Born Deborah Allen, January 16, 1950, in Houston, TX; daughter of Andrew Allen (a dentist) and Vivian Ayers (an artist); married Win Wilford (a record executive; divorced); married Norman Nixon (a former professional basketball player and real estate broker), 1984; children: (second marriage) Vivian, Norm, Jr. Education: Howard University, B.A. (cum laude). Addresses: c/o NBC Inc., 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523.
The word "multi-talented" could have been coined just to refer to Debbie Allen. As a song-and-dance entertainer, she thrilled Broadway audiences with her work in revivals of West Side Story and Sweet Charity. On television, she not only choreographed and helped direct the award-winning series Fame, she starred in it as well. Her long string of film credits for both the large and small screen includes Ragtime; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling; and Women of San Quentin. Beginning in the late 1980s she earned credentials as producer and director of the hit situation comedy A Different World.
"I'm very fickle--whatever I'm doing at the moment is the thing I like best," Allen confessed in McCall's. She added: "I'm a passionate woman, and I'm moved to work because it makes me feel so good. If I didn't love my work, I wouldn't have the energy to do all the things I've done. But my work is a discipline, a way of life."
Those who know Allen describe her as a consummate professional who is serious, focused, and determined. Both behind the camera and in front of it, she resembles the character she played in the television series Fame-- a dance teacher who constantly prodded her students to work harder and longer, to strive for perfection. Performing, she asserted in Essence, is "beat up and mixed up in a lot of sweat and blood and tears. Anyone who talks about the glamour of this profession should experience a show like Fame to know that the glamour is only icing on the cake."
Allen attributes her success to her unorthodox childhood with her mother, Vivian Ayers. The youngest daughter in a family of four children, she showed an interest in the performing arts, especially dance, at a very early age. "When I was five my mother saw that I could be a great dancer," Allen declared in Essence. "So she helped make it happen for me. If she had let it slide, I might be in a real different place right now." Allen was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and though her parents divorced when she was four, she remained on cordial terms with both of them. In Ebony, the performer described her dentist father as a "wonderful, fantastic man."
Allen also received encouragement from her older sister, Phylicia Rashad. "Everything I've done, Phylicia's helped me do," Allen acknowledged in McCall's. "We were very close growing up, and I guess we've gotten even closer as we get older." Although the sisters followed very different routes, both wound up in show business. Phylicia remains best known for her portrayal of Mrs. Claire Huxtable on the long-running television series The Cosby Show.
Both Debbie and Phylicia were encouraged to excel in the arts by their mother, who ran a museum, wrote poetry, and exposed all of her children to different cultures and points of view. "Even when we were little kids Mother would call us together for conversations about all kinds of things--history, the arts, the value of meditating and fasting," Allen remembered in Ebony. "She always wanted us to reach a higher consciousness. She wanted all of her children to be excellent in everything."
The road to excellence was not always fair, however. At the age of eight, Allen was refused entry into the Houston Foundation for Ballet. She studied privately for six years before a Russian teacher at the foundation insisted she be admitted--on scholarship. After high school, Allen auditioned for the dance program at the North Carolina School of Arts but was rejected and told she did not have "the body of a dancer." Crushed, she returned to Houston and did not dance for an entire year.
Allen decided instead to enroll at Howard University and study classics. She slowly drifted back into dancing and singing, though, and her confidence in her performing abilities was gradually restored due to the praise she received from such important choreographers as Donald McKayle and Twyla Tharp. Allen pointed out in Ebony that her experience at Howard helped to convince her that she had been the victim of prejudice in both Houston and North Carolina. She concluded that, in retrospect, she was glad to have experienced "all that racism, because it helps me deal with it today and I can pass along my experiences to younger people."
Allen graduated from Howard with top honors and moved to New York City. For some time, she and her sister Phylicia helped one another as they sought work on the stage. Debbie began to make some progress, earning small but noticeable roles in Purlie in 1972 and Raisin in 1973. By 1978 she had landed a bigger role in the popular musical Ain't Misbehavin'. The role that finally put her over the top was that of the fiery Anita in a 1980 revival of West Side Story. Her rendition of "(I Like To Be in) America" absolutely "stole the show," according to a People magazine reviewer, and she was nominated for a Tony Award for the performance.
A brief, two-line appearance in the movie Fame brought Allen to a career crossroads. The film portrayed the struggles of students at New York City's School for the Performing Arts. When the film was adapted for a television series, Allen was tapped to star as a teacher and to choreograph many of the show's high-energy dance numbers. The television version of Fame found a following and ran for six years, from 1982 to 1987. Allen won two Emmy Awards for her choreography on the series, and she was nominated for an Emmy as best actress in a drama as well. As Lydia Grant on Fame, Allen gave the show its most memorable lines: "You want fame, honey? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat."
In 1986 Allen returned to Broadway for a well-received revival of Sweet Charity. Allen's name was billed above the title of the show in the advertising, and she brought great verve to the role of Charity Hope Valentine, a luckless dance-hall girl. Her musical numbers in that play included "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Where Am I Going?" and "I'm a Brass Band." Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll praised Allen's performance, noting that she "does everything that a star can do: a fine actress, a rousing singer, a knockout dancer, a true comedienne, she explodes with ... sheer joy."
Allen's vocal talents have always been somewhat eclipsed by her acting and dancing, but she did release a pop album, Special Look, in 1979. Allen confessed in Essence that her experience with that recording convinced her that she had not cleared every hurdle in her path. "Getting out there, getting [the record] played is tough," she said. "I didn't realize what a difficult, even racist, struggle it would be to get visibility in the music business."
The lackluster performance of her album has been the only setback for the hardworking Allen. She gained further prestige as the producer-director of the television situation comedy A Different World, and she has also directed episodes of Family Ties, Quantum Leap, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Allen disclosed in Ebony that she is particularly comfortable with the subject matter on A Different World. "I'm a graduate of a Black college so I have lived what [fictional] Hillman is all about.... College life is about young adults coming of age; about their intellectual, political and sexual maturity." Describing the school she helped create on A Different World, she added: "This is a college where you go to the cafeteria and they have fried apples and grits for breakfast."
In 1991 Allen received the 1,940th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The award recognized her contributions to musical comedy, drama, and directing since her debut in her early twenties. Allen, who is the mother of two children by her second husband, Norm Nixon, promises that she has scores of other projects she wants to develop for stage and screen. In Jet magazine she ventured, "I guess you could say I've been planting a lot of seeds for a while, and after tending the garden, everything is really starting to grow."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Debbie Allen's Career
Actress, dancer, and singer appearing in plays, including Purlie, 1972, Raisin, 1973, Ain't Misbehavin', 1978, West Side Story, 1980, Louis, 1981, and Sweet Charity, 1986; in motion pictures, including The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, 1979, Fame, 1980, Ragtime, 1981, and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1986; in television films, series, and specials, including Roots: The Next Generations, 1979, Fame, NBC, 1982-87, The Kids From Fame, 1983, Motown Returns to the Apollo, 1985, and Celebrating a Jazz Master: Thelonious Sphere Monk, 1987. Choreographer for Fame, 1982-87. Producer and director of television series, including A Different World, 1988--, and episodes of Family Ties, Quantum Leap, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; director of Stompin' at the Savoy, CBS, 1992.
Debbie Allen's Awards
Drama Desk Award for outstanding featured actress in a musical, 1980, for West Side Story; Tony Award nomination, 1986, for Sweet Charity; Emmy Award nomination for best actress in a dramatic series, for Fame; two Emmy Awards for choreography for Fame; received a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1991.
- Ebony, March 1983; March 1991.
- Essence, March 1984; June 1990.
- Glamour, March 1983.
- Jet, May 15, 1986; July 31, 1989; October 28, 1991.
- McCall's, July 1987.
- Newsweek, May 12, 1986.
- New York Times, January 7, 1982.
- People, March 10, 1980; April 19, 1982.
- USA Weekend, November 21-23, 1986.