Hollywood stars live lavish lives in large homes filled with designer clothes, dine at trendy restaurants, and have opportunities many can only dream of. However, just like sets on a movie studio lot (or Botox injections), the trappings of celebrity life are often a false front that masks the real, complex person. While many never peel back the curtain, Viola Davis surprised Hollywood and fans by talking about her past poverty at a luncheon Friday, bringing many in the audience to tears and explaining why she is so involved in efforts to end hunger in the world.
Davis may be the star of a hit television show, a multiple Oscar nominee and a two-time Tony award winner, but her life was not always picture perfect. Even her role as a hard-working Southern nanny in The Help was more idyllic than her childhood where abject poverty forced her to scavenge in trash bins for food.
At the Variety’s Power of Women event in Los Angeles Friday, the 49-year-old accomplished actress depicted her grim childhood where stealing food and hiding her shame about her dismal life took a toll. It also provides inspiration today.
The actress was born in South Carolina, the fifth of six children, but grew up in Rhode Island. Her father was a horse trainer and mother working in factories and as a maid. Neither brought home enough to support the family.
Recounting that her childhood did have some happy moments, Davis told the gathering that poverty defined and shaped it. “I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn’t know where the next meal was coming from,” she said.
Davis then told the gathering that she was forced to do scramble and scrounge for food. She admits to stealing for food and jumping “in huge garbage bins with maggots for food.” Davis even sought out other children whose mothers regularly cooked in the hopes of an invitation for lunch or dinner. She even talked about falling asleep when taking the SAT because of overwhelming hunger.
Getting into acting in high school, Davis earned a scholarship into a performing arts program and later majored in theater at Rhode Island College. She also attended Juilliard School, before starting her highly successful acting career, with Tony winning turns in King Hedley II (2001) and August Wilson’s Fences (2010), Oscar nominations for Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011), and now her highly-acclaimed star turn in Shonda Rhimes’ new show How to Get Away with Murder.
Her painful childhood makes her grateful for her current life and determined to help others. Davis is very involved in the Hunger Is campaign, which is raising awareness about and money to aid hungry children in the U.S.
Explaining that her involvement started out as a cathartic effort to help her heal, Davis now calls the campaign participation the “joy of my life.” She talked about it as an effort to help the little girl she was “and all the [17 million] children like her … in this country that have to be in food assistance programs.” She added that “no one’s childhood should be spent like that.”
Viola Davis is typically guarded and private, so her emotional recounting of her past poverty and current charity work surprised the Hollywood crowd. She went on to remind everyone that one in five children is “food-poor,” and urges others to recognize that poverty and hunger exist in the U.S.
By Dyanne Weiss