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Exclusive: Nafessa Williams On Why Getting Fired Was The Best Thing That Happened To Her

"I felt like I became my own superhero that day when I took it upon myself to just do what I felt like I needed to do for me."

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It's press day for Nafessa Williams, and xoNecole is her last stop on the press run. If she's low on energy after fielding back-to-back interviews, the movie star is keeping it well under wraps. She hops on our call with good vibes and a level of enthusiasm that is the epitome of gratitude begets success.

And truth be told, she worked hard to get where she is today and prayed even harder. Just a few years ago, she was interning at the district attorney's office daydreaming about a more fulfilling life in Hollywood. No longer willing to work a job that didn't align with her purpose, Williams began auditioning for roles, not realizing that her leap of faith would cost her a steady paycheck when the company ultimately decided to let her go.

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"I felt like I became my own superhero that day when I took it upon myself to just do what I felt like I needed to do for me. That was the first day of the rest of my life."

Over the next few years, Williams built an impressive resume of television and movie roles before receiving a call that would lead her to be crowned network television's first Black lesbian superhero on CW's Black Lightning. Keeping with the trend of being a part of history-making projects, she hit the big screen this fall alongside Naomie Harris, Mike Colter, and Tyrese for her role as Missy in Black and Blue—the first film to feature a Black woman lead as a police officer.

And if you think the flashing lights and red carpet appearances have her feeling herself, she's quick to remind you that she's the same ol' Nafessa, just a Philly jawn going for gold with no intention of slowing down. We catch Williams as she continues to level up on and off the screen for some good girl talk about the importance of trading fear for faith, bringing her girl tribe with her as she elevates, and why she's choosing selfishness as a form of self-love.

xoNecole: What drew you to the script for 'Black and Blue'? 

Nafessa Williams: I like to take on projects that I feel are going to help shape the culture and have a message that serves us as a society. It was really unique with this group because it was a film about a rookie cop who witnesses a murder, but it's led by a female, which is very unique in and of its kind. We don't typically see a female leading a movie based around the police department. Also, the fact that the script mirrored what we're going through right now in our country with racial injustice and the judicial system and the injustices that are within, that really caught my attention.

xoNecole: You've previously talked about your interest in television and film, even as a child, but then you pursued a career in law. What initially made you decide not to dive into television and film?

Nafessa: You know, it felt like a hoop dream. It felt like something far-fetched. I didn't have anyone really in the industry or my family or close friends that could help guide me towards it, so I went with something a little bit more practical like most people do. I went to college and I was like, "I'm going to go be a lawyer." I interned at the DA's office and I soon learned that it was not for me. I had to do what spoke to my soul and what spoke to my heart, which was acting. No matter how difficult it was going to be, no matter if it took me 20 years to get the first "yes", I knew that it will happen eventually if I stuck with it.

xoNecole: At what point did you realize working in that law office really didn’t align with your purpose and how did you overcome the fear of taking a leap?

Nafessa: I used to dread going to work every day. Some moments I would cry that I had to do it and I was like, "OK, you can't do this anymore. You gotta be happy. You got to really get aligned with your purpose." I'm really grateful for my insight because I saw it all so clear and for the faith that I have and the drive to do it all. I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices. I couldn't travel for a while. I couldn't do certain things some of my other friends were doing because I decided to follow my dreams, which can be very tough and [there] can be a lot of ups and downs. But I just made a promise to myself that if you start, you gotta really go full throttle, and I did that from the very first day.

"I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices."

xoNecole: How long did it take for you to start seeing success in television and film?

Nafessa: I was 22 going on 23 [when I got fired], and then I booked my first regular series two years later. It was on One Life to Live, and at the time you could not tell me nothing. I was able to pay my rent. I was able to work on my craft every day, and I knew that would only strengthen my skills and help me get to the next level. So, it was about two and a half years into it, which was fairly quick. That was confirmation that I was on the right track, and it gave me hope to keep going.

xoNecole: What were you doing in between that time since you weren't working a 9 to 5?

Nafessa: I had saved money so I was living off of savings and I was auditioning like crazy. I was in acting class, but I wasn't technically working on the books yet. I was going on auditions and I would tell everybody I'm a working actress even though I hadn't booked anything, but I was just really trying to manifest that and do everything in my power to make it become real.

xoNecole: Did you ever experience Imposter Syndrome?

Nafessa: Oh, of course. Especially when you get to LA because I had started to make a name for myself in New York with being on One Life to Live and just hanging out in the acting community. But when you go to LA it's like starting all over, so it can make you feel really small. I told myself you will hear no and to just get comfortable with that rejection because eventually, you're going to get a "yes" that's going to change your life.

xoNecole: Did you get that kind of character from your family or is that just something you developed as you went along in this business?

Nafessa: I think that's something that's within you, but there are influences that can inspire that. Also, growing up in Philly and wanting to get out of the environment and wanting to just be different from what I saw. Again, it goes back to Black and Blue where you could become a product of your environment or you could want something completely different, and whatever your choice is, your friends are going to reflect that and your environment is going to reflect it. So I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want.

"I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want."

xoNecole: So, I know set life is crazy, and it can obviously take a lot of toll on your body. Are there certain things you do to maintain your self-care and wellness? Because you look good, girl!

Nafessa: Oh my gosh, the hardest thing is to stay away from all the badness and crappy food. I work out a good bit. Meditation is really, really important to me. My spirituality is very important to me. I think that's what keeps me centered and grounded throughout all the chaos and the strict schedules. What else? Oh, massages. I treat myself very often, especially with all the fighting that I have to do on set. It's very important to me. I love Deepak Chopra; I listen to him a lot. I've learned how to meditate through Deepak. So, whatever podcast he's on, I have those on my phone.

xoNecole: Being young and in Hollywood, what has your dating experience been like?

Nafessa: I can't say that I haven't dated here and there, but the last five years, my main focus has been my career and I've been really gung-ho on that. It's literally my boyfriend. I feel like that's been a priority to me; it's been about laying my foundation. I'm still a baby in this industry and I'm just starting out. The blessings of Black Lightning and Black and Blue, I take very seriously. So it's really all about work for me right now.

xoNecole: Do you feel like you're sacrificing your love life in lieu of your career?

Nafessa: You know, I realized that I chose a different path. If I had stayed home in Philly, my life may look a little different. But I'm still young; I feel like I have time. And again, I'm just getting started. I believe in coming into a relationship whole and knowing who you are and setting the foundation of your career so that you don't need anything from anybody else. And I believe you attract who and what you are. So to me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish [laughs].

"I believe you attract who and what you are. To me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish."

xoNecole: Oh, tell me more about this selfishness!

Nafessa: I was in long-term relationships really young, so I felt going into my 30s, it was really important to find out who I am as an individual and by myself and to learn what it is I really want, and then link up with somebody else.

xoNecole: Have you figured out what that is yet or are you still in the process of figuring it out? 

Nafessa: I'm definitely still on a journey of that. And I think soon, starting a family is ideal for me. But again, I'm still in the thick of having and enjoying where I am in my career. You don't want to break that. I guess I'm just riding this wave right now.

xoNecole: As you should be. So when the cameras are turned off, who would you say you are at your core?

Nafessa: Just a real simple, down to earth, funny girl. Somebody who you feel like is your cousin. Somebody who likes to have fun. Somebody likes to dance and just always tries to remain true to who I am and at my core who I was when I left Philly. I posted me dancing on my InstaStory and somebody who I went to college with was like, "Damn, you really are the same person. You still like to have fun; you didn't change." To me, that's a compliment because you always want to remember who you are and remember what got you here.

xoNecole: So what’s next for you?

Nafessa: I really want to do comedy. I love to have fun. I love to make people laugh, and I think it's going to be interesting for people to see a different side of me. A lot of what I've done so far has been a lot of drama. Even the superhero show, it's still very dramatic and I'm really excited to dive into the comedy realm. My ultimate comedy job would be SNL.

Keep up with Nafessa on Instagram by following her at @NafessaWilliams on Instagram!

Featured image by DFree / Shutterstock.com

Originally published November 11, 2019.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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