- Raven-Symoné grew up in the public eye as one of the most famous young actors of the early 2000s.
- But the former Disney Channel star faced pressure to conform to the image crafted for her at a young age.
- Symoné said she’s inspired by the new generation, and is ready for her next phase.
On a recent October morning, Raven-Symoné, now 36, sat for a video call over Google Meet. She had a golden, mellow aura about her — a far cry from the spunky characters she played as a child — framed by the west coast morning light, plants named by her wife on either side.
Symoné said she’s “had to go through a mental grow up,” and that she’s excited to be behind the scenes.
“I have a lot more control over how I present myself,” the actress said. “Up until my late twenties, there were people telling me how I should look — it was just easier to be told what to do. But now that I’m feeling empowered by the new generation of just being yourself on camera, and my own self really marinating in my own juices and understanding who I am and who I feel comfortable being, I’m able to present how I feel as Raven-Symoné, the entertainer.”
For Symoné, that journey has been three decades in the making. She and the camera have had a lifelong relationship. After her parents signed her on with modeling agencies as a toddler, Symoné first began gracing the screen through television commercials, daintily spreading peanut butter on Ritz crackers and spooning bites of a Cool Whip-crowned ice cream sundae.
She recalls watching “The Cosby Show” as a three-year-old when she decided that she could “do what Rudy does,” taking the first steps in what would become her acting career, the actress told Insider. Though she was too young for the role she auditioned for in the Bill Cosby movie “Ghost Dad,” Cosby was so impressed with Symoné that he created a new character — his step-granddaughter Olivia — for her on the very show that had first drawn her to acting.
In the years that followed, Symoné was cast in a succession of television shows and movies featuring Black casts, including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Dr. Dolittle.” In 2001, she landed the role of Raven Baxter in the show “That’s So Raven,” which swiftly became one of Disney Channel’s most successful series and catapulted Symoné to mainstream fame.
But growing up in the public eye inevitably came with challenges. Like many child stars, Symoné faced pressure to conform to the image that had been crafted for her since an early age. And, as a female actor of color, Symoné grappled with extra scrutiny from the public and media.
“When you’re in the industry and in front of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on your work and engagement, things can get a little strenuous,” Symoné told Insider.
Navigating the entertainment industry
“That’s So Raven,” a sitcom about a teenager with hidden psychic abilities, garnered accolades for its engaging premise and charismatic performances. In the early 2000s, it was also one of the rare live-action shows with a Black female teen lead.
“A Black young girl on television — there’s not a lot of roles for them. You have to wait until a Bill Cosby or Mark Curry come and have their show. Otherwise you’re just going to be the Black best friend,” Symoné said.
Symoné called the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry a “form of racism.”
“I remember my dad saying, ‘I sent you out on auditions for ‘young white boy,’ ‘young white girl.’ I sent you out on everything just so you could be seen, because there were no roles for ‘young Black girl,'” she recalled.
There is more representation on the screen now, Symoné acknowledged, pointing to shows like “Squid Game.” But that doesn’t mean actors of color are shielded from discrimination. In September this year, Caleb McLaughlin, who is the only Black lead in “Stranger Things,” said the racism in the fandom “took a toll” on him.
“I send my hugs to him,” Symoné said. “We live in America, so if you’re not white, you’ve probably experienced racism… It just keeps going.”
Conforming to ‘the Raven-Symoné brand’
The pressures Symoné faced as a young actor only grew with her professional success. The advent of gossip blogs like Perez Hilton in the 2000s ushered in a new unspoken rule: “Everybody just felt like they could say anything about you when you turned 15,” Symoné said.
(“Do you really wanna draw that much attention to your tits, girl??? You’re a Disney channel star!” Hilton wrote in a 2007 post titled “Not Cute.”)
Behind the scenes, Symoné was often told that her “sizes are getting bigger” and that she had to “be careful” with what she ate. The actress, who was 15 when she landed the lead role in “That’s So Raven,” said the body shaming instilled “habits” like constantly pulling down her shirt while filming, and that she would wear two Spanxes and a girdle underneath her outfits.
“It created a really thick skin on me,” Symoné said. “I can’t blame anybody, but I know that I would be careful of my verbiage to anyone, because I know what it feels like for somebody to be telling you hurtful comments.”
Symoné similarly blames the overall social climate, rather than specific companies, for her discomfort in coming out as a lesbian. In a 2016 video for “It Gets Better,” she shared how her success in her career kept her from coming out because it went against the “Raven-Symoné brand” and was not “sellable” — even though she realized she was gay when she was around 12 years old.
“Back then, I didn’t have great role models of lesbians coming out with a positive response. People were fired, people were ostracized,” Symoné told Insider. “In my head, it was: You stay in your shell until you leave the industry when you’re 45, 60 years old.”
Symoné came out in 2013 after the Supreme Court issued rulings that expanded same-sex marriage laws.
A new generation of inclusivity and representation
Since “That’s So Raven” ended its 100-episode run in 2007, Symoné hasn’t strayed far from the screen, co-hosting “The View” and starring in “Black-ish” and “Raven’s Home,” a “That’s So Raven” spinoff series. But she said her experience is markedly different from the one she had as a young actor, something she credits to a new generation.
“It’s interesting to see that every generation takes off the straightjacket we’ve put on yourselves to conform,” Symoné told Insider. “I love talking to the youth because they give me confidence more than even the people in my own age bracket. They’re so bold and tell us, ‘Hey, it’s okay to change.'”