Debbie allen Interview San Francisco Chronicle 2009

During the run of the "Fame" television series, Debbie Allen would admonish students about the costs of fame.  Sweat, she'd say as dance teacher Lydia Grant, was how they'd start paying right there in her dance class.

More than 20 years after the original 1980 "Fame" movie and the 1982-87 television series it spawned, Allen says fame isn't what it used to be.

"Fame is out of control," she says by phone during a break in her packed schedule, which includes directing a revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in London, directing and choreographing Mariah Carey's upcoming Las Vegas show, and running her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.

"People who have done very little and then decide to be a contestant on a reality show can be famous overnight, and they'll probably get a part in a movie before someone who's trained their whole life. It's crazy. It's way out of control."

New approaches to stardom and name recognition, like reality TV and the Internet, are sprinkled throughout the updated big screen remake of "Fame." One student is tapped by a casting director who sees a video of her on YouTube.

Allen, who was featured in the original film in a small part as Lydia Grant and revived the character for a starring role in the 1980s series, returns to the urban high school setting where teens with dreams of musical and theatrical stardom come to hone their craft.

In the newest version of "Fame," opening nationwide Friday, Allen plays Angela Simms, a high school principal who offers sage advice and encouragement to students in a no-nonsense manner. The character is a lot like Lydia Grant, a role Allen says is patterned after her and most dance teachers she's known.

Allen welcomes the Simms-Grant comparison and offers a suggestion to moviegoers who might be confused seeing her play a "Fame" character of a different name.

"If you want to think of her as Lydia Grant, then go right ahead," she said. "I did. I told (filmmakers) her name is Lydia Simms. Lydia Grant got married and now she's Simms. That's how people are going to look at it, so why fight that perception?"

Allen was born to an artistic family in Houston and spent part of her childhood in Mexico.

Her mother is Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and playwright Vivian Ayers. Her siblings include an actress sister ("The Cosby Show's" Phylicia Ayers-Allen) and a jazz musician brother (Tex Allen). Allen, 59, says her childhood days spent living south of the border were like "living without boundaries."

The experience took her away from racism and segregation in 1950s Texas, the reason Allen's mother moved her brood there, and made her fluent in Spanish.

"It really opened my eyes to the universe," she says. "It made me see what's out there, what's possible."

Allen, a three-time Emmy winner for choreography, including two wins for her work on the "Fame" series, says the newest addition to the "Fame" franchise continues to look at the universal theme of success and what we're willing to do for it.

"It's about finding your own path, defining your life," she says. "It captures what's going on with a lot of people, not just dancers and actors. It speaks to that passion in life, that thing in all of us that moves us and keeps us doing what we love to do." This article appeared on page Q - 25 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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