Through the Storm: Robin Givens

On the eve of the release of her controversial memoir, "Grace Will Lead Me Home," Robin Givens opens up to PATRIK HENRY BASS about surviving abuse, finding God, and why, despite the naysayers, she still loves Mike Tyson.

You can say this for Robin Simone Givens: It's impossible not to have an opinion about her. Her defenders think that the New York–born actress was unfairly vilified by the press as a gold digger who married heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson in 1988 solely for his millions. Her detractors feel she deserved the distinction as America's Most Hated Woman that same year, just eight months after the controversial couple were wed. Now, nearly 20 years after she said "I do" to Tyson, Givens, who has consistently delivered stellar performances on-screen and onstage, is ready to set the record straight about who she is, and more important, who she isn't in real life.

With the exception of her appearances on Broadway in Chicago, in which she was the first Black woman to play murderous schemer Roxie Hart, and her roles in urban theater productions like Men, Money & Gold Diggers, we've seen very little of Givens. All that will change this summer when she releases Grace Will Lead Me Home (June 5, Miramax, $23.95), her eagerly anticipated memoir that sheds light on a lot of dark moments in her life, especially her tumultuous union with Tyson. In person, Givens is tinier—both in height and size—than you'd think of someone with such a larger-than-life persona. At 42, she can easily pass for a coed, and at times during this two-hour interview, she has the energy of a freshman cheerleader. Gone is the icy armor that she admits she used as protection from the slings and arrows of a two-decade-plus show business career that has seen its share of up and downs. This is the softer side of Givens, a working mother who is most proud of her sons, Buddy, 13, and Billy, 7, and that today she is a "survivor."

Givens concedes that she sees how people could have confused her with her starring role in the 1986–1991 brainiac ABC sitcom, Head of the Class, that cemented her aloof and not-one-of-us reputation—but she's still hurt by the perception that she's less than Black. "I'm a Black woman," she says, leaning forward. "I am a sister through and through. To have your people not embrace you, hurts." Still, there was suspicion when Givens began dating "Iron" Mike Tyson in early 1987. What, many wondered, could this sophisticated young girl see in Mike Tyson besides his $40 million net worth? The differences were beyond stark. Givens enrolled at tony Sarah Lawrence College at 15, graduated at 19, and quickly landed a guest spot on The Cosby Show that put her on another career track. She and her younger sister, Stephanie, were raised by their single mother, Ruth Roper, an entrepreneur who designed portfolio management systems for brokerage houses in New York. Tyson grew up in Brownsville, a section of Brooklyn where life could be hard. In 1987, at age 21, the former juvenile delinquent became the “undisputed heavyweight champion of the world” by defeating Tony Tucker. It had been a long time since we had a champ we could root for. We liked Mike. We wanted to protect him. Givens spelled trouble to many. She had already dated two of our wealthiest and most eligible bachelors. First, Eddie Murphy, whom she'd met while in college, and then Michael Jordan, when he was gearing up to set records as a member of the Chicago Bulls basketball team, both before the public really knew who she was. In early February 1988, after a whirlwind courtship, Mike Tyson and Robin Givens were married in Chicago and later in New York. He was 21, she was 23.

There was no prenuptial agreement. Tongues wagged. Givens bristles at the thought that she didn’t marry Mike Tyson for love. "Gold digger? I wish," says Givens. "It’s a word that I hate. I can support myself incredibly well. We can go through a lot of women who are married to men and they don't make as much as the men do. Eddie (Murphy) is a dear friend of mine. Look at his ex-wife. They were allowed to just be in love. Why not me?"

In an ill-fated move in the fall of 1988, the couple decided to talk about their relationship with Barbara Walters on the ABC prime-time news program 20/20. That one hour sit-down is now one of the most infamous celebrity interviews ever. The cameras were there in the couple's 30-room Revival mansion built in 1897 in Bernardsville, New Jersey, as Givens described her life as "pure hell." With Walters prodding her, the actress told a rapt audience of millions: "He shakes, he pushes, he swings. He—sometimes, I think he's trying to scare me. And just recently I’ve become afraid." Givens said Tyson was "manic depressive." Questions abounded. If he was sick, why wasn’t she standing by him? Givens says being in an abusive relationship is complicated, without easy answers. “When you love someone who can also do you harm, it’s confusing.” In retrospect, she says she would have changed some things about the interview, but she still doesn’t regret that she did it. "Do I wish I could take some things back? Absolutely," she says. "But I was trying to hold on to my sanity." What she didn’t tell us that night, but details in the book, was how he once punched her in the left temple and knocked her to the floor, held a knife at her throat, and choked her while she was filming ABC's television movie adaptation of The Women of Brewster Place. Two days after the interview with Walters, police were summoned to their home, where an explosive Tyson began throwing furniture out the window, while Givens, her mother, her sister and a family friend cowered in the laundry room. Givens says she had had enough: "I saw what I'd put my sister and family through and I couldn't allow it." And though she first retained a high-powered divorce attorney to represent her in their divorce, today she says, "I didn’t receive one dime."

By the time she left Tyson, Givens was damaged goods to the public. She was labeled The Most Hated Woman in America in the fall of 1988 by several outlets after a CNN NewsNight viewer poll reported that 93 percent of respondents said the couple’s divorce was her fault. The venom in the air against Givens was palpable. Once a woman walked up to her on the street and yelled, "He should have kicked your ass. I wish he would have killed you."

And yet Givens tried to put her career and life back on track. "I was a woman not wanting to be defeated," she says. "I didn’t want somebody to have gotten the best of me." In 1990, director Bill Duke cast her in the decidedly grown-up role of Imabelle, a charming minx, in his indie film A Rage in Harlem, an adaptation of the Chester Himes novel set in 1950's Harlem. Starring opposite Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover, Givens threw herself into the role. She followed up Rage with perhaps her best-known role as sexy cosmetics executive Jacqueline Broyer in Boomerang, former boyfriend Murphy’s glossy corporate love story. Givens arguably walked away with the movie, no small feat with a cast that included Halle Berry, Martin Lawrence and Grace Jones. Givens has never seen Boomerang, perhaps her greatest film triumph, in its entirety. She doesn't remember much of those days except that her agents were telling her she was "hot," while she was feeling "sad, confused and disconnected." She adds: "I was 'hot' but I was hurting. I chose to deal with my hurt."

Two years after Boomerang’s release, Givens moved to a small town just outside Hilton Head, South Carolina. There was much that was new in Givens’s life, including a son, Buddy, whom she adopted at the beginning of 1994. But old demons haunted her. Although she took on the occasional television or film role, Givens withdrew from public life. Instead of front-page headlines, her short-lived 1997 marriage to tennis instructor Svetozar Marinkovic (they separated after one day) was relegated to the tabloid news briefs. After the birth in 1999 of her second son, Billy, with White tennis player Murphy Jensen, whom she never married, she returned to television to host the talk show Forgive or Forget. Again, Givens made headlines, but insists that she had nothing to do with the ouster of TV personality Mother Love, the older Black woman who had created the show. Love didn't take the firing well. Petitions circulated to restore Love as host. Though Givens's ratings were decent, after a few months the show was canceled.

Givens, who returned briefly to New York where Forgive was taped, moved again, this time near Tampa. She wanted her son Buddy to enroll in the area's competitive tennis camps. She was 36 with two sons, and her phone wasn't ringing off the hook. Instead of allowing fear to overtake her, she started to lean on her faith in God. The lapsed Catholic began attending church services again and started to feel a sense of calm that she'd never felt. "I'd been in such survival mode for so long that I hadn’t given myself time to heal," she says. Her renewed faith was integral to her sense of feeling whole.

"I needed to be quiet enough and still enough to hear God," she says. "He taught me how to live in a peaceful way. I learned how to pray unselfishly. I learned to stop trying to control everything and allow God to do His will. When I take things in my own hands, I mess them up. But not God. He made me appreciate everything.” Givens started to jot her feelings down in a composition book. She began to realize several neglected truths, the most important among them being that she had lived in denial for much of her life. "Denial was my friend. That was the only way I was able to walk into a room and audition for A Rage in Harlem or Boomerang, because I wanted to pretend everything was okay," she says. It wasn’t. Not only was she forced to deal with the hurt with Tyson, but also the pain that her father, Reuben Givens, caused when he left the family. Givens still feels betrayed by her father, which is something that she says she prays about “every day."

Nearly three years ago Givens broke her silence about her stormy relationship with Tyson on Oprah. She says the appearance was about her own "healing." Though Givens took meetings with New York publishers in 2000 to tell her story, none were as interested as they became after listening to her riveting one-hour sit-down with Winfrey. More than a decade ago, her agents had told her she was hot. Now the heat was on her again. Several publishers wanted Givens's story, which ultimately went to Miramax for an undisclosed sum, although insiders suggest that it had to be significant based upon its 150,000 first printing. The title, Grace Will Lead Me Home, is not just about her renewed faith, but is an homage to her grandmother Grace Turner, a fearless matriarch who walked away from an abusive marriage and headed to New York to make a new life for her daughters Peggy and Givens's mother, Ruth. Givens is generous and sensitive in detailing both her grandmother's and her mother's lives. It's a finely crafted memoir. And though her publisher has high hopes for the book’s success, Givens believes that Grace is by no means a slam dunk and the book’s fate is in the hands of the public. "I think the fact that she was once vilified actually works in her favor," says Karen Holt, deputy editor of Publishers Weekly. "Americans love a comeback." Givens doesn’t feel as if she's making a comeback. She feels as if she's had a breakthrough after completing the book. "My big job now is being a mother," she says. "That’s the only thing important, after God. If I never acted again, I'd be fine."

And she's made her peace with Tyson, who declared bankruptcy in 2003 after a string of unfortunate personal and professional choices. While writing the book, Givens ran into her ex at the premiere of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ at the famous Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. "He hugged me and said, 'I'm sorry and I wish you only the best.' And I thought, Wow," she says. Hindsight is 20/20 for Givens; she now admits she and Tyson should never have gotten married. But then she adds, "I love him. We’re still bonded in ways. I thought I failed Michael. That's really the issue that I still struggle with. My sense of failing him. I wasn't the person I wanted to be. I was a little girl. I wasn't ready to marry anybody." And what about today? Givens, who once dated Brad Pitt shortly after her divorce from Tyson, and shock jock Howard Stern in 2000, says don't believe that she hooked up with R&B singer Tank: "There's absolutely no truth to those rumors." She does admit that she’s just started seeing a "friend," an older man who she says is "very smart." She confesses, however, whether he is The One or not, she is ready to settle down again. "I want my children to have a father. I want a husband," she admits. But she wouldn't sacrifice anything for the peace of mind she has found through her faith.

"I know the power of miracles and God's grace," Givens says. "That's why in so many ways my life is spiraling upward."

Photo Credit: Jason Bell
Robin Givens was photographed exclusively for ESSENCE May 1, 2007.

Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Givens described her life as "hell" to Barbara Walters.

Photo Credit: Jason Bell
"If I never acted again, I'd be fine," says Givens, who feels that she has finally found peace.

Photo Credit: Miramax
Givens's revealing memoir is in stores now.

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