Actress Robin Givens has played many roles in her life; retiring wallflower not being among them. She burst onto the scene as the beautiful and brainy Darlene on Head of the Class, a sitcom that aired on ABC from 1986 to 1991. Those same years brought a media explosion as good girl Givens fell in love with, married and then divorced, boxing’s former world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. The tumultuous pairing was brief and quickly devolved into a he said/she said of accusations about abuse and domestic violence, allegations which Tyson himself later publicly conceded to.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Robin Givens picked up the pieces with a string of film roles including A Rage in Harlem with the late Gregory Hines, Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover; Boomerang opposite Halle Berry and Givens’ former flame turned colleague, Eddie Murphy; Blankman opposite Damon Wayans and Head of State with Chris Rock. Steady work came her way, while sealing her reputation as the beautiful but dangerous femme fatale. The line between Givens’ public image and her film work continued to blur. During this time period, she became a mom to two boys and retreated from the spotlight, save for the release of her 2007 memoir, Grace Will Lead Me Home, in which she opened up about the issue of domestic violence, which she admits in the book had plagued her family for generations.
This was the birth of Robin Givens, women’s advocate and outspoken crusader against domestic violence. Her speaking engagements culminated with one of her numerous appearances on the Oprah show in which she outlined her intimate journey with the issue. It is important to note that, according to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)more than 10 million women and men (at a rate of 20 people per minute) in the U.S. are subjected to domestic violence, making this an issue that does transcend gender (though women are more likely to sustain substantial physical injury at the hands of an intimate partner, at a rate of 1 in 7 women to 1 in 25 men) as well as socio-economic status.
In the 2010s, Givens refocused on acting with roles on long running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful, YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water (based on the film franchise), the CW’s Riverdale and ABC’s The Fix. On June 18, Givens shined as female lead, Stephanie Carlisle, in OWN’s newest drama series, Ambitions.
Throughout our conversation, Robin Givens held nothing back and no question was off the table as she offered thoughtful, sometimes emotionally charged, humorous and reflective insights on her journey through womanhood and Hollywood.
Allison Kugel: You took years away from the spotlight to focus on being a mom to your two sons. Now you’re back with two television shows, the CW’s Riverdale and the new OWN series, Ambitions. How did you come back with the thunder?
Robin Givens: It wasn’t only taking a break to raise my kids. It was also a break for me. It’s true that you feel like you are going to maintain your place in line; like everything is going to stop and wait for you. I had to realize that it’s a process again. You have to enjoy the process and begin again, and I really fell in love with acting again. When I first started acting, it wasn’t really like that. Now I can go in a room and act and do my thing and enjoy the process for what it is. Water seeks its own level. If you’re good, you’re good, and it all kind of begins again.
Allison Kugel: Do these vixen roles find you, or do you seek them out? How do you always wind up playing that women? I don’t know how else to put it (laughs).
Robin Givens: (Laughs) You’re right. There was a time when I was having these roles come to me and I remember saying to my agent, “I don’t want to do that women. I just did that woman.” I ended up turning something down because of it. I’m nothing like these women that I play, which is unusual and interesting for me. I always jokingly say, “I want to grow up and be them.” Where I am now in my life, emotionally, its like, “Okay, you want me to do that? Then I’m going to do it to death,” and then wait for the opportunity where I can do something completely different.
Allison Kugel: Before I do an interview, I’ll ask people if they have any burning questions for the person I’m about to interview, and sometimes I’ll take people’s questions into consideration. I found out that a lot of men out there think you are that woman. Do you know that?
Robin Givens: I think women think that too. I don’t think it’s only men. Whenever I’m in hair and makeup, they’re always like, “My God, you are nothing like that person!” Me, Robin, I have a whole different rhythm.
Allison Kugel: I was a bit taken aback when in speaking with some people before our interview, the general consensus was, “She did Mike Tyson dirty years ago.”
Robin Givens: The only thing I did dirty was that I said, “I don’t want to be in a relationship where you tell me you are going to kill me.” I didn’t take one cent from my ex-husband. I left my panties there; I left my favorite teddy bear there. I left everything I had in that house. The rest is fake news. I said, “I want out of this relationship because I think you are going to do what you said, which is kill me.” When I see what happened to Nicole [Brown] Simpson and other women that I talk to, that is a very real thing. I am here, walking, living and breathing.
Allison Kugel: You began speaking up about violence against women years before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements took root.
Robin Givens: I didn’t plan on speaking on behalf of women, but it really did become a part of my healing. My ex-husband had been on Oprah and he had talked about hitting me in a cavalier way, like, “Oh, yeah I hit her,” and everybody [in the audience] laughed. I was somewhere doing a speaking engagement, and someone said to me, “Robin, you can’t take this!” I realized it was far bigger than me and I was told I had to do something, if not for me, then for all other women. One of the things I always say is, “My story is your story, and your story is my story.”
Allison Kugel: That was when you had that sit-down with Oprah to air your grievances about Mike Tyson’s appearance on her show…
Robin Givens: I sat down with Oprah to discuss her interview with my ex-husband, which was the last thing I wanted to do. She apologized to me. After the show, she came into my dressing room and she said “Robin, as it was happening I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do.” I think that sums up a lot. Not to put the weight of the world on Oprah. Certainly, she is an amazing, amazing woman. But if Oprah Winfrey doesn’t know what to do in these situations, the discomfort of it, then a lot of us doesn’t know how to respond to that. It’s much easier to put people in a box and say, “She must have wanted his money,” than to believe that somebody could punch a 105-pound woman. We saw it happen with (ex-NFL player) Ray Rice. Now you can’t pretend it away or give an excuse for it. Now we have a responsibility to not let certain things slide. We’re better than that and we’ve come too far.
Allison Kugel: What are the biggest misconceptions about you and famous men, in general?
Robin Givens: I met Eddie Murphy when I was in my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence College. He had just gotten Saturday Night Live. He wasn’t the “Eddie Murphy” that the world now knows, at that time. He was an actor that was happy to get a job. It was the same thing with Brad Pitt. When I dated Brad, Brad couldn’t get a job. I was paying for all our meals and he was a struggling actor. We talked a lot about acting because were in acting class together, and we loved acting together. When we dated, he literally couldn’t pay for dinner. At the time, I had already gotten the role on Head of the Class. It was a different dynamic, where I was the big deal to [Brad]. You know what I mean? I lived it all at a young age, thank God, and I get to have a good perspective on reality and how it can be changed.
Allison Kugel: There was a pivotal moment in your life, when I believe you were studying at Harvard with the intention to become a doctor, before you decided to pivot and pursue acting. In retrospect, was this the right path?
Robin Givens: I was at Harvard Graduate School and I knew I was going to be a doctor, or so I thought at the time. By the time I got to Harvard I really wanted to pursue acting. If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said I should have become a doctor. As a mom, I just came from visiting my son and saying to him, “Get a law degree! Get a law degree!” My mom was raised in the south at a time when, as a woman, she couldn’t go in the front door of a movie theatre. She could buy clothes at Woolworth, but she couldn’t try them on, and she couldn’t sit at the counter and eat. I think I grew up with the sense of, what she believed, which is that education is a great equalizing factor in America. I have a parent who, literally, just stopped leaving me medical school applications any time she’d come to visit. Up until recently, I knew there was an application to some medical school lurking somewhere in the house (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? If so, who or what do you pray to?
Robin Givens: I have a great relationship with God. For me, that has been a very important relationship. He’s the only father I’ve ever known. I would often sit down with God and say, “I don’t want to have to go through this.” But it’s all gotten me to where I am, both as a person and as a mom with these two kids. I grew up Catholic with a sense of the ritual of Catholicism. Certainly, I have some questions about all of that now, and some misgivings. But it is something I still do [observe]. And I always say that my ex-husband [Mike Tyson] taught me, and gave me, a true relationship with God.
Allison Kugel: Let’s dive into your character, Stephanie Carlisle, on Ambitions.
Robin Givens: She doesn’t use any of the things I just talked about (laughs). What interests me about my job is the challenge to bring a character like Stephanie Carlisle to life. To get the role of Stephanie, I borrowed a dress from The Fix (ABC) for the audition. Once I read the script, I felt I could do this role better than anyone. I just needed to carry that energy into the room with me and believe it. Once I started to dissect her, I knew that I wanted her to be more than what was on the page. I wanted to give her shades and dimensions, a heart, and make her real. She was written as an ice queen, but there is more to her. My interpretation is that she is a woman that has her own set of rules. She also has this sensibility that she is never going to live up to her father, and that’s where her wanting comes from.
Allison Kugel: Why should audiences tune in to watch Ambitions?
Robin Givens: I could describe it as a guilty pleasure, but someone once said, “There is no guilt in pleasure.” It’s going to be that kind of fun show where women gather around to watch with some wine and popcorn. Their husbands or boyfriends will walk by and probably join them. I think men will love it as much as women.
Ambitions premiered on Tuesday, June 18 @ 10/9c on OWN. Follow Robin Givens on Twitter @therocknrobn and Instagram @robingivens.
Editor’s note: Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugeland AllisonKugel.com.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of OWN/Richard Ducree, Courtesy of OWN/Guy D’Alema, Courtesy of OWN/Peggy Sirota