'As a kid, I was Attitude!' says Campbell

TISHA CAMPBELL IS SOUNDING OFF about men. Some men, anyway. Well, mostly about her boyfriend, Duane Martin, 29, a onetime college basketball star turned actor. "I'm in love," says Campbell, the 26-year-old costar of Martin, the bawdy Fox comedy series, "but he's a bit of a chauvinist. And I'm very independent." She laughs. Loudly. "One time he called me a feminist! I was, like, 'Duane, that's not an insult!' "

Such verbal fencing is just a warm-up for Martin, in which Campbell's character, Gina, a marketing executive, routinely gets the better of her fiancé, a macho-mouth radio show host played by Martin Lawrence, the show's star. Now in its third season, Martin remains one of Fox's more popular shows, especially among young adult viewers. That's despite complaints that scripts tend to stereotype black men and that the show is fixated on sex.

"Gina and Martin have their ups and downs, but she loves her man," says Campbell. "We're similar." Indeed, both Campbell and her character work hard, and both are careful with money (Campbell proudly calls herself a cheapskate). But there the similarities end. "Gina," Campbell says, "was born with more advantages."

That's an understatement. Campbell was born in Oklahoma City, where her father, Clifton, worked in a coat factory, and her mother, Mona—married at 16 and the mother of four at 21—was a nurse who also sang gospel professionally. (Now 43, Mona is her daughter's manager.) When Tisha was 3, the family moved to a tiny apartment in Newark, N.J., where her parents slept in the dining room and Tisha and three younger brothers dined on syrup sandwiches. "We were poor," she says, "but we were all there for each other. Our parents would go broke to make us happy. I don't know how they did it."

As a child, Campbell spent hours in front of the family's small black-and-white TV entranced by Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Darla of the Little Rascals. She dreamed of becoming "The Black Darla." Her mother—who had sung with Mahalia Jackson—encouraged her, she says, hoping that the "singing and dancing" would keep her daughter "focused, away from the nonsense" of life in a rough neighborhood.

It did. At 6, she won a talent contest. (The prize was a car; Campbell had been hoping for a color TV) At 7, she won a part in an ABC After School Special, Unicorn Tales, and at 11, headlined in the Off-Broadway musical Really Rosie. Then, the following year, her parents split up—a rift that left Campbell "very angry," especially at her mother, who'd won custody. Eventually, though, she "saw both perspectives" and came to "admire her strength."

That strength helped get Campbell through Newark's Arts High School and gave her the courage to set out after graduation for L.A. There, under her mother's guidance, she slogged through several failed TV pilots; one not-too-successful R&B album, Tisha; and supporting roles in such films as Little Shop of Horrors, House Party—where she met Lawrence—and Boomerang, also working with Lawrence. "He'd say, 'If I ever do a series, I want you to play my girlfriend,' " Campbell recalls. "I was, like, 'Yeah, okay, Martin, sure.' "

But he meant it. "I always thought she was very natural," says Lawrence, "and that was the kind of woman I wanted to play my wife. She doesn't dress up in gold coats. She's real. Serious. She's not out playing all the time."

In fact she leads such a quiet, subdued life that friends call her Grandma. "She really loves her solitude," says Tichina Arnold, an old friend and a Martin costar. "If we're at a club, come 10 p.m., she's sleeping." Most nights, though, she's at home, in her two-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley, cooking (often for Duane), stringing beads or just reading.

Oh, and there is the TV. A color TV.

"My mother made me get it," she explains, pointing to the new 27-inch Sony parked in her living room. " 'Tisha,' she said, 'you really have to stop being so cheap!' "

BETSY ISRAEL
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.