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My Surprising Journey of Joy, Tears, and Tales from Harlem to Hollywood
By Kim Fields
With Todd Gold
Read by Kim Fields
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Kim Fields has lived most of her life with people thinking they know her, which is understandable. From her first job on a Mrs. Butterworth syrup commercial at age 7, she has spent 40 years in the public eye. There were 9 years as Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey on the classic sitcom The Facts of Life, 5 more in her 20s starring as Regine Hunter on the seminal coming-of-age show Living Single, and most recently appearing as herself on Real Housewives of Atlanta and Dancing with the Stars.
Behind the camera, she has directed episodes of Kenan & Kel, Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns and House of Payne, and BET’s Let’s Stay Together. Between gigs, the pop culture icon’s life has included theater, spoken word, music, speaking engagements, and simply being present to the point that she cannot go a day without someone stopping her to say, “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Tootie” or “You were my role model.”
Flattered and blessed, after four decades in the business, Kim finally understands the role she has played onscreen and off as a successful, outspoken African-American woman. However, for as much as she’s been in the public eye, people have really never known her the way they think they have, and that’s because she, herself, spent most of her life figuring herself out. Now, at age 48, she is ready to set the record straight. She says, “It’s not that I’ve been misunderstood. It’s that I finally feel like I understand me enough to tell the life story that I’ve been asked to write for years.” It will be a chronicle of living, learning, and keen moments of self-discovery as she’s journeyed through the many facets and chapters of life. Fields found faith at age 14 and has found God to be right there every step of the way since then.
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son"
Talking to Myself
- The thing that makes me happiest is my family.
- I always laugh when I think of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder.
- When I'm late, it's usually because of wardrobe changes.
- I can be annoying when I'm never annoying. (Can you see the winking emoji here?)
- The thing that bothers me most is bad driving and a lack of manners.
- My favorite part of being a kid was watching superhero TV shows and swimming.
- I am always puzzled when people seem entitled.
- I love the Lord.
- Right now, at this very minute, I'm feeling motivated. I'm on a spiritual and caffeine groove!
- In the kitchen, I am basic. My husband is the chef.
- As a black woman, I am amazing because He created me regardless of race or gender.
- When I'm in the shower, I sing Bruno Mars and Hamilton songs.
- If I could meet anyone, living or dead, it would be Gregory Hines.
- And I would ask him, Why'd you leave before we could work and dance together?
- The thing about men is they are an amazing part of humanity.
- My favorite movies are most of the classics, Mary Poppins, Tropic Thunder, Moulin Rouge!, and Coming to America.
- The last time I said "I should've," I should've confirmed that the coffee was decaf.
- The thing I like most in another person is kindness and creativity.
- If I'm in the grocery store, I can't resist Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies.
- Nobody knows this about me, but I'm terribly clumsy.
- My guilty pleasure is Oreo cookie ice cream.
- I believe in God because His resume with me alone is off the chain, let alone the works of His hand.
- As the mother of two boys, I stay prayed up.
- I get scared when I try snow skiing.
- I wish I was better at snow skiing.
- The last time I cried, it was because I didn't book a part that I really wanted.
- My biggest mistake was wearing a thong while horseback riding for 8.5 hours.
- My favorite part of my body is my legs.
- In my free time I read.
- People ordinarily think I'm outgoing.
- But I'm really shy.
- My hero is King David.
- The thing I still want to know is why eggnog isn't a year-round treat.
- My least favorite thing about myself is my lack of consistency when it comes to working out.
- I wish I could breathe underwater like Aquaman—and dance all day long.
- When I go to church on Sunday, I get my praise ON and love to go deeper in His word.
- If you want to hang out, I'm apt to say, "Let's see a movie."
- You'll never catch me without sunglasses.
- I'm having a good day when my family has what they need and I get to dance.
- Real faith for me means total surrender to His plan and patiently yet expectantly watching it unfold.
- If I could play only one song forever, it would be "My Shot" from Hamilton.
- When I'm stressed, I play some Maxwell or Fred Hammond—and pause to breathe.
- My bucket list still includes performing on Broadway and having a waterfront she-shed.
- When I lay my head on my pillow at night, I read political thrillers to shut off my brain.
- When all is said and done, I work hard, play hard, love hard, and praise hard.
This is my fortieth year in show business. It is my forty-eighth year on this planet.
Milestones are a funny thing. I believe we celebrate them because God has given us the gift of life. I also celebrate them as reminders of all of the amazing gifts in my life. Some of those gifts: I played Tootie on The Facts of Life. I was Regine on Living Single. I've been on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Dancing with the Stars. I am an actor, director, producer, and poet. I am Chip's daughter. I am a sister. I am Christopher Morgan's wife. I am the mother of our two wonderful African American boys, Sebastian and Quincy. I am a friend to many. I am a person of faith.
The list goes on and on. And though I am in a different place than I imagined at this stage of my life—hey, who isn't—more often than not, when I am able to catch my breath between driving in school carpools, reading scripts, and helping with homework, when I turn off PJ Masks and Teen Titans Go! and curl up next to my husband to catch up on House of Cards or Black Dynamite, I know that I am right where I should be. Still, too often I find myself, as many of us do, stuck in forward motion. Got to get to the next appointment. Where is the next gig? What's for dinner? What am I going to wear tomorrow? What are the kids going to do for camp next summer? Too often it is about what is next, what I don't have, what I want more of. Instead, I know I need to hit the pause button, appreciate all the amazingness I've been through, and say, "God, look at all you've done for me. Thank you."
This book is the result of me hitting the pause button. I wanted to—and as I discovered, I also needed to—sift through memories and reflect on my journey thus far. Like a lot of people, I'm a working parent, hitting a midlife stride, and facing an uncertain future. I want to be hopeful, but I also have concerns and worries. So I stopped and took stock of where I've been, what's happened to me, and how I've gotten to this place in my life. I saw how I've learned from mistakes and grown from challenges. During the process of looking back, I was reminded of the classic "footprints in the sand" poem, about the man who, as he replays scenes from his life, sees two sets of footprints in the sand, one his and one the Lord's. However, during the lowest periods of his life, he sees only one set of footprints, causing him to question the Lord. He says, "I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me." To which the Lord replies, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you…When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."
Armed with the intelligence and wisdom I acquired from going through the past, I emerge hopeful and expectant, feeling like I'm ready for the next phase of my journey. The angels He put on my path to cover me, grow me, challenge me, and protect me were not going to suddenly leave me, and that gave me the ability to look ahead with courage and anticipation (and to be very honest, anxiety at times—should I put "conquer anxiety" on my never-ending to-do list?). That's what I want to pass on to everyone who reads this. Hope, strength, light, memories, and some laughs. Writing this book let me see the remarkable journey I've been on, but it also allowed me to see that we all have, in a sense, been on it together. Though the details may be different, I sense that we may share many similarities. And so this book is for us, both to remind and encourage us that what God had done in our pasts, He will do in our futures.
I hope you read this and are awakened to the many wonderful blessings He has brought forth in your life!
Now, let's start this part of our journey together.
My Mother's Voice
My Mother's Daughter
Everyone has a place they call home. Mine is the area between 136th and 145th Streets and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. This is where I was born and raised until I was six years old, and though we moved west, my heart and soul have always remained in this bosom of black life and culture. I can still see the red and brown and green brick buildings rising from the sidewalks and feel the bustle in front of the shops and restaurants. My soul contains the poetry of Langston Hughes, the stretched-out notes of Duke Ellington, the fist-pounding of Malcolm X, the inspirations of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and the singing in St. Phillips Church on Sundays. No matter where I am, I have the ability to reach out to all those things and feel replenished from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Harlem is where my heart is.
I would not trade growing up in Hollywood, but I love being able to say I am from Harlem. It conjures up a whole history, a people, and a culture. Washington, DC, may be the capital of the United States, but I believe Harlem is this country's soul. This parcel of Manhattan has a distinctive rhythm like no other, and a sound, especially when I say it out loud:
I am from Harlem.
I am from Harlem.
I am. From Harlem.
My maternal grandmother came from a large family in Virginia. I am not sure of their roots beyond that or the roots on the rest of my family's expansive tree. Only recently, while searching the Internet for photos of my friend, actor Tommy Ford, who passed away unexpectedly, did I come across a picture of my mother, Laverne "Chip" Fields, from the touring company of Hello, Dolly! in 1975.
I had never seen that particular photo before and wondered where it came from. I clicked on it and up popped a website devoted to all things Hello, Dolly! It included a biography of my mom, filled with colorful details about her audition for the show's star, Pearl Bailey, plus bits and pieces of family history that I had never heard before. My mother, it turned out, was born in New York, raised in Virgina by her Aunt Alice and beloved Uncle Louis, then moved back to NYC when she was eight years old to live with her mother (my grandmother), a dancer who went by the name Patsy Styles—something else I did not know until then.
My mom was accepted into New York's prestigious High School of Performing Arts (informally known as PA), later the inspiration for the beloved movie Fame. Midway through school, she met Evander High School star basketball player Tony Fields at Harlem's YMCA. The two became high school sweethearts. She got pregnant just before graduation from PA and switched to Newark Prep to get her diploma. Still, she has always joked that I attended the PA, too.
In turn, I have always pictured her as this young woman with a big belly and then a newborn, still driven to perform, determined to learn and practice and perfect her craft. Despite getting pregnant and having a baby at eighteen years of age, she did not drop out or give up. She did not become a statistic. She remained in school, got her diploma, and kept her dream alive.
When I think back on how I kept my focus in the tough moments in my life, I know the source of my grit. I had a role model.
She and her then-high-school-sweetheart, Tony Fields, married and stayed together for the next five years. I never had a relationship with my dad. I am not throwing shade at him. He is a good man, and when I was around five or six years old, he and mom divorced, and he eventually remarried and had children. I never wondered why he was able to make that situation work and not ours. Timing, maturity, fate—I understood all that and so never had any issues with him not being a father to me. Plus, my village was solid.
We couldn't afford a sitter, so there were times when Mom took me to acting class with her. There were other kids there (whose parents couldn't afford sitters either). To entertain ourselves, we imitated what we saw our parents do. Soon, the Fanns started classes for kids and called us the Mini Ensemble. Danielle Spencer, who would later go on to star as Dee on What's Happening!!, was a part of our little group.
My mother and I lived with my grandmother, in her apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue. My earliest memories are of me sitting on the sofa next to my grandma, in the afternoon, as she nodded off while watching her "stories" on her black-and-white TV. Every time I tried to switch to The Mickey Mouse Club, she woke up and told me not to change the channel. I remember her scolding me for eating raw bacon and sticking my fingers in her Tom Collins drink mix and sneaking sweet potatoes straight from the can as she scooped them into the sauce pan.
My grandma was a slender, attractive woman, with long, curved fingernails that were always polished bright red. She moved slowly but with the grace and even occasional flair of a former dancer. As a young woman, she had lit up the floor in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and kicked up her heels in numerous stage shows. In the early 1950s, she partnered with singer and band leader Billy Eckstine. By the time I came along, all that was ancient history. To me, she was Grandma.
Similarly, I did not know the extent of my mom's talent or versatility until much later in life, but others were aware of her talent and versatility. When movies shot in New York needed strong African American actors for roles, casting directors typically called Harlem's Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble for recommendations, and Chip Fields was always at the top of their list. She appeared in Claudine; Come Back, Charleston Blue; Tough to Get Help; and The Taking of Pelham 123. She could, and did, do everything: act, sing, dance, and even stunt work.
At some point, the two of us moved from my grandma's to the basement of the church where my mom took her acting classes, and then we moved again to an apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue, about two blocks from where we had started. We were poor, but I had no idea. I was loved, I always felt secure, and in that sense, I had everything I needed and more.
In 1975, my mom auditioned for a Broadway revival of the play Hello, Dolly! It starred the legendary Pearl Bailey, whose performance in a 1968 production featuring an all-black cast made her one of the all-time great Dolly Levis and earned her a Tony Award. This production was a mixed-race cast, a "flower garden," as Miss Bailey called it. Mom auditioned for the part of Minnie Fay in front of Miss Bailey herself. As she waited for word on whether to return the next day, the producer asked her to go to the Chinese restaurant across the street to get the star some soup.
My mom did not know whether she was being mistaken for an assistant or taken advantage of as she waited. Yet she ran the errand (because why not?) and then continued to wait at the theater, the soup she held for Miss Bailey passing from hot to warm to cold, mirroring her hopes for getting the job, as she sat there.
Finally, as night arrived and people began to go home, the producer came by, took the soup, and told my mom that she had made it to the next round. The following morning, several dozen prospective Minnie Fays lined up in a large rehearsal hall. As music played, everyone danced, and one by one they were dismissed. "Number three, thank you very much…Number twenty-seven, you can go. Thank you." There were several rounds of this. Debbie Allen was one of the finalists. So was my mom, who was not a trained singer or dancer, but just like in the play A Chorus Line, she needed that job. Oh God, she really needed that job.
And in the end, she was the only one left.
She was the new Minnie Fay—and it ended up changing her life, and ours.
* * *
The play opened in midsummer in Dallas and went on to Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, DC, before arriving at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. They did forty-two performances in New York, starting with three previews in early November. The theater critic in Boston praised the entire production, in particular my mom, and on opening night in New York, that glowing review was pasted onto a sandwich board in front of the Minskoff Theatre, with the part about my mom highlighted, thanks to Miss Bailey, who was extremely fond of her "little Chip."
As it turned out, my mom had brought my grandma to that opening night performance, and prior to the show, as she thanked Miss Bailey for her kind gesture, she also mentioned her mother was in the audience and that many years earlier she had actually been a backup dancer for one of Miss Bailey's nightclub shows. Mind you, they had been on the road for nearly six months, since July, and my mother had never brought this up. It got a look from Miss Bailey, one of those why-have-I-never-heard-this looks.
"Who's your mother?" she asked.
"Oh my God! You're Patsy's daughter!"
Three weeks later, my grandmother passed away. It was cancer. She had been a lifelong smoker.
My grandma was laid to rest on a Wednesday morning; my mom performed that afternoon in the matinee. Afterward, Miss Bailey sent her home in her personal limousine. To this day, my mom speaks about the special qualities Miss Bailey brought to the theater every night, onstage and off.
As I said, that play changed her life—and mine. When I think about the moment I decided I wanted to be an actor, I can honestly say that performing was in my blood. I only had to look as far as my grandmother and my mom. A door wasn't opened for me, but there was a path, and there were breadcrumbs on it. However, there was a particular moment, one I remember clearly. It happened when I visited my mom while she was on the road doing Dolly! Then it happened again backstage at the Minskoff on Broadway. Both times my mom's sister, my Aunt Pat, who, with my Uncle Lou, watched me when Mom couldn't, took me to these shows, and when we stepped through the backstage door, something special happened. I let go of her hand and looked around at the hustle and bustle of the actors and the crew getting ready for the performance, and I knew this was my life—or going to be someday.
Seeing this transformation happen right in front of me, with people like my mom and Miss Bailey and others coming in from the outside, from whatever they had been doing, from their regular lives, and turn themselves into other people who then created a different world, well, it was thrilling. It was magical.
It was the spark—me sensing who I was and what I was supposed to be.
One thing my mom learned while touring with Dolly! was that she loved Los Angeles and wanted to live there. No disrespect to Harlem, but in the mid-1970s, the city was not in one of its many heydays and my mom did not want to be there anymore. She did not want to raise her kid there either. She also sensed more opportunity for her as an actor in Los Angeles. Her friend Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs had moved there and landed Welcome Back, Kotter, and another close friend, Tim Pelt, the stepfather of Danielle Spencer, who played Dee in What's Happening!!, had also gone west. Both pals encouraged her to do the same.
So one day I came home from school at P.S. 92 and found our apartment all packed up. We did not have much, but everything we did have was in boxes, and Mom told me, "We're moving to California tonight."
I was a kid.
But that was it.
Goodbye, Harlem. Hello, Hollywood.
We arrived in Los Angeles and settled in a tiny apartment on Larrabee Street, in West Hollywood. Both of us were open to this new adventure. I attended West Hollywood Elementary School. Mom and I loved a joint on Sunset Boulevard called Power Burger. For free fun, we walked to Tower Records and spent hours sifting through the record bins and people-watching while listening to the latest hits piped through the store. On nice days, we hung out at West Hollywood Park. I won the park's annual Halloween costume contest dressed in a homemade costume as Groucho Marx. Mom and I jumped, squealed, and cried with joy. I think subconsciously it was validation for us that we didn't know we needed; she knew we didn't have much, I was self-conscious about wearing a costume my mom made.
Mom went on auditions, took classes, and booked commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. Each job, no matter how big or small, was a cause for celebration, but a national commercial was huge: We had money for rent, and then some. At some point, my mom decided I had a look and disposition that might get me some commercial or TV work, too. I met with Dorothy Day Otis, who headed up the top agency for children, and she signed me.
Days later, I went on my first audition, a commercial for Mrs. Butterworth's syrup. Since we did not have a car, my mom and I took the bus across town. As we settled into the orange fiberglass seats of the RTD bus, my mom made up a song, which I still remember: "Look out, world. Look out, hills. Here comes Chip and Kim Fields."
I was excited and hopeful as we walked into the casting office and checked in—that is, until I recognized the other girl waiting her turn. It was Janet Jackson, the baby sister of Michael and his brothers. I had seen her on the Jackson 5's summer TV special. She was sitting in a chair, dressed beautifully, and staring back at me.
I could not believe it.
I was starstruck.
Then reality kicked in. My smile disappeared, along with my enthusiasm for the tryout. This was my first audition, and she was Janet Jackson. My mom noticed the change in me. She took my little hand in hers, led me to the bathroom, sat me on the counter, and gave me a pep talk for the ages.
"Don't do that to yourself," she said. "Don't let anyone intimidate you or make you feel unsure or insecure about yourself. When your name is called, you go in there and know that you are the perfect you. If the casting people want something else, that's their choice. It does not reflect in any way on who you are or who else is sitting next to you. You show them confidence, baby. You show them pride. You show them Kim Fields."
Of course, it wasn't anything Janet was doing. It was all me, all in my mind. Ever been there? It's crazy how young insecurity or self-consciousness can creep up on us. That's why you have to catch it and don't let it take root.
The audition went well. The casting people liked my pigtails and smile. When my mom and I got back home, my new agent called and said the tape they had shot of me messed up and they wanted me to come back that afternoon for a reshoot. My mom said we'd be there, but it wasn't that simple. The bus didn't run at the right time and we didn't have the money for a taxi.
Undaunted, my mom grabbed her purse, took my hand, and we walked about a half mile to Santa Monica Boulevard, where she found us a clear patch of curbside and stuck out her thumb. We were not there for more than ten minutes before a man in a Porsche stopped for us—if you can picture that, this little black lady and her little black girl—and drove us to the address my mom gave him. He let us off in front of the building and wished us luck. Amazing, right? Then again, luck can often be seen in retrospect as a prayer that's been answered. Mom said, "God looks after fools, babies, and us."
I redid my audition and the next day found out that I'd booked the job. My mom and I screamed, hollered, jumped, danced, and cried—and then did it all over again like Jesus had come back and we were the only two going home with Him. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.
* * *
- On Sale
- Nov 14, 2017
- Hachette Audio