Jayne Kennedy

Jayne Kennedy: Hollywood’s Female Trailblazer

Jayne Kennedy Overton, among other things, is an American model, actress, former beauty queen, sports analyst, producer, spokeswoman, writer, speaker, broadcaster, and philanthropist.

Jayne was known during the 1970s and 1980s as an icon and pioneer who broke through the glass threshold. She was a forerunner who smashed down boundaries that no one before her had reached.

Jayne holds the distinction of being the first in many of her pursuits. These accomplishments came with a lot of work, sacrifice, compromise, growth, and initiative. Looking at the era and time in which she achieved her success, there’s no doubt she was a trailblazer who set the tone for many young people to follow.

Jayne Kennedy in 1980.
Jayne Kennedy (1980).

As an African-American woman, her career was riddled with unseen struggles as she found success in a male-dominated and racist atmosphere. Jayne’s life has also seen its share of tragedy and heartbreak as she rose in triumph.

To fully appreciate Jayne Kennedy’s life and struggles, we have to look at where her first taste of success began. From this, we can slowly de-construct the things she experienced behind the big screen and the life she built for herself.

Jayne Kennedy – Early Life

Jane Kennedy was born as Jayne Harrison on the 27th of October, 1951, to Virginia Harrison and Herbert Harrison, in Washington DC, United States. She received her education and graduated from Wickliffe High School, Ohio.

Jayne was Wickliffe High School’s representative at the American Legions’ State Mock-Government Program. From an early age, Jayne was an achiever and an intelligent student. Little did Jayne Kennedy know that her participation in these school events would form the basis of ambitions in politics later in her life.

Miss Ohio – A Fairytale Begins

In 1970, shortly after her high school graduation, Jayne entered the Miss Ohio beauty pageant and became the first-ever African-American woman to win the title. Jayne was 19 at the time, and she was thrust into recognition and fame, especially in the state.

Given her ethnicity, people immediately took an interest in her success. There were well-wishers and fans, as well as naysayers and critics. This reception came as no surprise as no other African-American woman had won the title before. Not even participated in the event.

Jayne went on to represent the state of Ohio in the Miss America pageant. There, she made it to the Top Ten Finalists category, creating even more distinction because of her ethnicity. We have to remember that this was a time when racial bigotry was still rampant. For a woman of color to rub shoulders with white women in the mainstream was unheard of.

The great thing about this experience for Jayne was that it opened a new window of opportunities that most women could only dream of. It set her on a path of love, life, success, and bitter truths later in life.

Love & The ‘Ten Year Plan’

Shortly after winning the Miss Ohio Pageant, Jayne Harrison (Kennedy after her marriage) received a lot of attention and publicity. One such experience was when she was invited for an interview by the well-known local disc-jockey Leon Isaac Kennedy. Also known as ‘Leon The Lover.’

The interview immediately sparked chemistry between the two young souls, and a match was soon made. Everything seemed right in the coming together of Jayne Harrison and Leon Kennedy. They were both from the Cleveland region. They were both raised in suburban homes – Jayne from Wickliffe and Leon from Shaker Heights.

Both of them were young, intelligent, attractive individuals aspiring to make it big in the world. As far as Jayne and Leon were concerned, their stars had aligned and the universe had played matchmaker.

By 1971, Jayne Harrison (19-years-old) and Leon Isaac Kennedy (22-years-old) were married, shortly after they met and fell madly in love with each other. Renowned Motown artist Smokey Robinson was the best man for Leon at their wedding. Leon and Jayne Kennedy (as she would now be known) left their suburban homes for Los Angeles in search of success and fame.

Leon had crafted a ‘Ten Year Plan’ for the two of them. It involved using their talents and skills to make it big in the world of corporate businesses and entertainment. All within ten years of starting their new life. They knew it would require a lot of sacrifices, hard work, and determination.

But looking at the pair in 1971, no one would doubt the fact that they could achieve absolutely anything. Fate, as it does very often, had a lot of surprises in store for Jayne and Leon Kennedy…

Jayne & Leon Kennedy in LA

When Leon and Jayne Kennedy first moved to Los Angeles, the competition was fierce and they had to strive for small roles here and there. Her first appearance was made as a background dancer in Laugh-In, which was a series of comedic sketches hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.

Jayne then joined the USO (United Service Organisation), a traveling show hosted by the great comedian, Bob Hope. She also joined the performing troupe in Bob Hope’s World Christmas Tour. After the USO tour that covered Cuba and other countries in Asia, Jayne returned to the US and joined the Dean Martin Show for a short stint, as one of the Ding-a-ling Sisters.

In 1973, Jayne’s first recognized movie role was in Group Marriage, an independent production by Stephanie Rotham that was low on budget and finesse. It was part of the wave of budget exploitation films that were slowly gaining ground in the movie industry at the time.

Initial Television & Film Roles

After this, Jayne Kennedy was cast in occasional roles among the crime and detective TV shows that were also growing during this era. Most of these shows were on the NBC network, which included Ironside (1973) and Banacek (1974).

Throughout the mid-1970s, Jayne appeared in multiple small roles that were spread across a variety of television shows and movies. These one-off roles that she acted in continued with television shows like Stanford and Son, Six Million Dollar Man, and The Rockford Files, all of which had new actors and actresses trying their luck to get into show business.

Kennedy also bagged minor roles in films such as The Muthers, Let’s Do It Again, and Big Time.

Her former husband, Leon Kennedy, later claimed that most of these roles and projects were a part of their carefully planned strategy to break into show business. Leon was indeed an active and intelligent promoter and manager. However, this does not take any credit away from Jayne’s own determination and resolve to further her career.

Jayne also appeared in a few episodes of Wonder Woman in 1977, and later attempted to begin a separate spin-off of the successful series. The project was not meant to be however as it didn’t garner much attention and was eventually disbanded.

Rise to Fame

Jayne Kennedy’s appearance on television, movies, and her own tenacity paid off when she achieved another feat in the sports entertainment industry. She became the first-ever woman to join the cast of NFL Today as a sports analyst. Jayne also went on to associate with the Greatest Sports Legend Show. She was the first woman to host the GSL and a show on a nationally broadcasted sports show.

This breakthrough was a result of years of preparation and publicity that both she and her then-husband Leon Kennedy had worked for. This accomplishment was even more notable because the sportscasting industry was an easily male-dominated domain.

Furthermore, Jayne was not just a woman. She was African-American in ethnicity in an era when racial tension and bigotry were pervasive throughout television and the entertainment industry. These factors made her achievement more exceptional and noteworthy.

She graced the NFL Today panel during a time when the game was dominated by teams like the Oakland Raiders (Super Bowl XV), the Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl XIII and XIV), and the San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XVI). It was an exciting time for Football, and the panel appropriately had an impressive addition in Jayne Kennedy.

By early 1980 and 1981, Jayne had also begun to appear in multiple episodes of hit crime shows like Chips (1980) and popular comedy series like The Love Boat.

Body and Soul

In 1981, Jayne’s then-husband, Leon Kennedy, wrote a drama thriller that would propel them both into further stardom. The film was named, Body and Soul, and Leon and Jayne Kennedy played the two lead characters.

Directed by George Bowers, the plot revolved around a young aspiring boxer coming to grips with the challenges of his career. Jayne aced her role as the supportive and sensible girlfriend that kept the young protagonist grounded. The film received decent critical success and would later take them down a path they had never expected.

Divorce & Remarriage

After the success of Body and Soul, Leon and Jayne Kennedy announced to the world that they were filing for divorce. It shocked the media and their fans at the time. This was because it looked like both of their lives were headed in the right direction.

From the onlookers point of view, it made no sense to be parting ways at a time when their careers were at their peak. Both Leon and Jaye Kennedy would later reveal in interviews that work had taken its toll on their relationship.

The ‘Ten Year Plan’ that Leon had devised for them had been successful, as far as their careers were concerned. But both Leon and Jayne admitted that they had lost touch with each other over the years. Leon had, for the most part, acted as promoter and manager for Jayne’s growing career in the sports and entertainment industry.

According to Jayne, their professional relationship overshadowed their intimate connection. In the end, they decided to remain good friends but agreed that marriage was not going to work.

Some years after the divorce, Jayne would remarry. This time it was with Bill Overton, an actor, writer, and producer from the film industry, who had also been previously married. They are still married today and have had three daughters together.

Illness & Recovery

Jayne Kennedy’s divorce was made even worse when a private video of her and former-husband Leon Kennedy had been leaked out to the media. The scandal brought a lot of emotional trauma to the couple, especially Jayne, who worked hard for her reputation in show business.

To regain her momentum in work, Jayne Kennedy Overton began a series of work-out entertainment videos after her divorce. The series was called, Love Your Body. Aptly named and suitably cast, Jayne was a perfect fit for the show, until disaster struck.

During one of the live shows for her series, Jayne began experiencing extreme fatigue and debilitation. She collapsed backstage and was immediately taken to the ER nearby. Jayne was diagnosed with endometriosis, a disease that causes severe pain from tissues growing outside the uterus.

Jayne underwent multiple laparoscopic surgeries to remove the excess tissues and cure the disease.

Jayne Kennedy Now

After her recovery, Jayne Kennedy Overton took a step back from the entertainment industry to focus on her growing family. She devoted more time to her daughters, who were growing up to be intelligent young women like their mother.

With a career that blossomed in the 1970s, Jayne holds the distinction of being a pioneer among young African-American women who achieved the impossible in the face of adversity.

Jayne’s awards and nominations include an Emmy Award for her coverage of the Rose Parade, NAACP’ Image Award’ for Best Actress, a nomination for Golden Globes Best Producer, the Black Achievers Award, and numerous other nominations and awards over the years.

In 2015, Jayne began a concept called, ‘It’s a Mother-Daughter Thing!’ It’s an initiative that revolves around her work and association with each of her daughters. It is an exciting project because her daughters are all achievers too.

The intention is to create a movement that revitalizes the bond of sisterhood and mother-daughter relationships, addressing the many issues that the world faces today.

In the same year, Jayne Kennedy Overton helped in creating and producing events such as the Youth Consortium and Leadership Round Table. The event was presented by associating with the Department of State, Michelle Obama, and the International Women of Courage Awards.

Jayne Kennedy is a powerful trailblazer, defying odds in a male dominated society, and fighting black prejudice every step of the way, a true inspiration for young people to follow around the world.

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