From ‘Facts of Life’ to ‘Living Single’ to ‘Real Housewives’: Kim Fields Talks Female Friendships on TV

(Credit: Getty Images/Everett Collection)
(Credit: Getty Images/Everett Collection)

For many viewers, the girls of the Eastland School on Facts of Life are so representative of female friendships that it almost feels like Blair, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie were our friends. Ditto the women of Living Single, and plenty of women from the various casts of Real Housewives. One thing those series have in common: Kim Fields, the former child star who’s experienced female friendship on TV at every age.

Fields, who will celebrate 40 years in the entertainment business with an all-star event later this year and her memoir, Blessed Life, from FaithWords/Hachette in 2017, talked to Yahoo TV about being part of the TV friendships that still mean so much to so many fans, and about how she’s still learning lessons about her own friendships from TV (yes, from that turbulent season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta).

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You have such a unique perspective on female friendships on TV: You were on The Facts of Life as a teen, Living Single as an adult, and then the reality of Real Housewives of Atlanta. There’s really no one else in TV history with all those different perspectives. That’s cool.
Oh, wow, thank you. It’s funny, I don’t put things like that, so it’s nice to hear that. We’ll have to get [you] to come to the 40th anniversary celebration to talk about me being a history-maker in that regard.

What is this celebration?
We are doing an all-star [event] to celebrate the blessing quite honestly of my 40 years in show business. We’ve gotten such great responses from so many fantastic celebrities that are either attending, or if they can’t attend in person, they’ll be there via satellite or doing a greeting of some sort. It’s really exciting to get such love from my peers and colleagues.

Nancy McKeon, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel in 'The Facts of Life' (Credit: Everett Collection)
Nancy McKeon, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel in “The Facts of Life.” (Credit: Everett Collection)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear this, but for so many of us, Facts of Life was probably the first time we had seen female friendship represented on TV. Who were some of your favorite TV female friendships?
That’s an interesting question for me, because, for the most part, I’m not a girls’ night out, chick flick… I’m not that friend. It’s so ironic to me that I’ve been blessed consistently with these types of projects that have put me in that environment. Golden Girls was always just fantastic, fantastic writing and acting, of course. Honestly, I would be remiss if I did not say Living Single. I mean, in all real talk, even if I wasn’t on that show, I would have watched that show. It’s timeless to me. The writing, the characters, and the dynamics of that interaction… while it’s touted as a show about these women, and I realize that that’s the entry point for this article, it was just so prolific in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways, colorless. We dealt very few times with things that were about or made us different because of our color. That’s why we have so many fans. And the chemistry. I think, really, when you’re talking about any sort of ensemble piece, that’s what you’re really looking at, the chemistry, and how you catch that lightning in a bottle.

Erika Alexander, Queen Latifah, Fields, Kim Coles in 'Living Single' (Credit: Everett Collection)
Erika Alexander, Queen Latifah, Fields, and Kim Coles in “Living Single.” (Credit: Everett Collection)

Was that instant with the Living Single cast?
Very, very much so. I clearly remember the very first day that we all met before we started filming, and we were already such fans of each other. The ground zero for everybody was that there was a lot of respect and admiration for each other’s work, long before any of us met. And we genuinely enjoyed each other. We traveled as a pack, practically, that first season, because we enjoyed each other’s company so much, on and off of camera. That camaraderie is so real, so very real.

Even with The Facts of Life, that camaraderie and that chemistry was real. It truly was a coming-of-age show, before that phrase was popular. We were all finding our way growing up. Even for Lisa [Whelchel], who was already a teenager by the time the show was starting, but she still had those growing pains. People think coming of age stops when you hit maybe 18 or 21. Not only are you still coming of age when you hit a certain decade and then that next decade, but you actually still do have growing pains. I actually stumbled upon some of those when I was doing Real Housewives of Atlanta. So that chemistry was very, very real. Yes, you can be wonderful actors and, you know, fake it until you make it, manufacture it. Even with fantastic writing, you can get away with it for a little while, but I think people overall can see what’s genuine.

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You were 9 years old when you started on Facts of Life, playing 12-year-old Tootie. Was being on the show and being with all of these other girls your age, some a little older, similar to being at school and learning things from your friends?
Very much so. Very much so. I mean, I’m in the process of working on my autobiography, and one of the stories I share is when I first started shaving my legs. I didn’t know what to do, and the only person I knew that I thought to call was Nancy McKeon. “Hey. What do I do?” She’s like, “OK, well, you know, start at the bottom and come up.” When she was getting her driver’s license, we were in school with our tutor. With her driver’s ed, I’m in the back seat, because, what are they going to do? Leave me in the classroom at the studio? Those types of things are very real, for me certainly.

And, as I talked about, you have those kinds of growing pains, and there are different types of growing pains as an adult. It was well-documented [on The Real Housewives of Atlanta] when I had the realization that I had sort of lost myself, happily so, as a wife and mother and career woman, and didn’t realize that I needed time for myself, that I had to make Kim a priority. That was an absolute revelation for me. Who knew that you even had growing pains in your 40s? But that’s real.

(Credit: Everett Collection)
“The Facts of Life” (Credit: Everett Collection)

Because you were pretty much always the youngest, or one of the youngest, on the show, how much of your views about friendship were formed on the show, either by the storylines or during your time with your castmates?
Oh, girl. You’re asking me to think way back. Also, you don’t think in these terms. When you are a kid just going to school, it’s just that. You’re going to school. Unless something happens, whether that’s either bullying or racism or just kids being mean or whatever, you don’t really think in terms of this informing my idea of friendship. We’re just all friends. We were always equals. I never felt less than either because of my age or the color of my skin. I also never felt like I was spoiled because I was the “baby.” I can’t really say that the storylines affected [my views of friendship]. We were just interacting. They were like older sisters to me, and good friends. Even the episode when Tootie was dealing with her blackness [Season 2’s “Who Am I?”], that was pure acting for me, because Kim wasn’t going through that. Kim didn’t have that interaction with the people on the show. Tootie was looked upon as one of the Facts of Life girls. She was never a footnote. She was never a “token,” in all real talk. When that episode came up, I totally understood it was very important for that episode to happen, because there were plenty of people, plenty of kids, plenty of girls, who felt that way. That just wasn’t how I ever felt. I didn’t have that experience. That wasn’t my testimony.

When Living Single came along, did you hesitate at all to do another female-centric ensemble comedy or did you seek out another show like that?
I didn’t seek it out. I sought out the showrunner, Yvette Lee. I sought her out because I really wanted to do a romantic comedy, and I felt like I was very poised for rom-com material as an actor. She just wasn’t available to develop something like that with me. It was one of those things where she let me know what she was working on. What was exciting about it for me, individually speaking, was the type of role. Regine was delicious to play. No. 1, she was so unlike anything I’d ever done. She was so unlike Kim. For me, the type of actor that I am, I always look forward to and look for pieces that are going to challenge and stimulate me creatively, and that completely did. First and foremost, I was playing a grownup, which I hadn’t done before, so that was exciting. I didn’t even see it as an urban or African-American ensemble, and that being different because in my previous gig it was all non-African-American. That really wasn’t my perspective. Again, because Yvette didn’t write us that way, and that wasn’t the core of the show. That wasn’t the perspective. It was just wonderful to play that character in that environment. I was swimming in waters that I hadn’t swum in before.

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OK, Real Housewives: first of all, you’ve decided for sure that you won’t return for next season?
Well, so far, the way that the season has been going and with that schedule and everything, we knew that it was a toe-in-the-water kind of thing, to just see in terms of the genre itself and the impact on our calendar and our lifestyle with how we work. I’m a working actor, director, producer. [Real Housewives] was never to be in first position in my career. It was in first position for that genre. We always knew that other things were coming up. As it stands right now, I believe their season is just about wrapped. I’ve been busy working. It’s safe to say that at this point in time, Season 9 isn’t a part of my testimony, just because of other work that I’ve been involved in.

Do you feel that it was a good or valuable experience, in spite of some things that weren’t pleasant, obviously?

Oh, very much so. I did an interview [recently], and somebody said, “Oh, I’m glad that reality thing didn’t work out.” I said, “Au contraire, mon frère. It worked out tremendously.” You have to define for everybody, what does “work out” mean? For us, if we had a checklist, we checked off every box for every item that we kind of set for ourselves, if you will, creatively speaking, social media speaking, morally speaking, comedically, lifestyle. We really covered the gamut and made an impact and certainly felt that it was a blessing to be utilized, to be in that show, that genre. Because at the end of the day, we realized our presence had such an impact on viewers, whether it was their regular viewers, whether it was viewers who were tuning in just to see, “What the heck?” At the end of the day, just so many people, millions of people between social media and when I’m out at appearances and things, come let us know what an impact that we made, how much they appreciated our dynamic. Not to take away from any of the dynamics that already existed there. We were never invited to that party to fit in, because where’s the fun in that? We were invited to be who we are.

A lot of viewers felt you were too “normal,” too sane, to fit in to the over-the-top world of the Housewives, and the viewers who would say that meant it as a compliment. Is that the feedback that most fans give you?

That’s some feedback that we’ve gotten, but from the industry and from the public. Again, that is not our sentiment. I want to be crystal clear on that. We have certainly gotten feedback, a tremendous amount of feedback, from people who are married, saying that they really appreciated [my] marriage in a positive way, people that actually work on their marriage in a positive way. Again, because it seems like everything that you say in this environment is immediately shade scrutinized, there’s no shade here. We were portrayed how we are. We were captured in terms of who we are as parents, who I am as a mother, who I am as a wife, who I am in my career, and about my business, and interacting through conflict and difficult situations. Even if you’re not a fan of the show but you were a fan of mine, or not a fan of mine but you’re a die-hard brand fan, people were very supportive and applauded, even, how we navigated through some dicey waters at times.

Did you have any expectations that you would perhaps make lasting friendships on the show?
I don’t really approach anything like that, any gig, or even real life. I have wonderful friends at my sons’ schools. I don’t really approach things as, “I’m looking forward to making new friends or lifelong friends,” that sort of thing. [My husband] Chris really supported and inspired and encouraged this part of it. We even had a scene like this on the show where he was saying, “You don’t really go with the girls and get your nails done. You don’t really know the fringe value in that.” I go to get my nails done if I have to be on camera. I don’t know that there’s value in just going and getting your nails done, I don’t realize there’s value in hanging out to do a trip with the ladies and just a “What’s going on in your world, what’s going on in my world” sort of thing. I was looking forward to that.

What’s next for you?
We’re very excited about [the book], and just putting all these 40 years on the page. Then, like I said, at the end of the year, we have this big all-star celebration that the team has been working on. I’m finishing up a film right now, a faith-based film called A Question of Faith, that stars myself and Richard T. Jones, T.C. Stallings, Gregory Alan Williams, C. Thomas Howell. It’s a really great cast. Very dramatic film, very important film, because quite often, your faith is rocked and you don’t know how to really go down that path and navigate through that process. Sometimes people end up angry, and they stay angry. People end up depressed, and they stay depressed. It was really exciting to be a part of such a very special project. I’m doing a great deal of speaking engagements, and we’re lining up the next project in terms of a TV series. We’ve got a couple of irons in the fire for that.

Do you have a dream project, a type of series you’d like to do?
There’s so many because, even though I’ve been blessed to be in this a long time, just like there’s still so much life to live, there are still so many characters to play. My husband surprised me on a date this afternoon and said, “We’re going to see The Magnificent Seven.” It’s just completely awe-inspiring. Wonderful, wonderful film. We knew it would be. I was looking at Ethan Hawke, and I’m going, “Man, do your thing. You have been crushing it since you were a kid.” I mean, he’s just wonderful in it. Of course, there’s Denzel [Washington] and there’s Chris Pratt, all these other fantastic actors, but they don’t have that same backstory that Ethan Hawke has. Same with Robert Downey, Jr. I look at them, and I’m going, “Wow. OK. Yeah. Yeah. I can see that you still have that fire in your belly for what we do.” For me, there are so many amazing characters to play, so much great writing I hope to sink my teeth into, so many phenomenal stories that I’d love to tell as a filmmaker, as a TV producer, as a content provider, as a director.