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Debbie Allen: ‘Stop Worrying About Aging, Just Live’

The 74-year-old actress gets real on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ podcast about segregation, butting heads with Hollywood higher-ups and teaching dance

spinner image Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Debbie Allen each smiling for a photo
(Left to right) Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Debbie Allen
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for LOVED01

Debbie Allen thinks everyone should stop worrying about aging.

“Just live,” Allen tells Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the latest episode of the Wiser Than Me podcast. The award winning podcast from Lemonada Media features 63-year-old Dreyfus interviewing iconic older women in the world of entertainment and pop culture. (Previous episodes have included guests Sally Field and Jane Fonda.) ​

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Allen, the 74-year-old award winning producer, director, writer, actor, choreographer and grandmother of two, says she feels 25 and is just getting better with age. ​

“If you live a life like I've lived and you are healthy and you have all your faculties, you only get sharper. …You get better at what you do, and you get more economical with where you spend your time, and you're more effective in really great ways,” Allen says.

​​Allen, who narrated AARP’s 2023 documentary The Hidden Power of Purpose, says she’s happy to talk about her age even though many women “curl up and go into a corner” when age is mentioned.

“I don't even know why. They should be so happy – people are dying left and right, and we are living. We woke up vertical, child. Calm down, wake the hell up,” she says.

Allen inherited this go-getter personality from her mother, a 1952 Pulitzer Prize nominee who turns 101 in July. When Allen was 9 years old in 1959, her mother moved her and her sister to Mexico in order to escape the segregated South.

In Mexico, where there “was no racial segregation,” the world opened up for Allen: She was able to go into theaters and take dance classes.

“We were able to be people, not Black people in segregated white America,” Allen says.

On the podcast, Allen reflected on her Russian dance instructor who “kicked everyone’s ass” and inspired her own tough-love approach on the set of Fame (in her portrayal of dance teacher Lydia Grant's character and as the series’ real-life principal choreographer) and currently, toward her students at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. The rigorous training Allen received made her stint on Broadway a breeze compared with being in a dance company, she says. (She earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Anita in the 1980 revival of West Side Story.)

Allen's rise to fame, though, came with rejection, disappointments and setbacks (such as being rejected from the North Carolina School of the Arts), but Allen says she was never afraid to keep going and speak her mind. When working with top executives, she says it was oftentimes women in power who tried to denigrate her work.

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“It wasn't just white men. It was who was in charge, if they don't have a sensitivity to the creative process, and if there's someone who is just really pushing their own name on the door or credit … it was the system,” Allen says.

Allen also reflected on her work on A Different World, a Cosby Show spinoff that revolved around Denise Huxtable’s time at a fictional historically Black university. Allen, an alumna of Howard University, came onboard as a producer and director to reboot the series at the start of the second season.

"A Different World was a show that had its merits and stood on its own legs separate from the Cosby Show, separate from anything else," she remarked. "The show right now is more relevant, I think, than any time in history ... Because in any country, when the young people are quiet or silent, that country is just dead."

Louis-Dreyfus calls her guest "a fixer," pointing out that Allen was also hired on Grey’s Anatomy in 2015 to turn the show around. She plays Dr. Catherine Fox on Grey’s Anatomy (now in its 20th season) and occasionally directs.

Allen hasn’t hit the brakes on other creative pursuits, but admits she needs to work on “Debbie time,” adding that she hopes to incorporate more quality time with her grandkids (Aviah and Shiloh) and husband (former NBA player Norm Nixon) and make time for her regular doctor’s checkups and hot yoga classes.

​​Episodes of the Wiser Than Me podcast are released every Wednesday. Season 2 will include conversations with award-winning women such as Julie Andrews, 88, and Gloria Steinem, 90. The podcast is available on all major platforms.​​

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