Editors note: Jussie Smollett was arrested Feb. 21 and charged with a felony for allegedly filing a false police report. Long before the “Empire” star’s current debacle, he and his five siblings were profiled by The Times in 1994 for their then-new ABC sitcom “On Our Own,” which starred six of the Smollett children as a group of siblings trying to stay together after their parents die. This article ran in The Times on Sept. 18, 1994.
It’s almost 6 on a Thursday night and the Smollett clan is having that age-old family debate: Will it be Tony Roma’s or Red Lobster?
Jurnee, the 7-year-old of the six-kid family, the one with her hair in natural ringlets and the impish smile, has already cast her vote for waffles.
“Waffles for dinner?” her mother, Janet, grimaces.
Dinner aside, there isn’t much on which the Smollett gang disagrees. In this family, sibling rivalry is out, they’ll tell you. “We love each other. We’re really close,” says Jazz, Smollett No. 2, to a chorus of “yeahs” from the others.
JoJo, the eldest, agrees. “We get along really well. People say it’s amazing. We’ve been brought up to reject conflict. We think it’s a waste of time to fight and argue,” he says.
Indeed, this brood isn’t into brooding. They have better things to do — like star in their own sitcom, ABC’s “On Our Own,” designed specifically for them. On the show, they play a family of kids left to fend for themselves when their parents are killed in a car crash. Well, not for themselves really. Aunt Jelcinda, their older brother (non-Smollett cast member Ralph Harris) in drag, plays guardian when the authorities are around in order to prevent the kids from being put in foster homes.
So, in addition to sharing their parents, Janet and Joel, a devotion to Whitney Houston and their good looks, the Smollett kids have a very large dressing room, strewn with toys, on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where “On Our Own” is filmed.
And in addition to sharing the same initials — there’s JoJo, 17; Jazz, 14; Jussie, 12; Jurnee, 7; Jake, who is happily just 5 (“When I’m 6, I have to get shots,” he reminds you) and Jacqui, 1, known as “the baby” — they say they enjoy sharing the limelight.
To Jurnee, now digging into a toaster waffle before dinner, the best thing about the show: “Being with my brothers and sisters.” Aahh, cute, the others coo in unison.
“The show’s real fun because we know each other so well and can play comedy off each other,” says talkative Jazz, who seems to be the family’s designated speaker.
Are the Smolletts ready for all the attention that could come their way — other kids dressing like them, talking like them, swarming them? “Those are the types of problems we want,” says Jussie from under a funky hat.
They aren’t worried about turning out like some wayward former child stars. “We’ve been brought up to be real strong, so nothing can take us down,” Jussie explains.
Besides, they’ve worked hard for this moment. They started their careers when as young TV watchers in New York, they would see other kids on TV and think, “Oh, we can do that,” Jazz recalls. With some help from Mom, they did. Jazz became a top child model, JoJo and Jussie did small movie roles, and Jurnee did stints on sitcoms, including “Full House.”
But manager-mother Janet has taught them there’s more to life than acting. Her kids play sports; they read. On the family reading list: “Malcolm X” and poetry by Langston Hughes. “Our mom just bought us a big ol’ coloring book,” Jake contributes to the others’ laughter.
They also sing. A rap act is “in the works,” Jurnee squeals, warning her family not to reveal too much.
JoJo’s long-term goal is more political: “I want to run for president in 2028.”
So, Smolletts, are you really this perfect? They just shrug and giggle.
Janet discloses her parenting secret: “We raised them all like they’re only children.”
Jussie says they like having Mom around at work. “Mommy’s a source of comfort on the set. Inspiration.” Their father also comes to visit when he can.
Little Jake doesn’t need much to be inspired. “I like everybody laughing when I say my jolly ol’ lines,” he mugs.
And what does baby Jacqui think about being on TV? “C’mon Jacqui,” the kids huddle around, tickling him, egging him on. Jacqui offers a smile. And a nice big drool.