For nine years, first on Moesha and then on The Parkers, actress Countess Vaughn was a fixture of African-American living rooms, a star on the television programs that topped measures of black viewership. The youthful Vaughn mastered a broad, sassy style of comedy with deep roots in African-American performance traditions, portraying the boy-chasing Kim Parker and developing a set of trademark mannerisms that never grew old. Vaughn, who married Joseph James in 2002, is an example of child star who grew successfully into an adult career; she began performing when she was 10.
Countess Danielle Vaughn was born in the small town of Idabel, Oklahoma, on August 8, 1978. Her parents, Leo and Sandra Vaughn, were schoolteachers. At age three she began singing with her church choir. "I never imagined being on television, acting, singing, doing the whole entertainment thing," she told Mike McDaniel of the Houston Chronicle. But while she was still a child it became clear to everyone around her that her voice was something special. The family had records by some great vocal models around the house—gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, as well as a jazz singers like Dinah Washington and pop diva Whitney Houston.
When Vaughn was nine, someone—she didn't know who—sent a tape of her singing to the producers of television's Star Search program, and she was selected to appear on the show in 1988. Her rendition of the Dionne Warwick hit "What the World Needs Now" earned her the titles of junior vocalist champion and overall junior champion. She also had the presence of mind to mention during her performances that the situation comedy 227 was her favorite show, and that led to a year-long role on the program. Guest slots on Thea and on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air opposite Will Smith followed, as did recurring roles on Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and Roc. In 1992 Vaughn released an album entitled Countess on the Virgin label. The album featured a ballad, "Unconditionally," co-written by one of the leading vocal stars of the day, Michael Bolton. Executives had been trying to persuade her to record ever since her Star Search turn, but Vaughn waited until her voice was more mature.
Vaughn performed on the Today Show and various television specials, and she tried her hand at live theater with a role in the musical Mama, I Want to Sing, Part 2. In 1996 she made her big breakthrough as she was cast in the UPN series Moesha as Kim Parker, opposite teen star Brandy Norwood in the title role. The bubbly four-foot-ten Vaughn made the party girl Kim Parker an appealing character, impressing Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker with her depiction of the character's "attempts to transcend her up-from-the-ghetto roots" with mangled pronunciations of words that she tried to give what she thought were classy inflections. Moesha remained a hit through the late 1990s, and Vaughn earned an NAACP Image Award for best supporting actress in a comedy series in 1998. Several other awards came her way, including a Proven Achievers Award from Los Angeles radio station KJLH in 2000, and a nomination for an International Black Comedy Award that same year.
The show made Vaughn a genuine star. She finished high school coursework with tutors, never attending school. "I don't regret that at all," she told McDaniel, pointing out that her parents had never pressured her to pursue television stardom. "We all have decisions to make, and I chose to make something out of my career." Crowds mobbed Vaughn and Norwood as they toured malls around the United States, making promotional appearances. "It was truly an ego booster," she told McDaniel, "although I didn't like my shirt getting torn, and my mom fell. It was an ego booster, but it got scary." The only downside, she went on, was dating: "It's genuinely hard to find someone who cares for me and not what I do." In addition to promotional appearances, Vaughn made time for benefits like one for Clean Slate '98, a Pittsburgh drug-awareness event.
As Moesha neared the end of its run, Vaughn was given a starring role of her own in a spin-off of the series. The premise of The Parkers, which premiered on UPN in 1999, was that Kim Parker had graduated from high school and enrolled at Santa Monica Junior College— and that her mother Nikki Parker, who hadn't been a part of the Moesha cast of characters, took the opportunity to get a college education at the same time. Cast in the role of Nikki was the successful plus-sized comedienne Mo'Nique. One indicator of Vaughn's talent was that she and Mo'Nique displayed convincing chemistry as Nikki Parker's antics, such as her constant pursuit of Professor Stanley Oglevee (Dorien Wilson), caused unending embarrassment for her daughter. Many viewers, in fact, believed that the two actresses really were mother and daughter, although in real life they were only ten years apart in age.
"The show is something positive," Vaughn pointed out to Jet. "It shows two women getting along. I like that with a mother and daughter getting along and not always screaming at each other." It was often silly, but for Vaughn that was a virtue. "Sometimes we don't want you to focus on the serious stuff because it's so much of that in the world. We just want you to get away from that and laugh," she told Jet. The Parkers became the top-rated show among African-American households, and although both Vaughn and Mo'Nique felt frustrated that it failed to cross over substantially to a white audience, it was a hit by any standard. The Parkers ran for five seasons, following Kim Parker through such adventures as a marriage and later an annulment, finally going off the air in the spring of 2004.
By that time, Vaughn had gone through new changes in her life. In 1999 she appeared in the hip-hop film Trippin', and after a cameo in the Disney production Max Keeble's Big Move she was looking to new film roles in the mid-2000s. On the personal side, her marriage resulted in a son, Jaylen James, born in the summer of 2003. She took a maternity leave from The Parkers and was temporarily written out of the script but returned in time for the series finale. As of the mid-2000s, Vaughn hoped to record a second album and find new acting opportunities.
Countess, Virgin, 1992.
227, NBC, 1991.
Moesha, Fox, 1995-99.
The Parkers, Fox, 1999-2004.
At a Glance …
Born on August 8, 1978, in Idabel, OK; daughter of schoolteachers Leo and Sandra Vaughn; married Joseph James, January 16, 2002; children: Jaylen James.
Career: Actor, 1990s-; recording artist, 1992.
Selected awards: NAACP, Image Award, for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, 1998; Los Angeles radio station KJLH, Proven Achievers Award, 2000.
Addresses: Studio—c/o United Paramount Network, 11800 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
Entertainment Weekly, April 19, 1996, p. 62; September 10, 1999, p. 129.
Houston Chronicle, July 3, 1997, YO section, p. 3.
Jet, April 10, 2000, p. 58; October 23, 2000, p. 60; May 10, 2004, p. 54.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, October 7, 2003, p. K1699.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 8, 1998, p. D1.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), August 22, 1999, p. T10.
"Danielle Vaughn," Biography Resource Center On-line, www.galenet.com (June 27, 2005).
"The Parkers: Countess Vaughn James," UPN, http://www.upn.com/shows/parkers/cast_01.shtml (June 27, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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