Tween Sensation Raven-Symone Tells What Keeps Her Grounded

When Raven-Symone — born Raven-Symone Christina Pearman — made her debut on the hit NBC sitcom "The Cosby Show," audiences quickly fell in love with the three-year-old. She went on to become a tween sensation, later starring in her own Disney sitcom "That's So Raven," and several films. Now in her early twenties (and already with a few business ventures under her belt), Symone shares insight from her journey and how she has managed not to take herself too seriously.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a taste of something sweet. It's a preview of our conversation with the musical group Sweet Honey In the Rock. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, a youthful bit of wisdom from a tween sensation. At age three, Raven-Symone was introduced as a cute-as-you-can-be three-year-old character Olivia on "The Cosby Show," and she was adorable.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Cosby Show")

Ms. RAVEN-SYMONE (Actor): (As Olivia Kendall) Dr. Huxtable, guess what?

Mr. BILL COSBY (Actor): (As Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable) What?

Ms. SYMONE: I bought you a present.

Mr. COSBY: (As Dr. Huxtable) Guess what?

Ms. SYMONE: (As Olivia) What?

Mr. COSBY: (As Dr. Huxtable) Give it to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: It's a pen that has a ship that floats in it.

Mr. COSBY (As Dr. Huxtable) It's a battleship.

Ms. SYMONE: I know, just like the one my daddy sails on.

Mr. COSBY: (As Dr. Huxtable) This is the most beautiful pen I've ever seen.

Ms. SYMONE: Me, too. Can I keep it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: "The Cosby Show" established Raven-Symone as a major child star, and after that series ended in the 1990s, she went on to appear in the ABC sitcom "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," the Dr. Doolittle movies with Eddie Murphy, and all of this before headlining her own hit Disney Channel show called "That's So Raven."

Recently, Raven-Symone was back in the spotlight, accepting the Young, Gifted and Black Award as part of the Black Girls Rock Awards. That's an annual fundraising event dedicated to promoting positive role models from within the black community.

We talked last week, and Raven-Symone told me about what it was like to be given that honor.

Ms. SYMONE: Well, I think this one is important to me because, one it's from my peers. It's from women of color, and you know, it's hard to be in this industry and try to stay on a path that you created and not have anyone else make you waver. And I'm very happy that people have realized that it's taken me and my family and people on my team a lot of strength to stay in one path. There's a lot of different ways I could have gone, and knowing that this is my career, I wanted to stay in my career and not just turn into a lifestyle that I can't control anymore. So I'm very excited.

MARTIN: Now, I'm not sure why they chose you, but what are the things that you would like people to draw from your receiving this award? What is it that you think has contributed to your success?

Ms. SYMONE: I will say this. Any character that I choose, or any type of music that I sing, or any project that I'm a part of, I choose it because I know that when I get married, and I have kids - I do not have kids now - when I get married, and I have kids, I'm going to want my grandchildren's grandchildren to watch me, and I'm going to want to sit there and watch them even when they just start to understand what TV is. I don't want to have to shield them from the work that I do because it's not of age.

So hopefully, they see my conscious effort to grow up, slowly but, you know, right on time. Hopefully they see that. It's hard to say what I like about myself because I can say, well, you know, I like my hair today, and I don't really know what I want to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, speaking of hair, another way people will see you is in Chris Rock's new documentary, "Good Hair," where you're talking about the whole hair obsession.

Ms. SYMONE: I am obsessed with my hairstyles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. SYMONE: Because I can change it at any given day. I can clip it on, I can take it off; and Chris Rock I think did an amazing job with documenting what African-American, let alone women in general, go to through to, quote-unquote, "look beautiful," whether it's taking hair from India and putting it on your head, putting in a perm in, even guys, and I really wanted to be a part of that movie because with any role that I do, I always change my hair.

Friends that I know, you know, they'll see me one week, and the next week, I'll be short and blonde. The next week, I'll be long and red. Like, I have no shame in my hair game. I love doing it, and that's another thing that brings me back to, you know, being a part of Black Girls Rock. You know, that's another, I think, cool thing that we can have underneath our belt. Yes, we have beautiful hair in its natural state, as long as we take care of it, but we also have the ability to do whatever we want with it, as well.

MARTIN: You know, that film, though, is fun to watch, but there is, I don't know if you feel this way, but for me I felt there was kind of an undercurrent of pain attached to that. Because, you know, you have to ask yourself why is it that so many people have to spend so much to change their natural appearance? And you know, obviously you're, you know, you're an entertainer. You're in the profession where a lot of people experiment with their appearance and so forth.

But there is something to - there's this one scene where you know, Chris is, it's obviously tongue-in-cheek. He's tried to sell black hair and nobody wants it. And so I just wonder how you feel about that, and did you hesitate at all before deciding to appear in this film where you, you know, you talk about all that you go through with your hair?

Ms. SYMONE: No. No. No hesitation at all. I've been on the stage performing in a concert and taken my weave out and thrown it in the crowd because it was falling out. Like, I - no. Again, no shame. Yeah. There is a little bit of like, oh my goodness. I can't believe I have to go through this when dealing with the different things that we have to go through. But I think it's when we start messing with the original base of our hair - what's coming out of our scalp.

My hair right now, yes I've been through my perms. I've been through my color but I'm ruining my hair, my God-given right, and so I stopped all that. And instead of doing, you know, that, like you see a girl, she's about four or five years old and she's getting a perm, that's ruining her scalp. And I think it does come from years and years of, you know, what is beautiful.

It's not necessarily what comes from us because our self-esteem has been brought down over the years. But I think now, hopefully, we're in a time - especially with my generation - where we're comfortable with ourselves. We understand what happened in the past but we're trying to move forward and we're trying to come together as a people and not as different cultures.

MARTIN: Speaking of maintaining a healthy self-image, one of the things that I think a lot of moms appreciate - a lot of parents, I should say, appreciate about you - is that you seem to maintain a healthy figure. But a normal healthy woman looks like isn't always what the entertainment industry promotes. And I wonder is it hard for you ever, even with your celebrity prominence and success, to maintain a healthy look?

Ms. SYMONE: Yeah. I've definitely had obstacles in my career - my whole entire career - to stay a certain weight, to get smaller than I have been, but I look at my family, I look at where I come from and that's not really in our genes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: ...so I have to, you know, come home and look at myself and say listen, I was made this way. Yes, I have my own personal things that I want to get over. Yes, I go exercise; I eat right; I have a nutritionist - but I can't fulfill what is quote/unquote "the beauty number" we'll say of what you're supposed to be on the scale. I can't do that.

And you know what? I'm sorry if that keeps me from getting jobs, if that keeps me from being in certain clothes. I can't do it. And I'm sure that there's a lot of people in this country, in the world, that wish they could be a certain weight but their body just doesn't go for it naturally and health-wise.

You can get to a certain thing, but I'm sure you're not going to be healthy that way if you weren't born it. So yes, it's very difficult, but hopefully, with the people coming up in the industry and the consciousness shifting into knowing that you are an amazing body of energy, people will be more acceptive(ph) to all different kinds of beauty. Before, it wasn't cool to be African-American and now it's okay. So eventually it'll happen.

MARTIN: Do you think you've lost work because of your very normal size?

Ms. SYMONE: I do believe that people have overlooked me because I'm not, you know, going to do certain things because of my weight or because of my morals. I think that, yes, I might have. But you know what I say? I probably wasn't supposed to be in it anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: That's how I look at things. Everything happens for a reason. If you don't like me for that, okay. Well then, get the next girl and we'll - and I'll create my own show and produce it and make it work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you have. I mean that's what's the thing. In fact, let me just play a clip for those who - the eight people in America who aren't familiar with "That's So Raven."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Which introduces you to a whole new legion of fans. We have a clip from season four. We'll just play it just for the fun of it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That's So Raven")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: (as Raven Baxter) Hey, dad. Um, my room is getting way too crowded. Can I move into the basement?

Mr. RONDELL SHERIDAN (Actor): (as Victor Baxter) Sure. I don't see why not.

(Soundbite of scream)

Mr. KYLE MASSEY (Actor): (as Corey Baxter) What. But dad, I was going to ask if I could turn the basement into a band room.

Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Victor Baxter) Oh, I'm sorry son. Your sister asked first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: (as Raven Baxter) (Singing) Moving on down to the basement. (Unintelligible) to the floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: (as Raven Baxter) (Singing) Moving on down to the basement. That's what this is about. Sing it with me now. That's what this is about. Sing it with me now. That what this is about. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We like that clip because you're doing it all. You're singing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're just showing everything that you have.

Ms. SYMONE: That took a lot of peanut M&Ms to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: ... a lot of peanut M&Ms.

MARTIN: I didn't know your voice could go that soulful.

Ms. SYMONE: Oh, there's a lot of different things going on within me. It's interesting. You know, I'm working on my fifth album right now and being a part of so many different companies, they want you to be a certain way or sing a certain style of music. But I was raised on Chaka Chan, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, along with Alanis Morrissette and Nirvana, and anyone else you can, you know, name and I - there's a lot different things.

I like to mimic other people and we'll see what happens with the fifth album. Since I'm not signed to anything right now and I'm just in the studio working, personally, I'm able to venture into what I've been holding back for so long and showing who I really am, so we'll see.

MARTIN: How do you decide what you want to do next?

Ms. SYMONE: You know what's funny? We can go two different ways with that. What I want to do next one, it was a plan that made when I was 15 sitting at a sushi bar with mom on a blue napkin. I lost it because I moved, but I wrote down everything that I want to happen up until I turn 34. Like the companies that I wanted and how the tree of business would trickle and things of that nature. But that picture is stuck in my head. So every choice that I made - make and have made since I was 15 - I'm working as if it's already there. So that's one thing.

And two, when I see something or I see a role, I'm like you know what? I can see myself in that and I kind of, and I pay attention to what my body and my world is telling me. You know, I pay attention to the signs. And most of the time the signs are correct.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actress, singer, producer, diva...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...award winner, Raven-Symone. We're talking about her career, hair, whatever else is on her mind. Are you an old soul?

Ms. SYMONE: People say I am.

MARTIN: Yeah. You sound like you've been here before.

Ms. SYMONE: I feel like I have. I've been through a lot of different people. They said I've been here nine times. They said, you know, a lot of different things. But I do get a lot of feelings. Some days I feel like I'm 42; some days I feel like I'm 15, so I go back and forth.

MARTIN: Is that a good thing? I mean do you feel like you're missing anything by being such a busy young person and it's enough?

Ms. SYMONE: Oh trust me. I am not missing a thing. Some days I wish I could miss things. But, I went to public school from elementary all the way to my second year in high school. I got detention. I failed algebra twice. I had to go to summer school. My mom's probably not going to be happy that I put that through the radio, but I think everyone should realize that I am human.

I've gotten into lots of different things. But the difference is is that I don't promote my life. I promote my work, so I try not to, you know, make that a part of who I am when you're hiring me or considering me for watching for that 30 minutes. I want you to remember what I've done, the projects that I've chosen - not because I wrecked my car the other day and everyone knows about like sister friend.

MARTIN: Hello. And what about at making that transition from child star to tween star, to now you're a young woman - you're a young woman? For some people that's been a treacherous path and then some people feel particularly with, you know, the interest that we now have in kind of -well, how can I put this - a very sort of free-wheeling entertainment environment where, you know, nudity is highly prized in some quarters.

Ms. SYMONE: I was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and there is a - there's things that are stuck with me that I will never do because my mom or dad will come at me through the phone and smack me upside...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: ...what are you doing? But that being said, yes, I've had a hard time growing up, finding out who I am personally, which is why at this moment in time I am taking my own personal vacation away from the industry. I bought a house; I'm decorating it. I'm traveling. I'm going to, you know - I'm not traveling like, over the world, but like to Atlanta and Louisiana and spending time with my family and not putting myself in the industry as much, going through this very delicate time in my growth spurt.

MARTIN: Well, good for you. So, you know, normally I ask this question of people much older than you. But as we've discussed, you've been here before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, do you have any wisdom to offer perhaps, to someone who identifies with you, has seen you, feels that you kind of understand them - that you would wish to impart?

Ms. SYMONE: That I'm human. I say that and I always bring this up nowadays, because I think it's getting worse and worse. But I'm human. Words do hurt me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: And I think now, with the big big wave of loving to see people's downfalls on the Internet and vice versa, people forget that, you know, you're talking about people and you're making up lies and rumors and not really understanding that we read those. And that is our life, whether we put it out there or not, it is our life. So my little niche for this year is I'm human. Please accept. Please understand that - all I really want is love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh dear. Well, I'm sure that's in offing. Well, I'm sure that's coming if it isn't there already.

Raven-Symone was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Congratulations to you and everything so far, and until we catch up to you again, everything you're going to do next.

And thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SYMONE: Thank you so much for having me. Your voice is awesome. I wish I had your voice.

MARTIN: Oh, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: I do. Mine is like really squeaky. It just amazes me...

MARTIN: Because you've never heard me sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Trust me on this. You do not want that unless you want to call the cats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYMONE: No. No.

(Soundbite of music)

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