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Girl On Top

“That’s A Wrap” is all I hear when walking into the world famous and historic Avalon on Hollywood & Vine, a busy intersection just minutes from the sign that overlooks Los Angeles and attracts millions year after year.

What’s wrapped is a photo-shoot that has just taken place, with 21-year old Debby Ryan, Actress, Singer, and a Star in her own right. Not the first famous being to grace the empty halls of the Avalon, and definitely not the last. But this one, however, is different than any Jazz dancer or blues singer to ever perform at the historic venue. Debby is sweet and kind, and with five hours of photo-shoot madness behind her, her bubbly energy is refreshing. No pretentions ‘tude or unnecessary posse, rather her best-friend, Emma, who I’m informed is fresh off a plane from Texas.

Debby Ryan first came to be known to the masses in her breakout role as Bailey Pickett on Disney’s Zack & Cody spinoff, The Suite Life on Deck. Now, with her own super-hit series [Jessie] and transcending musical career, Ryan is setting a new standard. This time around; she’s breaking, changing, and making the rules.

She stands in front of me, blond, dressed in black head-to toe, worlds away from her title character’s dark curls and printed dresses. “I just love black. It’s a problem. I call grey pastel black,” she says, letting out a Julia Roberts-like laugh. “Getting a live show on its feet has really inspired my personal style,” During her hiatus, the Texas native has fully immersed herself in her music. Her band; The Never Ending, who she cites Tom Petty, The Pretty Reckless, and Fleetwood Mac as influences, is not the sound you’d expect to hear from the young starlet. There’s no bubblegum pop here. Instead, when creating her sound, she opted for a darker, classic feel.  “People are like Debby loves Katy Perry, Debby loves Taylor Swift, and I think that that’s a safe place to go. It’s a girl singing songs about relationships she’s in. There is some of that, but that’s not where we shine,” she says.  “We’re classic Rock & Roll people. The old school classic guitar tones; the ramping. Everything is very analog. Which I love because it’s not some dude behind a keyboard pushing a bunch of buttons. My songs are good, but the tracks are great, and that all happens when we all work together.”

At 21, Ryan is literally making sh*t happen. Her Disney channel show Jessie, (which she helped create, stars in, produces, and now directs), has really been the perfect stage (pun totally intended) to develop her creativity even further. The network gave Ryan her very first directing assignment that is sure not to be her last.  A Disney Channel first, but an accomplishment she’s had her eye on.

“Since I was on Suite Life, I had been shadowing directors because I’m nosey. All the things that get you in trouble as a kid are the things that make you successful in life. At least that’s what I’m going for. I started shadowing directors, and I fell in love with it.” It wasn’t long before the network took notice and gave her a shot at doing it herself, “They started really lobbying on my half, which I was so thankful for.”

Ryan directed her episode just prior to going on hiatus, which in itself, proved to be a bit of a challenge. “It wasn’t this smooth easy time, and it was our last before spring break. So naturally, everyone had senioritis, but we pulled through—and I’m proud of that. People don’t always see or know the work that is being put into things. “Everyone’s always like, ‘Oh so you’re doing music. Disney must be making you do music’. And I’m like, ‘No, actually’. I’ve had to fight really hard, against everyone, not just Disney and Hollywood Records. I’ve had to fight hard to make sure too many people don’t get to weigh in on my personal brand,” says the Teen Choice Award nominee. “Everything has been subject to everyone’s opinion, and music is the thing that I need to be spearheading. Having people fight for me, and being in the trenches with good people, helps. When I said I wanted to direct, Disney helped me do that. It feels good knowing that people are taking a chance on building a woman out of me.”

Jessie, now entering its fourth season, has been a labor of love for the star since the get-go. Its first original episode titled “New York, New Nanny” first aired the evening of September 30th, 2011, but work and sweat was taking place months before. Ryan herself was one of the wheelbarrow holders. I asked her what it’s like being the “first lady” of a popular TV series to which she jokingly replied, “I like to see myself as the President,” and rightfully so.

“Being the lead of a show is one thing, being there from the very concept before characters are even formed is another. It was really myself, the showrunner, and Disney that were involved in bringing it to life. My heartbeat’s been running through this from the very beginning.” Through her producer duties, Ryan has say on many aspects of production. From overseeing the fashion evolution of characters, with mood boards to hiring the personnel that will aide in making that happen, to suggesting the first ever Disney Channel Wedding. A suggestion that was both taken into consideration and eventually made a reality.”

Ryan whose character, Jessie Prescott, is older than her by a year, has spoken out on the importance and meaning of such an episode on a network aimed at children up to the age of 14. With the on-screen Nanny calling the shots, there’s no doubt that Jessie’s engagement and approaching marriage will be handled with the upmost authenticity of young love and the commitment that is young courtship. The series has already made history on the network as the first show to go to series without the prior would-be-standard pilot order.

To others, Ryan’s achievements outside of acting may seem like a stretch, but to this girl, it’s merely an extension of how far her vision would stretch.

“When you start acting, you want to tell stories, and that’s all it is. But you don’t realize that there are a hundred different ways to do that on a set. Acting was meant to take me where I am, to teach me everything that I’ve fell in love with now,” she gushes. “I don’t think I even knew what a producer was when I started out.”

On paper Debby Ryan is another young success, in real-time she reads more like a self-made woman. One made of passion, a quality she considers as important as life itself. When asked [what] her driving force is, she says it’s just that; the simple act of passion. “Someone who cares about something. My dad, he’s as left-brain as they come. He works a government desk job. But if you start talking to him about contracts, it gets him going. That crossroads is so beautiful to me. What is your armor? What is your cause? What are you fighting for, and what are you fighting against? Those sorts of things are what keep the grey from settling in.”


photographer AMANDA ELKINS www.amandaelkins.com

Stylist CHRIS HORAN www.cmcollective.com



special thanks to AVALON HOLLYWOOD www.avalonhollywood.com

Words by Dio Anthony

Production Bello Media Group