Back in the ’90s, Cherie Johnson looked on course to become a household name. A starring role in beloved sitcom Family Matters brought the actress into living rooms across the U.S., with millions watching her on screen each week. But before she ever truly hit the big time, Johnson decided to leave the bright lights of Hollywood behind – and spend her time on a worthy cause.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Johnson got her start in the entertainment industry with a little help from her uncle David W. Duclon. Duclon had once worked on Happy Days, and perhaps that had helped him convince NBC to take on a show that he’d invented: Punky Brewster. Then, once the new series had received the green light, Johnson was cast as her own fictional namesake. She would play the best friend of the title character, who would be portrayed by Soleil Moon Frye.
And right from the start, Johnson got on well with her co-star. In 2016 she reminisced to website Mental Floss, “Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being six years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.”
Johnson also revealed the circumstances of her casting, saying, “[My uncle] just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea, [and I said,] ‘Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?’ [But] he said he needed a real actress. [Then,] after seven auditions, NBC finally said, ‘Give your niece the job.’”
Since the character was based on Johnson herself, she was the natural choice for the role, and it made the young actress into a fledgling star. After Punky Brewster began its run in 1984, the show also seemed to touch a chord with children – some of whom, like Brewster, had gone through traumatic experiences in their lives. The cast and crew even received mail from kids who badly needed help or advice.
And Punky Brewster strove to teach children important lessons, too. Most notably, one 1986 episode entitled “Cherie Lifesaver” highlighted the dangers of climbing into abandoned refrigerators. On screen, audiences saw Johnson’s character hide in a discarded fridge during a game of hide-and-seek – only to get trapped. That installment of the show also showed viewers the basics of CPR.
But while Punky Brewster ultimately came to an end in 1988, Johnson certainly hasn’t forgotten about it – nor have social media users. In the 2016 interview with Mental Floss, the actress explained, “I’m 40 years old, and people are still tweeting me about [the show] all the time.” Jokingly, she added, “If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”
After Punky Brewster, Johnson took on a small part in Days of Our Lives. She was also cast in a new show starring Martin Lawrence, although unfortunately this didn’t get past the pilot stage. Nonetheless, Johnson persevered, and finally she was rewarded with another plum role. This time, she would join the cast of Family Matters as Maxine Johnson – another character with whom she shared a name.
Family Matters was actually a spinoff of the ABC series Perfect Strangers, although it ultimately came to eclipse its parent show in popularity. American audiences particularly took geeky, accident-prone Steve Urkle to their hearts, and even today the sitcom is still remembered fondly.
For Johnson, though, that link to Family Matters is a mixed blessing. Speaking to website Nu-Authority in 2011, she said, “I am thankful I did a good enough job for people to relate to and remember Maxine, but it’s like a gift and a curse. I haven’t played Max in ten years and have worked every year since. I wish people would move on with me and let the character of her dissipate.”
And Johnson went on, “The problem with playing a character that long is that people’s common sense, like, disappears, and they forget I got paid to act like her. [Maxine] is not me at all; Cherie is a totally different person.” She added, “I am not that girl you see on TV. I am [a] 35-year-old single and savvy businesswoman who is really somewhat of a nerd.”
At that point in her life, Johnson was doing lots of philanthropic work. She told the Nu-Authority interviewer, “I also spend a lot of my free time working with children’s charities, and I am on the Alzheimer’s Association board. I host an Alzheimer’s awareness candlelight ceremony at Sunrise Senior Living every November.”
Yet Johnson did have many fond memories of Family Matters. In a 2019 interview with the blog Trainwreck’d Society, she revealed, “[Maxine] was a fun character to play. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a ditzy wild child? Family Matters was really a family matter for me… My uncle was the producer, one of my aunts was his assistant, my mother catered and my older brother worked in the camera department.”
During that interview, the actress also remembered, “I dropped out of college while working on Family Matters. They weren’t going to work around Urkle’s college schedule and everyone else, so my dream career as an architect was not going to happen. I did what most people do: stuck to what I know and expanded in different ways so I wouldn’t get bored to death.”
And Johnson was all too familiar with the problems that child stars can face later in life – although she dislikes the suggestion that young actors are somehow “cursed.” While talking to website Who’s That Lady Entertainment in 2014, she opined, “Once you humanize a celebrity, you realize that they are just people, and certain people fall into certain situations. So that curse is ridiculous, and it’s manmade, and it’s a stigma that the world has put on us.”
Then, when Johnson was asked about the problems she had faced in the acting industry, she explained, “The only challenge is that everybody still treats me like I’m 12. I’m 38 years old now. The world, I don’t know what it is – they fantasize or are obsessed with some sort of celebrity or a character that they have embraced. They don’t want to let you outside of that box.”
Johnson proved her versatility, though, by continuing to appear both in front of the camera and behind it as a producer. She also began writing, penning columns for magazines including Glam Couture and authoring several books – the first of which, a novel entitled Around the World Twice, was released in 2010.
The following year, the actress also moved into poetry, releasing her debut collection Two Different Walks of Life for Amazon Kindle. And before long, she saw the money start to come in – although her road to success in yet another field hadn’t been a completely smooth one.
Speaking about her publishing career, Johnson told the Ventura County Star in 2012, “I learned it’s not as easy as I thought, for sure. There have been a lot of sleepless nights, but people are very willing to help. The easiest way to get your books on shelves is to be personable.” And even though she had sold her poetry book for only 99 cents a copy, she had ultimately made $100,000 from the project.
Johnson discussed this aspect of her life further with Trainwreck’d Society, saying, “I started writing songs and books when I was five years old… As I grew, writing became a sense of relaxation and therapy. Professionally, it started with my first film I Do I Did then to authorship. Next, I was writing columns for various magazines.”
In 2011 Johnson even suggested that she was tempted to add another string to her bow by posing for Playboy magazine. She said to TMZ, “I have been threatening my family that I was going to do Playboy since I was 18 years old. When my mom said ‘Okay’… and my grandma said, ‘Bring me an autographed copy,’ I figured I’d make it a goal.”
But while a shoot for Playboy didn’t materialize in the end, Johnson decided to embark on a much worthier endeavor – one that had the potential of helping others, too. In 2012 she opened a café, which she called Datt’s It, in a failing shopping mall in south-west Houston.
While promoting the business, Johnson told Houston website CultureMap, “Right now you have a daycare on one end [of] our shopping center and crackheads on the other. And here we are, right in the middle. We’re determined to make this work, though.” And the business that she had created hired five people straight away.
Johnson had created and opened the establishment alongside two of her closest friends: Janice Wright, the creator of Houston 411 magazine, and cake company owner Kay Matthews. Acting as an advisor for the women was local businessman Toney Means, who gave a statement in the press release for the restaurant.
Means praised the trio in the release, too, saying, “These entrepreneurs fill the void in public interests in investing in these areas either from apathy or lack of available funds. I believe these ladies have the recipe for success in this venture and in future opportunities. This belief has led me and my investment group to support their activities.”
Johnson herself contributed to the press release, explaining, “Living in Los Angeles has allowed me to witness what happens when entrepreneurs realize the opportunity and invest in underdeveloped and otherwise forgotten areas in a city.” And as it happens, it had been her sister who had first showed her the location of the eatery.
Nonetheless, Johnson told CultureMap, “I never thought I’d see myself owning a restaurant. Only a month ago, I was still based in LA. I arrived here on a layover and haven’t been on a plane since… The closest thing people have to food around here is the Speedy Mart and the dollar store. With a restaurant, we have a chance to change that.”
And news of the restaurant spread fast; on opening day, there were even folks outside waiting for the doors to open. Looking back on that time, Johnson added to CultureMap, “The food wasn’t close to being ready, but people were so curious that we decided to let them in to see the place. By lunchtime, we were so busy, [and] the building owner told us he was convinced [that] this was the most profitable day he’s ever seen at the shopping center.”
Eating at the café – which sold diner-style food – was also very affordable; according to TMZ, the sole item on the menu to break the $5 barrier was a waffles, eggs and bacon dish. For Matthews, though, the main purpose of the restaurant was “trying to create new opportunities for opportunity,” as she told CultureMap.
Johnson even claimed that the menu wasn’t overly important. The former child star explained to CultureMap, “It’s never really been about the food, though I’m a total foodie and honestly can tell you everything’s fantastic here. For us, it’s about being a presence in the neighborhood.”
And part of being a presence involved Johnson rolling her sleeves up and getting down to work. Yes, the one-time star of Punky Brewster and Family Matters was fully involved with her new venture, with visitors to the eatery being able to see the actress and writer bussing tables.
A Zomato review attests to this, with a user writing in 2012, “I visited Datt’s It for Sunday brunch, and I was amazed at the quality and quantity of food I received. The food was amazing. Drink, dessert and all for just $10 dollars, and to top it off, the restaurant owners Janice and Cherie Johnson (actress) not only greeted us but served us as well.”
The reviewer added of the Houston joint, “It was a real down-home atmosphere. It was a great experience, and I will visit again real soon.” But, unfortunately, glowing praise isn’t always enough to keep a restaurant afloat, and Datt’s It would ultimately shut its doors for good.
Johnson soon got back on her feet with other ventures, though. By 2019 she had opened a spa, and she explained the unusual move when talking to Trainwreck’d Society that year. The star revealed, “Growing up, my mother owned a gym, so self-care was taught to me early in life.”
Johnson went on, “During my hiatus weeks on Family Matters, I worked at my family-owned gym and later became a nutritionist.” And she suggested that the new business would help her too, musing, “Being on TV is kinda like working customer service, so imagine never being about to take that customer service badge off.”
But TV soon came calling again for Johnson, as in 2019 it was announced that Punky Brewster would be revived with its original cast. This time around, though, Brewster herself would be the parent character, and she would be raising three children as a single mom.
Deadline magazine broke the news of the sitcom’s return, reporting, “Johnson will once again play Cherie, best friend of Punky since they were kids. In fact, they’re more like sisters. To Punky’s kids, she’s Aunt Cherie. Her life-long friendship with Punky inspired her to become a social worker, helping orphaned kids.”
And needless to say, Johnson was excited. In April 2020 she blogged enthusiastically, “Thirty-eight years ago, I met this little vivacious girl in the hallway! We became fast friends drawing pictures together sitting in the same chair. Little did I know we would break ground, going down in pop culture history as iconic TV best friends.”
Johnson went on, “Some jobs are just that for actors: JOBS. Others leave a lifelong impression on the way you live your everyday life. Soleil and I both grew up believing we could accomplish anything we put our minds to. At the time when we shot the very first pilot for [Punky Brewster], I don’t believe either of us knew how much we would forever carry our characters and the show with us.”
The actress concluded, “I can’t wait for you all to see the pilot and the show. It was so special, and I pray each of you enjoy it!… Thank you all for continuing to grow with us and being so receptive to having us back!” It’s another exciting adventure for Johnson – one of many upon which she’s embarked.
Fairuza Balk was another former child actress who had her start in the business at around the same time as Johnson. And like the Family Matters star, Balk too looked set for big things – making her apparent disappearance from movie theaters all the more puzzling.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as though Fairuza Balk could be the next big thing. And after the young actress made her breakthrough as a teenage witch in cult classic The Craft, the stage was certainly set for her to become a household name. But, these days, Balk is no longer headlining movie posters; in fact, you may not even have seen her on screen for years. So, why exactly did the one-time child star seemingly disappear from Hollywood – and what is she up to at the moment?
Well before Balk made it to Tinseltown, however, she had been born into a family that had more than its fair share of artistic talent. Her mother was a dancer, singer and artist, while her father was a musician. Balk also went to the Royal Academy of Ballet at the age of four, as both her mom and grandmother had done before her. And the future star made her screen debut at a young age, too, appearing in 1983 TV movie The Best Christmas Pageant Ever before she had even turned ten.
But then came the role that would change Balk’s life. While still just nine, the pre-teen auditioned for the part of Dorothy in Disney’s Wizard of Oz sequel, Return to Oz. The odds were against her, too; not only was she up against almost 1,000 other aspiring actors, but she was also the youngest of the bunch. Nonetheless, Balk was successful, and understandably the media started to take an interest in the girl who had stepped into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.
In 1985, for instance, Balk was interviewed by The Washington Post about her new-found stardom. She was 11 years old by then and had forgotten some of the finer points about how she’d won her Return to Oz role. “You just held up a card, smiled and had a short interview,” Balk explained. “Like, ‘Did you like Oz and would you like to go there again?’”
The creators of the movie were very impressed with their young star, too. And in 2012 Return to Oz’s editor Walter Murch spoke to the Film Freak Central website about the project. It had been a long and hard shoot, by all accounts, but even so Murch recalled that Balk had been “absolutely great – a fantastic ally in the making of the film.”
In that Washington Post interview, meanwhile, Balk had said that she’d like to be a chiropractic veterinarian if an acting career didn’t work out. She also revealed a rebellious streak that would later serve her well in The Craft. Without informing her mother, she’d once sneaked off and had her ears pierced.
At first, Balk had even attempted to perform the procedure herself. “I was fed up with trying to get the nerve to stick a pin through my ear,” she told the newspaper. “So I just said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get my ears pierced’… They put alcohol on and went ka-thunk. It didn’t hurt; it just felt hot.” Her mother, Cathryn, wasn’t impressed, however. “I almost killed her,” the star admitted.
And since then, it seems that Balk has looked back on Return to Oz with appreciation – mainly because of what it taught her about the business of acting. In 1999, for example, she gave a candid interview that was ultimately included on the VHS re-release of the movie . “Towards the end of the filming of [Return to Oz, I got a little tired,” the actress recalled. “And that’s when I began to realize it was work.”
“It wasn’t just, you know, what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it,” Balk went on. “You had to get up every morning and go and be a professional. And as a child, that’s kind of a hard concept to grasp, and you have to get it… You have to be responsible, and I think it makes you an adult very quickly.”
Balk continued to work as an actress throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as briefly going to high school. In 1992, for instance, she played the teenage daughter of a single mother in the drama Gas Food Lodging, with her touching portrayal earning her a Best Actress Independent Spirit Award that same year.
Then, of course, came the other film that Balk would become primarily known for: 1996’s The Craft. As its many fans know, the horror flick tracks the fortunes of four high school students-turned-witches who ultimately find themselves paying a high price for their new-found power. The Craft was an unexpected hit, and it’s considered a cult movie today.
Balk wasn’t impressed by the idea at first, though. “I was incredibly mesmerized by Fairuza,” actress Sarah Bailey told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “There was a rebellious authenticity to her that I wish I’d had. We did the screen test and I drove Fairuza home. She was like, ‘I have a feeling this [movie] might be a piece of s**t, and I’m not doing it.’”
Balk also spoke to Entertainment Weekly, explaining that she had had another film in the pipeline at the time. “I had agreed to do Basquiat,” she revealed. “Julian [Schnabel, the director] and I had become friends. Meanwhile, my agent said, ‘There’s this other big movie and they really want you.’”
“I was trying to figure out if we could move dates, and then I got a phone call from Julian screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re doing another movie!’” Balk continued. “I said, ‘No, I’m doing your movie.’ He hung up after cursing me out, and I called my agents. And they said, ‘We accepted The Craft.’”
So while Balk wasn’t part of Basquiat in the end, hindsight proves that her agents made a canny decision. After all, The Craft has since gone down in teen horror history. “I still get tweets about [The Craft],” Balk told Entertainment Weekly. “What an honor to have been part of something that people love so much.”
Furthermore, while working on The Craft, Balk actually began to develop an interest in Wicca – a modern strain of Paganism. And while rumors about the actress’ involvement in the religion spread for a long time, in 2017 she put them to rest. “The true story is [that] I found this occult shop in LA, and I used to go there to ask them questions and do my research,” Balk told Entertainment Weekly.
“[The workers] were really lovely people,” Balk explained. “[The woman who owned it] wanted to retire. She couldn’t put the kind of money into it that it needed to keep it up, and so it was going to be turned into a Chinese restaurant. I thought, ‘For the oldest occult shop in the country, that’s a tragedy.’”
And Balk went on, “There was a man that used to work [at the store], and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. And he was a sort of a teacher to me during [The Craft]. I thought, ‘What a shame this is going to be turned into a Chinese restaurant.’ So I bought [the store] and put some work into it and helped it survive.”
But Balk definitely wasn’t a practicing witch. “People of course were like, ‘She bought an occult shop and she’s fully into this, and it’s all real.’ That has taken on its entire own mythology that’s essentially out of my hands,” she said. “You can tell the truth and talk to people, but they want to believe what they want to believe. What can you do? I’m not involved with that shop anymore. It was a very long time ago.”
Rather than becoming a full-time store owner, then, Balk continued with her acting career. But not all of the movies in which she subsequently starred turned out to be big hits. The Island of Doctor Moreau – in which Balk appeared alongside Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and David Thewlis – particularly proved to be a disaster. After an intensely troubled production, the movie was released in 1996 to very poor reviews.
And while Balk starred in several more films after that setback, such as American Perfekt, The Maker and Life in the Fast Lane, most of these have largely been forgotten. But the actress’ career wasn’t over just yet. In 1998, you see, she appeared in a drama that’s considered by some to be among the finest ever made: American History X.
American History X tells the story of two brothers – played by Edward Norton and Edward Furlong – who both get involved with the neo-Nazi movement. And Tony Kaye’s gritty feature emerged to some acclaim, with critics praising the film for both its plot and its performances. Norton even ended up being nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Derek Vinyard.
In American History X, then, Balk played Stacey, the girlfriend of Derek. And, interestingly, despite being cast as a white supremacist, the actress herself is part Romani and part Cherokee by way of her father. “For many years, my family told me never to tell anyone about that part of my heritage, fearing that I would be judged or hated or that it would affect my career,” Balk wrote on her website in 2010.
Proving her versatility, Balk also starred in a movie a million miles away in tone and theme from American History X: the Adam Sandler vehicle The Waterboy. And while critics took against the flick, the public didn’t seem to agree. In any case, The Waterboy is still the biggest-earning sports comedy ever.
After that came the 2000 film Almost Famous, in which Fairuza played the character of Sapphire. And in a sense, Almost Famous’ fate proved the exact opposite of that of The Waterboy. While the nostalgic dramedy didn’t make much money, you see, it nevertheless won a lot of praise from reviewers. Veteran critic Roger Ebert named it as the best film of that year, for example.
But Balk’s career subsequently seemed to stall. Throughout most of the rest of the 2000s, she starred in a variety of forgettable films, such as Dose of Reality, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, Deuces Wild and Don’t Come Knocking. And while 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans earned good reviews, it wasn’t enough to put the actress’ star back into the ascendancy.
In a 2013 interview with the website Dread Central, Fairuza shed a little light on why she may have faded out of the public consciousness. “I always want to stay interested. I never just want to work for the sake of working,” she said. “There has to be ‘something’ there for me so that I can grow from the experience.”
“I’ve never just taken a job because I wanted the check,” Balk continued. “I took the job because either I wanted to do something really crazy like The Craft or get a chance to do a comedy like The Waterboy or do an incredibly powerful drama like American History X. There has to be something interesting for me, or I don’t want to do it.”
“I struggled a lot with being pushed too hard in my twenties, with people telling me that I had to keep taking more and more movies because that’s really only when I’d be relevant,” Balk added. “Hollywood is designed that way. It’s always about the new flavor of the moment, and I’ve always preferred to be a bit more mysterious.”
And in the same interview, Balk also talked about her earlier career-defining role in Return to Oz. “At that age, everything really felt like a game to me, so I had an amazing time making it,” she said. “To live in that world as a child was anything but scary, so I guess I never realized at the time how surrealistic the story and the tone of the movie was going to end up being.”
“The other thing I never realized as a kid was just how beloved our movie was,” Balk explained. “I thought it was kind of popular, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized just how special Return to Oz ended up being. Throughout the years, fans would send me letters or even these incredible gifts with their stories about what the movie meant to them, and I was absolutely shocked.”
Dread Central asked Balk about The Craft as well, and it seemed that the actress was more than willing to open up about the movie. “What I remember really enjoying at the time was doing all the research into Wicca for the role of Nancy, because I had no idea that it was something that was all about empowered women,” she said. “That was incredible – to see a religion celebrating women as goddesses and then using that as an allegory throughout the movie.”
And Balk also revealed how fans of The Craft had reached out to her over the years. “I’ve heard stories from fans who have told me how The Craft helped them accept themselves or gave them the strength to come out or escape from an abusive relationship or even gave them the courage to stand up for themselves,” she said. “And I think that speaks volumes for the movie we made.”
Balk had spoken to Dread Central to promote her 2013 thriller Dose of Reality, which went straight to DVD and video on demand. And, alas, the movie wasn’t well received upon its release. To date, it holds a mere 4.4/10 audience-reception rating on the Internet Movie Database.
Yet Dose of Reality’s relative failure didn’t put Balk off talking to the media. In 2014, anyway, she spoke to the website Shock Ya! about another indie film she was doing, August Falls. And, once again, the star gave some insight into the way in which she approached acting. “People have tended to see me as an actress who has played edgier, darker roles,” Balk explained. “That’s something that, as much as I’ve enjoyed exploring, isn’t necessarily the one thing I want to do.”
Regarding her career, Balk added, “On indies, you forgo certain luxuries and privileges on a studio film. You kiss those goodbye happily and embrace what you’re doing. Both of them are worthy and have the better and less of things. But on indies… you embrace them as team efforts.”
August Falls came out to middling reviews in 2017, after which Balk appeared in the 2018 horror Trespassers. And while the bloodcurdling flick hardly set the box office on fire, there was nevertheless praise for Balk’s performance. The Hollywood News said of the movie, “It is the characterization work that is really effective. Fairuza Balk steals all her scenes. It’s never really that clear which side her character is on, and it’s fun for the audience to try and figure out.”
Over the years, meanwhile, Balk has built herself quite an audience on social media, with more than 40,000 people currently following her on Twitter. She also maintains a personal blog through which she keeps fans informed about her exploits outside of acting, such as making music and traveling across the U.S.
And when Balk was asked about her character in August Falls during her interview with Shock Ya!, the answer she gave could well have applied to the actress herself. “For a great many of us, as we go through our lives, and as we evolve and age, we have to learn to embrace the fact that it isn’t always under our control,” she said.
“Life is going to go the way that it’s going to go,” Balk concluded. “It’s about finding the inner strength and light inside of you and learning to trust that to guide you through the difficult times.” So, although Balk hasn’t had a hit movie in a while, she at least seems happy where she is – and she’s definitely shaping up to be a master of her craft, too.