Celebrities gripe about the press all the time, but Raven Symone's hard-luck story was a new one on us: the actress says that at her 19th-birthday party last year, only a single paparazzo showed up. "It was so sad," she says with a laugh. "I mean, I was dressed up and ready to party and not one flash went off. My mom is always telling me not to leave the house with my sweats and T shirts that might have jam from breakfast on them. But I know they don't even know who I am."
Anyone who's stood in line at a supermarket knows who Paris, Jessica, Mary- Kate, Ashley, Hilary and Lindsay are. Too many late nights and too little body fat, a surfeit of fast cash and a bare minimum of clothing have made them tabloid princesses. So why aren't the tabs on a first-name basis with Raven? And why isn't she being hounded by aging men with cameras? This bubbly young Disney star once played the 3-year-old Olivia on "The Cosby Show." (All she remembers is the smell of soul food and cigar smoke.) She has a top-rated cable-TV series ("That's So Raven"), two successful CDs and merchandise with her smiling face in every mall across the country. Still, that face rarely graces the covers of teen, fashion or entertainment magazines, and news of her love life, her shopping habits or how much weight she's gained or lost seems to get no farther than her dressing room.
Could it be--we're just taking a wild guess here--because Symone is African-American, not even close to a size 2 and prefers sweats and T shirts to Dolce & Gabbana? "It's understood that African-American celebrities aren't the big deal their white counterparts are in magazines," says Bill Jones, a photographer who regularly shoots celebrities for Ebony, Jet and Essence magazines. "Half of the celebrity photographers I know that aren't black couldn't tell a black celeb if it wasn't Will Smith or Halle Berry. They only know the obvious ones. And even then, there's not a whole lot of interest."
But while she may not be stalked by Jones's colleagues, Symone has a shrewd sense of her girl-next-door appeal. "My fans know I love my cheese grits with shrimp, and I'm not giving them up to be a size 2," she says. "They know I wear a weave to make my hair look right and I don't always look glamorous all the time. I don't even worry about that type of stuff that much. You're not going to see me with clothes that just let everything hang out. And it's not because of my size, but because it's just not me. I think that's what parents like about our show." Symone is also shrewd enough to worry about another kind of overexposure--in the media. "I sort of feel that it's good I'm not all over the place," she says, "because I don't want people to get tired of me. I don't want them rolling their eyes whenever they see me. I'm in it for the long haul."
Meanwhile, Symone's fellow actors admire her gift for physical comedy--she's like a younger, browner Lucille Ball--and her professionalism. "Working with her and seeing her nail her lines was just amazing to me," says Eddie Murphy, with whom she appeared in the two "Doctor Dolittle" films. "She has the poise of someone way beyond her years." And she may be even more popular with people on the business side of television. "That's So Raven," in which she stars as the high-school kid Raven Baxter, is the third hit show she's been in during the past decade, and for the last two years she's won the favorite TV actress category at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards. Three million viewers a week tune into "That's So Raven," and the show ranks No. 1 with tween girls 9 to 14 in African-American and Hispanic families--and No. 2 with white tween girls.
May Co., the department-store chain that sells "That's So Raven" merchandise, says it sells out of bedsheets, lamps, lunchboxes and other Raven-branded items monthly. Toy stores have recently begun selling a Raven doll, and the Raven-themed Game Boy that came out last year has sold a quarter of a million units. Such merchandise, Disney estimates, should bring in close to $400 million by the end of 2006. This year, a grateful Disney named her one of the show's producers. "We see Raven as someone who is invaluable because of her appeal," says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide. "She appeals to everyone--and that's rare. We have a partnership with her that is going to keep growing as long as she wants it."
How long that will be is anybody's guess. Raven can't put off much longer the difficult transition from child star to adult star, and that will be especially tricky given her young audience. She's already filmed a serious-minded Lifetime movie about a segregated prom in Georgia, which will air later this year. "It was tough," she says, "because I'm pretty much happy all the time. My TV show is a happy one, and most of the work I've done has been pretty upbeat. So on the day I needed to cry, the director instructed everyone on the set not to speak to me the entire day. And by the end I was boo-hooing in front of the camera just because everyone was dissing me so badly. The director knew what he was doing."
But not to worry: the effervescent girl her fans adore is in no danger of disappearing entirely. At least not now. Symone will introduce a Raven fragrance this fall, and a line of Raven clothes for older girls next year. "I have so many ideas and so many things that I want to do," she says with her trademark giggle. (One of those ideas she told us about is to attend culinary school in Paris. Wait till her partners at Disney hear about that.) If Symone seems a little uncertain just now about who she'll grow up to be, her youngest fans have been confused for years. "It's so funny," she says. "I have little kids ask me how I can be 3 years old in the morning, 12 years old at noon and then in high school on 'That's So Raven.' I've grown up on television, and I feel like my fans have followed me." She's been great company.