Milestone: "That's So Raven"
Self-empowered pop phenom Raven-Symone soars to fame.Instantly identifiable, with a name that stands for something and competitive positioning in the market. Sure, it's great to be a star, but it's even better to be a brand. The actress Raven-Symone is the latest performer to spin forth as a full-blown pop phenomenon from the Disney Channel, which seems to have made a science of not only identifying but also initiating the next teen thing.
Her series, "That's So Raven," is the first Disney Channel original program to cross the 100-episode mark, doing so this summer. Raven-Symone also has a thriving music career and now a product line, too. Portable gaming devices, MP3 players, perfume, clothing and jewelry all carry the Raven imprimatur -- as do CDs and DVDs.
And it couldn't have happened to a nicer girl. Raven is the opposite of high-maintenance stars like Paris and Lindsay, a fearless physical comedienne who combines an innocent sense of mischief with oodles of self-confidence in a gal-next-door package.
Producer Lynda Obst, who recently chose the actress to star in "Further Adventures in Babysitting," due out in 2008, says she was initially skeptical about the idea of casting a cable star in a big feature film but took a meeting with Raven at the urging of Disney brass. "I don't have young children, and I wasn't aware of Raven," Obst admits. "But the moment I met her, she let me know who she was. I was won over five minutes into the lunch. She knows who her market is and why her audience loves her, and she would not betray that for movie conventions."
Obst, who also produced the original 1987 "Adventures in Babysitting," says she saw in the young actress an uncompromising quality that she felt "could really work for the movie, in terms of (an audience of) young girls who are building a sense of self." Raven, Obst says, is "a girl who started out selling her CDs out of the back of her car because she didn't want to do the kind of music that the record labels wanted her to do. She's about not compromising herself for the boy. She's about being loved on her own terms, for her own identity -- both as a person of color and as a person who has great self-confidence without starving herself to death."
That attitude should serve the actress -- born Raven-Symone Pearman -- well as she crosses the threshold to adulthood, turning 21 in December. Although she started her career at age 3, as the scene-stealing Olivia on "The Cosby Show," these days Raven relates more to being an adult than to being a child. And she has a body of work that belies her years: She appeared with Eddie Murphy in the "Dr. Dolittle" films in 1998 and 2001. More recently, she provided the voice of Monique on the animated Disney Channel series "Kim Possible" and appeared in 2004's "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement."
Now, Raven has five feature films in development at Disney, a "Cheetah Girls 2" telefilm debuting on the Disney Channel this month and the Fox animated feature "Everyone's Hero" premiering next month, as well as a summer filled with concert dates. Earlier this year she signed with Endeavor to represent her as an actress. ICM handles her for music.
"I'm simply going along with my life," says the Atlanta native. "The work will transition naturally as I transition. My fans have followed me as I've grown up on television, and I think they will continue to do so."
"The Raven-Symone business then and now is very similar because the brand is similar," says the actress's manager, Jessica Samuel of Sanders Armstrong. "It's growing, but Raven still has the same philosophy of believing in yourself and that you can make anything happen."
Most of Raven's fans today don't know her as the "Cosby" kid who segued to a four-year stint on "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper." More than 2 million viewers a week have come to know her through the comical misadventures of "That's So Raven's" Raven Baxter, a charismatic, occasionally clairvoyant teen who can see just enough of the future to compel her to try and change it. But the role that made Raven a star almost didn't come to be. The show, developed by Michael Poryes, co-creator alongside Susan Sherman, was originally titled "Absolutely Psychic," and the main character, while she had psychic abilities, was a bit more timid and intimidated by her powers.
"Raven came in to read for the sidekick role -- the confident, rambunctious, take-no-prisoners best friend," recalls Disney Channel worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh. "She was brilliant. We hadn't yet cast the lead. We sat in the (audition) room and said: 'We have an incredible talent in front of us. Let's see if she wants to read for the lead role.' She went outside, looked at the (script) pages and came back in and read. So we were stuck with a dilemma. We gave her the choice of what part she wanted to play, and she chose the sidekick part because there was a greater chance to express her comic chops; it was a juicier role. The pilot actually features Raven playing the best friend."
It tested well, but Marsh says it was clear after the pilot that "Raven needed to be the star. So we rewrote the lead character, transposing the energy and comedic sensibility of the sidekick to the lead."
Though Disney has finished producing new episodes of "That's So Raven," the show will continue to air on Disney Channel and around the world for many years to come, according to Marsh. "We're thrilled to achieve this," Marsh says. "This was our first stage multicamera sitcom, and it set the bar for all our comedies that followed."
The show -- which ranks No. 1 with kids 6 to 14 in the U.S. and airs daily in 100 different countries -- has provided a great merchandising platform, says Disney ABC Cable Networks Group vp brand management Jennifer Rogers Doyle. "Raven has a great sense of the character on 'That's So Raven' and has made great improvements to some of the designs," Doyle says. Her TV movie, 2004's "The Cheetah Girls," about an all-girl band, was another merchandise and fashion flash point for the star, spawning 2004's No. 2 selling soundtrack, as well as a 2006 sequel and soundtrack.
Singing and performing onstage come as naturally to Raven-Symone as the physical comedy that has distinguished her acting. The "Raven" series scripts actually catered to Raven's comedic gifts, which Newsweek compared to Lucille Ball's (and the show was shot at Hollywood Center Studios, home of the original "I Love Lucy"). In nearly every episode, she gets dolled up to play different characters donning fat suits, wigs and makeup that require hours to apply. "Once I played three characters in the same room together," she recalls. "That was tricky because I had to remember everything I did with each character so I could react in the right way."
Pairing Raven, who fills up a room like a floodlight, with the genius of writers Marc Warren and Dennis Rinsler resulted in a winning formula that garnered Disney Channel's first Emmy nomination for best children's programming. Warren and Rinsler, who had previously worked on "Full House" and "Even Stevens," bring what they call a "relatable kid entry point" to their goofball scenarios. "As long as we're solving a problem kids can relate to -- a big test, wanting a raise in allowance -- we can do anything," Rinsler says. "Day after day, we'd sit in a room with eight edgy writers and talk about our lives, and it was like therapy," Warren says. "What was your roughest moment in school? What's the most fun thing you ever did? Wouldn't it be cool to see Raven milk a cow, or get stuck on a dry-cleaning conveyor belt?"
"She was absolutely a huge amount of fun and always willing to go the extra step," says "Everyone's Hero" producer Ron Trippe, characterizing Raven as "a very talented young actress that everyone in the business should have a chance to work with."
To which Obst adds: "She's a girl's girl and a role model, and she's so funny. She's going to be a huge movie star."
But Raven-Symone gets the last word: "I don't care about being famous," she says. "I rarely go out; I pretty much keep to myself. I just love the work so much, and I'm in it for the long haul."
Kimberly Nordyke and Nina Cruz contributed to this report.