In 1988, a 13-year-old Cherie Johnson walked out of NBC Studios and said goodbye to her first job: playing Punky Brewster’s best friend Cherie, a role that would stay with her for the rest of her life. The sitcom, starring Soleil Moon Frye as a spunky girl being raised by a foster parent, had connected with fans of all ages. But for Johnson, it was part of her identity. “I don’t know who Cherie the character is and Cherie the girl is, because we’re kind of the same people,” says the actor, now 45. “I love her.”
Some 30-plus years later, Johnson is reliving those memories again as Punky Brewster returns to NBC’s streaming site Peacock in a continuation of the original. “It is surreal to us too,” she tells me, after I confide how unreal it feels to talk to her given that Punky was one of my earliest TV memories. “We so appreciate that you grew up with us. It’s magical, it really is.”
Johnson isn’t paying lip service. Her voice cracks several times throughout our interview as she tries to find the words to describe what it means to step back into this world. It’s not that she hasn’t worked in the years since Punky wrapped—in fact, she hasn’t stopped. Johnson has been a mainstay on TV, from playing Laura Winslow’s BFF Maxine on 58 episodes of Family Matters to guest-starring roles on Eve and The Parkers. She’s written novels, been a contributing writer and editor to several magazines, and started a podcast called Cherie’s World.
But Punky has always had a special place in the Pittsburgh native’s life. What most fans don’t know is that her uncle David W. Duclon created Punky Brewster after making a name for himself as an executive producer on sitcoms like Silver Spoons and The Jeffersons. “We moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh when I was five or six,” Johnson recalls. “And we moved in with Uncle David and his family. Six months later, he wrote Punky.”
Johnson on the original Punky Brewster
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Although Duclon named the character of Cherie after his niece, he had no intention of casting her in the pilot. Her family didn’t want Johnson to act—of course, the TV gods had other plans. When Johnson finally convinced her aunt to take her to the audition, she won everybody over.
The rest, as they usually say, is history…except when you’re in the age of TV reboots. “I found out on social media like everyone else,” Johnson says of Punky’s return. “I thought it was a joke until Soleil called me and asked me to come back.” Duclon, who is a consultant on the new version, also hadn’t given her a heads-up. Turns out, he and Frye had signed nondisclosure agreements.
“They did it right,” Johnson jokes. “My daddy always says, ‘Cherie will tell on Jesus.’ I get so excited about stuff. The second somebody stopped me in the grocery store, I would have said, ‘Don’t say nothing, but we coming back.’”
Cherie, the fictional version, is now a social worker at Fenster Hall, the same shelter for abandoned and orphaned kids where Punky stayed in the beginning. She doesn’t have children of her own, but she is in a serious relationship with a woman (Jasika Nicole of Fringe and The Good Doctor fame). And the friendship between Cherie and Punky remains strong, something Johnson and Frye maintained in real life too.
“We never really strayed away from each other,” Johnson says. “Even after we grew up, got married, and had kids. If a year or two went by, the second we got on the phone or saw each other, it was like no time had passed at all. She’s my soul sister.”
As new fans discover Punky, Johnson can’t wait to spread the magic once again. “This is like a dream come true that we never knew we wanted,” she says. Here she opens up about the long road home.
Glamour: How did the kind of popularity you experienced on Punky affect you when you were so young?
Cherie Johnson: That’s exactly what it was back in the day: popularity. We got to go on these Just Say No to Drugs tours and did rallies in every city. I felt like I had friends everywhere. It’s not the same impact as it would have today, where there’s social media and paparazzi. Back then, I felt like I had a lot of friends no matter where we went.
Your uncle David created Punky Brewster. Was there anything from your family that inspired the series?
Yes, so he is my mom’s brother-in-law, even though my aunt and him are divorced now. Some of it was taken right out of his household, from a little girl who couldn’t put on her shoes right. Not only would I mismatch stuff, but I’d have my shoes on the wrong feet. It wasn’t because I was trying to be cool. It was just because somebody was always like, “Hey, hurry up!” I would put anything on.
They also used to call me Little Beaver and talk about my teeth all the time, so that would show up in the script. And I’m hyperglycemic and eat all the time to keep my sugar levels up, so that’s what the character of Cherie did too.
My mother was also a single mom, so it was like I had two sets of parents. When she went to work, Uncle David was my babysitter. He took things that happened in the house and made it into this TV show. That’s how I gave myself the job, basically, at the age of six. He handed me the script and said, “Please read this, and let me know what you think.”
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So you were six, reading scripts and giving notes?
Yes. [Laughs.] I had gotten familiar with doing that while he was also working on The Jeffersons and Silver Spoons. Reading through his scripts wasn’t a big deal, but Punky was different because my name was listed as a character. I said, “Well, when do we go to work?” He was like, “Oh, baby. We don’t go to work. Uncle sold the show to NBC. I’m going to work, and you’re going to school.”
Well, obviously that didn’t go according to plan because you ended up on the show.
My family didn’t really want me to act. They wanted me to go to school and be a kid. I even thought I was going to be an architect when I grew up. But I convinced Uncle David’s wife to take me to the audition. I knew I was going to see him once I got in the room, but I figured I couldn’t get in trouble because there would be other people there. [Laughs.] So I walked in and said, “Hey, Uncle David!” and hugged him. I wasn’t professional. I didn’t know how to be. I just wanted to go work with Uncle David on Punky, and then I fell in love with Soleil at the audition. I wanted to spend my whole life with her.
Soleil told Glamour that the show will pay homage to Henry (George Gaynes, who passed away in 2016), but what about Susie Garrett, who passed away in 2002 and played your grandma, Mrs. Johnson?
Susie was the closest thing I had to my grandma. Susie and I stayed very close, up until the point she got cancer. I still talk to her sons today, and I still hear her voice sometimes.
Speaking of influential women in your life, you were in a movie with Cicely Tyson, and she gave you some amazing advice, right?
I was in a movie called Playing With Fire with her during a Punky hiatus. She called me into her trailer before the movie wrapped and gave me beautiful pearl earrings with six diamonds around the pearl. As she was putting them in my ears, she said, “Baby, I need you to do me a favor. I need you to do roles that are going to move Black women forward. Do you understand me?” I just looked at her and said, “Yes, ma’am.” I probably had no clue what she was talking about. She put me on her lap and said, “Baby, you never have to play a nanny because I already did that for you. You don’t have to play a housekeeper because I already did that for you. And never, ever do anything that you don’t want your grandmama to see.” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she said, “Never forget it.” Me being a kid, I went and looked in the mirror at my earrings. I gave her a hug and thanked her.
What an incredible memory.
It wasn’t until after Family Matters was over and I started auditioning that her words really resonated with me. Producers were hitting on me and things like that, and I realized, oh, she was preparing me, and I didn’t even know.
Did you ever see her again?
I never got to see her again, but I did get to speak to her in my 30s over the phone. I wanted her to know that I still had those earrings she gave me. They’re actually my daughter’s now. I told her I fully understood what she said to me when I was younger, and her words would live with me forever. In fact, around this time, I had an audition and it called for the part to be topless. This role was going to do nothing for me, but my agent wanted me to go on the audition because he said I’d want people to see me in a different light. That’s when I realized this agent, who I thought had my best interest at heart all these years, really just wanted his check. It was those lessons that really slapped me hard in the face. But because I had those conversations early, I wasn’t so jolted by it.
How did you navigate that world post-Punky and when you became a teenager?
I was highly sheltered. I worked on Family Matters, which was an extension of Punky because a lot of the crew was the same and they really protected us. I had no idea what was to come after Family Matters. When it ended, I was in my mid-20s. To be prepared for things like producers hitting on you and stuff? We never really had those conversations at home, honestly, because it was never thought of.
How did you handle that?
Well, I got a job after Family Matters. One of the producers walked up to me and he said, “I just want you to know that you got this job because I really wanted you.” I didn’t understand what he was really saying. I was like, “Thank you so much. I tried so hard. I was so excited to get the callback.” I did the show, but he kept saying, “I want to take you to dinner.” I knew he was older, and it kind of creeped me out a little bit, so I invited my mom and my dad to the taping. When he came to my dressing room after the show, wanting to go to dinner, I was like, “Oh my God. I can’t. I didn’t know my parents were coming. Thank you so much though.” Long story short, they called me back a few times, and every time my parents showed up to the taping. Eventually, I think after the producer figured out that it was never going to happen, I never got called back again.
Let’s go back to Family Matters, which your uncle was also an executive producer on. I’m guessing he made you audition even though you proved yourself on Punky.
I always had to audition, and sometimes I didn’t get it. There was more than one audition I wanted and didn’t get. I didn’t get Malcolm & Eddie. I didn’t get Eve. I didn’t get a lot of stuff. In fact, when I first auditioned for Maxine on Family Matters, I don’t think he was ever in the room. But they called back and said, “We really liked her, but she has braces. And we don’t want the character to have braces.” So I went to the bathroom, got my mom’s toenail clippers, and popped my braces off.
You did not.
That’s exactly what my mom said. [Laughs.] I said, “Please call my agent back. Tell her my braces are off, and ask if they’ll see me again.” My agent and my mom were both screaming at me, but my agent made the call. They said, “Yeah, she can come back in. Let’s see her.”
Meanwhile, my mom said, “I’m not taking you to get that glue off your teeth until you get this job, and you owe me five grand.” My mom was a nurse and a single mom. She worked hard. I still haven’t paid her back for the braces, but I got the job. She took me back to the dentist to get the glue off my teeth, and the dentist called me an idiot the whole time. When my uncle found out, he thought it was really funny. He always has my back with my silliness.
Kellie Shanygne Williams, Jaleel White, Venus Demilo, and Cherie Johnson on Family Matters episode “Walk on the Wild Side” from March 26, 1993
ABC Photo Archives
What were some of your favorite memories from working on Family Matters?
Darius McCrary (“Eddie Winslow”) and I had the same agent, and I say he’s been my husband since we were 12. At our agency Christmas party he said to me, “One day you’re going to be my wife.” So he’s always been my husband.
Did you guys ever date?
No. And we’re not married, either, but the world thinks we are.
You’ve been working pretty regularly since Family Matters, doing guest spots, writing, producing, hosting a podcast, and raising a family. What was it like stepping back into Cherie’s shoes again after all that time?
Playing Cherie was the happiest memory of my life, besides having my daughter. It was amazing stepping back into her shoes after all those years. There wasn’t a day I came to work that I didn’t cry. Just to be able to relive the happiest moments of your life again as an adult is so magical, you know?
Absolutely. And what was so great about Cherie and Punky was that they really leaned in to their individuality, which wasn’t as common in the ’80s.
I was that tomgirl. I did not wear pink. I was not taking ballet. I was playing in the mud, riding a bike and a skateboard. That probably was taken from my life too. I have started rewatching Punky now because my daughter, who is six, is interested. She thinks it’s hilarious to see Soleil as a kid.
Will your daughter appear on the show?
She would have to audition, just like everybody else. She’s got to earn her job. But right now I just hope she continues to go to school. [Laughs.]
And you have a son as well, right?
He’s adopted. He’s an adult now, but he’s still Mommy’s baby.
Did Punky Brewster influence you to adopt?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve opened up my home many a time, and I want to do it again. My little one is saying, “I want to be the only baby.” I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but we’ll see. There’s always a lot of food, a lot of love, and a lot of laughing. That’s what life is about.
When we meet up with Cherie again, she’s a social worker and in a wonderful relationship. What excites you about telling her story now?
For me, representation really matters. I was geeked up because I knew in the new pilot that she was in a relationship, but they didn’t tell me who she was in a relationship with. The writers and producers came to me and said, “We have a couple storylines. We want to see how you feel.” I started screaming, like, “I’m so excited. This is amazing.” I’ve heard from Black men almost my whole life, “You were my first crush.” Who would’ve been good enough to step into that role and to be Cherie’s boyfriend? It would’ve had to have been Darius.
I did have a couple requests. I said, “Please make sure she’s beautiful.” The producers were like, “What?” And I said, “You got to understand. All these men have told me I was their first crush. I need for them to like her too.” I think the producers really got that. They nailed it. They gave me Jasika Nicole, who is such a ray of light. She’s so brilliant and talented and sweet.
It’s incredibly heartwarming to watch these characters in their 40s. So much has changed, but so much is the same too.
I appreciate that it’s kept the same heart it’s always had, but it is not shying away from those hard conversations. It’s a show that’s going to start conversations. I appreciate the fact that representation matters and children of all ethnicities will be able to watch this show and identify with someone in our cast. They’ll be able to see themselves.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.
Originally Appeared on Glamour