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Actress Rosie Perez reveals troubled past in new memoir 'Handbook for an Unpredictable Life'
Oscar-nominated actress Rosie Perez tells all in her new memoir 'Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,' which documents her traumatic childhood in Brooklyn and struggles in Los Angeles while on the road to stardom. Perez has choreographed dances for Bobby Brown and appeared in Spike Lee’s 'Do the Right Thing.'
By Sherryl Connelly / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, February 16, 2014, 1:18 AM
Richard Corkery/New York Daily
Actress Rosie Perez reveals details about her traumatic past in her new memoir "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life."
In an utterly revealing new memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,” Oscar-nominated actress Rosie Perez lays bare her traumatic past from the moment her father left the family — at gunpoint.
Her mother was holding the gun.
Accounts of that night differ, but Perez says she believes her father. Her mother, after all, would later wrench her as a toddler from the only loving family she’d known to put her in an orphanage. Visits home afterward were marked by brutal rejection and violence.
Her mother, Lydia Perez, left her husband for Perez’s father, Ismael Serrano, after she became pregnant with Rosie. She brought her five children with her to the Bushwick, Brooklyn, apartment that they shared until one night the fighting got so bad she pulled out a pistol and started firing.
Serrano dived out the window and never came back. Lydia returned to her husband and gave birth to Rosie in 1964.
Rosie Perez's memoir "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life."
The infant Rosie was taken in by her Aunt Tia — and Rosie believed that her aunt was her mom.
She was 3 years old when, to everyone’s heartbreak, Lydia suddenly showed up and demanded that the little girl be given to her.
Within days, Lydia left her at St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children in Peekskill, Westchester County — where she found she had a family of half-brothers and sisters.
Perez says the nuns could be merciless. The “spankings” — a paddle across bare buttocks wielded with brute force — came hard and often. One nun, who particularly had it in for her, would routinely backhand her across the face when the paddle wasn’t at hand.
The Fly Girls from the TV show "In Living Color" with Jennifer Lopez (bottom right).
Perez was hopeful that life would improve when the charity established a group home further upstate. Now 8, for the first time in her life she was able to attend a regular school.
But life within the home was scary. The girls fought viciously, and the counselors could be even more menacing. One, later dismissed after a girl reported that he had raped her, had Perez’s half-sister cornered when she bulled her way into the room to intervene.
Visits home were worse.
Her half-brothers and sisters told Rosie that their mother was schizophrenic. She would punch Rosie in the face out of nowhere over nothing. Once, Lydia brought a pistol concealed in her purse to the grocery store and ordered Rosie to shoplift light bulbs.
After she learned that a relative had attempted to rape Rosie, Lydia’s reaction was to belt her daughter so hard she fell to the floor. “You think he would pick you out when you’re the ugliest,” she shrieked. “He can pick any of your sisters who are prettier than you.”
Richard Corkery/New York Daily News
After Jennifer Lopez (pictured) became a big star, Perez had a feud with her. Today, Perez says she let the feud go.
Perez left the group home at 14, and lived with her aunt while she attended Grover Cleveland High School in Queens. But after a schoolyard beating — a girl took a razor to her face to cut out her dimple — she moved to Los Angeles to help a cousin with her children.
Perez worked two jobs and was putting herself through community college when a talent scout for “Soul Train” saw her at a club and brought her on the show. She got lucky again when singer-songwriter Bobby Brown’s manager hired her to choreograph his moves for stage and video. Don Cornelius, the creator and host of “Soul Train,” screamed at her when she told him she was leaving. Rosie hurled a piece of fried chicken in his face before being escorted out by security.
Perez brought her hip hop moves from the clubs into play and pulled together an act that made Brown look good. Eventually, she would choreograph for Heavy D & the Boyz (hanging out with a “sweet, shy, funny” Tupac Shakur when Digital Underground joined the tour), LL Cool J and even Diana Ross.
She was hanging with a new crowd. Mike Tyson hit on her, telling her he loved her “biscuit booty. Love to pour gravy over all that s---.” He laughed when she told him to shut up.
Rosie Perez at a theater for the screening of HBO movie "Strapped."
She was pals with a young Sean Combs, then known as Puffy and just starting out, determined to become a millionaire. “Yo, you should do this s--- with me, Rosie,” he told her. “When I take over, s---’s gonna blow the f--- up!”
At one point, Rosie decided she should head back to New York to apply to Stony Brook University. Her goodbye party was at an L.A. club, Funky Reggae, where, it turned out, Spike Lee was having a “butt” contest to promote his new movie “School Daze.”
Disgusted by the chicks competing to see who had the biggest butt, Perez jumped atop a speaker and began violently shaking hers. She meant it as mockery — but the bouncer who pulled her off brought her over to Lee.
“Tonight is fate,” Lee told her, laughing.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Actress Rosie Perez (left), Actor Wilmer Valderrama, Guillermo Chacon, Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza, Actress Lupe Ontiveros and Dennis deLeon attend the 14th annual Cielo Latino awards and auction.
“You wish,” she snapped back.
Turned out Lee was right. Perez was cast in 1989’s “Do the Right Thing, ” where her stunning dance moves in the opening credits caught almost as much attention as the nude love scene where ice dripped over her breasts.
Perez fought Lee over the naked scenes, and later charged him with exploiting her. She actually had her brother-in-law, a drug dealer who came to the meeting with a machete in hand, negotiate that there would be “no ass-crack, nothing close to the vagina.”
Perez writes that doing the nude scene for “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) was “a completely different experience.” Still, she couldn’t make herself come out of the fake bathroom on set where she huddled, naked in a towel.
Co-star Woody Harrelson sweet-talked her through the door, promising her, “Everyone respects you here, especially me, and everything will be done respectfully.”
Rosie Perez speaks during an AIDS rally outside the United Nations Building.
Finally, she opened the door. Her towel slipped, revealing her breasts, and Harrelson yowled, “Oh my God! Your t--s are huge.”
Even she had to laugh, and they shot the scene.
By the time of “White Men Can’t Jump,” Perez had taken to aggressively calling out as racist the assumption that a woman of color who had been raised in impoverished circumstances could play only “street and tough.”
Ironically, she had already laid the groundwork for a major feud with a woman from a similar background whose rise to stardom would eclipse hers.
Actress Rosie Perez with Rapper B-Real at "Untamed Heart" movie party at Planet Hollywood.
Keenen Ivory Wayans brought Perez in to choreograph the Fly Girls on the 1990 groundbreaking television series, “In Living Color.” She had to work to persuade Wayans to hire the “curvy, heavyset, big-assed beautiful girl” from the Bronx they saw at an audition.
Jennifer Lopez at first charmed everyone on the set, but within two weeks the other women were complaining how she was “manipulating wardrobe, makeup and (Perez), all to her advantage.” Wayans would complain that Lopez “looked fat that week or too clunky in her moves.”
Perez worked her hard, resulting in a screaming match where Lopez shrieked: “I’m far better than any of these girls and you know it!”
After they made peace, Jenny from the Block softened her approach to the point where Perez brought her home for a family-and-friends dinner.
Rosie Perez and Spike Lee in movie "Do the Right Thing."
Everyone hated her.
“She’s a b----,” one close friend warned her. “She’ll stab you in the back in a f------ second.”
After Lopez became a big star, Perez heard that she was telling everyone “I treated her like s--- on the show.” Lopez refused to take Perez’s calls, but one night sashayed up to her in a club as if nothing were wrong. Perez wasn’t having any of it, and though she doesn’t repeat what she said, she recalls tearing into Lopez in a major scene.
Today, Perez writes that she’s let the feud go, along with so much of the trauma-induced, debilitating fear and anger from the past. She long ago formed a loving relationship with her father, and was at her mother’s bedside days before Lydia died of AIDS-related complications in 1999. Perez had been a fierce activist on behalf of AIDS victims from the early days of her celebrity.
Last year, Perez married for the second time. She and her husband, artist Eric Haze, live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and she continues to work in film and television.
In the end, Perez has kind words to say about almost everyone, including St. Joseph’s.
“I could have done without the home and even Sister Renata beating the crap out (of) me. . . . (But) it was definitely a better choice than being raised at home by Mom,” she writes.
“That’s so sad, but true.”