'The Cheetah Girls' creator talks to EWN

September 5, 2009 2:12:40 PM PDT
Deborah Gregory is an inspiration to many. Homeless on the sidewalks of Brooklyn at the age of three, she was separated from her mother and became a ward of the state. Now, she's a best-selling author, famous for her creation of "The Cheetah Girls" phenomenon and her second book of the "Catwalk" series is out next week. Deborah Gregory spoke to Eyewitness News about growing up in foster care and her books.

You grew up in the foster care system. While all such experiences are different, what was it like for you?

Mine was in the 25 percentile-children who are placed in high risk situations. It's a complicated system so there is no one to point the finger at. My first foster mother was illiterate. She couldn't read or write one letter of the alphabet. The hardest part of course is the aftermath. Trying to sort out what happened. I didn't know where my mother was, or how I ended up in the system. When I became a journalist, a contributing writer for ESSENCE magazine, I began trying to sort it out.

You aged out of the foster care system at 18. What was crucial in piecing together your life?

I had so many HOLES. It was important for me to try to figure out to the best of my ability-exactly what happened. How did I end up in foster care? Where was my mother? After ten long years of searching for answers, I was able to find some closure. My mother was evicted, homeless with three children. We then became wards of the state. Her three children became wards of the state and we were separated-placed in different children's centers. I later found out that there were two other children. I don't know one of my siblings. The other is dead. Most importantly, I searched for my mother. I found out that she was committed to a mental institution. I got a court order and was allowed to see her records at Central Islip Mental Institution in Long Island where she had been committed for nine years. I got from there the most important thing I could get: a small, black and white photo of her from the folder!

Can you ever really heal from childhood trauma?

No, you cannot. It is a movie myth that you just "move on." You cannot leave your past behind. What it means to be a human being is to be a fleshy part of the past, present and future. This is what shapes you. There is not a day that goes by I don't think about what my experiences were growing up in foster care. About my missing mother. Or about the father I never knew. At least I'm honest and don't pretend. The cracks remain-what I try to do is repair the cracks to the best of my ability. Thanks to therapy, I was able to do a decent job at that-but that's all-just decent. I'm still and will always remain a wounded person with lots of holes and strength and sadness and humor. In other words, a typical New Yawker! I did not grow up in a foster home on a farm in Maine like someone I know and adore (Victoria Rowell). Growing up in the foster care system in marginal foster homes in New York City was far more wicked-every kind of craziness coming at you-I mean, walking down the street to the store was like surviving an episode of Animal Kingdom without the safari gear!

What would you like to resolve?

There are millions of people walking around the globe who do not know who their father is. It creates such a hole. At some point, I was told that I was biracial, although I didn't believe it, but the denial finally lifted when I got a DNA test and discovered that it was true. I have 48 percent European DNA. So, I always wanted to know the ethnic heritage of my father. Thanks to DNA testing, I was able to confirm that he was white (European DNA) but that's all they could tell me. If it had been my mother who was white (mitochondrial DNA) they could have told me the region of my maternal ancestors. It leaves a hole inside of course when you don't know who your father is. No name. No photo. No history. I wish the world would institute a global DNA bank-where everyone had to put their DNA into a bank, then this way whenever someone wanted to find people related to them, they could. Unlike the search through adoption records, you wouldn't even have to know the name of the person-just submitting your DNA would provide the match-because there is always someone in the world who is related to you. We are all connected. So all those people who are related to my father, I never got to meet. It would have been cool.

This month, I became a bone marrow donor. It's possible through HLA tissue typing that they will be able to tell me POSSIBLY the ethnic group of my father. I have to wait six weeks. I hope I find out! That will be so cool-to finally know my birth father's ethnic heritage!

What's the inspiration behind your teen series Catwalk?

Fashion! On a recent AOL study, fashion designer was in the TOP TEN category of dream careers. And there practically isn't a girl alive who doesn't fantasize about what it would be like to be a MODEL. I was a model-for one glorious year-and wish I had the emotional stamina to have pursued it, but the aftermath of growing up in foster care overwhelmed my life.

CATWALK shows the inner workings of the fashion world. Like with Cheetah Girls, I envision CATWALK in a synergistic way: I see the characters in the books, but I see them on the screen, the style and even the opportunity to empower teens through runway lessons and live fashion show events. That's how I think?Fashion is a global force-it's a way to bring multi-culturism into the forefront-my characters are from all parts of the globe-and I'm glad I got to create a few gay teen characters too as they are an essential part of any fashionable tale. One of the CATWALK characters, Nole Canoli, was inspired by my close friend, Nole Marin, who is a fashion stylist and former judge on America's Next Top Model. He was also on the ABC show True Beauty. I can't wait to see that character come to life on screen-prancing around with his thick black Gucci glasses on his pudgy face-and carrying his pooch Countess Coco in his Prada bag!

In CATWALK, the characters have their own glossary of words. What is a FELINE FATALE?

It's a girl who worships at the altar of pinkdown-because pink is not just a color, it's a cat=itude. It's a girl who never says goodbye to HELLO KITTY and wears her catty style with confidence!

The Cheetah Girls was an international onscreen success. Are there any plans To bring CATWALK to TV?

YES! CATWALK has been optioned by TEEN NICK network for a TV series! Like the Cheetah Girls, the CATWALK characters are destined to have an onscreen shelf life?And I'm delirious that the TEEN NICK network is so excited about it. They are the perfect network for it-they have a built in fan base with teens-many of whom are avid DeGrassi fans--I can't count the number of Cheetah Girls fans who are obsessed with DeGrassi. They love it. Also, TEEN NICK depicts real teens-and that's what I'm aiming for-a campy, multi-cultural and fashionable platform. Development is what it is, but I can only keep my fingers crossed that the diverse CATWALK characters will get their day onscreen. They deserve it! It took five years for the first Cheetah Girls movie to find its way onscreen. TV and film development is a long process-and I plan on kissing a lot of catnip and crosses to keep my strength up?.!

This time around though, I will serve as executive producer and co-write the pilot with Jacob Epstein, who was an EP on SHARK and WITHOUT A TRACE. His wife, Susie Norris Epstein, for VP of SERIES for Disney Channel, pursued vigorously to snag the rights to the Cheetah Girls. So she is also attached and I really dig her style and sense of family dynamics. She's a dedicated mother and tres stylish and funny. When you're dealing with something like fashion, there is nothing better than bringing the story alive on the screen. Sashay, parlay!

Were fans upset that Raven did not reprise her beloved role as Galleria Garibaldi in the third movie sequel, `Cheetah Girls: One World?'

They were so disappointed that my computer froze from all the sad emails! The avalanche of response from fans everywhere I go is palpable. And we're talking about children, so they really don't understand reality. The truth is, when a talent becomes closely related to a beloved character-such as Galleria Garibaldi, the leader of The Cheetah Girls-you shouldn't disappoint. Just dust off the debris and don't disappoint the fans! Simply put, Raven could have done the third movie-and went back to crafting her master plan for "solo'' stardom. Even Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall put aside their differences to go on the stroll-again-in their well-worn Manolos to film the movie version of "Sex and The City.'' But, here you have a young black actress-singer, who has an even bigger responsibility to her fans because she is an even bigger role model because of the limited opportunities that Black actresses are given to create such memorable characters--and what does she do: opt out of the third Cheetah Girls sequel, so she could do, what? "College Road Trip''? Puhleese-fire the psychic who advised steering her star vehicle on that "road-less-traveled'' to the box office because, "knock, knock'': her crystal ball is cracking, hello! Of course, I wish her well, but the rule of the Hollywood jungle is simple: once a cheetah, always a cheetah--so show their spots!

What's in for fashion for fall?

Pink Cheetah! It's always in. And short booties worn with footless textured tights. Headbands are skinnier and skirts are not as short as last year. So give those micro minis to a toddler consignment store. Maxi coats are in for winter worn with fur pom=pom hats-preferably pink ones.

What's in store for the CATWALK series?

The second book in the series - CATWALK: STRIKE A POSE will hit bookstores on September 8. Visit Cheetahrama

More about Deborah:
For Deborah Gregory, a best-selling author and award-winning writer who had contributed to Essence, Redbook, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe and More, survival was crucial. Homeless on the sidewalks of Brooklyn at age three with her single mother and two sisters, Gregory was separated from her family and became a ward of the State. She spent her childhood in the New York City foster care system under ACS until she aged out of the system at 18. Upon becoming a journalist, in 1990 she spent a large portion of her career searching for the mother who was committed and piecing together the puzzle of her early years and a painful family legacy. She channeled her pain into writing, creating diverse characters that would empower and unite tween and teen girls across the country.

"The Cheetah Girls" unprecedented franchise success for the Disney Channel began with the airing of the first Cheetah Girls movie in 2003. Within two years of the movie's debut, the fictional group gained a staggering global fan base, topped the soundtrack charts with a double-platinum soundtrack and enjoyed a highly-rated DVD release. In 2006, "The Cheetah Girls 2" made its debut and was the #1 basic cable movie that year among kids 6-11 and tweens 9-14.

The CATWALK series has officially been optioned by The N (which will be renamed TeenNick in the fall) for development. Girls across the U.S. will fall in love once again with Gregory's dynamic and diverse urban characters who represent survival.

Gregory will also serve as the television series' executive producer and co-write the pilot episode with TV veteran scribe Jacob Epstein ("Shark" and "Without A Trace"). Susie Norris-Epstein also serves as the series Executive Producer. Norris-Epstein was Vice President, Series Television for the Disney Channel, where she was responsible for developing the smash hit, Lizzie McGuire, which launched the career of teen star, Hillary Duff, and discovered The Cheetah Girls book series before its initial publication in 1999, snagging the dramatic rights in the process.

Gregory's Catwalk deal with The N was brokered by Lauren Heller Whitney of the William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and attorney, Lisa Davis, a senior partner at Kurnit, Klein, Selz law firm in New York City.