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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Star Studies: Debbie Allen, Part 1

By Waiching Liu 

Stars, celebrities, famous people, whatever you decide to call them, they are bombarded everywhere. On TV, in movies, on the radio, print media and social media. From pop stars to TV and movie actors and actresses, from Eddie Murphy to Drake, from Dame Helen Mirren, Robert Pattinson to Vanessa Williams and Oprah Winfrey, they have a talent or skill to share with the rest of the world. And with that talent & skill, it is used to make money profit, not just for themselves but for their agents, managers, record labels, TV stations etc.

All we know of stars is what we see and hear before us. Yet the whole media construction of stars encourages us to think in terms of 'really' - what is Brad Pitt really like? which moment during their career discloses him as the person as he is? The phenomenon of stars and celebrities consists of everything publicly available to us. A film/TV star, celebrity's image is not just their movies, TV shows, but their interviews and coverage on TV, the press. Furthermore, a star's image is what people say or write about him/her, the way the image they convey or project is used in other media contexts such as adverts, books, magazines, records (Dyer, 1934).

Therefore, 'A star is an image - not a real person that is constructed (as any other aspect of fiction is) out of a range of materials (eg advertising, magazines etc, as well as films (music)' (Media Knowall: Popular Music).

The 'star' is not definitive of what s/he is; rather it is the media or Hollywood's own conception or idea of what s/he is, based on what have said in interviews for print and screen media. The Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson as people you read and see in magazines, movies, is not what is relevant in the study and analysis of the 'star'. However, the work and filmography of Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson AND using and associating it to help decipher and deconstruct their national, gender and cultural identities, is relevant. 

About Star Studies: 

Star Study/Studies includes the discussion of performances that comprise the main work of the person involved. It is not concerned with the real Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Scarlett Johansson - rather it involves deciphering, analysing the image of those actors as salable commodities (Stokes, 163). 

Sometimes, when you read their filmography and the list of movies, TV shows they have starred and appeared in, often you sense a pattern or connection, & how the roles they play, might explain who they are as individuals, and that is partly what the study of stars mainly entails.

For Ellis, a star is both a) a normal and ordinary person, who is present to the fan's own world, which is one of glamour and b) someone, who exists in a separate realm and live their own lives, away from the dangers, risks, problems posed by being in the public eye, such as getting death threats, abuse, criticism and being mocked for who they are or their efforts (Butler et al, 301).

In the book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, Dyer once said:
Stars represent typical ways of behaving, feeling and thinking in contemporary society, ways that have been socially, culturally, historically constructed (David Marshall, 17). 
How they behave, what they say and do in public and through their performances, interviews, promotions of their texts, are all as a result of social, cultural, historical constructs. It is through media like TV, movies, press that their image and persona is displayed through society, media's own idealisation of that particular star or celebrity.

He concludes that :

Stars are also an embodiment of the social categories in which people are placed and through which they have to make sense of their lives, and indeed through which we make our lives -categories of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and so on (David Marshall, 17).

In other words, the audience, as in us, is constantly seeking for the star persona that is real and authentic. Stars exist, they are here, but the media's version of that actor/actress make us think there is more to it than that. We ask questions like 'what is Nicole Kidman really like? Is Bill Cosby similar in many respects to Cliff Huxtable?'. The types of questions interviewees and media reporters ask the stars themselves on TV and for magazines and during interviews. For Dyer, the star is the representation of the potential of the individual.

Devereaux states that the star is not just the cultural texts produced by the star (by cultural texts, we mean the TV shows, movies they star and appear in), but his/her personal life is examined as well (Deveraux, 336). Where and when they were born, their upbringing, family, their career. These are all raised and discussed in star studies.

Star studies is the study of a star persona which may be advanced through texts in which the star features or extra -textual discourses, such as fan sites, TV chat shows or magazine interviews, features (Stokes, pg 120).

During the course of this essay, I will be examining and analysing the career of  Debbie Allen, dancer and choreographer, who is famous for playing Lydia Grant in the 80s TV series, Fame and her work as an actress and established TV director and producer.

The following paragraphs will highlight her life and career as of today, as well as the importance and significance of those events and analysing why she decided to make those choices. Using media theory and textual analysis, I will use and apply Dyer's Star model and Pierre Bourdieu's Cultural Capital idea to my chosen examples to support my argument and points of view.

About Debbie Allen: 

Born on January 16, 1950 as Deborrah Kaye Allen in Houston, Texas USA, she is one of 4 kids born to orthodontist, Andrew Arthur Allen Jr and poet and artist, Vivian Ayers Allen. The couple divorced in 1957, with Vivian taking care of Debbie and her siblings. Father Andrew later died in 1982. In 1960, when Debbie was 10, Vivian decided to leave Texas and so took herself and her kids to Mexico, where they lived for 2 years. They then moved back to Texas, 2 years later. Debbie has a younger sister, Phylicia Rashad Allen, who is also an actress. She played Clair Huxtable, Cliff's wife in the 80s sitcom, The Cosby Show. Debbie also has 2 brothers: Andrew 'Tex' Allen, who was a Jazz composer, and Hugh Allen (Ebony, 80). 

At one time, Debbie mentions that her father, given as he was a dentist, 'threatened to pull out ALL of her teeth 'if I didn't stay in college and graduate' (Ebony, 84)!

Debbie was just 3 years old when she first started dancing, and a year later aged 4, she decided that she wanted to become a professional dancer. At 5, her parents signed her up to take dance lessons.

She holds a B.A Joint Honours in Fine Arts Speech and Theater with classics as her minor from Howard University, as well as a honorary doctorates degree from Howard University & University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Debbie auditioned for the Houston Ballet School aged 8 - but the school rejected her initial application, because she was Black. When the admissions department were aware of this problem, realising they made a huge mistake, Houston Ballet then changed their minds, and they let Allen stay on the program, and thus, offering her a scholarship to study dance (

This wouldn't be the end of her struggles however; at 16 - 8 years on from her initial disappointment at the Houston Ballet -, Debbie auditioned for a place at the North Carolina School of the Arts & was chosen to demonstrate a dance technique for other students. Again, her application was rejected, but this time, the reason given was that her body was 'unsuited' for ballet. A criticism that was leveled at Black dancers.

In an interview with Ebony magazine in 1983, she recalled the experience as being very painful:
' I travelled all the way from Houston to North Carolina to audition, and it was my first big trip away from home all by myself. I danced for them and was so good that they used me to demonstrate for the other kids. But when we finished, the dance director walked over to me and and said I hadn't made it, & said I was built 'wrong'. I was so crushed that I actually stopped dancing for a whole year (85, Ebony). 
To experience rejection is nothing new, it happens to all of us. Of course it hurts when people say 'no' to you. No is not the answer you want, you don't want to take no for an answer. But even Debbie knew she couldn't stop fighting for what she wanted. It's one thing to suffer a setback, but it is how you react afterwards that is important. Do you choose to stay down and admit defeat, or do you get up and continue battling on? Sure, she wasn't able to secure a place at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Yet that alone, didn't stop her in her journey in becoming a world renowned choreographer and dancer. So a young Debbie shrugged off the disappointment & moved on.

She then went on to study at Howard University & graduated in 1971 with a BA degree in Drama. By 1972, she went off to New York and headed for the big lights of Broadway, in pursuit of her dreams as a performer. It was the beginning of her long & fruitful career in the entertainment business, spanning over 4 decades. During the 80s, Debbie received a few TV roles & made appearances on various shows & adverts.

Her first TV appearance was as Diana Buchanan in the sitcom, Good Times in 1976 on the episode, J.J's Fiance. Diana was one of J.J Evans girlfriends, who unknowingly to J.J, was also a drug user. After Good Times, she appeared in a short comedy sketch stint on 3 Girls 3 for The Flip Wilson Show. Additionally, she got minor parts in Roots: The Next Generation & movies such as Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling with Richard Pryor & the sports- themed, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh in 1979 as Ola, not to mention she received critical praise for her turn in A Raisin In The Sun. She also starred in Women of San Quentin, a made-for-TV movie in 1983.

Arguably, the turning point in Debbie's career that led to later success and being known to worldwide audiences, was playing Anita in the musical, West Side Story on Broadway. Her performances earned her not just a Tony nomination, but also it helped pave the wave for Fame in 1980. In the movie, she played one of the girls who had a crush on Leeroy, played by Gene Anthony Ray. 2 years later in 1982, Fame the TV series was launched by NBC and Debbie came back, but this time as dance instructor, Lydia Grant.

The success of Fame earned herself 3 Emmy awards for choreography, a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an actress in a TV series for Fame in 1983 and the Golden Apple Award for Female Discovery of the Year in 1982. As well as awards, the show was a massive success in the UK; thus, garnering plenty of positive feedback, leading to an increase in dance institutions and people taking up dance, all around the country. Even to this day, Debbie is the only original cast member to have appeared in all 3 iterations of Fame: the original Fame movie (1980), Fame the TV show (1982) and the ill-fated Fame movie remake (2010), which bombed at the box office, both in the US and worldwide. 

Post-Fame, she carved a name for herself as a director on shows such as A Different World, Family Ties, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Grey's Anatomy, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. She even made guest appearances on shows such as The Cosby Show, Cosby, A Different World, Everybody Hates Chris and Quantum Leap.

(To be continued in part 2.....) 

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