The phrase "thank you" surely isn't enough to express our gratitude for Doreen Spicer-Dannelly's contributions to television. After seeing images of strong women working in entertainment (like Oprah and Debbie Allen) Doreen was inspired to venture from Brooklyn to Hollywood and help fill the void by creating diverse content.
Upon graduating from Morgan State University, Doreen began her career as an intern on the popular ABC show, Hanging With Mr. Cooper. Before you knew it she went onto contribute to programs like Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. However these accomplished proved to be a mere glimpse into the pinnacle of her success. In the early 2000's she helped give life to Penny Proud on The Proud Family and later penned the Disney Channel original film, Jump In. In 2010 her television series, The Wannabes debuted in Australia and has been licensed internationally in over 100 countries.
It was truly an honor to have at our dinner table and share her experience. Here's her piece of the pie:
You've contributed to so many iconic programs in the past few years. What was it like to go from an intern on Hanging With Mr. Cooper to an executive assistant on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
To jump from show to show is actually a normal experience here. If you work with people who like you, they'll want you to be on their team in different capacities. I began working on Hanging with Mr. Cooper as an intern with Samm-Art Williams who's an alum of my college, Morgan State University. I worked hard and went from being an intern to a production assistant and a few programs after. Cheryl Gard who was over on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reached out to me about a position to be her executive assistant. She asked me if if I’d like to come over and I said absolutely. I worked there for about six months. It was awesome getting to know the whole cast, Will Smith, just everybody. Everyone was awesome, sweet and very cool. They had a lot of changing hands so people coming in and out was the norm for them but they had a very consistent and family life atmosphere. It was a wonderful experience.
What is it like to work your way up in the business? How has the experience impacted your career?
I wanted to come and conquer. I wanted to get my ground work first and really learn this business. It doesn’t matter how much schooling you go through there’s nothing like real life. When you jump into a show at the bottom you learn everything looking up. You look at the show runners and the writing staff, you see how budgets are spent and how different people react to everything. It’s a wonderful thing to come up in the ranks. I love that I learned so much over the years because when it was time to produce my own show I knew what to do. I was a little nervous but I was sure about what I wanted to do and if I didn’t know something I was going to learn it or I was going to find somebody who was going to help me make it happen.
Are your productions inspired by any of your personal experiences? What about the Proud Family? Was that based on your real life?
The Proud family was actually created by Bruce Smith. Bruce is an animator and in animation, the artist who creates the character is really the [official] creator. He already had the back story and the characters; he brought me in when he needed a writer to bring his story to life. This is where I can say that my personal experience of being a 14 year old girl living in New York City came into play. I threw everything I had into Penny Proud and submitted my script to the producers. They read it, called me in and gave me the job on the spot! It was a dream come true especially when I saw the pictures of Penny, I kept thinking “this is amazing.”
Wow, that really is amazing! After writing from a personal place, we can only image what that meant for you.
It was truly a Godsend! As a young women I thought I wanted to become an actress. I went to High School for the Performing Arts aka LaGuardia, but when I went on auditions if they wanted a black girl they wanted a dark skin girl and if they wanted a Latina they wanted someone who looked like J Lo. I’m half Puerto Rican and half African-American and I’m not dark skin and I don’t look like J Lo so it was very hard for me to get roles at that time. When I saw Penny, I had never seen a light skin animated character. It just fit me so perfectly. Bruce created the character before I arrived on the project and said he mixed the skin tones of his kids which is why Penny appears the way she does. However, it was weird because Penny Proud looked just like me. I was super excited to be on the show. Working with the whole team was a pleasure. We had fun time the whole time we were there.
The Dinner Table Documentary is all about crushing narrow perceptions and celebrating the narratives of multidimensional black women. How important is it to share these truths when it comes to scripted and reality programming?
Some Reality TV can be ugly at times. It seems like some women play right into the stereotypes that other women are not very proud of and it’s sad. I see a lot of women do it for ratings and let their anger play out on television but that's not the best place. It does more harm than good. It’s unfortunate that we have to be so careful when we're on a reality television show because we don’t have a full balance of images as of yet. We have good images (of black women) but we don’t have enough. There are great characters on shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Empire and Power so there's some balance but those show have fictional characters. When someone who is not familiar with African-American culture and sees "real" women on reality shows being catty, overly aggressive and pulling each other’s hair out it just doesn’t feel good or look good for anyone, especially black women. Again, good for ratings, not a good look for the rest of us.
Who are some of your greatest influences and inspirations when it comes to fully being the woman you were meant to be?
I've seen a lot of coming of age stories as a young girl where girls were tripping over themselves or being really awkward, but I never thought of myself that way even though I probably was, I was silly child. But, there are some girls who are just born knowing what they want to do. I think I was one of those kids. Sometimes being so focused or strong-willed I gained a lot of respect but as an adult maybe not a lot of friends. People might assume I'm competitive and a know-it-all, and no one likes a know-it-all, so I had to learn to humble and quiet myself so that I don’t make enemies. However, as a young girl I really had this innate feeling about wanting to make an impact and I wasn't afraid to go for it and my friends admired me for that. I wanted to do something to inspire and empower girls all over the world, and boys as well who didn’t have a fair chance or who may think they’re not in the right starting place to achieve greatness. So I think it's okay to be inspired by your own thoughts in hopes that you might influence others.
I was born in the Van Dykes apartments in Brownsville, Brooklyn and my dad was very specific in saying “you may live in the ghetto but you don’t have to have a ghetto mentality.” My mother reinforced that by encouraging me to think of bigger things, to have big dreams. I can recall my first memory at three years old. My dad bought my mom this huge leopard skin coat with a hat to match, it was gorgeous. As it laid on the couch I crawled into the coat and sat in it like it was mine and my dad said, “Get the camera, get the camera! She’s a star! She’s a star!” And my brother and sister were trying to get me to smile as my dad snapped pictures. I didn't know what was going on, I just saw my family surrounding me like I had done something that made them happy. It was a moment that made me feel special and a moment I will never forget. That was the first positive message I can remember. People never know when their children might begin recording messages-- positive or negative. I just hope every child will have that joyful, affirmative moment that could potentially impact the rest of their life. So to answer your question, I can honestly say it was my family that influenced me most, through good and even not so good experiences.
Any advice for upcoming writers/producers/directors who wish to follow in your path?
Listen to your heart and be smart about every decision you make. Know that sometimes you’re going to fail, sometimes you're going to feel like a failure and sometimes you might even feel like giving up but you have to be resilient. Not everyone is going to be open to everything you have to say. It's just a tough business because almost everyone wants to be heard and everyone thinks fame is the end all be all but it's not. It's a business just like any other. The best, the persistent, and the sharpest rise to the top or find an audience. Period.
First you have to learn the business and everything you possibly can about it and then not let those things get in the way of what you want because those facts can be daunting. The statistics may scare or inspire you, just do what it is that you are going to do but be smart about it. Educate yourself. Learn what works and what doesn't work and fine tune your plan to bring your project to the masses. People are always asking me, "How does this work?" "How do you do this?" There are no perfect answers for a business that is constantly changing and has some of the same walls up since before I got here. And if you ask anybody in this business what they've done to get where they are, they'd each have a different story. It doesn’t always start with education, people might have fumbled into a job and failed and then left for education so they can get back into the business. Some people started off at school, made great connections and went from there. There’s really no set way to achieve a career in show business. If people tell you this business isn’t for you, press on however if many people are not responding to your work then you might need to rethink your career choices. But once you do find a groove, master it so you may later diversify your talent and continue to thrive. Oprah Winfrey's path to success is one to study but again no one has a set course. Living in this digital age the world is readily available to anyone. Competition is even thicker but immense success, however one envisions it, is still attainable.
If you'd like to see what Doreen Spicer-Dannelly is up to next please follow her at:
Twittter: @Playgroundpltx, @DoreenSpicer
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