At Christmastime 1971, One Life to Live’s Phylicia Ayers-Allen and her kid sister, Debbie, of Fame fame were just a couple of unemployed young actresses in chilly Manhattan. Nearly penniless, they hung a light bulb on a houseplant as their Christmas tree and made their feast with a smoked turkey breast sent by their dad. “Neither of us expected to get the other a gift,” recalls Phylicia. “But I saw some earrings and thought, ‘Those would be great for Debbie.’ As it turned out, Debbie bought me some earrings, too. When she saw what I got her she was so touched she just started crying. All I could do was laugh at her. She just looked up at me and said, ‘You have no sympathy.’ ” Adds Phylicia, still laughing, “We had a wonderful time. We were great strugglers.”
So much for the classic showbiz humble beginnings part. In this case, success not only followed, it came in a double dose. Debbie, 30, emerged first. Best known as the no-nonsense dance teacher on Fame (dropped by NBC last spring and now in syndication), she had won earlier bravas on Broadway with such roles as Beneatha in 1973’s Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, and Anita in the 1980 West Side Story revival. Now Phylicia (“32 or 33—go for younger”) is getting equal spotlight time. After a decade of powerful off-Broadway roles that critics labeled “poignant” and “fiery,” she has followed her sister to the tube, enthralling soapsters as the ambitious publicist Courtney Wright on ABC’s One Life to Live. And Phylicia, who rises each day at 4:30 a.m., still has time for the stage. Having made it to Broadway as a Munchkin in 1975’s The Wiz and later understudying Sheryl Lee Ralph in Dreamgirls, she is currently rushing from One Life’s Manhattan studio to a midtown theater where she has the lead in Puppetplay, a psychological drama staged by the Negro Ensemble Company.
When blood relations travel two such similar career paths, near-fatal collisions often follow. Not so with the Allen sisters. “I am probably Deborah’s most ardent admirer, and she is undoubtedly mine,” says Phylicia, who actually helped Debbie nab her first big break: Turning down a role in Raisin because she was pregnant, Phylicia recommended her sister. Says she, “Of course Debbie got a job in the chorus, and later became Beneatha, and, honey, that was it.”
Growing up in Houston, Phylicia, Debbie and their older brother, Tex, (now a New York jazz musician) became a close-knit band under their mom’s influence. Divorced from her dentist husband when the kids were young, Vivian Ayers-Allen (the origin of Phylicia’s stage name) was an art gallery owner and published poet. She taught her children to love each other and the finer things in life, such as music. “Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Basie were like good friends to us,” Phylicia remembers. “I used to sing Tex and Debbie to sleep every night with jazz tunes.”
At school, the sisters joined the glee club, the majorette squad and the orchestra. (Phylicia played viola, and the diminutive Debbie stretched herself to cope with the bass fiddle.) “Our family has this achievement syndrome,” Phylicia says. “Debbie and I used to fight over socks and hairpins—you know, the essentials in life. We had tiffs. But when the chips were down, we were there for each other.” They both went to Howard University and remained so harmonious that they later wrote a cabaret act called Dr. Allen’s Daughters. Though they never launched that project, they did share a slightly less glamorous one: starring together on a Pampers TV commercial.
Phylicia won’t discuss her two failed marriages—the first to a New York dentist, the second to former Village People lead singer Victor Willis. As for current romance, she owns up only to televised kisses with One Life co-star Al Freeman Jr. Off-camera, Al is happily married, but Phylicia kids about her soap affair anyway: “When I look into his eyes, oooohhh! I could play with Al night and day. If they don’t let us get married on the show, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Phylicia’s one companion in her Upper West Side Manhattan pad is son Billy, 10, from her first marriage.
With Debbie in L.A. filming new episodes of Fame, the sisters are leading comparatively separate lives, joined only by all-hours-of-the-night phone calls. But each new credit for their shared last name seems only to strengthen family ties. Explains Phylicia, “We grew up understanding that if one of us made it, we all made it. One success was a success for everybody.”