That was very unusual for someone in Chicago, especially during that time.
A teacher on the South Side of Chicago isn’t really exposed like, say, someone in L.A., who is constantly exposed to children working in the business. It was very out of the box for her to even think that way. She just opened the phone book and found a talent agency. I think it might have been the first one because it was called A Plus Talent. She called and I went in and it just took off from there. But I think she thought it was something that I would excel at.
Did your mother ever worry about you being in the business?
It wasn’t really a question of if it was going to be bad for me or good for me. If it had ever been a negative experience for me, it just would have stopped. A lot of times people don’t put their children’s best interests first when they start working. My mother’s priority was always what’s best for my child.
It’s been reported that Debbie Allen wants to bring A Different World back. Do you think A Different World works now?
I do. Just as Cosby opened up so many people’s vision to something that they had never seen before, or really contemplated before, and exposed them to things that were going on that were completely below their radar, I think that A Different World did the same thing. There are so many people who come up to me and say that watching Cosby or A Different World is the reason I went to college. That’s the reason why. Some people weren’t even aware that there were Historically Black Colleges and Universities to go to because, if you didn’t grow up in the South or around them, that’s just nothing that you thought of and saw for yourself.
What made the show so special?
The show had so many different types of students represented, people from different backgrounds, rich, poor, scholastically gifted, people who had to work hard to get their grades. It really just gave people a spark that there is a possibility that I could do this even if my parents didn’t go to school or my grandparents didn’t go to school. This is something that is achievable for me. Both shows together were just legendary in their influence. It was historic.
People don’t even realize that McDonald’s and other brands changed their commercials by including stepping and marching bands. Both shows really did impact other areas of pop culture.
It did. It exposed so much of our culture to other people and things that we were familiar with. The richness of our art, our music, our experience, our families, our troubles that were the same as other people’s troubles and people didn’t realize that. It broke down so many lies as far as people’s perception of people of color of what was going on in our households and how it was so similar in so many ways.
Could any show have that kind of impact today?
I don’t know that you could do it again. The combination of having such a tremendous audience watching television and the fact that there were fewer channels back then doesn’t exist now. These days to get five, six million people watching one show is out of the box numbers and we had 40, 50 million people watching one show. The audience is so fractured now. The timing was just so incredible.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha