When buying real estate, the three most important things to consider are location, location and location. When trying to explain the Nielsen success of A Different World—the critically drubbed spin-off from The Cosby Show that follows its parent comedy on Thursday nights—the three most important things to keep in mind are time slot, time slot and time slot. Anyone searching for a fourth reason would do well to consider actress Jasmine Guy, 23, who plays Whitley Gilbert, debutante dormmate of the show’s star, Lisa Bonet. Prissy, oppressively hygenic and shallow as a saucepan, Whitley considers herself “the premier dresser in the school,” and announces to her peers in a Scarlett O’Hara voice that “a sign of a true lady is that the backs of her shoes are never scuffed.” Says co-star Kadeem Hardison, who plays fellow student Dwayne Wayne: “Jas is the one who gets the big laughs—her character is so far in left field you can’t help it. Whitley added the punch that the show needed.”
If that’s true it may be because Guy, while playacting for family and friends as a child, created a character much like Whitley—partly as a way of expressing the confusion she felt about her own identity. Guy’s mother, a high school English teacher, is white; her father, a Baptist preacher, is black. Guy says she was frequently the target of criticism from darker-skinned schoolmates in Atlanta, where she grew up. “I remember getting into several fights in grade school because black kids would think I thought I was pretty because I had light skin and long hair,” she says. “They said I always tried to talk properly. But I wasn’t trying to seem better. I just wanted to be me.”
Desperate to be accepted by her peers during her high school years, Guy chose to accentuate her blackness. Her sudden personality shift, together with her adoption of “black English,” drove her parents “crazy,” she says. Her father, William Guy, now minister of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church, remembers the whole period as “awful. She was holding herself back, not developing her full potential. She was doing it to fit in. It drove me crazy when she spoke bad English—it wasn’t even an imaginative dialect, it was just bad. But I could tell she was hurting. I told her to just go on her own way and be herself.”
Gradually, Guy did. She found happiness in after-school dance classes, and at 17, she moved to New York to study with choreographer Alvin Ailey’s company. Her parents, who wanted her to go to college, were dismayed, and even Jasmine soon had doubts about ballet. “I left dancing because it depressed me,” she says. “I lived on $75 a week. I don’t know how.” Eventually she landed parts in a revival of the Broadway musical The Wiz and on TV’s Fame. She also dealt with a double dose of frustration. As a black actress she was offered more than her share of opportunities to play “streetwise black chicks” and hookers. Conversely she was turned down for some roles because producers didn’t think she was black enough. “When you’re light skinned you get it coming and going,” she says. “How black do I have to be to play a black woman?”
Ironically her first film (completed before she was cast in A Different World) explores the color issue. In School Daze, a film about life at an all-black college that will be released next year, Guy plays a member of a light-skinned sorority that is shunned by the dark-skinned members of another sorority. “The role was difficult for me because it brought back ugly memories,” says Guy. “Again I had to face the reality of how the world sometimes views people only on outward appearances. I don’t like being prejudged.”
Guy worried about her appearance for a different reason when she auditioned for A Different World: she thought she looked too much like Lisa Bonet to be considered. The show’s producers disagreed. With the show already in production and behind schedule, Guy was hired in August and reported for work within hours. Luckily, Bonet befriended Jasmine, and Hardison even began enlisting the 5’3″ actress in pickup basketball games on the studio lot. That helps her cope with her biggest problem: the boredom of 14-to 16-hour workdays. “As a dancer,” she says, “it’s hard for me to stay motivated when I’m not moving.”
Guy says that the anxiety she felt as a newcomer during her first few weeks on the set is visible on TV—a fact she discovered too late. “There’s a big vein in the middle of my forehead,” she observes, “and nobody told me. I’m definitely going to work on it.” In the meantime she is also learning to operate a stick-shift auto, trying to interest record companies in her singing and decorating a two-bedroom L.A. duplex that she shares with actress Stephanie (The Young and the Restless) Williams. She’s coy about her boyfriend, except to say they’ve been together for six months and have no immediate plans to marry. Eventually, she says, she’d like “to do it all,” like her idol, Debbie Allen. That includes having kids, according to Jasmine, who says she gained a strong interest in child rearing from her parents. The Guys made a home not just for Jasmine and her sister, Monica, 22, but for dozens of foster children.
For now, she says, “I love playing Whitley. I think I understand her.” Which isn’t to say she approves of her, exactly. “I would never talk the way Whitley talks,” says Guy. “In fact I don’t know why she hasn’t gotten slapped a few times. Believe me, if I knew someone like Whitley, we wouldn’t be going to the movies together.”