It only took one conversation with Bozoma Saint John for me to add her to my list of inspiring boss women that are mentors in my head. She radiates wisdom, light, and positivity. Not to mention that she's absolutely hilarious. Within minutes of our call we're already talking about how we're going to find all of the unicorns in the world and form us a unicorn gang. Hashtag and all.
“Unicorns are mythical creatures who aren't like anything else, but the truth of the matter is, there are enough unicorns out there where we could form a gang and we can take over," she explains this with such assurance and enthusiasm I can't help but to get excited, too.
“Where is the unicorn gang at? Where are these people? They feel like they are alone and they feel like there's no one like them, but guess what, if we all come together, WATCH! There's no stopping us! Unicorn gang, let's go!"
See what I mean? Hilarious.
In case you were wondering, being a unicorn is somewhat of an honor, a blessing will you. It's the term that Bozoma used to describe herself as a child of Ghanian parents who, as a new transplant to Colorado Springs at the age of 14, was different than her peers in every way possible: too tall, too skinny, too black with the kinky hair to match. Too everything as she would say. Instead of being ashamed or trying to conform to the masses, she embraced her differences, proudly donning the braids that represented the beauty of her West African homeland throughout most of her adolescent years.
She may not have known it then, but at the time she was making a statement that would become the mantra she would continue to follow throughout her career: be bold and fearless, never compromise who you are just to please another.
“People are always going to tell you that you should be something else," she says. “If you ask somebody their opinion, they're going to give it to you, and it's not going to be what you have. So why not just celebrate what you have? If you're over here celebrating it, very seldom will people tell you that thing that you're celebrating is not great."
As the former Marketing Director for Apple Music (formerly Beats Music), a position that she held for three years after transitioning from her role as the head of the Music and Entertainment Marketing Group at Pepsi-Cola North America where she helped to secure multi-million dollar endorsement deals with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and Eminem. She was also behind getting Beyoncé to do the half-time performance at Super Bowl XLVII. If that doesn't impress you, maybe being named one of Billboard Magazine's Top Women in Music, Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People, or AdWeek's most exciting personalities in Advertising (which I'll attest to) will have you clamoring to be Boz's bestie.
On this particular Friday afternoon she's managed to slip our call in between meetings. Though she's certainly racked up an inspiring list of credentials, she admits that it wasn't always glitz and glamour for her career; there were many instances where she tried and failed. She specifically remembers a time when, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, she transitioned into the fashion industry—taking on an executive position at a fashion brand, which at the time she perceived to be a great idea given her admirable fashion sense with her own personal style. But she quickly learned that just because you have a love for something, doesn't mean you have to make it your career.
“That was a bad career decision. It was a very noble effort, but I didn't last. I wasn't used to the pace of fashion, I didn't know the business of fashion, and I thought I could just jump in there and do it and I failed miserably. I was out within a year."
But that didn't slow her down from taking risks, after all, without risk there's no reward. And Boz is too fearless not to take a leap of faith.
“If you're not failing, then you're not doing something right," she says. “Honestly! If you're failing a couple of times, you are not doing something right. You know, it's like, what is life but risk? The only way to make great things is to actually take risk. We should all feel more comfortable with failure."
Even taking the position at Apple Music was her stepping out of her comfort zone, but it's allowed her to integrate her love for storytelling and marry it with business—something that she set out to do even as an English major at Wesleyan University. Her parents wanted her to be a pre-med major, which Boz says is more acceptable in the West African culture of career options (other notable career paths include: engineer, doctor, lawyer, and a “businessman" Boz says), but she had a love for the written word, and was determined to make a business of it.
At Apple she was in charge of crafting authentic messages that were impacting the culture and society. If you've ever caught a Beats commercial, there's no denying that they tell a story so real that it will make you forget that they're even marketing a product. Oh, and the Apple Music commercial that aired during the Emmy's with Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington, and Taraji P. Henson and directed by Ava Duvernay? Yeah, Boz helped bring that to life too.
It's important for her to not just tell stories, but to tell OUR stories. There's often this expectation for creators and curators in Hollywood to tell the stories that are often overlooked, but it extends beyond the big screens and trickles down to the advertising and marketing executives who are responsible for inspiring people to want more of these narratives. For Boz, being in a position where she can positively impact mainstream's perception of men and women of color is something that she doesn't take lightly.
“To me it's the most gratifying thing. I want to write the story of women of color and of millennials and unicorns. I want to write the unicorn stories. Hell yeah! So how do we do that if you're not in the seat of influence, if you're not in the business of influence how do you do that?"
Speaking of influence, I ask Boz whether she has a lot of women who positively influence her.
“Oh yeah, squad life! There's different squads, too. The other thing I have learned is not everyone solves every problem. You need different squads for different situations," she says as she proceeds to break down her squads for me.
There's the work squad who hold her down while she's ripping and running in and out of meetings and events across the country. The squad that she can run to when going through difficult challenges, and who can advise her whenever issues arise. The ones that she can kick back and pop bottles with when celebrating big career and personal achievements. Then there's her home girls whom she turns to when talking everything from guys to her hair falling out.
And, of course, there's her mom.
“Lord knows that woman has some wisdom. She tells me stuff and I'm like 'oh God, I would never,' and two days later I'm like, 'what did you say?'"
I'm debating what squad I can be in, and decide that I'm okay with being a part of the “invisible squad," silently rooting for her as she continues to make waves in an industry where Black women executives are the minority.
Boz is not only wonder woman in the workplace, but also at home as a single mother to her daughter. A couple of years ago she lost her husband of 10 years to cancer, three months before leaving her position at Pepsico and moving to Los Angeles to start her new position at Apple Music. She references this time in her life as one of the points of pressure that have allowed her to become a “rockstar," or diamond if you will. Although it was a devastating loss, Boz hasn't missed a beat, balancing her mommy role with her executive one, sometimes waking up early enough to treat her mini me to a special breakfast, but not chastising herself if she only has time to serve up a bowl of cereal on the way to school.
She also makes sure to take time and show appreciation for herself every day, whether it's a glass of wine or watching a show for an hour instead of answering e-mails. Or splurging on a tube of Flat Out Fabulous MAC lipstick or stylish threads for her many red carpet and event appearances.
Boz says that there's no such thing as balance, but she certainly has shown us that you can have it all—the career, the family, the time for self. As a self-described badass, she's certainly proven that she's worthy of the title.
Perhaps it's something that has taken a lot of trial and error to achieve, and if you ask her, she's still not mastered it yet. She's still taking risks, trying to figure out what works and doesn't work. She's still growing and pushing herself to go to that next level. Still evolving.
“You know it takes a great person to actually evolve. Of course you grow up and change directions, but you know, it's not that easy. You may start off one way and then say you know what, actually I'm going to change it. You know, that takes some big cojones."
Watch Bozoma's amazing speech from last year's ADCOLOR Awards as she accepted the 'Rockstar' Award:
- Bozoma Saint John, CMO, Netflix - xoNecole: Women's Interest ... ›
- Top Black Women on TikTok - xoNecole: Women's Interest, Love, Wellness, Beauty ›
Kiah McBride writes technical content by day and uses storytelling to pen real and raw personal development pieces on her blog Write On Kiah. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @writeonkiah.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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