AT 10:20 A.M., Raven-Symoné is as chipper as her alter-ego, the wacky, offbeat teen on Disney's hit show "That's So Raven," even though she's conducting a telephone interview in the middle of her daily exercise workout.
"I'm walking," she pants, between breathless giggles, "and people around me are making me laugh."
Raven was just a baby when the Ford Modeling Agency signed her to a contract. And who can forget her portrayal of chubby-cheeked Huxtable granddaughter Olivia Kendall on "The Cosby Show." Now 22, she's managed to navigate the fickle tides of Hollywood while building a solid fan base by spreading her message of self-esteem, body acceptance and empowerment to young women in Every City, USA.
Keeping her act clean has paid off for the blossoming media mogul. The Raven brand is valued at $400 million, since "That's So Raven" ruled the Disney Channel for four seasons (the network still airs the reruns) and spawned merchandise deals for everything from perfumes and clothing. Earlier this year, Raven played bubbly high school senior Melanie Porter in "College Road Trip" with Martin Lawrence and executive-produced the flick. And last August, she took a page from the Martha Stewart playbook when she decided to launch ravensymonepresents.com, her interactive 'tween-friendly lifestyle Web site with videos and do-it-yourself crafting tips.
As if the hefty paychecks and all-around success aren't enough, she found time to cut a fourth studio album titled - what else? - "Raven-Symoné," released late last month. (A pajama party-themed tour was scheduled to play the Liacouras Center on May 27, but it was postponed.)
On the CD, fans will find the former Cosby kid serving up a heaping portion of her trademark effervescence alongside a slice or two of attitude, all of which she insists is completely authentic Raven. "I'm just trying to be me and if you like that, I love you. If you don't, I'm sorry."
Q. People might not know, but you're no stranger to the recording studio. What was different about working on this latest album?
A. I didn't write. I worked with A-list producers. Not that I didn't work with A-list producers last time, but more on the R&B side this time. I have kind of a new voice on this one.
I think the songs are a little bit more grown up and talking about some relationship situations, which I really don't like talking about. But the people I'm working with were like, "That situation in your life needs to be talked about." I'm like, "No, no it's personal!"
Q. Are you able to have a normal personal life if you keep it away from the public?
A. It's so much easier. And I don't think it's anybody's business. If I'm walking down the street and somebody just comes up to me - I might have just seen them at the store the other day because they work there - I'm not just going to ask, "Hey, who're you dating?" But at the same time, I understand why people need that. They want to feel closer to you. I want to give that information when I'm ready to give that information. I don't want somebody to take it.
Q. Do you think younger fans will be able to relate to this side of Raven?
A. I think so. There's nothing in there that's going to go over their heads. I never do that. I think that [the songs are] still fun, they're energetic, you still have your party tracks. You'd be surprised. Younger kids these days - I'm not saying the 7-year-olds or whatever - but 13-year-olds and 12-year-olds, they have guy problems, too.
Q. "The Cosby Show" was a long time ago in TV years. How do you respond to people who keep calling you Olivia?
A. That's exactly what I say: "You know what? That was almost 15 years ago." But people understand now and I get Raven Baxter a lot more. The Olivia Kendall comes up. They're like "I remember," and I'm like, "Thank you!"
Q. Do you feel confident that you have more of a say in making career decisions?
A. It's scary because people are looking at you and if you mess up, the people that I surround myself with, they'll tell me to my face, but some people won't tell you to your face and they'll talk bad behind your back. It's having that responsibility of maybe messing up your career because you want to do something.
Q. Your Web site ravensymonepresents.com has a young Martha Stewart kind of feel. Are you really into that sort of thing?
A. I admire Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray, The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Childs, all of that. I said I want to do it my way and that's what [the Web site] is.
Hopefully, it will grow into more things: a cookbook, craftbook, TV show, licensing, materials. Anything and everything that we can do, that's what I want to do. I think it's very important to shoot for the moon, and if you only get to the second star on the right, at least you got close.
Q. What else would you like to branch out into?
A. A music label, managing artists. My production company is already up and running, cranking out more material that caters to the self-confidence and self-respect of females.
What else is there in the entertainment business that I need to do? Whatever else I want to do. I'm already producing. I'd love to direct. I'm not a really good writer, but I can learn.
Q. Are you still working out right now?
A. I'm doing sit-ups. Forgive me.
Q. Do you like hitting the gym or is it just a necessary evil?
A. It's a necessary evilness. I just know that it needs to happen, so I do what I can and I do it well. Do as many sit-ups as you can because, you know, I might be luscious and thick, but it doesn't mean I don't have abs. It's there. You just can't see them like Janet's [Jackson].
Q. You're always talking about the importance of self-esteem and empowering young women. What's it like for you, being "luscious and thick" in young Hollywood?
A. I think it's very important to realize that if you look at people on the street, that's normal. The things that you see in magazines are airbrushed and you have girdles and Spanx and tuggies and pullies on, when you're taking those pictures.
I fluctuate just like a lot of people in the normal world. I have diabetes in my family and I'm working to not get that. I'm not working to be a size 2, so I can fit into the hottest outfit.
And not everybody is built like that. I don't think it's fair to make whoever's not built like that feel like they have to work super-duper extra hard just to be pretty.
Q. It's hard to believe that people are still critical of your body despite your success. Do you still feel like it's an issue for you?
A. I still get it to this day. If I don't exercise, they're like, "Why didn't you exercise today?" I'm tired!
I really can't please everybody. I can only please myself and I'm very happy with myself. *