Since she was 4 years old, Raven-Symoné has been a television staple. But she'd always been the precocious step-granddaughter (Olivia on The Cosby Show), the bratty niece (Nicole on Hangin' With Mr. Cooper), or the bubbly best friend (Nebula in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century) — until, of course, That’s So Raven premiered on Disney Channel in 2003.
The show became a megahit: It was Disney Channel's first series to get past the standard 65 episodes for a live-action children’s show, going on to last 100 episodes; it was the channel's first original series to spawn a spinoff (Cory in the House, which premiered in 2007); and it earned two Emmy nominations. Raven-Symoné herself became one of Disney’s most valuable players, picking up projects like a supporting voice role on its hit animated series Kim Possible, starring in its original movie musical franchise Cheetah Girls, and even appearing alongside Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in the Princess Diaries sequel.
During That’s So Raven's unprecedentedly long run, the actor was inspired by comedic titans like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Tracy Ullman in portraying her psychic character Raven Baxter's disguises and pratfalls as she tried to solve whatever problem her visions of the future implied would happen. And she pulled it off. “Raven is the closest television has come to a modern-day I Love Lucy, anchored by a truly game actress who will happily take a tumble, cover herself in goo, or some combination of the two if it’ll get a laugh,” Joshua Alston wrote for the A.V. Club in 2016.
The show also bravely tackled sensitive and newsy topics like racial profiling, smoking, and body positivity, putting it in the pantheon of iconic children’s shows. “Knowing that we did tackle body issues...it's funny, I always say, during that time, I would get feedback from peers and work and everybody like, ‘You need to lose weight, you need to lose weight, and blah blah blah,’ ‘It's not sellable,’ or whatever. And I'm just like, what? I'm so confused,” Raven-Symoné told BuzzFeed News. “And now we are finally able to embrace thicker body types, and I'm like, dang, I wish that was happening when I was on the show. I wouldn't be so...hungry.”
She took a second to laugh off the superficial criticisms she's faced, an attitude that's helped her survive more than 25 years in the industry. Then she added, “It's good to know that time evolves and that you can be a part of change even if you have to go through the pain to make sure somebody else has an easier time. I understand that now.”
In 2016, at the height of Hollywood nostalgia, it was announced that Raven — Baxter and Symoné — would get the opportunity to have even more influence with a new series, Raven's Home, which premiered on July 21 on Disney Channel. “Raven Baxter is still fun-loving, she's still eccentric, she's still down for whatever to make the right thing happen,” said Raven-Symoné. And this time around, she'll break ground and call the shots.
Raven’s Home moves Raven Baxter from San Francisco to Chicago and is set around a decade after the finale of That's So Raven, which wrapped in 2007. On the new series, Raven and her best friend, Chelsea Daniels (Anneliese van der Pol), are both single, recently divorced moms — Raven to twins Booker and Nia (Issac Ryan Brown and Navia Robinson) and Chelsea to Levi (Jason Maybaum). After Chelsea loses most of her money to her criminal ex-husband, she and Levi move in with Raven and her kids to cut costs. “We're representing single women around the country and maybe around the world who are watching,” van der Pol told BuzzFeed News from the Raven's Home set in mid-July. “You know, that's not really done often — definitely hasn't been done on the Disney Channel.”
While Chelsea holds down the fort at home, Raven has fulfilled her dreams of becoming a fashion designer, though she still gets those pesky visions of the future, a trait that we learn in the premiere she’s passed on to her son.
On set, Raven-Symoné is not just an actor and executive producer, but also acts as a mentor to the show's young stars, Brown, Robinson, and Maybaum. “[I'm] giving the information I learned when I first started in the industry back in the '90s/'80s. … They're getting the way that I learned how to be on set, and how I learned to deal with the cameras, and how I learned to tackle scripts,” she said. “There's a professionalism that got lost in translation over the years that I've witnessed.” She said she likes to remind the young actors, “This is a business, this is a workplace, and yes, you can have fun at the workplace, but let's not forget that you're getting paid.”
For example, she took the cast out to do karaoke for Brown's 12th birthday the day before her interview with BuzzFeed News. But when Brown came to set that following morning, he gave her a playful look that she said she had to shut down with a “nuh-uh. Get the mics. Let's go to work.”
“Raven did a really good job of laying out that she's in charge and the boss and an adult,” van der Pol said. “But also sort of, you know, their peer and respects them.”
Even though the city is new, the Raven’s Home set at Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles is definitely inspired by That’s So Raven's look. The living room shares that same burnt orange and turquoise aesthetic Raven Baxter was known for, but there are some new touches. Right by the front door hangs a still-life painting that Raven-Symoné did herself — the actor began taking art classes at the Academy of Art University in 2014. She also did the fashion drawings hanging up in the work nook hidden in the back of the living room set. It's clear Raven-Symoné is leaving even more of her mark on Raven's second go-round.
In video village, behind the monitors that show the scenes they're shooting, stands a director’s chair, right next to executive producers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas’s, marked for Raven-Symoné. And though there isn't a megaphone, her voice is heard as she sits in front of a diverse group of producers, writers, and network execs, all different colors and ages, sharing her input on more than just her scenes. Together, they make sure to note what works and what doesn’t, right down to the inflection of a line of dialogue.
"We were very diverse," van der Pol said of That's So Raven. "I always laugh and joke and say I'm the token white Jew on that show, you know? Because really, we're so diverse, and we still are and will be as we continue to film and shoot and cast, and that's important to represent. It's the only way to show truth."
Truth is something that's important to Raven-Symoné, too. She constantly repeats the phrase “I’m just going to be 100% honest,” including when it comes to looking back on that peak Disney time in her life. “I wasn't able to appreciate how cool everything was because I was busy trying to make sure I chose the right project and things got done,” she said of her then-19-year-old self. “Looking back, I'm like, holy crap, that's a lot of stuff that happened and it is so enjoyable.” She paused, noting how hard it is to articulate her thoughts when she has seven scripts in her head. “I'm going to say it feels good.”
But Raven-Symoné did admit that in keeping so busy, she “didn't have any time to grow, because I was working and I was making sure that the brand was what it was.” She added: “That's OK and I do not regret it, but I'm not going to lie to you, it was difficult.”
After That’s So Raven ended in 2007, Raven-Symoné, who served as a producer on the final season, took a break from the industry. “There was a time period when I said, ‘You know what? I'm tired,’ and I took a little retirement for about two to three years, and I was able to grow, and I was able to be who I was without having to put on my eyebrows and a girdle and making sure that everything that came out of my mouth was kosher,” she said. “I was able to just be me and release who I was inside, and that ended up with me coming out.”
Raven-Symoné's coming-out happened in 2013 when she tweeted a celebratory message about being able to get married right after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. But publicly coming out was not a priority for her until she had that time to breathe. “I already knew it,” she said of being queer, “but I knew that wasn't something that was of importance. 'I'm trying to do The Cheetah Girls right now. I don't have time for this,' and that's fine because the priority was making sure that these projects came to life and making sure that people were entertained.”
With a work ethic like hers, it wasn't too long before Raven-Symoné was ready to return to the spotlight — and when she did, she didn’t stray from under Disney’s wings. In 2015, she made a full emergence back into show business as a co-host on The View, a production of ABC News, which is a subsidiary of Disney. "It's hard to find a company that cherishes their talent as much as Disney does and wants the best for the people that come out of their factory," she said.
Although working with View moderator Whoopi Goldberg was the main selling point for her, Raven-Symoné said she was also excited about the opportunity to showcase her voice and intellect. “I really wanted to show more of my brain than anything else, and I think the experience was not only very educational to myself, but also amazing, because never have I put myself out in such a vulnerable situation to where my thoughts and my ideas took the forefront,” she said. “Normally my thoughts and ideas are written down by a table of 10 people or more and all I do is regurgitate it, and no one ever really, truly knew who I was.”
Her stint on the show was mired in controversy, from her agreeing with Mike Huckabee that Beyoncé should wear pants to saying she would discriminate against people with "ghetto names" (the way the manager at Sassy’s discriminated against Raven Baxter in the popular “True Colors” episode of That’s So Raven, saying she doesn’t hire black people).
Still, Raven-Symoné is unapologetic about her time on The View, stressing that “everybody's view is valid.” “You have to take into consideration that, yes, we're all one, but we all have different minds and think differently, and nature versus nurture,” she said. “I have many people that are behind the scenes that are like, ‘OK, well, don't say that again,’ or ‘They didn't like this.’ I have to go, ‘No, no, no. That's my opinion, that's their opinion, and if they don't respect mine, that doesn't mean that I shouldn't respect theirs.'” Then she put a pin in the issue. “I shouldn't be angry at what you feel, because I should have the right to feel what I feel and you should have the right to feel what you feel. Isn't this America?”
On the set of Raven's Home, there are fewer people behind the scenes telling Raven-Symoné what to say and do, or, in her case, what not to say or do. After all, she's the executive producer and star, and the opportunity was enough to make her jump ship from The View after less than two seasons.
One of her first requests when it came to Raven's Home was to make sure van der Pol came back with her. The longtime costars had kept in contact over the years, particularly while they were both living in New York when Raven-Symoné was on The View. She sees van der Pol as her anchor, just as much as Raven Baxter sees Chelsea Daniels as hers. “We kind of casually talked about it for so long, and I just didn't want to let it sink in, you know?” van der Pol said of the reboot. “So I was like, 'Call me when it's real.'” When Raven-Symoné finally signed her contract, she called van der Pol and said, “They're going to call you.” van der Pol was shocked and ecstatic. “I haven't had a child or gotten married, so yeah, I think probably one of the happiest days of my life.”
Disney Channel has faced a recent ratings slump, so there is some pressure on Raven’s Home to be a saving grace for the network, a reality Raven-Symoné understands well. “'Success' is great numbers,” she said when asked how she defines the word. “Making sure people watch it, download it, stream it, like that's success, because” — she joked, in the cadence That's So Raven fans know so well — “if you don't, then I'mma get canceled and I'll be real sad. So y'all watch it.” The show’s premiere had 3.5 million viewers, around the same number That's So Raven's first few episodes brought in in 2003. It was the best live-action cable TV series premiere in two years among its targeted demographics — so Raven-Symoné can feel safe for now.
But beyond the numbers, Raven's Home is a win for its leading lady: It's a starring role, with the costar she asked for, on the network she's long called home, where she's now a boss — and she knows that too. “Success is I'm not angry when I go home at night,” she added. “Success is I want to chill with the people every day. I enjoyed myself.” ●