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Growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Viola Davis always knew she and her five siblings had very little.
The How to Get Away With Murder star “realized we were poor,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s cover story. “But I was making my way through it. You either hope or you don’t. And it was hope and dreams that made me put my feet on the floor every morning and just approach every day with a sense of enthusiasm. It was my fight or flight that kicked in.”
While her father, Dan, struggled to make ends meet, Davis, 54, found support through what she describes as “countless” names and faces.
“I can’t tell you how many people have helped me,” she says. “I had a principal and I would come into her office and she would have a paper bag full of clothes. They were hand-me-downs, but they were so cute, the little purses, the A-line skirts.”
One teacher in particular “looked at me one day and said, ‘Viola, do you know you’re an all-American girl?’ ” Davis recalls. “I was like, ‘Me? But I don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes.’ He said, ‘No, you’re an all-American girl. You’re smart, you have all these attributes.’ “
For more of Viola Davis’ exclusive interview, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Now the Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner — who was just named the new face of L’Oreal Paris — is constantly grateful for her good fortune and success.
“That’s the little girl who follows me all the time,” she says of her childhood. “I see her every single day I open my big Sub-Zero refrigerator or sit in my Jacuzzi; she’s just standing there squealing. And I always feel like I have to go back and heal that little girl who grew up in poverty, who was called names and ‘ugly’ all the time.”
“Until recently, someone told me, ‘Maybe you need to let the little girl heal you at 54. Maybe you need to allow the little girl to be excited at the 54-year-old she gets to become,’ ” Davis adds. “Because actually, she did pretty good. She was a survivor. She got out of it. And it makes me look at my past completely differently when I see that.”
Now as a mom to her daughter Genesis, 8, with her husband of 16 years, actor Julius Tennon, 65, Davis knows exactly what advice she would tell her 13-year-old self.
“I would tell her that she was enough,” she says. “I wasted so much time listening to the naysayers. And I just wish I had listened to the other voices of people saying that I was beautiful and talented. I always thought when you listen to that, you’re conceited, but I wish I had listened to that more. I wish I had pranced through the world with just hoity toity confidence and overexuberance.”
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Viola Davis streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.