In the land of Hollywood, image is everything. Father Time having his way with you? Try a face lift. Enough meat on your nose to make a sandwich? Get a nose job. Yet Brandy Norwood sees life a little differently, allowing something dark and ugly to appear in public--a one-inch scar--resting near her elbow.
What happened? “I got that at Crenshaw High School,” she says rubbing her arm as if it just happened. “I was a guest during their half-time show, and was driving one of those carts. We went through a tunnel, and I got too close to the wall.” Instead of going into a diatribe about how the school was at fault, she laughs. Loudly at first, then quietly explains why. “I used to always get hurt. I was a tomboy growing up.”
Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, this tomboy has transformed into a 17-year-old young woman, who has quietly captured the pounding heart of America. Her debut album, “Brandy” has been on the charts for 84 weeks, selling more than 3 million copies, earning her recognition, a slew of awards, and countless video spots on MTV and BET.
But Norwood hasn’t stopped there. Her bouncy R&B; has brought her down different roads. One of those dizzying paths led toward television, and a comedy called “Moesha,” about a teenager played by Norwood.
The series ends its debut season tonight as the biggest hit from the fledgling UPN and WB networks (outside of UPN’s “Star Trek” franchise). “Moesha” has succeeded with the help of its built-in audience of Norwood’s music fans.
“The show’s success is exhilarating,” says Larry Little, president of Big Ticket Television, the company that produces “Moesha.” “CBS developed the show, then passed on it, and it cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I knew how good the show was, which was why I stuck with it.
“I was in my office a few weeks ago, and my secretary brought in People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people issue. And there, right next to Brad Pitt, was Brandy. CBS passes on the show, an opportunity with ABC didn’t present itself, and one year later, Brandy’s on the cover of People. It was a good feeling.”
“Moesha’s” success doesn’t make Little feel too bad, either. Its national ratings aren’t large but it does very well in big cities--winning its time slot in Miami and Houston during the February sweeps, for example, against competition that included ABC’s “Roseanne” and NBC’s “Wings.” In Atlanta, “Moesha” brought the UPN affiliate its highest ratings in its 15-year history.
In Los Angeles, the series ranked No. 2 among teenagers for all programs during the February sweeps, trailing only Fox’s “The Simpsons.”
UPN ordered 22 episodes for next season six weeks before it renewed any other show.
“Moesha is a real positive young lady,” Norwood says, discussing the affection viewers have with her character. “She carries herself in an adult-like fashion, but she still does childish things. She has a family, stuff like that. I really like her attitude. I’m younger than her in a way, ‘cause she’s into writing and a lot of older stuff, and I’m not into that yet.”
Some would undoubtedly argue but Norwood’s performance as Moesha has been powerful and at times quite striking. Yet it wasn’t Norwood’s star quality that “Moesha” co-producers Vida Spears and Sara Finney initially had in mind when they created the program. “There was a void that needed to be filled,” says Finney. “We wanted to have a young, black female on TV of real honest view.”
Spears quickly adds: “It was something Sara and I didn’t have when we were coming up. We felt it would not only be for black females, but for everyone.” Which, in hindsight, was why CBS even considered the show in the first place. Executives there liked the concept, but “Moesha” was missing one thing: a star.
Finney and Spears originally envisioned a 14-year-old but then they were hit with the reality of casting. “There weren’t a lot of actresses out there that were available,” Finney says. “A writer on the show asked if we’d taken a look at Brandy. We sent her the material, and she loved it. When she came in, she said ‘I am Moesha,’ and we knew it was true.”
Although the show’s strength lies in its ability to revel in its own uniqueness, it gives those who didn’t have the opportunity of growing up in L.A.'s minority neighborhoods a glimpse at what they missed out on.
“Moesha” producers plan to keep the feeling of the show as realistic as possible next season, which means that Moesha will experience life like any girl her age. “She’s going to get a new boyfriend,” says Ralph Farquhar, executive producer of “Moesha.” “A guy who gets into the edgier side of life.”
And as far as Norwood is concerned, that’s just fine. “He better be cute,” she laughs. “I’d want it to be played by Treach [of the rap group Naughty By Nature].”
How about Tupac Shakur? “Oh, Tupac. Yes!” she exclaims, clapping her hands together excitedly. “Tupac can be my boyfriend any day.”
Through the eyes of a 17-year-old, what could be more normal than that?
* “Moesha” airs at 8 tonight on UPN (Channel 13).