Holly Robinson Peete Interview: "We’re a Real Family with Real Issues"
Image attributed to Marta Elena
Actress and philanthropist, Holly Robinson Peete, stars with her family in the new TV docu-series, For Peete’s Sake, which premiered exclusively on OWN on March 19, 2016. Her book, Same But Different, also released in March. Peete landed the part of Sergeant Judy Hoffs in 1987 that made her recognizable to viewers throughout the world on the groundbreaking series, 21 Jump Street.
Other TV appearances include Sesame Street, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper (Vanessa Russell), For Your Love (Malena Ellis), Like Family, Celebrity Apprentice, The Talk (as host), Mike & Molly and Chicago Fire.
“We sat around a table, and we went to each person and said, “Listen. What do you guys think about this? What are you hesitant about? What are you excited about?” In the end, I felt like everyone was really excited about it. But there were definitely some things that were off limits, and we definitely weren’t going to come out there looking crazy. We’re a real family with real issues, and we did want to share them as well.”
Peete is married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. The couple has four children, and in 2000, the pair received an autism diagnosis for their eldest son RJ – now 18 years old. She has led the charge amongst celebrities in the autism community through her non-profit HollyRod Foundation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Holly, you have opened your home to the world. Why?
Holly Robinson Peete: (laughs) Have you been talking to my husband? Well, you know, it’s interesting. We’ve been on the short list to do a family docu-series for almost ten years, and we’ve been aggressively pursued. I’m not really sure why, but I took it as a compliment that people thought we were interesting enough to do a show about. But I didn’t want to do it until the timing was right. My youngest was still in diapers, and I wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing. I felt like we had a platform, and when we connected with the Oprah Winfrey network, we felt like we had a network with integrity.
I do think there’s another twist on reality TV that we can have where it doesn’t have to be about smashing tables and chairs and smashing weaves. I feel like there are ways to have a platform and talk about what we do as a family to keep it moving, but I feel it could be inspirational and aspirational.
Also, something I wish I could’ve seen on TV was a family with a young man with special needs. We have opened ourselves up over the years in other ways sharing our story, but not so much like this with thirty-five people in our house. This definitely was a different step up on that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were the kids eager or hesitant to share their issues with the world, and are any topics off limits?
Holly Robinson Peete: I think they definitely put some things on the table, and those are things I don’t think anybody wants to hear about anyway. But the reality is that kids are different these days, you know, Melissa. They have a whole different view on social media and reality projects. They are interested in a platform and a brand for them.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was eleven, I didn’t know nothing about no platform or brand or any of that stuff. Kids are just different animals now. My daughter, for instance, is a singer/songwriter. Nowadays, it’s all about getting your project out on YouTube or whatnot. I think she looks at For Peete’s Sake as a good platform for her to do some things she wants to get out.
We sat around a table, and we went to each person and said, “Listen. What do you guys think about this? What are you hesitant about? What are you excited about?” In the end, I felt like everyone was really excited about it. But there were definitely some things that were off limits, and we definitely weren’t going to come out there looking crazy. We’re a real family with real issues, and we did want to share them as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your mom, Dolores, appears to have her own brand (laughs).
Holly Robinson Peete: Does she ever!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In one episode, she gets a tattoo.
Holly Robinson Peete: Yes, because four isn’t enough, and why not? (laughs) My mom, as you can tell, is a very free spirit. You can’t tell her nothing. She’s about to be 80. She’s still cute. She’s single ready to mingle, and I don’t think we’ve seen a character like her on TV in this genre yet. But she’s fun. She’s fun, and she embraces life.
She didn’t get this tattoo just for the show. She’s been getting them since she was 75, and I couldn’t stop her. I tried. I said, “Mom. Really?” She said, “What are you going to tell me, that it’s not going to be cute when I’m 80? I’m almost 80 now.” There’s nothing you can tell her. We love her just the way she is, but she’s definitely an interesting character and a brand that is definitely something to look at.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you inherit the “free spirit” gene from your mom?
Holly Robinson Peete: I’m a little bit more conservative than she is. I’m a child of the 70s, but she was an adult in the 60s and 70s, so I think she’s definitely a free spirit. She invented herself and re-invented herself and drove us out across country when we were just nine and eleven to California. She didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but she was going in search of a better life for us in the midst of a divorce. She came out to California and started a talent management company and did really well. She’s definitely a person that would say, “Okay, you know what? Get up when you fall down and keep moving.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There definitely needs to be more shows on TV to educate the public on autism and special needs children. What has the journey been like for you and Rodney since RJ’s diagnosis?
Holly Robinson Peete: He was diagnosed in 2000. Yeah, sixteen years ago. It’s been crazy. It’s been up, down and sideways. We’ve had high highs and low lows. It has been a very eventful and sometimes sad, sometimes positive journey where we’ve met some of the most amazing people ever and connected with other autism families. But at three years old, they gave us this long laundry list of things he couldn’t do, and that was really devastating.
I was a rookie mom that just had twins, and I had all these ideas about what I was going to do with these twins, how they were going to grow up, do this and that. Then we’re told, “Oh no. He won’t be doing any of that.” It was a very sad, dark time. I feel like if I had turned on the TV and seen a family rally around their kids with autism, that would’ve given me some hope. We have written books and talked about it, advocated for families. We thought this would be the next level because RJ is now eighteen. He’s got to go out into the world, get a job and be accepted.
I thought that if people could see RJ, they’d say that he was a cool young man. It might pull back the curtain on autism a little bit because that stigma is what follows them the rest of their lives. We’re just happy we’re allowed to use this platform to talk about how we’ve dealt with it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is sending RJ out into the world scary for you?
Holly Robinson Peete: Yeah, it is. It is. We don’t have a handbook, you know. This is our first time experiencing autism at this age with him being a young adult. It’s scary. I don’t want to let him out of the house, but at eighteen, he wants to go places and be independent. He texted once that he was in a restaurant in Burbank, and I was like, “That’s fifteen miles away!”
He keeps saying that he’s eighteen and that he’s a young man. But I worry about him out in the world because I don’t know if the world always understands him. It’s scary. It’s scary for any parent even if your kid is a typical kid. But for him, I have extra worries. We try to be really positive and rally around him and support him. We still struggle with letting him go out in the world and just try his hand at life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): His sister is preparing to go to college?
Holly Robinson Peete: Yeah. His sister is like his guardian angel (laughs). She’s her brother’s keeper, man. You’ve got to go through her to get to him. Now, she’s preparing to go off to college, so that’s a transition that’s a little scary for her and for him. He tries to act like it doesn’t bother him, but he’s nervous.
She wants to spread her wings, but has always allowed him to be first. He’s always been the first priority because she’s the squeaking wheel. We’ve never let her really just be her. This is her time, and we’re ready to do that. There’s a lot of anxiety and a little stress in transitioning in that way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw an interesting interview with Rodney, and he was asked if he’d let his kids play football knowing what we know now about head trauma. He said that was a touchy topic in his home. How do you feel about it?
Holly Robinson Peete: I have too much information now to not be really concerned about them playing football. I just have too much information, as much as I love the game. Lord knows I do. Before I met and married a quarterback, I was a diehard Eagles fan. I love me some football, and I kind of always dreamed of one of my kids playing. But being a quarterback’s wife, I watched him go through the highs, lows and injuries. Sixteen years of that, and I’m still in a little bit of post traumatic stress from it.
Now, we have all this information about CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and the connection between CTE and concussions. It’s scary, and I feel very lucky that my son, the one who’s built like the athlete, is gravitating toward baseball. He’s a beast at it, so I will be encouraging him to lean that way. But he’s only thirteen, so who knows what he may decide to do down the line when he gets to high school. He may want to play football, and if he’s really passionate about it, we’ll have this discussion. Right now, he could take it or leave it, so I’ll be right there on that baseball field egging him on and pushing him toward the MLB.
But yeah, it’s a very touchy subject. I saw Jerry Jones (owner of the Cowboys) make some ridiculous statement like, “How do you make that link?” I just think that’s a step backwards. I think we have to be honest about what football is. It’s a violent sport. If we’re going to sit around and act like it doesn’t have any long-term affect, that’s just bull because we have too many friends in the business that are either not here anymore or have ALS or other kinds of things that have resulted from football. Let’s be honest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently appeared on Chicago Fire. Will you continue doing guest spots on television?
Holly Robinson Peete: Well, For Peete’s Sake is in the can and was an eight-episode order, so I do a lot of other stuff around. I was able to do an arc on Chicago Fire, which I loved. It’s my favorite show, so I’m hoping they bring me back to do some more next season. I also did a stint on Mike & Molly for a while.
I’m definitely still in the acting game. I will say that my kids really need me right now. I thought when they got older, they’d be less needy, but it seems to be going in the other direction, so I’m trying to keep myself open. With that said, I let my agent and my team know that I’m ready to get back on TV and get out there more. I’ve been auditioning and doing that stuff. Thirty years later, I’m still pounding the pavement.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): For people watching For Peete’s Sake with kids who have autism or even typical kids, what would you like them to learn from your family?
Holly Robinson Peete: I don’t want to normalize autism, but I really want to make people less fearful and decrease the stigma. Kids with special needs need the community to be compassionate. All you’ve got to do is turn on the TV and see rhetoric of people mocking people with special needs and making fun of people.
It’s very important that we keep our compassion. It’s not politically correct. It’s just with common courtesy and compassion that we celebrate and lift our kids with autism in our community because there are a lot of them. Autism isn’t going anywhere, so these kids, as they grow older, need to get out and have jobs. I’m always celebrating the amazing corporations like FedEx and Walgreens that are hiring these young people compassionately, and deliberately seeking them out and hiring them because they are gifts.
They bring things to the table we don’t even think about. I just want to show that RJ is an amazing young man with gifts and talents, and that he’s not autism. He’s not defined by it. I think that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to do this, with his blessing. His advocacy has changed people’s lives. We go all over the country, make speeches and connect. On an episode that’s really special, we go to Detroit and open up an RJ’s place, which is one of our HollyRod Foundation’s programs, and we help these kids with autism. He sees firsthand these kids that are non-verbal, and they use some kind of device for the first time to connect.
RJ’s very connected with the fact that his tragedy has been positive for advocacy. He sees the impact directly. I just want people to see these young people for the amazing kids that they are and embrace them in the community, to stop ostracizing them and marginalizing them. They’re powerful, have a lot to say and a lot to add to society.
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