add insult to injury, she wasn’t the only one. In total, the unscrupulous accountant took 1 million dollars from a variety of people. Plato thought she’d hit rock bottom. But she was wrong. Her suffering had only just begun.
19. She Lost Everything
Remember Plato had said that with a child she’d never be alone. Well, soon she wasn’t even going to have a child anymore. Plato and Lambert’s separation had lasted for two years when divorce proceedings began. Due to her financial problems and addiction issues, the judge made a heartbreaking decision: her son Tyler would go to live with his father. Plato lost custody of Tyler and only got visitation rights. Now she was truly alone.
20. She Puffed Up Her Performance
At this point, Plato was down but not out, and she was ready to rebrand herself as a serious adult actor. Her first stop, somewhat bizarrely, was the plastic surgeon. Plato thought breast implants would improve her chances of getting rid of her image as a child star and get her more serious roles. And once she had the implants, she was ready to show them off.
21. She Posed For Playboy
The first place a woman might go when she’s ready to shed her childhood image—and her clothes—is Playboy magazine. Determined to erase her sweet Diff’rent Strokes character Kimberly Drummond from audience members’ minds and kickstart a full-grown career, Plato did a full pictorial spread for the magazine…and waited for her new lease on stardom to begin.
22. She Did Some B Movies
Sadly, Plato was waiting a long time for her serious film offers—at least the good ones. She appeared, in her birthday suit, in 1989’s Prime Suspect. And after that it was 1992’s Bikini Beach Race, where she raced in a “bedmobile” while dressed in lingerie. Unsurprisingly, her film work was a bust…and her TV career? Well, it was about to become downright scandalous.
23. She Lied On TV
In 1990, Plato was getting ready to appear on the Sally Jessy Raphaël Show for a segment on child actors. Plato was also there for her own reasons: to let the world know she was clean and off drugs. But was she? Another guest on the episode, Paul Peterson—who fights for the rights of child actors—saw Plato leave the washroom with a certain powder all around her nose. Oops.
24. She Turned To Robbery
Plato had lost her husband, her mother, her child and her fortune all in a matter of years. So she may not have been in her right mind when, in 1991, she entered a video store, pointed a pellet pistol at the cashier and demanded all the money. The terrified cashier handed over the cash, and after this desperate cry for help, Plato was on the run.
25. She Was Easily Recognized
Once Plato had left the video store, the clerk dialled 9-1-1 and made the now world-famous announcement: “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.” I guess Plato hadn’t considered how hard it would be to get away with this sort of thing when she was so famous. But 15 minutes after the incident took place, Plato did something surprising.
26. She Turned Herself In
Plato either came to her senses, or in the back of her mind she must’ve known that she was too recognizable to pull off an armed hold up. So, Plato returned to the video store to give back the money—which ironically was only $164. Of course, officers were on scene to take her away, but at least she’d gone back on her own. Then again, some people have a much different interpretation of those same events.
27. She Felt No Remorse
Heather Daily, the clerk at the video store, sees it a different way. According to her, Plato didn’t come back to turn herself in; she came back to get something she’d dropped. It turned out, after she’d left the video store, Plato climbed over a wall and dropped her glasses. Daily says she caught Plato when she returned for her belongings.
Regardless of the reason, Plato was now in custody. Lucky for her, she had a guardian angel.
28. She Had A Guardian Angel
For Plato, this was definitely rock bottom. She was alone in a prison cell, and no one came to bail her out because she literally didn’t have a friend in the world. In the end, it was a famous stranger who saved her: Entertainer Wayne Newton, also known as Mr. Las Vegas, heard about the actress’ troubles and stepped up to help poor Plato. He didn’t know Plato at all but he posted her $13,000 bail. It turns out the judge was a bit of an angel too.
29. She Stood Trial
Pointing a loaded pistol at a cashier is pretty serious stuff, even one that just shoots pellets. But the trial judge, perhaps seeing the clear desperation of the situation, was lenient and only sentenced Plato to five years, which were all done on probation. But this incident wasn’t about to go unnoticed. Nope—it was about to explode.
30. She Started A Frenzy
Following Plato’s video store incident, a national debate erupted about child stars who had trouble in their later lives. They didn’t have to look very far. Plato’s two child costars, Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges, were in as much, if not more, trouble than Plato. While the national debate was extremely serious, a local radio show wasn’t above taking pot shots.
31. She Was In A Song
A radio program in Las Vegas made a satirical song about the girl from Diff’rent Strokes robbing a video store—sung to “The Girl from Ipanema.” The song became popular—popular enough for Plato to hear it. Plato was beyond angry that someone would make fun of her brush with the law. But then—in true Plato fashion—things went completely backwards.
32. She Joined The Real World
For some reason—maybe it was guilt—the radio station that was making fun of Plato’s misfortune reached out to her. Instead of merely apologizing, however, they did something sort of touching: They offered the out of work actor a job and gave her a position as a celebrity reporter. Unfortunately, Plato couldn’t do the job…but not for lack of trying.
33. She Had A Rare Opportunity
The job the radio producer gave to Plato was to interview celebrities, and the only catch was that she had to ask them very embarrassing questions. Plato gave it her best, but in the end she wasn’t able to fulfill the requirements of the job; she found it too difficult to ask the degrading questions the station wanted her to. The radio producer said she was just too nice, and then sacked her.
34. She Was A Gamer’s First
In 1992, Plato made a rather inauspicious first: She was one of the first celebrities to star in a video game. The game was Night Trap and it featured Plato and a group of girls having a sleepover in a dangerous house. Gamers were able to watch the young women through live surveillance footage and protect them from harm. Sounds wholesome enough? Well, not according to a US congressional hearing, who quickly shut the game down.
35. She Violated Probation
During the same year, Plato once again turned herself in to authorities—this time for forging a prescription for the drug diazepam, which treats anxiety. For this offense, the judge wasn’t so lenient. Plato spent 30 days in prison because, in addition to the forgery, she had violated her probation. After serving her sentence, Plato started a drug rehabilitation program and soon found herself low on cash. Still, she tried to look on the bright side of this otherwise crummy situation.
41. She Made A Chilling Prediction
When talking to reporters, Plato looked back on her time on probation and in prison. She had a very clear idea of what would’ve happened if she had escaped the law and the way she put it was eerily prophetic. She said: “If I hadn’t gotten caught, it could have been the worst thing that happened to me because I could have died of a drug overdose,”
Even so, the drugs, the prison sentences, and the constant media presence were wearing poor Plato down. Her attempt to clear the air ended up being the beginning of the end.
36. She Joined The Real World
Throughout the 90s Plato struggled to make ends meet. She must’ve known that her prospects for making any money in show business were quickly drying up because what she turned to was shocking: a job in customer service. The job was in a dry cleaning shop, so customers got to have a run-in with a celebrity while they picked up their shirts and pants.
Customers reported that Plato was actually very down to earth—especially considering she’d once been on a hit TV show. Still, nothing lasts forever, and after her career in cleaning, Plato turned to something…unconventional.
37. She Bared All
By 1997, Plato was desperate for money and—more than anything—desperate to act again. So, when a producer presented her with his off-the-wall idea, Plato accepted. But this wasn’t any old film. This was an adult film called Diff’rent Strokes: A Story of Jack and Jill…and Jill. It was a straight to video movie about, you probably guessed it, a threesome.
When it came to her actual relationship front, however, Plato wasn’t doing much better.
38. She Wasn’t Thinking Straight
The convenience store incident, working in a dry cleaners, and then a softcore parody of Diff’rent Strokes—it all added up to one thing: Plato wasn’t thinking rationally. In this same vein was Plato’s second marriage. The groom was producer actor Scott Atkins a.k.a Scotty Gelt. You know there’s going to be trouble when there’s an a.k.a. after a name, and the marriage only lasted a month before they annulled it. Still, Plato hadn’t given up on love…although maybe she should have.
39. She Lived On Wheels
Throughout all this turmoil, Plato still had a manager, Robert Menchaca, to handle her career. Mixing business with pleasure, the two soon became engaged after her mess of a second marriage, living together in Navarre, Florida in a decrepit Winnebago motorhome. No, not exactly romantic—and I don’t think they were there for the thrill of the open highway, either.
New love or not, Plato’s life was spiralling downward. She clearly needed money, but would she exploit her own tragic story just for some cash? The answer was a resounding yes.
40. She Became Desperate
In 1998, Plato appeared as herself in a movie that was maybe a little too close to home. Desperation Boulevard is about a child star who’s trying to get her career back in Hollywood. Ouch. It took either courage or true desperation to put her story out there like that. Plato must have been hoping for a redemption story, but sadly, the end of her life was near.
41. She Had One Last Interview
Around this time, Plato’s former roommate Jennifer Wejbe claimed that Plato was still on drugs, and the actress went on legendary shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show to set the record straight. Plato was very open with Stern about her life, talking about her financial problems as well as her addictions. Nonetheless, she told Stern and his audience that she’d been sober for 10 years.
But you see, the roommate had spoken about more than just drugs…
42. She Got Called Out
Jennifer Wejbe not only said that the addicted Plato had taken money from her, she also claimed that while they were living together as roommates, they were actually something much more—lovers, in fact. Plato was reeling from the media firestorm, but at this point Stern’s listeners broke in with heartbreaking accusations.
43. She Became Their Punching Bag
Stern’s radio show always had the intention of causing a sensation. So when the call-in portion began during Plato’s segment, many callers hurled insults at the actress. Some even went as far as questioning her sobriety. In response, Plato did the one thing you should never do on the Stern show: she got emotional, becoming angry and defensive. As we all know, that can lead to some BAD decisions.
44. She Offered To Take A Test
Of all the insults and accusations from Stern’s listeners, what hurt Plato the most was the idea that the public didn’t believe she was sober. So, in order to prove to the audience that she truly was clean, she offered to take a drug test right on the show, and let Stern cut a piece of her hair for the process. Still, once she was off the air, all bets were off.
45. She Took It Back
Immediately after their interview ended, Plato asked for the hair back from Stern. Then she took a deep breath and made a vulnerable confession. She admitted that she was on pain medication for a wisdom tooth extraction she’d had four months previously. In other words, Plato really was back to misusing substances. The show had been a disaster, and Plato left humiliated.
46. She Had One Last Mother’s Day
After her disgrace on the Stern show, Plato and her fiancé Menchaca drove in their motorhome to visit Menchaca’s mother—it was mother’s day after all. During the visit, the down-trodden Plato said she felt ill and took one of those pain pills as well as a muscle-relaxant. Shortly after, Plato excused herself and went into the motorhome to lie down. It was one of the last times anyone saw her alive.
47. She Went In Her Sleep
Later that night, Plato’s fiancé went to the motorhome with Plato and fell asleep by her side. But when Menchaca woke up, he found something horrible had happened. Plato was still lying beside him, her body cold and lifeless. She’d overdosed in her sleep. In the immediate aftermath, the authorities called it an accidental overdose, but that soon changed.
48. She Took Her Own Life
Once the authorities found out about Plato’s past drug use, they were curious how many pills she’d actually taken. An autopsy revealed that Plato had taken more drugs than one would normally take to treat mild pain, so they changed their conclusion, and it was no longer accidental. They saw it for what it was: a tragic suicide. There was a cremation and loved ones scattered Plato’s ashes over the Pacific Ocean. Her net worth at the end of her life was only $1,000.
49. Her Son Followed Her
Plato’s son Tyler Lambert grew up mostly with his paternal grandmother, but maintains he had a close relationship with Plato. He was just 14 years old when his mother ended her life. Lambert had ideas about being famous like his mother but instead of acting, Lambert took an interest in singing and rapping. Sadly, it was something darker than talent that Plato passed on to her son.
50. She Passed On A Legacy
Tragically, Tyler Lambert inherited his mother’s addiction issues, though he did have more support than she did. Johnny Whitaker, a child star himself, is an addiction counselor and took an interest in Plato’s son’s life. He tried to get Lambert off drugs, but it was an uphill battle. According to Lambert himself, he missed his mother and this drove him to some of his substance use. Even so Whitaker had his doubts.
51. Mother’s Day Was Hard
While Whitaker admits Lambert and his mother may have been emotionally close, when it came down to it they spent almost no time together. Still, Mother’s Day, and the anniversary of his mother’s passing, was always hard for Lambert. Eventually, Lambert marked this anniversary in the darkest way possible.
52. Tragedy After Tragedy
Just days before Mother’s day, Plato’s son Lambert withdrew himself from friends and family and no one saw him for a few days. He’d told a friend that he just wanted to be with Plato, his mom. Of course that was impossible as long as he remained alive. That’s when Lambert shocked everyone by tragically taking his own life with a shot to his head.
54. She Was Remembered
On what would’ve been Plato’s 55th birthday, her Diff’rent Strokes co-star, Todd Bridges, played tribute to Plato on Twitter. He said, “You were the one person I could always talk to. You were one of my best friends. I will never forget you and love you forever. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Dana Plato R.I.P you are free my friend.” Todd Bridges is the last remaining member of the original Diff’rent Strokes family.