After disappearing from our televisions screens for almost a year, the Peete family is back! While they’ve landed at a new network, Rodney, Holly and their lovingly hilarious family are still bringing their brand of wholesome television and heartfelt stories to us with their new series, Meet the Peetes.
In this exclusive interview with EBONY, actress and advocate Holly Robinson Peete dishes on the series, moving from OWN to Hallmark, her son’s awesome encounter with Rihanna and why it’s so important for special needs children to see a reflection of themselves on-screen.
Tell me a little bit about Meet the Peetes!
It’s Hallmark Channel’s first family docuseries. I loved being the first family for them in this genre, and it’s really exciting not just to do a show for them, but to do the positive, affirmational family show that Hallmark is known for.
We talk a lot about our philanthropy, what we do, our journey in life as well as raising a son on the autism spectrum and that journey. It’s been cool!
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Your family had a show on OWN titled For Peete’s Sake from 2016-2017. How did Meet the Peetes end up on Hallmark?
OWN decided they were going to pass on picking up For Peete’s Sake for a third season, and for lack of a better term, we became free agents. I really, really loved the work we were doing for them, I loved the show; I thought that we really delivered and wanted to continue telling those stories. The family agreed that we’d love to do it again, and when we ended up speaking with Hallmark about possibly joining their family, they were already fans of the show. We all wanted to continue bringing these “Peete plots,” as I like to say, and bringing positivity to television.
It doesn’t happen too often in this genre, where you have a show that another network loves enough to say, ‘We believe in this and want to keep it going.’ We rebranded a bit with the new name, but it’s the same family in a new home.
We recently saw Rihanna and your son RJ connecting after she discovered he’s a huge fan of her’s. How was that moment like for him, and for you as a parent?
You know, whenever someone is good to your child, they’re good for life! He is arguably her biggest fan and is mildly obsessed with her. He’s a young boy on the autism spectrum, so he can get fixated on things. I was able, through some mutual friends within Roc Nation, to have them meet!
As a parent, when your kid idolizes someone and they finally meet them, you’re holding your breath that this person’s going to be nice and live up to all the expectations. There’s nothing worse than when you’re disappointed by your idol. When I tell you she over-delivered? She was so good to him, so sweet to him, so lovely and so engaging. She knew about his autism but just treated him so sweet. He was awkward around her, but she was so lovely.
Every time we see her, she always recognizes him, like ‘Hey RJ! Good to see you!’ He’s just shaking his head, like, ‘how did this happen?’ [Laughs].
How important is it for us to see images of young people with special needs, like RJ, flourishing and living a full life? Going against what society has deemed possible for them?
It is crucial that we see these images. For so long, we had so few images of people with autism on television or in movies who actually did anything. For years, all we had in our generation was Rain Man. Now we have A-Typical on Netflix and a few other shows, but you certainly don’t see any young people of color.
The story of RJ is that he was told he’d never do a whole bunch of things. So, to be able to show his journey and how he got rid of those ‘nevers’ is really powerful! It’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do the show. We wanted to show families what’s possible. We were told he could never go to a mainstream school, he wouldn’t have friends, he wouldn’t say I love you. We were told he wouldn’t drive or work, and now he drives to work! These things are important to see!
I also want to highlight the people who are helping him along the way, the angels on his path. His speech pathologist, his therapist, his educational therapist, it really takes a village. Even the Los Angeles Dodgers, who took the chance to hire him. We need to celebrate corporate America who actively recruits these young people because the autism unemployment rate is somewhere around 90 percent.
I know at one point you were concerned about those with autism not being able to share their own stories, or always having to have family speak on their behalf. At 20 years old, how comfortable is RJ speaking about autism from his own perspective?
That’s such a good question, but to be honest, he’s still uncomfortable. He doesn’t love it, but when people approach him on the street to thank him for sharing his story, he gets it. He gets that he’s a symbol of hope. He doesn’t love talking about it, he doesn’t even like saying the word ‘autism’ at times, but he does love the reaction from people who really embrace him and are inspired by him.
I’ve noticed that on this season of Meet the Peetes, RJ is way more articulate when it comes to talking about things that bother him than he was during those first two seasons of For Peete’s Sake, especially during the confessional interviews where you narrate what you’re doing in the scene. In some ways, the show is cathartic for him.
The HollyRod Foundation is now in its 21st year! What has this charity meant to you over all this time?
It’s meant everything. It’s been an outlet for a lot of frustration and sadness, but when we got the diagnosis of Parkinson’s for my father and autism for my son, helping others was a good way to process our own grief and issues. It’s also been really effective in helping open up the conversation, certainly nationally, about autism awareness and taking the stigma away, which is important.
It’s especially important in our community, where our kids are getting diagnosed five years later than other communities. I know a lot of times, we don’t want to talk about cognitive stuff, mental illness and different disorders. We’ve been taught to not even deal with it, you know? We say, ‘Oh, that’s just how RJ is,’ or ‘Cousin JoJo just don’t talk.’ No, cousin JoJo may have an actual speech issue or may need speech therapy.
#Swipe What an AWESOME night!!! @hollyrodfdn partnered with @skyzone and @outback to exclusively host #autism families for a super fun #trampoline night!!! Our 1st annual #JumpWithRJ was a success!!!🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽 Jumping helps many kids with autism regulate their bodies and this special sensory night was all about them!!! 🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽 #meetthepeetes @hallmarkchannel #autismawareness #autismcommunity #autismkids #jumping
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HollyRod has given us a platform, and one of our newest programs is helping these young people prepare for jobs. The RJ’s Place program will be where young people can come learn skills that prepare them for the workforce.
Meet the Peetes airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on The Hallmark Channel.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.