Former North Texas resident stars in Disney's 'Jessie'
Former North Texas resident enjoys working hard at goofing off on wildly popular Disney Channel series
Tweenage girls often emit high-frequency sounds when they meet Debby Ryan.
Some of them start to hyperventilate as well. A few just break down altogether and start to cry.
It's something that Ryan, the 19-year-old star of Jessie, a popular Disney Channel sitcom, hasn't quite gotten used to yet. Frankly, she's not sure she ever will.
"I don't spend much time thinking about the fact that people know who I am," says Ryan, an actress who used to call North Texas home. "When I get that kind of reaction, it's very disarming."
But her young fans adore her so much that they get so excited and can't control themselves.
"You know what I've found helps when they start to cry?" Ryan says. "I give them a big hug. That seems to do the trick. Massive hugs all around. Hugs seem to make everything better."
If Jessie gets any more popular, Ryan's arms are going to be sore from so much hugging.
The show, which begins its second season at 7:30 p.m. Friday, is consistently among the most-watched on cable, averaging 3.5 million viewers for every first-run episode. It's TV's No. 2-ranked show among kids ages 2 to 11 and No. 3 among kids ages 9 to 14.
"That's amazing and incredibly gratifying," Ryan says. "More than anything else, I'm really liking it when the fans come up and say, 'This thing that you did inspired me,' or 'That story that you told made me realize something about myself,' or 'That episode made me feel better about me and my family situation.'"
Jessie is about a small-town girl who leaves Texas for the bright lights of New York City, where she winds up working as a nanny to four rambunctious kids. In Season 2, Jessie will explore her passion for acting and writing, while juggling a budding romance with Tony, the building's handsome young doorman.
It's the kind of high-energy sitcom that often has Ryan, a redhead with a flair for physical comedy, displaying her best Lucille Ball-Carol Burnett-Debra Messing moves.
A gift for zany
"I'm just a massive goofball," Ryan says. "I've always been that way. So I love doing pratfalls and spit-takes and getting the laugh. If the script calls for me to be doing stunts, like being strapped into a harness and hanging upside-down with something dripping on my face, that's just so fun for me.
"The best compliment that anybody can ever give me is when they say, 'Wow, that was such a Lucy moment.'"
Ryan lived in Keller until 2008. At 15, she moved to California to pursue a showbiz career. She quickly landed a role as Bailey Pickett in Disney Channel's The Suite Life on Deck.
When Suite Life ended its three-season run, executive producer Pamela Eells O'Connell developed Jessie to showcase the many things that Ryan can do.
"The first season fulfilled all of my expectations in every way," Ryan says. "I knew I was going to work really hard. I knew that I was going to make a funny show. I knew it was going to be a very comfortable set and that every single person working on the show would feel valued.
"Now, heading into the second season, having created a family that viewers like and can relate to, we have the opportunity to take this family into new situations and do even better work. That's exciting."
Singing on hold
Still, it's worth noting that we haven't really seen everything that Ryan can do. She's also an aspiring singer, songwriter and music producer.
Ryan has performed a few numbers in Disney Channel projects. That includes singing the Hey, Jessie theme song that opens every episode. But for the most part, she has resisted launching a full-on second career, because she doesn't want her music to seem "manufactured."
"I hold myself to a higher standard than that," Ryan says. "I have too much love for music and too much respect for the industry. It's been about four years that I've had opportunities, and I've turned most of them down. People say to me, 'What's taking so long? Just cut a record already.'
"But I want it to be genuine and completely personal and to have my absolute mark on it."
Her first step in that direction is her cover of Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which was released this week on YouTube.
Given her big, bubbly on-screen personality, some fans might be surprised to learn that Ryan is actually rather introverted by nature.
"I can turn it on and off, but performing really shouldn't have happened for me," she says. "Growing up, I was incredibly shy and terrified. I was the girl who would hide behind her mom's skirt.
"Even now, I prefer small groups. I'm not really into the big party scene and whatnot. I need to be a little bit reserved. I unwind and refuel alone."
Yet there's something about performing that fulfills Ryan like nothing else can.
"When I go onstage and I act or sing, I never feel more alive," she says. "That's when I feel like everything makes sense. It's terrifying and invigorating at the same time."