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 sitcom 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 series 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 creator 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 was even a small crowd 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 only thing on the menu that cost more than five dollars 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 venture 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 mother.
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.