The woman sitting across the table has a hit show on the Disney Channel, a singing voice worthy of an album deal, a couple of film roles lined up, throngs of fans who mob her when she's shopping on Rodeo Drive, and a wide, disarming smile. But her 10,000-watt sparkler begins to fade -- ever so slightly -- when it's mentioned that her résumé reads a lot like that of corporate sibling Hilary Duff.
''I've been [working] since I was 3!'' protests Raven (a.k.a. ex-''Cosby'' kid Raven-Symone). ''I don't mind if I go down the same path as Hilary.... How much did her movie make? How many albums did she sell? She's the GIRL right now. But I'm gonna be the next Raven.''
Well, you can't blame us for asking. Since its premiere in January, her sitcom ''That's So Raven'' -- she stars as a pratfall-prone, psychic high schooler who's an amalgam of Lucy Ricardo, Sandra Clark, and D.J. Tanner -- has become a multiculti touchstone for Disney, drawing 1.9 million viewers a week and tying Duff's heavily hyped ''Lizzie McGuire.'' In August, Raven's TV movie ''The Cheetah Girls'' also grabbed great ratings, and spawned a soundtrack. ''She reminds me of Bea, Gilda, and Carol,'' says Disney Channel entertainment prez Rich Ross. (That's Arthur, Radner, and Burnett for those of you under 25.) ''Raven's in their league. She's fearless.'' With signature poise -- the kind that only comes from being a showbiz vet at the edge of 18 -- Raven shrugs off the accolades: ''I'm very comfortable with what I do. I like entertaining people and making them laugh.''
Since last spring's falling-out between Duff's parents and Disney, the network seems to have groomed Raven as its next It Girl. '''Lizzie' was on for a year and a half before it exploded,'' notes Ross. '''Raven' was on for six months. We expect her to be a big star for this company.'' Her quick rise may herald a new era at the network, one with a curvy, sassy black girl as its poster child. And just because she's a convert to the Zone Diet, don't expect her to go all Lara Flynn Boyle on us. ''If there was any talk about me changing something about myself,'' she says, ''folks would quickly learn that we only do it our way.''
So far, her way has worked well: In 1989, at the age of 3, she landed on ''The Cosby Show'' as Lisa Bonet's precocious stepdaughter, stealing scenes from her more seasoned costars. By 7, she'd recorded a solo album, and followed that up with another TV role (''Hangin' With Mr. Cooper''); at 13, she opened for 'N Sync. For imbuing her with such tenacity, she can thank her parents: manager Chris Pearman and mom Lydia (a Mary J. Blige look-alike who rushes in halfway through breakfast to inform her only daughter that she wasn't able to bring her Zone meal).
Raven seems aware of -- but unfazed by -- her talents, crediting her mentors on the ''Cosby'' set, a training (play)ground where she honed her nimble comedic timing. ''It soaked into me,'' she says. (Asked if she keeps in contact with Cosby, Raven sits upright and appears to strain for diplomacy. ''Umm...Bill's very busy.'' She giggles, and Mom pipes in: ''The advice that Bill gave Raven -- whether she talks to him or not -- will last the rest of her life.'')
Buoyed by her sitcom's success, Raven will soon record her third album, and she's set to star in Warner Bros.' remake of the 1976 musical drama ''Sparkle'' (about a Supremes-ish group consisting of sisters) and an adaptation of ''The Princess Diaries'' author Meg Cabot's ''All-American Girl'' (a part, it should be noted, that's written as a redhead). For her album, Raven envisions ''a different, uh, plethora of producers!'' incorporating hip-hop, alternative, and neo-soul. ''I listen to everything from Jay-Z to Björk to Avril Lavigne to Mary J. Blige.'' As for the movies, which she'll probably film during ''Raven'''s upcoming hiatus, she insists she'll watch the original ''Sparkle'' only once. ''Just to make sure I'm on the right track,'' she explains. ''I don't want to follow in anybody else's footsteps.'' Okay, you got it: no more Lizzie talk.