December 10, 1985 • Atlanta, Georgia
Teen actress Raven stars in the hit Disney Channel series That's So Raven. Many fans of her show, however, may not be old enough to recognize Raven from her first television role. In the early 1990s Raven charmed audiences as the youngest member of the Huxtable clan on the last few seasons of the top-rated NBC sitcom The Cosby Show. At the time, she was known by the stage name Raven-Symoné, which she later shortened.
Raven was born Raven-Symoné Christina Pearman in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 10, 1985. Her parents, Christopher and Lydia Pearman, believed their infant daughter had star power at an early age, and she landed a modeling contract before her second birthday. Soon the family relocated to New York City to boost her chances. There the toddler appeared in television commercials for products such as Cool Whip and Ritz Crackers, among others. Her talents led to an audition for a part in a Bill Cosby (1937–) film called Ghost Dad, but she did not win the role.
The audition, however, impressed Cosby, a veteran actor and comedian. Since 1984 he had headed the cast of the The Cosby Show, the hit NBC series that was said to have revived the sitcom format. In it, Cosby played Heathcliff Huxtable, a likable physician. "Cliff" was married to a no-nonsense attorney, Clair, played by Phylicia Rashad (1948–), and they had five children. The Huxtable kids ranged from college student Sondra, played by Sabrina LeBeauf, to pre-schooler Rudy, played by Keshia Knight Pulliam (1979–).
Even at a young age, Raven was familiar with The Cosby Show. As her father told Ebony journalist Douglas C. Lyons, Raven liked to watch little Knight Pulliam's Rudy character, and "would always say, 'I can do that. Why can't I be on The Cosby Show?'" Her chance came in 1989, when the second Huxtable daughter, played by Lisa Bonet (1967–), returned to the show. Bonet had left to star in a spin-off, set at college, called A Different World. She left both series for a time, and her return to Cosby came as the newly married Denise Huxtable. Denise's husband was a single parent and Navy officer who was often away at sea, and Denise returned to her parents' Brooklyn brownstone home with her husband's toddler daughter, Olivia Kendall, played by Raven.
"I just want to represent my people well. I'm not going to be ghetto on the show. I don't want people to think that's all we can do."
Raven was an immediate hit as Cosby 's newest cast member. She soon became a celebrity at the young age of five. She recalled being thrilled the first time a fan requested an autograph. "And I signed my whole name right," she boasted to Lyons. She played Olivia for the final three seasons on Cosby, which ended its run in 1992. In 1993 she landed a role in another top sitcom, Hangin'With Mr. Cooper, playing the part of Nicole Lee. She also made her feature film debut in 1994 in a remake of The Little Rascals. A bigger movie role came in 1998 when she appeared as Eddie Murphy (1961–)'s daughter in the box office hit Dr. Dolittle, and she also appeared in its 2001 sequel.
T he Cosby Show was a major television event of the 1984 season. From its debut, the show's mix of comedy and gentle moral lessons appealed to audiences of all colors. Critics called it the show that helped renew faith in the half-hour situation comedy on network television. The Cosby household included eldest daughter Sondra, who was often away at college; Denise, the fashionably dressed teen rebel; Theo, the sole son and a prankster; drama-queen Vanessa; and Rudy, an adorable kindergartner.
With popular comedian Bill Cosby cast as a New York City obstetrician with an attorney wife, Cosby was said to be the first television series to show a black middle-class family. But their skin color, others noted, was beside the point. The Huxtables' problems were similar to those of any family. Cliff and Clair struggled to make sure their children understood the importance of their education. They dealt with the occasional discipline problem firmly and with a sense of humor. The series, noted Time critic Richard Zoglin, "initiated a healthy new attitude toward race on TV by building a show around an upper-middle-class family that just happened to be black. And it set a standard for wholesome TV families that inspired backlash ( Married ... with Children ) as well as imitation ( Family Matters )."
The Cosby Show held the number-one spot in television ratings for four years in the late 1980s. It was the most successful sitcom of the decade, and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. Raven joined the show as it was nearing the end of its run. She debuted on it in 1989 as Olivia Kendall, stepdaughter to a newly married Denise. She seemed cast to fill the "cute" slot occupied earlier by Keshia Knight Pulliam's Rudy, and she did so admirably for the final three seasons, trading lines with Cosby's Cliff Huxtable and winning some of the biggest laughs in each episode. But as the other Huxtable children grew into their teens and adulthood, the show's writers struggled to keep its plots fresh. It began losing ratings to a new series from the Fox Network, The Simpsons, and its final episode aired in the spring of 1992.
Raven's little Olivia lives on in reruns of The Cosby Show. She occasionally catches glimpses of herself as a scene-stealing five-year-old, but finds it to be a strange experience. "It's funny, when I watch the show I don't think of Olivia as being me," Raven told WWD writer Julee Greenberg. "I sort of think of her as someone else, since I was too young to remember so much of it."
During the 1990s Raven divided her time between school and show business. Child labor laws required her to have a tutor if her television and movie parts were being shot during the months when school was in session. She also went into the recording studio, and her debut album, Here's To New Dreams, was released in 1993, the same year she turned eight. She had reportedly been the youngest solo artist ever signed to the MCA label. She was a teenager by the time her second album of pop and R&B tunes, Undeniable, appeared in 1999.
Raven was hired by Disney as she neared the end of her high school years at Atlanta's North Springs High. She was originally cast in a supporting role on a new show called Absolutely Psychic, but executives were impressed by her talent and decided to rework the script with her in the lead. That's So Raven debuted on the Disney Channel in January of 2003, and from the start proved to be a hit with viewers in the nine-to-fourteen age group. Raven plays Raven Baxter, a San Francisco high school student who struggles with her psychic abilities. Only her two best friends and her parents know about her secret gift. Raven's character is a likable, normal teenager who is a bit of a klutz, but "her visions give her a real mysteriousness," the actress told Suzanne MacNeille in an article in the New York Times. Raven explained, "They are the one thing that makes her humble." She added that her character tries to keep her special talent from intruding on her normal teenage life. "Raven doesn't want just anyone to know about her visions," she told MacNeille. "She's afraid people will think she's a freak."
Though the veteran teen actress no longer had to make a special effort to spell her entire name correctly for autographs, she was in turn amused by her young fans. "Little kids are coming up to me asking me 'What's my future?'" she told Jet "'I'm not really psychic,'" she explained to them, as she told the magazine. "And they are like, 'No, what's my future?'And I am like, 'OK, you are going to have a good future.'"
Raven was hailed as a member of the new "tween" actor category, and as the Disney Channel's next big star. There were many comparisons to Lizzie McGuire, the Disney hit that propelled Hilary Duff (1987–) to fame. Nicholas Fonseca in Entertainment Weekly declared that Raven's "quick rise may herald a new era at the network, one with a curvy, sassy black girl as its poster child." Like Duff, Raven also began appearing in other Disney projects. She was cast in the lead in The Cheetah Girls, a cable movie that aired in the summer of 2003. It won the highest rating for a cable show that week, with more than six million viewers tuning in. The Cheetah Girls was based on a series of young adult novels, and Raven starred as Galleria Garibaldi, an ambitious New York City high school student who leads a singing group of three friends. In the movie the girls head for stardom in the midst of drama, excitement, and a lot of animal-print fashion. Laura Fries, writing in Daily Variety, gave the show a mixed review: "Ironically, 'Cheetah Girls' supposedly denounces manufactured pop music and marketing over artistry, yet it plays like a two-hour fashion commercial and culminates in a ridiculous lip-synching extravaganza."Yet Fries also noted that the cable movie "does have a few things going for it, namely Raven, an appealing and versatile young actress who has charm and skill."
The Cheetah Girls seemed good preparation for Raven to appear as the lead in upcoming Hollywood movies. She was cast in Sparkle, a remake of a 1976 musical film about three sisters who form a girl group. The original starred a young Irene Cara (1959–), who later appeared in the hit movie Fame. Raven would take the Cara role as the youngest Sparkle sister. It was a part once planned for Aaliyah (1979–2001), before her untimely death in a plane crash. Raven was also slated to star in All-American Girl, a 2004 movie based on a book by Meg Cabot (1967–), the author of The Princess Diaries. In it, she is cast as a teenager who inadvertently saves the U.S. president's life. There is also a third pop album in the works.
Raven has always remembered the advice that veteran actor Bill Cosby gave her: "'Stay professional and always stay sweet,'" she recalled to an interviewer for Jet. She had a difficult time in one scene during her first season of That's So Raven, she told the New York Times. The script called for her to let a boa constrictor snake be wrapped around her neck. She was so frightened of the reptile that she began crying, and "the sick faces I'm making are for real," she confessed to MacNeille.
Raven eventually moved out of her parents' home to share a place with another tween star, Lindsay Lohan (1986–). They live in Los Angeles, where Raven's Disney series is taped. A food lover, she has said that she would like to attend culinary school some day, if her schedule permits. She admits that her figure is curvier than normal for actresses on television and in films. "I'm not your normal girl that you see on television," she told Palm Beach Post writer Kevin D. Thompson. "I'm not 95 pounds.... But when you look at the movies and you look at all the girls who are hot now, I wonder if I could've been in those movies if I was skinny." She also discussed her figure in an interview with WWD 's Julee Greenberg. Raven said she has considered offers to launch her own makeup or apparel line, but "if I was to do my own clothing line, I would do it for girls who are built like me," she told Greenberg. "When I shop for myself it's very hard to find clothes. I'm curvy and there should be more clothes out there for curvy girls."
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Fonseca, Nicholas. "The New Tween Queen: Former Cosby Show-Stealer and Current Disney Channel Icon Raven is So Not Lizzie McGuire." Entertainment Weekly (October 17, 2003): p. 42.
Fries, Laura. "The Cheetah Girls. (Movie Review.)" Daily Variety (August 15, 2003): p. 8.
Greenberg, Julee. "Quotes From Raven; With 'The Cosby Show' Behind Her Raven Prepares to Be a Cheetah Girl." WWD (August 7, 2003): p. 12.
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Lyons, Douglas C. "Show Biz Kids: Pre-Teen Stars Find That Success in the Spotlight Is Not All Fun and Child's Play." Ebony (May 1990): p. 106.
MacNeille, Suzanne. "Visions of Peril Dance in Her Head (But It's a Secret)." New York Times (January 12, 2003): p. 59.
Moses, Michael. "Raven." Teen People (February 1, 2004): p. 93.
"Raven Cute 'Cosby' Kid Turns Sassy TV Starlet at 17." Jet (September 8, 2003): p. 60.
"Raven-Symone Releases Her Debut Pop Album." Jet (July 5, 1993): p. 61.
Thompson, Kevin D. "Raven Wonders If 'Thicky-Thick' a Liability." Palm Beach Post (July 13, 2003): p. 5J.
Wright, Heather Keets. "Raven Wins Raves: This Former Cosby Show Cutie Is Now a Disney Diva with Her Own Sitcom!" Essence (October 2003): p. 148.
Zoglin, Richard. "The Cosby Show." Time (May 4, 1992): p. 76.