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Boss-Up: Producer Shayla Cowan Makes History At The 94th Oscars

Meet the Black woman producer changing the game at this year's awards ceremony


The film industry is notoriously one of those patchy playing fields where Black women struggle to succeed due to the intersecting obstacles of race, class and gender oppression. So when a Black woman like Shayla Cowan works her way up from being Hollywood superproducer Will Packer’s executive assistant to his chief of staff and now a producer of the 2022 Academy Awards alongside him, we have to celebrate. Shayla’s name may not be a household one just yet. Oh, but it will be.

“I'm supposed to be in this position,” Shayla told xoNecole over Zoom one sunny Saturday morning. It’s one of the few windows of time she has to chat while preparing for Hollywood’s biggest night. “I don't really get caught up too much in the hard work of it all. It's more about getting it done,” she said. We’ll get to witness all of Shayla’s and Will’s hard work pay off when the 94th Oscars airs live on ABC this Sunday, March 27 at 5PM / 8PM ET.

But we’ve already seen massive changes from the Oscars’ 93 years of being “so white.” Not only will this be the first time in history that the Oscars will be produced by an all-Black producing team, but Will and Shayla have made sure the night will be inclusive and historic, from the red carpet journalists, to the hosts and presenters and even the chefs at the famous post-Oscars Governors Ball.

This will be the first time in history that three women will host the Oscars: Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer. While Wolfgang Puck has been the chef for the Ball for years, this year, Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro will collaborate with Puck on the menu. HBCUs will also be represented on stage with Mr. & Miss N.C. A&T University Zaria Woodford and Joshua Suiter serving as awards presenters. Following in the footsteps of Quincy Jones in 1971, Pharrell in 2012 and Questlove in 2021, Adam Blackstone will be the Oscars musical director this year. And Beyoncé, BEYONCÉ! is performing her Academy Award-nominated song from King Richard, “Be Alive.” Ok, #OscarsSoBlack!

Shayla Cowan and Will Packer at the 94th Oscars Nominee Luncheon in Hollywood

Courtesy of AMPAS

Will and Shayla’s focus for the Oscars is to make it about the people. “With what we've gone through in the last two years, it was so important for us [to do a show for the people], which we've always done with our projects because we've always had a specific demographic. But for this, it was like, one thing is for sure, across the globe, everyone loves movies. So why not bring everyone together for this special night, celebrating some of the best movies of the year with people who really have an opinion and who enjoy them?”

This is one of those stop and smell the roses moments for Shayla, who has been working with Will for over a decade. “To bring me in [as an Oscars producer], first of all, it just goes to show who [Will] is as a person…just always [with] the elevation and wanting to empower me in any way he can. I'm just forever grateful for that,” she said.

Shayla said she went from being a crew member on Will Packer Productions’ Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming in 2008 to being Will’s executive assistant, to being his chief of staff in 2018 and now co-producer on the Oscars because of how she showed up to work. “I think the best way to describe me is consistent,” she said.

Consistency is king, especially when it’s mixed with one of Shayla’s other powerful characteristics: “I’m fearless.” It’s that fearlessness that led her to walk up to Will on the set of Stomp the Yard 2 and strike up the conversation that would change the course of her life. When the billion-dollar box office producer subsequently asked Shayla to be his executive assistant, she felt empowered enough to tell him yes, with one condition: “When you go make movies, I want to go with you.” Shayla went on to be an associate producer on box office-topping movies, Think Like A Man, Little, Girls Trip, and so many more. “We [Will Packer and I] literally built this,” she said.

The ability to build up to this magnitude in Hollywood hits different for a Black woman. Shayla shared, “I don't take it for granted. Every so often I wake up like, ‘this all could be gone tomorrow.’ So everyday I put my best foot forward to know that I am here for a reason.”

One of those reasons close to her heart is to help those coming behind her understand the business. She shared, “My job on this planet is to empower, support and connect because I am in a position to do so. Like with the Oscars, being able to bring in some of these folks, the Adam Blackstones of the world, who have done a musical moment in the show, but to be a musical director of the entire show? That's a moment!”

Shayla’s meteoric rise in the industry could be seen from the outside looking in as if she’s just been lucky, but that ain’t all it’s taken for her to get here. She said, “None of this was handed to me. Every inch of this journey literally was earned. As a Black woman in this town, it has not been easy, with all the mistakes, all the headaches, all the frustration – but also those special moments. Those history-making moments will be there forever, including this one with Will and I being the first Black producing team to produce the awards in Academy history.” Those are the moments that make her climb worth it.

When it comes to equity in the industry, “there's still more work to be done,” she said. Ever the optimist, she added, “There are more Black women in these chief of staff positions and high-level executive roles – I think we're being seen differently.”

Shayla shared a story about a woman recently asking her about being Will’s assistant despite the fact that Shayla has been his chief of staff for the past four years. “I was like, ‘Ma'am, what else do I need to do so that I can be seen as an executive?’ Not to take away from [that], because if I wasn't his assistant [first], I probably would not be in this position today, with the growth and all of the wisdom that comes with it. But sometimes I'm like, ‘What do I need to do to make sure that people know that growth has happened?’”

Whether folks see it or not, Shayla Cowan will continue rising. She’s a marvel whose Midas touch is opening Hollywood’s doors that have been locked to Black people for too long. When asked to give advice for those who see her career and want to be just like her, Shayla said, “I don't want them to be just like me. I want them to be better than me.” What she has is drive, determination and confidence, but she’s also got these other secret weapons that are her saving grace: humility and patience.

“You have to be okay with waiting for your turn. And I think oftentimes people are so quick, they just want to run to the top. You can't just run up that mountain. You’ve got to take your time. Slow and steady wins the race.” Good thing she’s a runner, she’s a track star–except when it gets hard, she faces the work and gets it done. And as Shayla continues to succeed in her career, she’s also building a beautiful life that she’s proud of. “I literally am living and dreaming in color, and I'm so happy, inside and out,” she shared. Who wouldn’t aspire to that?

Editor’s note, xoNecole is a subsidiary of Will Packer Productions.

Jamie Foxx and his daughter Corinne Foxx are one of Hollywood’s best father-daughter duos. They’ve teamed up together on several projects including Foxx’s game show Beat Shazam where they both serve as executive producers and often frequent red carpets together. Corinne even followed in her father’s footsteps by taking his professional last name and venturing into acting starring in 47 Meters Down: Uncaged and Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times as Thelma.

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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Featured image by Getty Images

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