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 18th, Givens will shine 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. I remember speaking with Elisabeth Shue years ago (The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting, The Saint) and she said she went away to just be a mom to her three kids, and when she came back, she felt like the parade passed her by. How did you come back with the thunder?
Robin Givens: I don't know Elisabeth and I don't know her story so well, but for me it wasn't only taking a break to raise my kids. It was also a break for myself. 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: Your new show, Ambitions is premiering June 18th on the OWN Network. Itseems like Oprah has always championed your career. Even when the chips weredown, she was a champion for your career. You worked with her as an actress,and you were also on the Oprah showquite a bit over the years.
RobinGivens: I feel like at one point we were just friends. We did do [themini-series] The Women of Brewster Place(1989) together, which was a huge role for me. She and I developed agenuine friendship, just as women. Idon't think it had anything to do with my career, per se. I do think that thereis something to it coming full circle and being here with her now, doing thisshow on her network.
Allison Kugel: Do these vixen roles find you, or do you seekthem out? How do you always wind up playing thatwomen? I don't know how else to put it (laughs).
RobinGivens: (Laughs) You're right. Therewas a time when I was having these roles come to me and I remember saying to myagent, "I don't want to do that women. I just did that woman." I ended upturning 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 togrow up and be them." Where I am now in my life, emotionally, it's like, "Okay,you want me to do that? Then I'm going to do it to death," and then waitfor the opportunity where I can do something completely different.
Allison Kugel: Before I do an interview, I'll ask people ifthey have any burning questions for the person I'm about to interview, and sometimesI'll take people's questions into consideration. I found out that a lot of menout there think you are that woman. Doyou 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: Your energy is completely different from yourmedia image. But your name is still synonymous with Mike Tyson, the divorce heard'round the world and those infamous interviews.
RobinGivens: I have a better understanding of it now than I would have if you talkedto me about it fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago. As a grown up, I just understand it better. Ialso didn't give people anything else to talk about for a while, and so myimage got stuck there. I ran into Jay-Z at a party years ago, when I was doing Chicago on Broadway, and even he wasfixated on it, because it was just so big.
Allison Kugel:People love to talk about your past relationships, not just with [Mike]Tyson, butwith Brad Pitt and Eddie Murphy. Do you play on that image for a role like yourcharacter, Stephanie Carlisle, on Ambitions?
RobinGivens: You're making my life sound way more exciting than it is, but no Idon't. I know we are in this world where we want things to be tantalizing, butI am a big believer in truths. The one thing I agree with when it comes to ourcurrent state of politics is that there has been plenty of fake news. I feellike I was the original fake news. I would be a crazy person if, given what Iwent through in my past, I didn't believe in the truth. I would never approachworking on a character with any sense of that… thing, or that time period that wasn't even true. I lived through atime of absolute bullshit at a very young age. I now have a son who is twenty-five,who I see as a baby. I was younger than that when all that craziness washappening. Certainly, I hope it made me the person that I am, but I don't thinkI would have been able to say that before.
Allison Kugel: Andyou probably didn’t have the tools at that time to get the facts out there theway you wanted to.
RobinGivens: I was speaking with Wendy Williams recently and she said to me,"Thank God social media wasn't going on at that time in your life."And I said, "You know, actually it would have been easier." Now, youcan literally get on Twitter and say "Hey, that's not true!"
AllisonKugel: I was a bit taken aback when inspeaking with some people before our interview, the general consensus was,"She did Mike Tyson dirty years ago."
RobinGivens: The only thing I did dirty wasthat I said, "I don't want to be in a relationship where you tell me youare going to kill me." I didn't take one cent from my ex-husband. I leftmy panties there; I left my favorite teddy bear there. I left everything I hadin that house. The rest is fake news. I said, "I want out of thisrelationship because I think you are going to do what you said, which is killme." When I see what happened to Nicole [Brown] Simpson and other womenthat I talk to, that is a very real thing. I am here, walking, living andbreathing.
Allison Kugel: Andit was thirty years ago people. You've had so much going on since then. Youhave your two boys, a thriving acting career, your advocacy work for women. I'mproud of you.
Robin Givens: Thank you. It is a really interesting conversation to have, because my ex-husband used to say to me, "I'm a hero to the guys. Women love me and guys love me. I'm a star to the stars." It's hard to go up against all of that. I left with my life, and I left so sorry that I put my family in such a horrific situation. The reality is, the guy I lived with was the same guy that bit up [Evander] Holyfield's ear in the ring. That's the guy I was dealing with on a daily basis; the same guy that went to jail for rape (Givens is speaking of Tyson's 1992 rape conviction). I was dealing with that guy the best way I could at twenty-two years old.
AllisonKugel: I interviewed Mike, I think aboutseven years ago, and I liked him during our interview. Of course, it was somany years later. I don't want to take away from his ability to change and growas a person. But what you experienced is valid and real, and your feelings aboutit are valid and very real. Your voice also continues to be valuable regardingdomestic violence.
RobinGivens: I've done a lot of work withwomen, and it's not only happening with celebrities, obviously. It's the guy atthe golf club in Connecticut that everybody loves. It's the mayor of a smalltown who's sweet and charming in public. I don't want to make this [issue] all aboutme. With everything that is going on with the #MeToo movement, we're kind offorcing a lot of men to get that certain things are unacceptable. Certainthings now, thirty years later, must beunacceptable. We have to do better now.
AllisonKugel: You began speaking up aboutviolence against women years before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements tookroot.
RobinGivens: I didn't plan on speaking on behalf of women, but it really did becomea 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 wassomewhere doing a speaking engagement, and someone said to me, "Robin, youcan't take this!" I realized it was far bigger than me and I was told Ihad to do something, if not for me, then for all other women. One of the things I always say is, "Mystory is your story, and your storyis my story."
Allison Kugel:That was when you had that sit-down with Oprah to air your grievances aboutMike Tyson's appearance on her show…
RobinGivens: 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 Iknew it was wrong, but I didn't know what to do." I think that sums up alot. Not to put the weight of the world on Oprah. Certainly, she is an amazing,amazing woman. But if Oprah Winfreydoesn't know what to do in these situations, the discomfort of it, then a lotof us don't know how to respond to that. It's much easier to put people in abox and say, "She must have wanted his money," than to believe thatsomebody could punch a 105-pound woman. We saw it happen with (ex-NFL player) Ray Rice. Now you can'tpretend it away or give an excuse for it. Now we have a responsibility to notlet 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: Therewas a pivotal moment in your life, when I believe you were studying at Harvard withthe intention to become a doctor, before you decided to pivot and pursueacting. In retrospect, was this the right path?
RobinGivens: 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 was really wantingto pursue acting. If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said I shouldhave become a doctor. As a mom, I just came from visiting my son and saying tohim, "Get a law degree! Get a law degree!" My mom was raised in the southat 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 shecouldn't sit at the counter and eat. I think I grew up with the sense of, whatshe believed, which is that education is a great equalizing factor in America.I have a parent who, literally, just stopped leaving me medical school applicationsany time she'd come to visit. Up until recently, I knew there was anapplication to some medical school lurking somewhere in the house (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Do youpray? If so, who or what do you pray to?
RobinGivens: I have a great relationship withGod. For me, that has been a very important relationship. He's the only fatherI've ever known. I would often sit down with God and say, "I don't want tohave to go through this." But it's all gotten me to where I am, both as aperson and as a mom with these two kids. I grew up Catholic with a sense of theritual of Catholicism. Certainly, I have some questions about all of that now, andsome misgivings. But it is something I still do [observe]. And I always say thatmy ex-husband [Mike Tyson] taught me, and gave me, a true relationship with God.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here on this earthas Robin Givens to learn, and what do you think you are here to teach?
RobinGivens: I'm the first of two children and I have a type-A personality. I alwayssay I'm a recovering perfectionist. That's something I've had to learn, andthere is a kind of humor in the quest for perfection. It's not very interesting,and you can never really achieve it. That's something that life has taught me. Thedifficulty that I have gone through has really taught me a sense of compassion.Most people in my life know that I am a compassionate, loving person. I've alsohad to learn to relax a little bit, because my brain does start overworking.
Allison Kugel: Andwhat are you here to teach?
RobinGivens: I would say the same thing; sharing a sense of compassion. Life isshort and time truly is our greatest commodity. It's the one thing you neverget back. I lost a sister, unexpectedly, almost five years ago and I would doanything to have more of those moments. I try to tell my children that there isnot that much to get here [on earth]. You want to have enough to spend time withthe people you love. You want to have dinner with the people you love. If you feellike going to Paris, you want to go to Paris with people you love. It's all aboutthe moments, and not the car you drive. Happiness and joy lie in simplicity, sotry to keep it simple.
Allison Kugel: Iwould agree! Let's dive into your character, Stephanie Carlisle, on Ambitions.
RobinGivens: She doesn't use any of the things I justtalked about (laughs). What interestsme about my job is the challenge to bring a character like Stephanie Carlisleto life. To get the role of Stephanie, I borrowed a dress from The Fix (ABC) for the audition. Once Iread the script, I felt I could do this role better than anyone. I just neededto carry that energy into the room with me and believe it. Once I started todissect her, I knew that I wanted her to be more than what was on the page. Iwanted to give her shades and dimensions, a heart, and make her real. She waswritten as an ice queen, but there is more to her. My interpretation is that sheis a woman that has her own set of rules. She also has this sensibility thatshe is never going to live up to her father, and that’s where her wanting comesfrom.
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 premieres on Tuesday, June 18 @ 10/9c onOWN. Follow Robin Givens on Twitter @therocknrobn and Instagram @robingivens.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, "Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record." Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.