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‘They Were Recycling the Same Three Girls’: Former Child Star Vanessa Baden Reveals How Hollywood’s Lack of On-Screen Diversity Forced Her Down a Different Path

Actress Vanessa Baden isn’t the cute little girl from Nickelodeon anymore. She has gone on to become a writer, producer and director for many shows, and she is also a mother.

Now the Emmy winner is opening up to Atlanta Black Star about her childhood in Hollywood, how she discovered writing as a passion and a necessity, and the challenges of balancing work and her personal life. 

Vanessa Baden, winner of the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Digital Daytime Drama Series at the 46th Annual Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards press room at Pasadena Civic Center on May 3, 2019, in Pasadena, California. (Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Baden began her acting career on “Gullah Gullah Island” for Nick Jr., but she really hit her stride when she landed the role of Kyra Rockmore on Nickelodeon’s hit show “Kenan and Kel.” Alongside some true talent, as Kenan Thompson went on to become a household name, Baden’s energy and charm shone through.

“I can remember the general feel and tone and something that I was recently telling my son was that we still shot in front of a live studio audience on ‘Kenan and Kel,’” Baden told Atlanta Black Star.

“So, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday were rehearsal days. … We filmed Wednesday and Thursday and then we would get a few pick-up shots the top half of Friday. Then after lunch, they would load in the live studio audience and you would run the whole entire show almost like theater in front of the studio audience to get their real-time reactions.” 

The entire experience was a blast for these Nickelodeon regulars. Like Baden, they got to mix and mingle with other kids in Hollywood.

“On an artistic level, I don’t think there’s anything better than performing in front of a live studio audience,” the 36-year-old said. “You’re truly doing theater week in and week out. And you’re learning, but I just remember the electricity of it. … You’re getting hyped and you’re trying to get your energy up and everybody’s dancing and everybody’s doing whatever.

The show also had former child actors as their directors. “When we were doing ‘Kenan and Kel,’ we had Malcom Jamal Warner from ‘The Cosby Show,’” she said. “We had Kim Fields from ‘Facts of Life’ and ‘Living Single.’ Ryan Robbins, who was one of our producers but also directed us often, was from ‘Head of the Class.’”

Those veterans offered the young actors some valuable advice. “And one of the things that they would always tell us is, ‘If you guys wanna have longevity in this arena, you’re going to have to do other things because there’s going to be times when age-wise you’re at a weird place and there are ebbs and flows in the creative part.’”

For Baden, the example those mentors set was taken to heart. “I really attached myself to Kim Fields. I loved her. I felt like I saw myself a lot in her and she was a director. So I thought essentially that that was going to be the path I took. I was going to be a director.”

After four years on “Kenan and Kel,” Baden would go on to be a panelist on Nickelodeon’s other hit show “Figure It Out.” She even broke into film and was cast as Lee-Ruth in the dark historical drama “Rosewood.”

While she saw success as a child actress, she decided to put acting on hold and go to college and attended Florida State. Once she graduated, she decided to go back to Hollywood, but noticed a change in the industry. She revealed that at that time, opportunities for Black actors were scarce.

“There were like seven things that had Black people in them and they were recycling the same three girls. It was Meagan Good, Jurnee Smollett or Lauren London. If they couldn’t get one of those three, someone new might pop in but [it was those three] who they were going for,” she claimed.

Vanessa Baden and her son. (Photo: @vdotkelly/ Instagram)

But what may have seemed like a disadvantage ended up being a blessing in disguise as she began to focus more on writing and directing.

Baden and some other cohorts decided to make their own material. Shooting projects here and there, the actress quickly realized that everything she had been doing up until that point was only preparing her for her future.

Her hustle eventually landed her a spot in the “Ozark” writing room. “I got the opportunity to work on ‘Ozark’ as a showrunner’s assistant. And that’s what showed me that as much as I knew instinctually about dialogue, about scenery, about story, because I had grown up in it, there was really a lot of craft that I still had to learn. ‘Ozark’ in many ways was like my film school,” she said.

By the time Baden had made it onto the crew of “Ozark,” her Emmy-nominated web series “Giants,” which premiered on Issa Rae‘s YouTube channel, had already been through its first season. “Giants” is a drama created by James Bland, whom she met while in Florida, and they became best friends.

“James wanted to do [the show] like [it was] a gym. A place where he could come in and do all those things [acting, writing, directing,] and get himself the experience that he needed but also something tangible to show to folks that says ‘I can do it,’” she explained. “And so he asked me to come in and be in it with him.” 

She was a director, producer, and an actor on “Giants” plus, working full-time in the “Ozark” writing room. “I would get off at ‘Ozark’ at like 6, come home. My kid was like a year and a half. We would eat dinner, do bath time [laughs], like, do the whole nightly routine. He would go to sleep at 8 and at 8:30, the writers would come over to my house and we would meet in my living room to write ‘Giants.’ We were literally recreating … what I had been seeing at work.”

Her hard work on “Giants” paid off as she took home an Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Digital Drama for the show.

Baden still feels lucky to have been a part of the Hollywood child celebrity scene. She still bumps into people from her time on Nickelodeon and has remained close friends with Kenan Thompson long after their show wrapped.

“I think some people come out here and Hollywood does seem huge, and I totally understand it. But it’s like the Kevin Bacon thing. We’re like six degrees of separation from anybody. That is the advantage that it gave us.”

There are ebbs and flows to every career, and the film and TV industry is no different. After publishing her first book, “Far Away From Close to Home” she is continuing to write on some exciting upcoming projects.

Some include the second season of “Y: The Last Man,” Mindy Kaling’s new HBOMax show,“The Sex Lives of College Girls,” and “Guilty Party.” She is also developing a project based on the Tahirih Justice Center with Wayfarer Studios.

“That is probably a year off, a year and a half off, especially right now with everything going on…at the border with Haitian refugees. It’s like really timely and it actually feels really good to be working on something that really matters,” Baden enthused.

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