If you’re of a certain age, there’s a likelihood that you remember the iconic words spoken by the character of teacher Lydia Grant in the opening credits of the ’80s hit television series Fame:
You’ve got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying: in sweat.
Multihyphenate powerhouse Debbie Allen originated the role in the 1980 film of the same name, and in the 1982-1987 television spinoff, she continued to portray Grant as a strong, supremely talented dance instructor who alternately doled out tough love, empathy and advocacy to a madcap crew of gifted performing arts students at the nonfictional Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School.
Whether we recognized it at the time or not, Allen’s portrayal was a five-year lesson in mentorship, one that closely paralleled her real-life work as a dancer, choreographer, actress, author, producer and director. Whether through her 17 years as head of the nonprofit Debbie Allen Dance Academy, on set in her seventh season in front of and behind the camera for Grey’s Anatomy, or continuing to guide any number of young directors, Allen—a former member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and recent recipient of a Capezio Dance Award for Life Achievement—has been a mentor for most of her decadeslong career.
So when The Glow Up had the opportunity to speak with Allen about her recent work in launching the second season of Real Beauty Productions in collaboration with Shonda Rhimes and the Dove Self-Esteem Project, mentorship was on our minds. An Hour With Her is an hourlong film directed by Allen, alongside an all-female crew featuring Dove Self-Esteem Project graduate and actress Chelsea Harris (Grey’s Anatomy, Designated Survivor) and high schooler and aspiring actress Caralyn Singleterry.
In the film, Harris shares empathy, encouragement and guidance with Singleterry on the journey of overcoming appearance-related bullying to follow her dreams. It’s a topic personally relevant to Allen, who recalled her own journey to success facing improbable odds:
Growing up and coming out of Houston, Texas, at a time where there was such a racial divide—much stronger then than even now, because things were segregated—there were places we couldn’t even go. [We] couldn’t go to dance class, couldn’t go to the theater. ... I grew up knowing what it is to want things, and know that we would have to fight for them.
Allen credits her mother, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers, with instilling confidence and tenacity in herself and her three successful siblings, including equally well-known sister Phylicia Rashad:
My mom mentored the quality of confidence in each one of us to make us believe that we could do anything that we thought we wanted to do. ... [and] continuing to study and train—you know, not expecting any handouts. Having to work hard for everything is part of what I had to do [and] all of us have had to do. And knowing that the success of one is a success for all of us. So there’s a real team effort there that I know a lot of people may not have.
For Allen, the answer to filling that void has been through mentoring, which she says is “kind of a purpose in life for me, in a way.” Pointing out the deficiencies and inequities in a public school system that has increasingly neglected arts education, as well as a world reliant on technology it can’t even seem to keep up with, Allen hopes for current and future generations that they don’t lose sight of the real world and ultimately find their place within it, telling The Glow Up:
They need to be indoctrinated into the arts and also be indoctrinated into what politics [are]—you know, math is good, but how about what it is to get a mortgage on your house, or to pay a car note? I just think there’s some practical things that they’re not dealing with because everything is on the internet, everything they learn. They’re not picking up enough books.
So I would wish for them to actively pick up more books, learn more and to spend a little more time in nature, outside, away from the internet, away from a screen, away from somebody else telling you what to think. Go out in nature—with your family, alone or whatever—watch the sun set and contemplate the universe and where you fit into it. That would be something for young people to do.
But Allen maintains that education isn’t just for the young; she has always been and continues to be a student of her many crafts. “I’ve never felt that I know it all,” she said. “I can always learn something new, and I’m always open to that. And that’s something that I would gladly pass on to the younger generation, because so many of them think they know everything, and it’s just not like that.”
That’s where mentorship comes in, and why Allen is so proud to have partnered with Dove and Shonda Rhimes for An Hour With Her. Funny enough, Allen didn’t know that the now 14-year-old Dove Self-Esteem Project even existed until Rhimes brought it to her attention, telling us:
I didn’t even know that it existed and I really wanted to know more about it. And when I found out about it, I felt that it was such a great initiative for young women all across the country and around the world, and that this [was] something I could lend my creativity to, and make more people aware of. So I was really happy to learn about it, and then to be chosen to be the director of the first film of season 2.
And for those lucky enough to be mentored by the likes of such a dynamic and multifaceted talent as Debbie Allen, what benefits does this legendary educator hope her protégées will glean from her?
Mentorship, to me, means taking time to work with, listen to and give guidance to a younger person, a person that is [inexperienced] or a group of people who need that, who need a way to find their voice, or to find your confidence to succeed in whatever their goals are. That’s real mentorship: taking the time. So [I’m] taking the time to listen, to talk, to give ideas, to give criticism, to give inspiration.
The Glow Up tip: Want to spend “An Hour With Her” and Debbie Allen? The full-length film is below.