By Percy Crawford (@MrLouis1ana)
(AllHipHop Features) Straight up we owe Bern Nadette Stanis a great debt. The former beauty queen-turned-actress went on to land the iconic role of Thelma in the hit show “Good Times." The rest, as the cliche says, is history. Stanis emerged in the role as the daughter of James & Florida Evans, played by John Amos and late, great Esther Rolle respectively. She was also flanked by siblings, J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) and Michael Evans (Ralph Carter). As Thelma, Stanis became the first African American female teenager to grace a television set. Thanks to the efforts of Stanis, we have seen everybody from Regina King to Lisa Bonet to singer Brady to Yara Shahidi and more go on to play influential Black teens. After starring on “Good Times” from 1974-1979, she would make several appearances on other sitcoms, movies as well as TV commercials. On top of it all, Stanis has also written 3-books - one on relationships, another on finances and another detailing the journey of her mother’s final days before passing away from Alzheimer’s.
Percy Crawford had the privilege and honor of talking to Bern Nadette Stanis about her role as, Thelma, Esther Rolle’s impact on her career as well as how “Good Times” opened up doors for many that followed behind her.
AllHipHop: I wanted to interview someone who I felt was a trailblazer and a trendsetter for “National Women’s Month,” and you immediately came to mind. Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with me. How are you doing?
Bern Nadette Stanis: I have been great. Things have been wonderful.
AllHipHop: Every interview that I found on you, you have a huge smile on your face, and you are always positive. You must be in a really good place in life right now.
Bern Nadette Stanis: I am happy with life. I’m very happy with life. Since I was a very little girl I believe in, God. I was just one of those little girls that believed. I believe that everything happens when it happens and when it doesn’t happen it’s also a good reason. I just believe that way. So, things may happen positive and I may want something to happen or something that happens that’s negative it may seem like negative, but it turns out positive because my faith is strong. I’m happy because, I get up every morning and everything still works (laughing). My children are healthy, and I learned one thing in life, I don’t care how much money you have or how much fame you have, if you don’t have health, you absolutely have nothing.
AllHipHop: I won’t say your age, but it’s out there on the internet and I swear you don’t look a day over 30. How do you stay looking so amazing after all of these years?
Bern Nadette Stanis: I think it has something to do with being young at heart. I actually don’t feel my age. If someone never recorded age, I don’t know what age I would be. I don’t record age I record experience. Now, the longer you live you have more experience. According to my experiences, I’m that age (laughing).
AllHipHop: You were the first African American female teenager to ever be on television. That is a huge deal because it obviously opened up the doors for so many others. What does that mean to you?
Bern Nadette Stanis: It is a big deal. I think that because I have traveled so much with the books and things that I have done and the plays that I have done, I have met so many of my fan’s person to person. What they tell me is what, Thelma meant to them. And what I represented to them was a black girl, coming from an impoverished place, which is where I grew up. I grew up in, Brownsville, Brooklyn. So, when they introduced me to the character, I knew her. You couldn’t tell me that a person like that didn’t exist, the way I portrayed her because I did. I did her. We came from a poor environment in the projects, but my parents were very positive. They invested in education rather than buildings and houses. They said, “We are going to invest in these 5-children.” They were strict parents, but they were loving parents. They taught us things and what my father would always say is, “What’s around you, don’t have to be in you.” No matter where I was in life. Even when I went to Hollywood at a young age. My mother left me there at 18 or 19-years old. I had the mindset of, “Anything you guys are doing, I have seen before.” You see it in the projects. You see everything. I may be young, but I’m not green to it. I understand where they were coming from, so keep doing you because I’m going to do me. With that in mind, they were confident that I would be okay. I had to show them that I would never let them down and I was okay.
AllHipHop: You actually somewhat answered one of my questions for you. The role of, Thelma seemed so natural and you truly made it look easy. Was that because they let you, be you?
Bern Nadette Stanis: I studied for a couple of years at, Juilliard. Juilliard taught me the basics of what to do with a character. So, I knew how to do the whole acting thing. That whole thing was there. But now I had to sprinkle it with growing up in the projects and how it was. You can’t tell me that young women don’t have aspirations to be doctors to be lawyers. I think because of that, it opened up a universal world to a bird’s eye view of a black family and a black female teenager in the ghetto is really about. They didn’t even know how to write for me. It was Esther Rolle. I talked to Esther Rolle, I used to call her mom. I said, “Mom, I want to do more. It’s not enough for me.” They would only give me like, “Hey mom,” “Hey dad,” “Shut up, JJ,” and then I was back in the bathroom, right? So, Esther demanded that because, JJ had a lot to say, Michael had a lot to say, she wanted to give her daughter a voice and a lot to say. She wanted her daughter to have a voice. So, I had to go up to the producers and sit down with them and tell them who, Thelma was.
AllHipHop: I have heard stories of, Esther Rolle being very powerful on that set and not playing any games. It sounds like she really looked out for you. I’m sure she was very instrumental in your growth.
Bern Nadette Stanis: Very! And what I loved about her is that she embraced me. She was such a wonderful woman. I understood her so well. It was like instant understanding. I came in and I was going to be her daughter whether she liked it or not. She had no choice, okay. She had no children and I was going to be the perfect daughter, so come on, I was her daughter. She was like, “You get on my nerves. Go home. I’m like, “No! I’m not going home, I’m coming to your house and you are going to cook for me and I’m going to eat and do our scripts.” She couldn’t get rid of me. I loved her. I loved her because she was fair, I loved her because she was brilliant, and I loved her because she was wise. And more importantly than anything, she had no jealousy or envy in her at all.
AllHipHop: We have witnessed it end very badly for a lot of child stars yet, you have avoided the downfalls of being a star at such a young age. Would you say your upbringing helped you avoid what we see so many child stars go through?
Bern Nadette Stanis: Yes! It was because of my parents and only because of my parents. I made a decision when I was 7-years old, when my grandmother passed away and I looked at my mother and she had these babies, and she was in the ghetto and she had no brothers and sisters and I loved my grandmother so much. I looked at her and I said, “I have to help her. She has no one.” That’s in my little girl mind. So, all of my life I wanted to do the best I could for her. And also, my father who was very-very wise. He was born in America, but my grandparents are from, Grenada. He is like the first generation American. He knew the struggle of what it is to live in, Grenada because he was raised there and to see the opportunities in America. So, the blending of that experience and my mother being from, Louisiana. She’s from, Jeanerette, Louisiana and she is the only child from a single parent home. So, the combination and knowing their stories… they put together a successful chemistry. Whatever that was, they were not playing with us and they were loving parents. They were like, “You’re going to do this, you’re going to do that and you’re going to do this.” And we did that. I never wanted to let them down because I saw the struggle. I saw what they gave up, that they gave up their young beautiful lives for us.
AllHipHop: When you look at, Brandy who played “Moesha,” Kellie Williams who played, “Laura” on “Family Matters, the entire cast of “A Different World,” were African American women who were right outside of their teenage years and numerous other sitcoms. To know you opened that door and made it possible for them has to make you feel very special for your contribution.
Bern Nadette Stanis: I am so very proud. I am very very proud of them. I don’t know if they really reflect on me because they are young. They may not understand the shoulders that they stand on, but I’m very proud of them and they all done pretty well. Even my daughters, I have daughters and they are not in the business like that because they have been in the business all of their lives because of me. But I have a daughter and she want to sing, and she sings beautifully. I said, “You know, then you’re going to sing. We are going to get you to sing,” and she says, “Okay mommy.” And then the other one is going to be a doctor. So, when they see people moving along and everything, they are happy to see that. I am happy to see young black women being successful; very much so.
AllHipHop: I think because of TV One, and the internet, you probably have a broader young fan base than you think. Do you run across that a lot?
Bern Nadette Stanis: Oh yes! I do. As a matter of fact, I do a lot of military tours because my father was in the army. He loved being in the army, so I just decided to be a part of that also. And to share with the soldiers because I love what they are doing. When I see that it just shows what I done didn’t go unnoticed.
AllHipHop: You were every man’s crush. You are still every man’s crush. How is it to be looked at as a sex symbol for such an extended period of time?
Bern Nadette Stanis: Now I’m going to tell you the truth, I didn’t even realize that I was a sex symbol. I was just me all the time. This is how I was growing up. I had the afro, the tiny waste and everything. But my mommy had that, and my grandmother had that, so that runs in my family. I was just one of the three. I didn’t realize then what that was. I only realized it as I started touring later on and people would say, “Oh my God, I wanted to be you. Your body and all of the men loved you.” The men loved me because I was the first one and they had never seen that before. I was just so thankful that… thank God I had a nice body and things like that. But it never affected me like that. I didn’t know I was a sex symbol. I just knew I was “Thelma,” trying to be an educated girl and trying to keep my family together. I was just ignorant to that. I realize it now though.
AllHipHop: Regina King recently won an Oscar and that was such a huge moment, not just for African American women, but she has been on the grind for a long time. I know you were a little before her, but did you know Regina at all?
Bern Nadette Stanis: I knew Regina and her sister. I am extremely proud of her because coming from a sitcom, they gave her a break, they gave her chances to do movies and things like that. I came earlier than she did, so in my day… in the beginning they didn’t know what to do. They wouldn’t put me in movies; maybe because I looked like, “Thelma.” So, I didn’t get the chances to do the things that she did do. And I’m very proud that she was able to do that. Hopefully… eventually I will be able to do more movies and things like that because everything has progressed. People are not as narrow minded as they used to be.
AllHipHop: You have obviously inspired generations of actresses, but who inspired you? Who did you idolize on your journey?
Bern Nadette Stanis: They didn’t have black women that I could look up to except for, Lena Horne. I liked her spirit. My mother loved her so much, so I knew a lot about her. I always looked at her and although she was a model, her spirit was a true black woman. So, I admired her especially in the older years when she was there speaking for us and things like that. I admired that fact that she went through so much, yet she maintained her professionalism, she maintained who she really was and that was one of my inspirations. Maya Angelou… although I did not meet her, Esther Rolle was a friend of hers. So, what I used to do… because I knew I was going to meet her eventually, but Esther passed before I got a chance to. I would read my poetry to, Esther Rolle; I’m a poet. And Esther used to say, “I love your poetry.” And I said to her one day, “Mom, do you think, Maya Angelou would love my poetry?” She said, “Of course she would my dear. If course, she would.” So, I admired Maya Angelou for her intellect and her ability to get words across because that’s what I do to.
AllHipHop: Before I let you go, you wrote an amazing book about relationships and another amazing book about taking care of your mother when she was dying from Alzheimer’s. What made you want to put both experiences on paper?
Bern Nadette Stanis: The relationship book, I became the big sister to so many people and I still am. I don’t know what it is, but I always wanted to be a doctor. If you ever saw my high school book it said, “I’m going to be a dancer or a psychologist.” I love the mind. So, I still study it, I still can give advice and I’m like a life coach now. I do that because that’s a passion for me. It just so happens, “Good Times” came in the middle of that and I became, “Thelma.” But my passion is psychology and that whole thing. So… I became the big sister to so many people, they start telling me all of their problems, and I would give them the answers that helped them. As I traveled, I realized that many people had the same problems, so I wrote that book on relationships, “Situations 101Relationships: The Good, The Bad… and the Ugly.” As I was traveling promoting the book on relationships, I realized that finances have a very big part of breaking up relationships. So, I wrote a book called, “Situations 101: Finances.” So, that was two books. Then while I was going on my touring, my mother got sick with Alzheimer’s. so, I had to take mommy with my everywhere. So, all of a sudden, the course that I was walking on as far as relationships and finances and all of that’s stuff, changed. So, when mommy passed away, that’s when I wrote the book, “The Last Night: A Caregiver’s Journey Through Transition and Beyond.” I wanted to honor my mother, her life, what she has done for me, how she got me where I am, and the strength that she had for my father. My father was murdered when he was 66 and my mother was 59. That’s when I saw my mother go down. It’s all in the book.
AllHipHop: Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to me. It is an extreme honor and a pleasure, and I wish you the very best moving forward. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Bern Nadette Stanis: If you could just let your audience and my fans know where they could find me on social media that would be great. My Instagram is @thelmaofgoodtimes, my Facebook is, Bern Nadette Stanis and my Twitter is, @thelmagoodtimes.