From the opening lines of the Smart Guy theme song, 90s kids knew they were dealing with "a pugnacious little shorty with a thousand IQ." TJ Henderson had a way with the ladies and was keeping it real.
But where did pint-sized star Tahj Mowry go after the series ended in 1999?
"I like to give people a chance to miss me and wonder where I'm at. I keep a level of mystery attached," Mowry told VICE. “And I'm very thankful that I grew into my ears.”
The now 33-year-old opened up about his life filled with fame, football, and an ill-fated celebrity romance. Oh, and a Smart Guy revival is happening.
A military brat turned child star
Before Tahj and his 8-years-older twin sisters, Tia and Tamara, became kid-TV royalty, they were just working hard to keep their rooms up to their parents' military standards.
"I couldn't leave the house unless the bed was tight and there was nothing on the floor," he said. "We had G.I. days, which is general inspection in the military world, and Spring Cleaning wasn't just in the spring."
Mowry spent the first six months of his life in Hawaii, where his U.S. Army sergeant parents were stationed before they relocated to Fort Hood, Texas. Once in the heartland, Tia and Tamara began to thrive in pageants and Mowry matriarch Darlene realized Tahj was a natural ham, too.
"I would memorize the things that I saw on TV and act the scenes out on the spot," he said. "My mom was like, 'Oh my God, we have to do something with this kid.'"
So, the Mowrys packed up and headed to Los Angeles, where Tahj quickly racked up dozens of commercial gigs for brands ranging from Pringles to Pine-Sol. "At one point, I had booked so many McDonald's commercials that they wouldn't let me book anymore," he said. "They had to give some other kids a chance."
He went on to charm audiences as Michelle's friend Teddy in a recurring role on Full House and guest starred in the 1996 Super Bowl episode of Friends, where he considered Courteney Cox calling him "cute" a claim to fame. But he was ready for a show of his own.
He's a Smart Guy
When Mowry was all of nine years old, he began shopping around his own sitcom idea to network heads, leading pitch meetings and campaigning for a vehicle that would let him be the star. (His sisters had used a similar tactic to greenlight their show Sister, Sister three years earlier.)
"It was fun for me. I would bring a toy cell phone into the pitch meetings and sneakily push the ring button and be like, 'Hold on guys. I've got a call,'" he said. "I was hamming it up. I had to get this show on the road."
His strategy charmed producer Irene Dreayer, a self-described "kid talent expert" who discovered Tia and Tamera and later Dylan and Cole Sprouse. The series was a go.
"Smart Guy" premiered on The WB in 1997, with Mowry playing a lovably obnoxious 10-year-old genius who skipped six grades and wound up in high school alongside his far-more-average siblings (Essence Atkins and Jason Weaver) and his brother's pal Mo (Omar Gooding). TJ's sassy quips made for comic gold, guest stars like Destiny's Child added pizzazz, and one terrifying Very Special Episode highlighted the dangers of pedophiles on the internet.
The show was canceled after three seasons, but it found a new life on the Disney Channel where reruns played steadily through the early 2000s and led many a millennial to assume Mowry himself was an actual whiz kid. In fact, he's "pretty sure there are people out there still who think I'm a genius."
"What are you?"
But being a child star who straddled the line between “lit” red carpet looks like this and blending in at school when he wasn't shooting was tricky.
"Kids were like, 'Hey, why does this kid only come to school when he wants to?'” he said. “I'd get sponsored by certain companies, so I'd have the new kicks and cool-looking clothes, and they were jealous."
Add to that Mowry's biracial background (his dad is white and his mom is Black), and his mostly white peers piled on the torment, calling him the N-word and taunting his right to belong.
"Any sort of mixed-race kid has a different set of challenges because kids don't understand it. They were like, 'What are you?'" he said. "JNCO was really popular at the time, skater brands and stuff like that. They'd say, ‘Hey, you're black. You can't wear that.’ I had to learn to get a tough skin and walk with my head held high and be proud."
After Smart Guy ended, Mowry rolled out two Disney Channel Original Movies, Seventeen Again and Hounded, and then mostly stepped away from acting. He still made time to voice Wade on Kim Possible but, contrary to his Smart Guy persona, Mowry was a gifted athlete. He went to high school full-time and became a star running back on the football team, his compact size making him difficult to tackle.
He scored a football scholarship to Savannah State University, a historically black university, on the opposite side of the country and a world away from Hollywood. While he loved the experience of "being around my culture," he transferred to the University of Wyoming mid-freshman year to continue playing football there. But that didn't work out either.
"I remember getting in my buddy's car to go to the stadium at 5 a.m., and it was zero degrees outside," he said. "I was just like, this can't be where I'm supposed to be."
That summer, he decided to quit college football altogether.
"I think a lot of people were shocked. I went from being the kid who used to be an actor to being the actor who got a football scholarship to being the actor who quit," he said. "If you talk to a lot of athletes, they'll tell you when you get to the college level, it's not a fun thing anymore."
Mowry attempted to continue his studies sans sports at Pepperdine University in Malibu but dropped out after a semester to become the actor who acts again. He landed a small role in Ice Cube's 2007 comedy Are We Done Yet? and went on to star in six seasons of Freeform's Three Men and a Baby-inspired sitcom, Baby Daddy.
"I was super glad to do that show," Mowry said. "Suddenly, people were like, 'Oh wow, he's a full-on adult.'"
Being a full-on adult
Over the last few years, Mowry has been taking some much needed time to re-set. "I like to flee the scene and re-energize and rethink and find out what my next move is," he said.
Although he released a debut album in 2015, music is on the backburner for now. (Sorry, The Masked Singer truthers, he's not a secret season 2 contestant.) Instead, he co-wrote a horror movie that he plans to direct, which he described as a "psychological paranormal revenge story" that's "a lot deeper" than the average slasher film. And he recently filmed a dramedy called Welcome Matt about a man who suffers a trauma that renders him terrified of leaving the house. In addition to its relevance in our current pandemic, the mental health themes resonated with Mowry.
"I struggled with anxiety. When you become an adult and you realize you're in this adult world, that's what got me. I was like, oh snap," he said. "But I learned it's okay to talk to someone about it. It's not a sign of weakness because once your thoughts go down a dark path, it's hard to reel them back in."
Mowry also considers himself "a Jesus guy" and said his faith helped him cope through those difficult times. "It's not about religion and rules. It's about that relationship, and that's what gets me through every day."
Mowry is currently holed up in his LA home, which he's dubbed "the treehouse." He loves cooking and refers to his kitchen alter ego as "Chef BoyarT." He's even contemplating doing a cookbook for "the bachelor lifestyle because I think a lot of guys out there are scared to cook."
He lives alone, that deep-seated need for military cleanliness ruling out a roommate and his career ambitions leaving little time for a romantic partner. Kids are also not on the horizon.
"My nephews and nieces are the biggest form of birth control," he said of Tia and Tamera's four children, who he frequently FaceTimes while isolated at home. (He's also close with his younger brother Tavior, a budding musician and motivational Instagram speaker.)
For someone who’s been in the public eye practically since he could talk, Mowry keeps his dating life mostly private, citing Denzel Washington's work-focused career as one he'd like to emulate. He did, however, quietly date Glee actress Naya Rivera on and off for years.
"Our families were very close, so it was almost like an arranged marriage," he said. "She'll say it was just a kid thing, but I think differently. There were three times we dated, and the last time was probably from age 20 to 23ish. Third time wasn't the charm, but I wish her the best."
(In her 2016 memoir, Rivera alleged Mowry ended things because "he needed to date someone more on his financial level.")
Smart Guy 2.0
Perhaps the most exciting thing on the horizon is Mowry's plan for a new Smart Guy series.
"We've gotten the ball rolling on a Smart Guy revival. It's sort of going to be a sequel, a continuation," he said. "You'll be brought into where TJ is and what he's up to now. I came up with a really fresh take that will be different enough so even if you didn't watch the original you'll still be able to enjoy it.”
Earlier this year, Disney’s Lizzie McGuire reboot was put on indefinite hiatus when Hilary Duff and Disney+ couldn't reach an agreement on how adult the show should be. It’s a fate Mowry doesn't think his own show will suffer.
"I've always loved Hilary, and I agree with what she wanted to do with that," Mowry said. " Smart Guy will still have the family quality, but it will be more in the realm of a Community or Grown-ish type show. It won't be too edgy."
(The original Smart Guy series is currently on Disney+, and while the streaming service is Mowry's preferred platform for the new show, he noted "Disney is a very large company," and it could land at Hulu, Freeform, or ABC instead.)
He also stopped short of revealing if his former co-stars will return, but did say he would be "silly to not at least give nods to the fam." His on-screen dad, John Marshall Jones, recently told the LA Times that he was involved with the optioned script.
For now, "your favorite little study buddy" will be pursuing intellectual isolation pursuits, like binging the Bourne franchise, filling his camera roll with pictures of food, and taking online quizzes to find out which dog breed is his perfect match.
He knows the deal.