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Chicago girl goes from Kiddieland to Sterling Cooper

Kiernan Shipk12 spent her early years Lake View but now lives Los Angeles where she plays Sally “Mad Men.”

Kiernan Shipka, 12, spent her early years in Lake View but now lives in Los Angeles, where she plays Sally on “Mad Men.”

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Updated: April 26, 2012 8:09AM

After years of being billed as a guest star on “Mad Men,” Kiernan Shipka became a full-fledged series regular last season.

And what a season it was for the 12-year-old Chicago native who plays Don Draper’s oldest child, Sally.

A heartbreaking casualty of her parents’ ugly divorce, Sally Draper went through the wringer in season four. Rebelling against her new family, she spit up food at the Thanksgiving dinner table. While dad was on a date, she chopped off her own hair — a move that won her a slap across the face from her aloof mother, Betty. On the brink of puberty, Sally got caught touching herself at a friend’s house, prompting Betty to put her in therapy.

And who could forget that very public meltdown — and wipeout — in the hallway of Don’s office at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, when Sally ran away and begged her dad to let her live with him?

“That was one of my favorites,” said Kiernan, referring to episode 409, “The Beautiful Girls.” “I got to go in the office, which I kind of never get to do. And I got to work with Elisabeth Moss (Peggy), even though it was just one line. And the falling, of course, was very fun for me.”

In real life, Kiernan’s idea of fun was going to Kiddieland, until the suburban amusement park closed in 2009.

“That was my home away from home,” she said.

These days, fun means eating at one of her favorite restaurants, Japonais in River North, and celebrating Fourth of July in the city — a holiday she always spends here, even though her family moved to Los Angeles six years ago to support her burgeoning career.

“I’ve never missed a Fourth of July in Chicago,” Kiernan said. Her parents kept a place in River North. “We go to Saddle & Cycle [an exclusive private club in Edgewater]. You watch the fireworks show and you swim. It’s a great experience.”

Kiernan’s father is real estate developer John Shipka, who works for the family-owned business Enterprise Companies, headquartered in Chicago. Her mother is Erin Brennan Shipka, one-time queen of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

An only child, Kiernan spent the first half of her life in Lake View. She started out modeling before branching out into acting, a craft that’s “definitely not in my family.” She hasn’t had any formal acting training or lessons.

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner “told my mom not to get me coached at the beginning of the first table read,” she said. “We’ve stuck with that.”

Given the program’s adult content, Kiernan’s mom keeps the remote control close at hand, only letting her daughter see the parts deemed OK for young eyes.

“I’m not completely in the dark about the show,” Kiernan said during the phone interview, sounding far more mature than her dozen years. “I go to table reads and all that stuff but I’m not really a viewer yet. I’m planning on having my own ‘Mad Men’ marathon when all the seasons end.”

During the show’s lengthy hiatus, Kiernan focused on school. She’s enrolled in an independent study program taught by a couple of tutors.

She also worked on her golf game, taking part in golf camp with Weiner’s son, Marten. He plays Sally’s misbehaving buddy, Glen, on the show. Make that former buddy. Last season, a jealous Betty put the kibosh on their friendship, robbing Sally of her one true confidant.

“She’s going through a hard time right now,” Kiernan said about her character, who spent a lot of time in therapy last season. So much so, Kiernan is qualified to be a child psychologist — at least that’s the conceit behind a humorous video she did for the Funny or Die web site in which she counsels other child stars. (Check it out at

When asked if Betty and Don should get back together, Kiernan takes a few seconds to mull over her answer.

“For Sally, sure, she’d hope that,” Kiernan said. “But for me, I like acting the drama. I feel like there’d be more drama if they didn’t get back together.”

Whether they do or don’t, Kiernan won’t say. But she will say this: “Sally definitely has some really good material this season.”

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