Thanks to her charming turns in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, Mara Wilson became one of the most beloved child stars of the ’90s – but the actress says the pressures of a “toxic,” image-obsessed industry were so heavy she had to retire as a tween.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘The way that you judge yourself, looks-wise, is on this really strange level.’ Well, it’s because I grew up in Hollywood,” Wilson, now 29, tells PEOPLE. “I had good experiences there, but I always knew there were girls much prettier than I was, and I knew that I was always competing with them. That has followed me my whole life.
The one-time scene-stealer is now chronicling her rise to (and escape from) the spotlight in her witty debut memoir, Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame – and PEOPLE has an exclusive excerpt and interview in the magazine’s new issue.
Wilson began stealing hearts opposite Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and on Melrose Place in 1993; nabbed her first leading role the next year, starring in the Miracle on 34th Street reboot; sang the opening number at the Oscars in 1995; and was a bona fide national treasure by ’96 after playing the precocious title character with telekinetic powers in Matilda.
But by the time she’d hit puberty around the turn of the millennium, “I wasn’t getting any parts,” Wilson writes in Where Am I Now? (out Sept. 13).
“Something didn’t make sense – at least until I was called for a role in a pilot. I would be auditioning for the ‘fat girl,’ ” Wilson writes.
It was shortly after that audition that Wilson – whose mother Suzie died of cancer when Wilson was 8 – decided with her dad she would begin to focus on school instead of acting.
WATCH: Mara Wilson Talks About Child Stardom and Mental Illness
“I realized, ‘I don’t fit their idea of what a Hollywood actress looks like, so there’s no room for me here,’ ” says Wilson. “It’s hard to come out of that sane and without some serious doubts about yourself.”
Wilson discovered a passion for theater and writing in high school and college, but those doubts continued to haunt her.
For more on Wilson, including the full excerpt of her memoir, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“Even though part of me knew I wouldn’t go back to film acting, sometimes I wished I’d be in an accident where I’d injure my nose and jaw so I could get reconstruction guilt-free,” Wilson writes. “As I saw it, I had three choices: get cosmetic surgery and go out on auditions for the cute and funny best friend characters, stay the way I was and go out for the meager character actor roles for young women, or accept myself and give up the idea of a Hollywood film acting career for good.”
Since graduating college, Wilson has made a name for herself in the New York comedy and storytelling scene.
“Things have gotten a lot better since I left Hollywood – a great weight lifted,” Wilson says.
These days, she lives with her two cats, Milo and Theo, in Queens, where she writes comedy.
Wilson came out as bisexual following the Orlando gay nightclub massacre in June.
And she’s aware her book is putting her back in the public eye. “This time,” she says, “it’s on my terms.”