A chance occurrence in Houston, Texas, brought a big change to Cherie Johnson’s life. A one-time child actress in Punky Brewster and a star of Family Matters, Johnson has had a taste of fame. But she never imagined the way that she would give back to the community in Houston or what she would spend her days doing.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Johnson saw her name up in lights after uncle David W. Duclon got NBC to run a show that he’d invented: Punky Brewster. He cast the young Johnson as her own fictional namesake. She would play the best friend of the title character, who was portrayed by Soleil Moon Frye.
Johnson got on well with her co-star right from the start. In 2016 she recollected to the website mental_floss, “Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being six years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.”
She also revealed the circumstances of her casting, saying, “[My uncle] just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea. ‘Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?’ He said he needed a real actress. After seven auditions, NBC finally said, ‘Give your niece the job.’”
Naturally, Johnson was perfect for the role of Cherie since it was based on her own self, and she and the show proved successful. For some children, it played an important role in their lives. As Punky Brewster’s TV run continued, the cast and crew received mail from kids who badly needed help or advice.
The show strove to teach children important lessons, as well. One 1986 episode, ”Cherie Lifesaver,” highlighted the dangers of climbing into abandoned refrigerators. Johnson’s character hid in one during a game of hide-and-seek, got trapped and had to be rescued. And the episode also showed its young audience the basics of CPR.
Punky Brewster came to an end in 1988, but Johnson carried the memories of it with her for a long time afterwards. In the 2016 interview with mental_floss, she told them, “I’m 40 years old and people are still tweeting me about it all the time. If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”
After Punky Brewster Johnson did a couple of other shows, including Days of our Lives and a Martin Lawrence show which didn’t get past the pilot stage. Then she moved on to Family Matters, where for nine years from 1989 she starred as Maxine Johnson – another character with whom she shared a name.
Family Matters was actually a spinoff of the sitcom Perfect Strangers, but it came to eclipse its parent show. The character of Steve Urkle, and his catchphrase “Did I do that?” became iconic. The show ran for nine seasons in the end, coming to a close in 1998, yet it’s still remembered fondly today.
In 2011 Johnson spoke to the website Nu-Authority about how her life was going post-Family Matters< /i>. She said, “I am thankful I did a good enough job for people to relate to and remember Maxine, but it’s like a gift and a curse. I haven’t played Max in ten years and have worked every year since. I wish people would move on with me and let the character of her dissipate.”
And Johnson went on, “The problem with playing a character that long is that people’s common sense like disappears and they forget I got paid to act like her. She is not me at all, Cherie is a totally different person.” She added, “I am not that girl you see on TV, I am [a] 35 years old single and savvy businesswoman who is really somewhat of a nerd.”
At that point in her life Johnson was doing lots of philanthropic work. She told the interviewer, “I also spend a lot of my free time working with children’s charities and I am on The Alzheimer’s Association board. I host an Alzheimer’s awareness candlelight ceremony at Sunrise Senior Living every November.”
However, Johnson did have many fond memories of Family Matters. In a 2019 interview with the blog Trainwreck’d Society she said, “[Maxine] was a fun character to play, I mean who wouldn’t want to be a ditzy wild-child! Family Matters was really a family matter for me… My uncle was the producer, one of my aunts was his assistant, my mother catered and my older brother worked in the camera department.”
The actress also remembered in that interview, “I dropped out of college while working on Family Matters; they weren’t going to work around Urkle’s college schedule and everyone else, so my dream career as an architect was not going to happen. I did what most people do: stuck to what I know and expanded in different ways so I wouldn’t get bored to death.”
Johnson was always knowledgeable of the problems child stars can face later in life. In 2014 she did an interview with the website Who’s That Lady and was asked about the “curse” of the child actor. She answered, “Once you humanize a celebrity, you realize that they are just people and certain people fall into certain situations. So that curse is ridiculous and it’s manmade and it’s a stigma that the world has put on us.”
Asked what challenges she faced in the acting industry, Johnson said, “The only challenge is that everybody still treats me like I’m 12; I’m 38 years old now. The world, I don’t know what it is; they fantasize or are obsessed with some sort of celebrity or a character that they have embraced. They don’t want to let you outside of that box.”
Indeed, Johnson continued to work as an actress after Family Matters came to an end, but she also began writing and producing. She wrote several books and authored columns for magazines including Glam Couture. And the list of films she had producer credit on grew ever longer as time went by.
Johnson discussed her book-writing career with vcstar.com in 2012. She had begun with co-writing a 2010 novel called Around the World Twice, and then moved into poetry by releasing a collection, Two Different Walks of Life, via the Amazon Kindle. And before long she saw money start to come in.
The woman of many talents told the website, “I learned it’s not as easy as I thought, for sure. There have been a lot of sleepless nights, but people are very willing to help. The easiest way to get your books on shelves is to be personable.” She had sold her poetry book for only 99 cents, but raked in $100,000 because so many people were interested.
Johnson discussed this aspect of her life further in her Trainwreck’d Society interview. She said, “I started writing songs and books when I was five years old… As I grew, writing became a sense of relaxation and therapy. Professionally it started with my first film I Do I Did then to authorship, next I was writing columns for various magazines.”
It seemed that Johnson was always on the lookout for new ventures. In 2011 she even revealed to gossip website TMZ that she would be happy to pose for Playboy magazine. She said, “I have been threatening my family that I was going to do Playboy since I was 18 years old. When my mom said ‘Okay’…and my grandma said, ‘Bring me an autographed copy,’ I figured I’d make it a goal.”
A shoot for Playboy didn’t materialize in the end, but something else did. Come 2012 Johnson got a more down-to-earth job for herself, and one that had the potential of helping others as well. She opened a café, which she called Datt’s It, in a failing shopping center in south-west Houston.
Promoting the business, Johnson told Houston website Culture Map, “Right now you have a day care on one end [of] our shopping center and crackheads on the other. And here we are, right in the middle. We’re determined to make this work, though.” And the business that she created hired five people straight away.
Johnson had created and opened the establishment alongside two of her closest friends. These were Janice Wright, the creator of Houston 411 magazine, and cake creator Kay Matthews. Acting as an advisor for them was local businessman Toney Means, who gave a statement in the press release for the restaurant.
Means said in the press release, “These entrepreneurs fill the void in public interests in investing in these areas either from apathy or lack of available funds. I believe these ladies have the recipe for success in this venture and in future opportunities. This belief has led me and my investment group to support their activities.”
Johnson herself also contributed to the press release, saying, “Living in Los Angeles has allowed me to witness what happens when entrepreneurs realize the opportunity and invest in underdeveloped and otherwise forgotten areas in a city.” It had been her sister who first showed her the empty place where a café could be.
The opportunity was one Johnson grasped. She told Culture Map, “I never thought I’d see myself owning a restaurant. Only a month ago, I was still based in L.A. I arrived here on a layover and haven’t been on a plane since… The closest thing people have to food around here is the Speedy Mart and the dollar store. With a restaurant, we have a chance to change that.”
News of the restaurant spread fast; it took only three weeks to get it started, and on opening day there was a small crowd outside. According to Johnson, “The food wasn’t close to being ready, but people were so curious that we decided to let them in to see the place. By lunchtime, we were so busy, the building owner told us he was convinced this was the most profitable day he’s ever seen at the shopping center.”
The café sold American food such as fries, wings and hot dogs, but it sold them cheaply. According to TMZ, the only thing on the menu which cost more than five dollars was a waffle, eggs and bacon dish. Matthews told Culture Map that the main purpose of the restaurant was “trying to create new opportunities for opportunity.”
In fact, for Johnson at least, what was on the menu wasn’t overly important. The former child star informed Culture Map, “It’s never really been about the food, though I’m a total foodie and honestly can tell you everything’s fantastic here. For us, it’s about being a presence in the neighborhood.”
And part of that “being a presence” involved rolling sleeves up and doing the hard stuff. Celebrity or not, Johnson didn’t just leave all the work to someone else. No, the one-time star of Punky Brewster and Family Matters got stuck in, and visitors to the eatery could find the actress and writer bussing tables.
One review left for the restaurant on Zomato attests to this. In 2012 a user wrote, “I visited Datt’s It for Sunday Brunch and I was amazed at the quality and quantity of food I received. The food was amazing. Drink, dessert and all for just $10 dollars and to top it off the restaurant owners Janice, and Cherie Johnson (actress) not only greeted us but served us as well.”
The reviewer enthused, “It was a real down home atmosphere. It was a great experience and I will visit again real soon.” However, unfortunately good reviews aren’t always enough. Times can be tough in the restaurant business, especially in a challenging area of Houston, and sadly Datt’s It did not survive.
However, Johnson soon got back on her feet with other ventures. By 2019 she had opened a spa, and she spoke about why she’d done this with the Trainwreck’d Society blog that year. She explained, “Growing up my mother owned a gym, so self care was taught to me early in life.”
And, she further explained, “During my hiatus weeks on Family Matters I worked at my family-owned gym and later became a nutritionist.” Regarding work in general, Johnson mused, “Being on TV is kinda like working customer service, so imagine never being about to take that customer service badge off?”
But TV soon came calling again for Johnson. In 2019 it was announced that Punky Brewster would be coming back with the original cast, including her of course, reprising their roles. This time around Punky herself would be the parent character and she would be raising three children as a single mother.
Deadline magazine broke the story, and it reported, “Johnson will once again play Cherie, best friend of Punky (Frye) since they were kids. In fact, they’re more like sisters. To Punky’s kids, she’s Aunt Cherie. Her life-long friendship with Punky inspired her to become a social worker, helping orphaned kids.”
Needless to say, Johnson was excited. She released a post on her blog in April 2020, titled “AN OPEN LETTER TO OUR PUNKY FRIENDS!” In it she wrote, “Thirty-eight years ago, I met this little vivacious girl in the hallway! We became fast friends drawing pictures together sitting in the same chair. Little did I know we would break ground, going down in pop culture history as iconic TV best friends.”
Johnson went on, “Some jobs are just that for actors, JOBS. Others leave a lifelong impression on the way you live your everyday life. Soleil and I both grew up believing we could accomplish anything we put our minds to. At the time when we shot the very first pilot, I don’t believe either of us knew how much we would forever carry our characters and the show with us.”
The actress concluded, “I can’t wait for you all to see the pilot and the show. It was so special, and I pray each of you enjoy it!… Thank you all for continuing to grow with us and being so receptive to having us back!” It’s another exciting adventure for Johnson – one of many upon which she’s embarked.