Raven-Symoné is just months away from turning 30.
That might be shocking if you’re the type who freezes actors at the age of the projects they’re most famous for. You might then be stunned to learn that Olivia from The Cosby Show and Raven from That’s So Raven is definitively all grown up.
But if you’ve been watching Symoné during her well-received—and certainly controversial—tenure as a guest panelist on The View, where’s she’s proven to be free-speaking, popular, and provocative enough to reportedly have ABC “desperately” courting her for a full-time gig, maybe you’re not surprised to learn that she’s matured.
It’s a process she’s gone through rather publicly, coming out on Twitter in 2013 and having a candid discussion about being labeled because of her race and sexuality with Oprah Winfrey in 2014. The hot-button candidness of that interview and the reaction it caused certainly could have predicted Symoné’s future suitability for The View. I believe Ms. Winfrey’s words were, “Oh, girl, don’t set Twitter on fire!” (She’s since become a bit of a pyro in that way.)
And now Symoné is back in front of the camera as an actress, too, with a juicy guest arc on Empire this past season and, this Wednesday, showing up on black-ish in a bit of pitch-perfect casting as Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) gay sister Rhonda, who’s as uncomfortable talking about her sexuality with their mother (Jenifer Lewis) as her brother is.
“I am so happy to say that I’m 29 years old,” Symoné tells The Daily Beast, laughing. “It feels so good, because it feels like I’ve been a child forever. And I have.”
Maybe we’re overdue in coming to terms with Raven-Symoné: nearly 30-year-old, because the star has admirably come to terms with herself, and is eager for you to come along, too.
“People come up to me and say, ‘You look so old,’” Symoné continues. “Well I’m almost 30. I am not 12 anymore. People grow up and people want to do different things.”
It’s taken her a while to get there.
Symoné has never really left the spotlight. But she has, in the past, been more diligent about wanting to control it.
Whether it was her reign on the Disney Channel (Cheetah Girls, Kim Possible, That’s So Raven), the family-friendly films she’s starred in (Dr. Dolittle, Revenge of the Bridesmaids) or her stint on Broadway in Sister Act, she’s admitted that maintaining a particular brand has been important to her.
But whereas she used to pitch the kind of character she wanted to play, a greater sense of herself as she’s gotten older has allowed her to give up control, to play more mature roles, to be more open, and to do things like trust Lee Daniels and the Empire showrunners with a character that is very un-Disney-like: Olivia, who fakes a marriage with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) to help him cover up his sexuality when the child she said was his actually belonged to his father. Yay soaps!
“It’s age and how I feel about different topics, and that I’m comfortable with them and want to tackle things that are personal to me,” Symoné says, about what’s changed so that she feels ready to give up controlling her brand. “I can’t be that same person anymore, even if I wasn’t on TV.”
Though she told Oprah in that infamous interview that she lives with her girlfriend, she hates being labeled “gay”—because she doesn’t like being labeled at all. It’s a mindset that gave her interesting perspective when her good friend and Empire co-star Smollett was the subject of intense media speculation over his own sexuality, because his character was gay and he kept refusing to clarify his own sexuality. (He eventually came out on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show.)
“I’m so proud of him,” she says. “In all of his interviews and public appearances he stayed true to who he is and being a positive role model in the community of all people.” It’s a remarkable inclusiveness that she uses to talk about a show that’s made so many headlines for its portrayal of certain divided communities. She goes one better: “I see him as America’s boyfriend,” she says, not modifying America’s sexuality.
In doing things like Empire and Wednesday’s “Please Don’t Ask, Please Don’t Tell” episode of black-ish, she’s hoping that maybe she can move past being defined by the roles of her past. “Lee Daniels took a chance on a ‘nostalgic actress,’ and he gave me the kind of character I’ve never played before,” she says. “Because of it people will see that I can do more than what they’re used to.”
Her role on black-ish returns her to her comedy roots, albeit in a far different, far more topical environment than we’re used to seeing her. “There are some amazing scenes in this episode that can hopefully open eyes to other people,” she says. “You get to see other people’s pain. And you get to see other people’s dislikes and how that affects others.”
And if there’s anything that’s done wonders to change the public perception of Symoné, it’s her time on The View, during which she’s made headlines for everything from admitting to wearing Spanx since she was 14 to weighing in on a news item in which a TV reporter was fired for making what’s been interpreted as a racist joke at Michelle Obama’s expense.
She’s proven adept at swinging on the energy pendulum needed to fit in with the high-low, fluffy-intense extremes required of a morning talk show host.
To wit, over the course of our conversation she describes her delight at playing “such an impactful character” as Olivia on Empire with a giddy, high-pitched, “I was just like, ‘Woohoo!’” Then when talk turns to some of her controversial statements about race on The View, her words are as calm, deliberate, and measured as the weight of the topic requires.
“I didn’t say anything that I think my mother would be disappointed by,” she says, when the scandal is brought up. (The reporter said a makeup artist who transformed into Obama looked like a monkey. Symoné said she didn’t think he was racist because “some people do look like animals…Is that rude? I look like a bird.” You can read more of Symoné’s defense here.)
“You can disagree with me, but you can just say ‘I disagree with you,’” Symoné says. “You don’t have to come for my heart and say I must die. We all know that people use freedom of speech. So I try my best to respect people’s [freedom].”
Controversies aside, Symoné says she’s reveled in the platform The View gives her. “I like being able to speak my mind and tell my side of the story,” she says. “I’ve been in this industry and might be more sheltered than others who have had more drama than I’ve had, but my drama is equal to what theirs is in my own life.”
She realizes that growing up and being unafraid to speak her mind—to seize control of that so-called brand she had carefully maintained for so long—leaves her susceptible to becoming a more polarizing celebrity than she’s ever been.
“I’ve gotten anger from other people because I’m not taking one side or the other, or I’m not taking the side they think I should take. Or that I’m being someone I’m not,” she says. “But I’m just trying my best to look at it objectively before I bash someone.”
She’s keeping mum on the specifics of where her career will take her—The View or otherwise. But she’s clear about what she’s learned about all of this. And wouldn’t you know it? Her takeaways couldn’t be more mature.
“We respect one another,” she says. “I think that’s the ultimate thing all cultures and all races and genders need to do is to say, ‘Yeah, we disagree but I respect your opinion. I didn’t live your life so I have to respect where you come from, and we can have a discussion.’”
“I don’t know what happened, because we stopped respecting each other,” she goes on. “And we have to respect each other.”