boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Role models

Actress Victoria Rowell pays tribute to the women who raised a foster girl on the move

NEW YORK -- "Hold on there," Victoria Rowell says as she disappears into her hotel suite. When she returns, she's standing on her toes, wearing a pair of peach ballet pointe shoes.

"I always pack my pointe shoes, just in case I want to go and take a class," says the Maine native and, until recently, longtime star of the CBS soap "The Young and the Restless." "It keeps the calves looking fabulous. I have my slippers, my pointe shoes, and my dance gear with me, because you never know."

Dancing has been a constant in Rowell's nomadic life. During her 18 years in foster care, she shuttled to and from homes in Maine and Massachusetts. But one place she could always call home was the Cambridge School of Ballet, where she spent eight years perfecting her pirouettes as a young dancer.

"No matter where I was in this labyrinth of coming and going, I always had one address in my classical ballet world, and that was very stabilizing for me," says Rowell, 47, who will deliver the commencement address tomorrow at Pine Manor College. "Ballet was my permanent address."

Rowell pays tribute to ballet and the women who mentored her -- instructors, foster mothers, sisters, and social workers -- in her new memoir, "The Women Who Raised Me." Her upcoming documentary, "The Mentor," features Rowell interviewing some of the women she writes so fondly about.

"I wrote the book with the intention of it being an homage to these incredible mentors, teachers, mothers but also to talk about the rich inheritance that I gained that not only included the tangible items I had received but also what's invisible, which is the love, and of course the letters and the experiences," Rowell says over lunch during an interview in her hotel suite. "I was encouraged to correspond to all these women. That was my first lesson in creative writing, and the women wrote vividly to me so that I would know what was going on in a household that I was once living in."

Her restless life began in Portland, Maine, on May 10, 1959, as the daughter of a white mother, who was a descendant of the Mayflower voyagers, and an unknown African-American father. Dorothy Rowell took a taxi to a hospital to give birth, leaving behind a son and two small daughters. Neighbors alerted child welfare authorities. Dorothy Rowell, who suffered from schizophrenia, found care in state mental hospitals, and her children were put into foster care.

Victoria Rowell's first home was with Bertha Taylor , who took in the 3-week-old infant for two years in Gray, Maine.

"Bertha made me hers from the word go, allowing herself the most unabashed maternal pride, holding me up and presenting me as her little Vicki to neighbors and strangers alike , " Rowell writes. Taylor and her husband tried to keep Rowell, but social workers thought they were too old to adopt Rowell and believed the girl might be better suited with a black family, according to papers Rowell obtained in researching her family history.

Rowell's second foster mother and primary caretaker was Agatha Wooten Armstead , who raised Rowell from age 2 to her early teens on a 60-acre farm in West Lebanon, Maine. Rowell fondly refers to Armstead as "Ma." Through Armstead, Rowell learned the discipline of farm life ; she baled hay and picked blackberries and apples. But Armstead's love of the arts also guided Rowell toward her own calling.

"She had this keen sense of being able to recognize special interests that children had," Rowell recalls. "She being an artist herself, she played the piano every night, [and] she noticed that my sneakers were wearing out quicker than my sisters.' "

When Armstead asked how Rowell wore out her shoes, Rowell simply explained that she had been standing on her toes.

"We began having ballet class together after that. She would play something off her sheet music and me holding on to the doorknob in our living room. She began teaching me classical ballet out of a magazine illustrating the rudimentary steps of classical ballet."

Rowell's older sister Lori Wash lived on the farm and remembers her sister's ambition.

"She's always been determined," says Wash , a Boston police crime photographer. "She is very strong-willed. She has a passion for things she believes in."

That drive led Rowell to her other life mentors including Esther Brooks , who founded the Cambridge School of Ballet. With Armstead's push, Rowell successfully auditioned for the school's summer ballet program. Brooks later extended Rowell's training with a full scholarship that lasted eight years.

"As a foster child, you already grow up fast and you are already dealing with very sophisticated scenarios, and I knew on some level although I was passionate about classical ballet and classical music," Rowell says , "I knew this was going to be my gateway to an independent life."

Ballet also introduced Rowell to her future foster parents Maurice and Sylvia Silverman , whose daughter, Robyn, was Rowell's ballet buddy. When Rowell confided to her about the difficulties of her roving home life, Robyn Silverman suggested to her parents that Rowell move in with them in Framingham.

"She just fit right in, as one of the family," says Sylvia Silverman , who paid for Rowell to study one summer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York. Rowell returned to the school in 1976 after winning a full scholarship during an audition. "Even as a child, she was very focused and very talented. She was very bright."

Rowell describes ballet as another parent that gave her a steady foundation.

"I couldn't have imagined that childhood without my ballet slippers, and with that being said, I can't imagine what 500,000-plus children are doing in foster care right now that don't have an anchor, either in fine arts, education, sports," says Rowell, who returned to Boston in her mid-20s to attend to Armstead, whose health was failing. After Armstead and Dorothy Rowell died, Rowell taught ballet to children at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury, and dance schools in Worcester and Newton.

She eventually leaped from dancing to modeling to acting in TV commercials. Her big break came when she landed the role of Bill Cosby's daughter in the movie "Leonard, Part 6." That opened doors for her on "The Cosby Show," and she eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full time . In 1990 Rowell landed the role of Drucilla Barber Winters on CBS's "The Young and The Restless." Rowell says the character was easy to play since the role reminded her of ballet classmates and friends in Roxbury -- rough-around-the-edges urban girls who dreamed of dancing ballet and becoming models. She also helped introduce a story line on "Y&R" about her character taking in a troubled foster child.

After 16 years on the show, Rowell left this spring -- to move on to other projects, she says. In recent news reports, she also said her reasons for leaving included a protest against the daytime Emmy awards voting system. Nominations now come from the actors themselves, making the awards a "popularity contest," she said.

Rowell continues juggling various roles. She writes, she dances, and she gardens in her 1923 Hollywood Hills home. She takes care of her two children -- 17-year-old Maya, Rowell's daughter with her first husband, Tom Fahey , and 11-year-old Jasper, whose father is jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Rowell also continues to act; her new film, "Home of the Brave," starring Samuel L. Jackson, opens in a limited run this month and then goes to DVD . She's also a big sister to foster kids. She founded the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan, which funds arts programs for foster children.

"I think an artist doesn't do necessarily one thing," she says. "I'm a writer that acts. I am an interior designer that dances. I am a dancer that gardens. People ask me what my exercise regime is, and I tell them I live my life."

Victoria Rowell will sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Boston University Barnes & Noble, 660 Beacon St.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES