Winding up the steep hills of Hollywood, the allure of glam quickly runs thin as the reality of the hidden height comes all too sudden. A smooth incline jets into a sharp right turn followed by a vicious veer to the left, a quick whip around the caddy-corner, then up, up, up -- a couple more feet and... the big reveal? An ivy laced home with 1920's architecture -- meticulously clipped and landscaped to perfection. Meeting the stark stillness of morning, I tiptoed to the entryway, unsure of what lurked on the other side of the door.
The dawning of the morning had come, and I, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles -- "City of Lost Angels," better known as "Hollyweird," or even often times coined as "Los Scandalous," -- made sure to gulp down two tall cups of ginger tea (helps with digestion), print out directions for my 23 minute ride (like most Angelinos I'm embarrassingly flustered when venturing outside of my 20 minute radius) and tote flip-flops along for the journey (others shamelessly carry blankies -- my feet permanently crave flip flops. They go everywhere). As a broadcast journalist, I've had the opportunity to interview a crop of celebrities. As with all mere mortals, you never quite know who will make an appearance -- the titanium shell or a lovely sound-bite filled being. My interview with former Young and the Restless actress who played "Drucilla Winters," New York Times best-selling author and activist, Victoria Rowell, may have begun with a mysterious façade, but as time escaped us, the purpose for our meeting became clear.
Greeting me in the foyer, her assistant led me to the sitting room. Rowell's dwelling evokes Tuscany meets Paris -- brewing with a strong dash of rural South. Tapping my heels against the black lacquered wooden floors, I hoped that my capful of nervousness didn't make a dent in the fresh polish. Rowell's books proudly anchored a few of her 12 NAACP Image awards on display. Family photos sat proudly next to a framed rejection letter that she received many moons ago from the Ritz Carlton hotel. She was denied "the privilege" of serving guests as a waitress due to the "competitive applicant pool." Rowell's face later lights up, recalling tales of her trying times as a young, struggling, ballerina trying to find her way in New York City. A polished dark bamboo chandelier, which had almost gone unnoticed hangs delicately in Victoria Rowell's main room, making room for a painting of ancestral faces working a cotton plantation in the background. Two Alice in Wonderland -- look but don't touch -- Chapman Radcliff Home chairs balanced out the space, accompanied by tall French windows overlooking a cascading mint-green garden.
Exceeding typical shabby/chic Hollywood hideaway expectations, Victoria Rowell's upscale vintage meets 'now' -- interior style has an edge that seeps directly into the nomadic soul. Perhaps it's the fine mix of strategically hung sepia portraits of families that she does not know, glittering multi-media pieces (created by her husband, artist Radcliffe Bailey), 18th century Italian paintings and radius doors -- inspired by her travels to Czechoslovakia with the American Ballet Theatre in the 70s, that screams -- there's more to these walls than just a simple nest.
When it came time for renovation, Victoria Rowell opted to 'do it yourself.' A streamlined phrase that she's carried with her for most of her life.
"I'm a product of health and human services as a foster youth -- so this house is an amalgamation of things I've collected, from being in New York to a rural farm in Maine, to California. I lugged "my stuff," and my stuff is my inheritance. I've created my own inheritance. Foster children aren't typically in the will of foster parents," explains Rowell.
Comfortably sliding into her sitting room, as if she were the missing glue to the puzzle of her furniture, wearing a chic yet laid-back straw hat and loose braid, Rowell owns the story of her childhood. Crushing my notion of her being a delicately gloved doll, her words flowed far more powerfully than I expected. Her mother, a Mayflower descendent, was mentally ill and unable to care for her. Speaking with a regal tone of confidence about a past marred with abandonment and uncertainty, she affirms that she never knew her father. Raised by a black farmer in Maine, the 'D.I.Y' concept was instilled in Victoria Rowell's mind early.
" ...Agatha Armstead was a senior citizen when she took me in. She had a radical mastectomy, phlebitis of the arm and scoliosis... So many reasons to say I can't take in Vicky Rowell, but she did it anyway. Mine is a global story about triumph and people passing on what they have. Not self editing and thinking that what they have is too small to offer"
Fast forward over 40 years later and Victoria Rowell has arrived. Not only using her home sanctuary as a place to hold events for her non-profit benefiting foster youth, but also as a think-tank for advocating diversity on Hollywood sets. This hotly contested issue is one that Rowell is extremely vocal about -- claiming to have experienced race fueled marginalization -- what she calls "systematic harassment" firsthand, on the set of the Young and the Restless.
"I believe that if your space can not rejuvenate you -- you can not go outside your front door and do your best work."
That work includes publishing two New York Times bestsellers, which have both been optioned for film projects: her memoir, The Women Who Raised Me and novel, Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva.
After touring Victoria Rowell's Florentine garden and properly fitted living space, it was apparent that a couple of hills, sharp turns and a breathtaking façade, can't simmer the unquenchable soul of a true artist- who sees activism as the natural extension of her journey.