That's So Brazen: How Raven-Symoné Became This Summer's Biggest Contrarian
Young black girls once idolized Raven-Symoné as a symbol of optimism, but as a co-host of 'The View,' she has become a notorious provocateur. We called Symoné to learn the story behind her shocking reinvention.
Photos by Bruce Talbot. Courtesy of Raven-Symoné
Because I've grown up with Raven-Symoné, I always forget she is three years older than me. Symoné turns 30 in December (she's a Sagittarius), but I watched her grow up on television. When you watch child stars evolve from kids to teenagers, you feel intrinsically tied to their lives. To many young Americans, especially young black girls, Symoné was (and in some ways still is) deeply tied to a more optimistic time in pop culture, a television period fueled by populist comedians in family settings. (Think Tim Allen on Home Improvement or Roseanne Barr in Roseanne.) For many years, Symoné transitioned from one sitcom to the next, rarely leaving the public eye. Her star turn began at age three when she joined The Cosby Show as Olivia Kendall. From there, she played Nicole Lee on Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and then, eventually, starred as a teenage psychic on her own headlining vehicle, the Disney Channel's That's So Raven.
This is why witnessing the Raven-Symoné of 2015 is so jarring. On The View, the ABC talk show Symoné has co-hosted since earlier this summer, she delivers her outspoken opinions in the public eye, prompting outraged headlines nearly every week. This summer alone, she has urged the government to keep Harriet Tubman off the $20 bill, supported Rachel Dolezal, and defended Univision host Rodner Figueroa for saying Michelle Obama looks like an ape. ("Some people look like animals," Symoné quipped.)
"I've been acting in the industry since I was three years [old] and singing and dancing and performing and entertaining everybody else," Symoné explains over the phone. "I was kind of tired of just being that puppet for everyone else."
As a child star, Raven matured into a unique young comedienne who feels increasingly rare in 2015. Unlike many other black comediennes, she physically manipulated her characters into roles that were more than just "loud" or "sassy." Her performances were smart and silly. She appeared as an "every girl" through and through. On That's So Raven, she argued with teachers and teased her younger brother as any kid would, but also spoofed R&B musicians, like a young SNL comic.
Being a child star, though, was unlike what most girls experience. According to Symoné, the entertainment industry was a confining environment. She lived under the control of a million different grown-ups' eyes. She says, "I'll be in a meeting, and my agents and lawyers will be like, 'Well this is what Raven's like and this is what Raven's like.' Then I'm like, 'Oh my goodness. I don't even get to speak?'" The nature of child stardom also gave Symoné the opportunity to learn how to engage with others: "I learned how to have a conversation obviously because, as a young person in the industry, normally you're talked about in front of yourself," she says.
"People don't really think that being in the acting and TV industry is stressful a lot of times because you only see the glitz and glamour," she says. "I've been in it since I was three, and it is stressful."
I was kind of tired of just being that puppet for everyone else.
After That's So Raven ended, Symoné redrew from the public to relax. She voiced Iridessa in Disney's direct-to-video Tinker Bell series and appeared periodically in small films or on short-lived sitcoms. Away from Hollywood, she began taking painting lessons at the Academy of Art University, a for-profit art school. "I didn't want my mind to turn into mush," Symoné explains. "I needed to learn." This wasn't her first foray into art. When she was seven, she used Bob Ross videos to teach herself how to paint, and she considers surrealist painters, like Salvador Dali, some of her favorite artists. Art school helped start the reinvention of Raven-Symoné.
"School has really helped me remember that I'm a human," Symoné says. "I'm not just a brand. I'm not just someone's contractual obligation. This is my life, and I want to do something with it."
When Symoné reemerged in the public, she decided to reveal to the public a new television role--herself. She says she sought and was offered opportunities on other daytime talk ventures, but none stuck. Joining The View, however, was a natural fit. Working as a guest host this spring, she got along with the team and her fellow cast members. In June, the show hired her as a permanent host.
"I get to voice my own opinion," she says. "Normally, my opinion is based on what somebody wrote for me on the script."
She's no Lisa Ling, but neither America nor The View expects her to behave like her predecessors. The earlier incarnation of the talk show--a program somewhat rooted in journalism and hosted by iconic journalists like Barbara Walters--is long gone. "Everybody," Symoné says, is still asking her, "What do you bring?" She's unsure she knows the answer: "I don't know what I bring," she says. "I am just bringing myself. I'm bringing myself, and I'm bringing questions."
I'm not just a brand. I'm not just someone's contractual obligation. This is my life, and I want to do something with it.
The new version of The View gives weight to provocative, often contrarian positions. American culture has become very black and white, right and wrong, but The View seems to fit somewhere in the middle, where individuality and weirdness co-mingle. Outside of young activists (whose time would best be served away from the show's fluctuating levels of superficiality and seriousness), Symoné is one of a few young people who would fit on the show.
Since Symoné returned to the public spotlight last year, we've watched her come into her own, but that own-ness has faced judgment. In a 2014 Oprah Where Are They Now interview, Symoné refused to identify as gay or African-American when Oprah Winfrey asked her about her coming-out experience. She asked to be called "a human who loves humans." "I'm tired of being labeled," she told Winfrey. "I'm not an African American. I'm an American." After controversy brewed online, Symoné released a statement to E! News: "I never said I wasn't black. I want to make that very clear. I said, 'I am not African American.' I never expected my personal beliefs and comments to spark such emotion in people. I think it is only positive when we can openly discuss race and being labeled in America." To Symoné, common terms like African-American and gay are more examples of ways people try to dictate what it means to be Raven-Symoné.
"If I leave it up to other people, they're going to maybe choose the wrong words," she says. "They're not going to know my history, and [they are going to] want to make me into something that I'm really not. I don't want to have a career or a life where one day I'll walk outside and [the way I look] doesn't match the labels put on me, and then [the public goes] berserk."
Symoné has been a celebrity since she was a three-year-old. She has never had the chance to grow in private or let her opinions evolve over time without public scrutiny. If for over 25 years, corporate executives, agents, and lawyers defined you, wouldn't you want to choose the words people assign to you? Wouldn't you crave the chance to say whatever you want?
To call Symoné's opinions contrarian, though, would be an understatement. Although her beliefs make many people uncomfortable or angry, she refuses to back down. "No, I have not been surprised," she says about the public reactions to her comments. "People have reactions for everything, and then that's just humans, right?" In some ways, her desire to express her opinions feels like a form of personal protest. For Raven, expressing her thoughts, whatever they may be, is a new opportunity. She appears to revel in the opportunity, even if it leads to righteous anger on the internet.
"My opinion is my opinion, and I'm not trying to pretend like repping every single group that you might label me under because I might not have the same views," she says. "Hopefully [The View] will help people that are watching me over the years grow up with me in a real-time type of fashion."
Watching Symoné speak her mind on The View is similar to the way we watched her grow up on classic sitcoms. Physically, her appearance fluctuates as much as her opinions. When she quit the industry, she cut her hair off and began to dye it. She called friends and said, "I'm not wearing a weave." They said, "Oh my God. What's going to happen? Oh my goodness." Symoné response: "Calm down, calm down." Now, she has no problem bouncing from a blonde version of the undercut hairstyle to elegant, lilac-hued layers.
"I love to look at myself and think I'm a different person today," Symoné says. "I needed to move in the next step of human progression, not just my career's progression."
When she isn't trying on a new look or voicing her opinion, Symoné continues to study painting at Academy of Art University. Her paintings and hair feel like extensions of her new sense of self. By the end of our conversation, she reminds me of her favorite painters. Like Dali and the other surrealists, Symoné is not afraid to push boundaries and conventions. Trying to sum up the Raven-Symoné of 2015 feels like an impossible task. As Symoné indicates, the real Raven is the one she presents to us. And that person, for all intents and purposes, is unequivocally just Raven.