Rowell was a foster child for most of her childhood, in Maine and Massachusetts, sometimes with Black families and sometimes with whites. She credits her foster child experiences with giving her the background of hard work and application which enabled her at 15 to convince unwilling social workers to finance her ballet training and to endure the vicissitudes of show business.
She was a professional dancer and then went into acting. She works in both television (The Cosby Show, The Young and the Restless, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Herman's Head, and Deadly Games) and films (The Distinguished Gentleman, with Eddie Murphy, Dumb and Dumber, Eve's Bayou, Barb Wire, Secrets, Diagnosis Murder, etc.). She has endowed an arts, music, dance and sports scholarship foundation for foster children and does speaking events and lobbying for foster children's organizations.