Brandy: Keeping It Real

MOESHA IS A SITCOM SET IN SOUTH-Central L.A. No black Valley girls, no black butlers with British accents living in Bel Air. About time. Think about the successful black comedies over the years. They divide into three categories: poor black folks ("Good Times," "Sanford and Son"), poor black folks getting rich ("The Jeffersons," "Fresh Prince of Bel Air") or rich black folks who wear really expensive sweaters ("Cosby"). UPN's "Moesha" (say it Moe-EESH-ah) has blown up big in the ratings because it's straight outta the middle. This is a normal middle-class black family with a normal teenage daughter. That she happens to be played by 17-year-old Brandy Norwood, better known as pop-music star Brandy, helps. Brandy, whose debut album sold more than 3 million copies, is what made "Moesha" a hit. But as famous as she is, Brandy is also what makes Moesha real.

Unapologetically ethnic, "Moesha" drops black slang and cultural references without footnotes. If you don't know that "booty" means bad, and "knockin' boots" is a euphemism for sex, or you've never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, then you're "whack"--and you don't want to know what that means. CBS passed on the pilot last year, because "it didn't fit their demographic," says creator/ executive producer Ralph Farquhar. But UPN, a new network with little to lose, went for the show even though Farquhar's last series, "South Central," died a couple of years ago on Fox. Critics liked "South Central" for its dark honesty about life in the L.A. ghetto, but viewers may have found it too loaded with danger and poverty. "Moesha" is lighter, without ever getting Nutrasweet. At her 16th-birthday party, a young male guest is patted down to check if he's got a gun, but nobody ever pulls one. "The studio questioned why this was called for," says Farquhar. "But during these times you have to take precautions. These are realities the show takes seriously." UPN's direct com-petitor, the fledgling WB network, has courted black viewers with low-end slapstick like "The Wayans Brothers" and "Cosby" wanna-bes like "The Parent 'Hood." How does Farquhar feel about other, less authentic black shows? On one episode of "Moesha," somebody calls Cosby a "punk."

Among teenagers hungry for some hip-hop flavor in prime time, "Moesha" is No. 1 in its time slot. "I like the way the kids dress and stuff and the way they hang out and make jokes like my brothers," says 13-year-old Lamar James, a fan of the show who lives in the Compton section of South-Central. "It's not corny like that "Hangin' With Mr. Coop-er,' which is whack." It's not preachy, either. The attitude of the writers (eight black, one Latino) toward their culture is loose, not reverent. Moesha's main suitor, Ohaji, brags that his name means "Conquering Warrior." She calls it his "fake African name."

Go, girl. In 18 months little Brandy Norwood from McComb, Miss. (population: 11,800), has become Brandy!--teen idol, a vision of cheekbones and braids. Her sexy-cute ballad "Sittin' Up in My Room," from the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack, is No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. Her video is wallpaper on MTV. After a stint on the mercifully short-lived sitcom "Thea," Brandy got a call to read for another TV series, this time as the star. "At first I said, "What kind of name is Moesha?' " she remembers. "After I read the script I was like, "This girl is me!' " It's Saturday morning and Brandy, limo-ing to a photo shoot, is begging the driver to stop at McDonald's for fries. "Pleasepleasepleaseplease!" She is 17. And a natural-born, fully formed performer. What she does on TV barely seems like acting, maybe because she's using the show to live a life she missed, having not attended regular school since the ninth grade. "On one show I tried out to be a cheerleader, and it hit me that this was about the only way I'd ever get a chance to," she says. Compensation for her lost youth comes in the form of a BMW and a second album due out this year. "It's cool to be a role model," she thinks, even if it still hasn't got her a date. "I have friends who are guys that I hang out with, but no one has come up yet to the house to pick me up. I am still waiting for that." They'll be along.