This is what financial freedom looks like. It looks like being completely debt-free, student loans and all. It's doing work that you love and not just settling for a steady paycheck at a job you hate, or maybe packing up the kids and taking them on trips to St.Thomas, Ocho Rios, or to the Discovery Children's Museum in Las Vegas. And in the case of Jamisa McIvor-Bennett, it also looks like a $3.2 million real estate portfolio with 21 properties— all paid for in cash with the exception of one home.
It all started with an unexpected question that would lead to a life-changing opportunity when a 19-year-old McIvor-Bennett, then a cashier at ShopRite Supermarket in Philadelphia, was approached by her grandmother. "She said, 'I just wanted to know what would happen to the house if something was to happen to me?' I said, 'Grandma I'm not really sure, I can find out.' She was like, 'No, I was just asking because, if something was to happen, I want you to take full responsibility for it. You're the most responsible one.'"
At the insistence of her grandmother, the pair did a quitclaim deed transfer, allowing her grandmother to transfer the property to McIvor-Bennett for $400 total once the dust settled. Over a year later, her grandmother passed away unexpectedly, and all hell broke loose as the family clamored to make claim to the home, unaware of the agreement between McIvor-Bennett and her grandmother. "We made a video because this is during the era of record everything, so I had what I needed in terms of a paper trail."
Courtesy of Jamisa McIvor-Bennett
With no knowledge about financial literacy or real estate, McIvor-Bennett got to work on researching her best options for turning a lemon into lemonade. She didn't have the funds to make the necessary repairs to the home, so she decided to sell the paid-off abode for $152,000 at the encouragement of a real estate agent. And thanks to advice from a real estate investor turned mentor, she used the profit to purchase her first home in cash for $400— a house that she still owns today and that's worth $330,000.
Gaining more knowledge and experience through mentorship and mistakes, McIvor-Bennett has since bought 21 properties worth $3.2 million in the Philadelphia area, affording her a lifestyle that at one point never seemed imaginable for the now-married mother of two. Seems impossible? Well, don't just take our word for it. The real estate mogul is spreading knowledge on the power of investing through her company Rosebud's Investments to those looking to get in the game. "I have so many people who are interested in real estate investment just by seeing my lifestyle change gradually," McIvor-Bennett says.
xoNecole chatted with the self-made millionaire for tips on tapping into lucrative deals and how to build generational wealth through real estate investing.
1.Learn From Others’ Mistakes
Courtesy of Jamisa McIvor-Bennett
"I learned so much from my mentor just through his mistakes. He gave me a lot of information, but he showed me a lot of stuff just because I was paying attention. He was a really big dreamer. He would get really good deals and run out of money. That's why he ended up selling me the properties he did out of desperation because he was locked into a deal and ran out of money to finish it and needed to close. So he was selling off what he had just to get their money to get through that next deal.
"The second time he did it, it ended up helping me because I was down to my last $50,000. And he was like, 'I need money.' So I'm like, 'All right, I'm going to give you the money to finish your deal, and you give me back the money in interest.' And he did. He gave me 25% interest on my return. But I learned a few things— don't get into these high ticket deals without a contingency fund. I was taking notes, which is why it took me so long. I didn't get any mortgages until literally the 13th of December . So all of these houses later, I was kind of scared because of what I watched him go through."
2.Don’t Overlook Ugly Houses
"The second house sold to me was for $6,500. It looks like a scary movie. I call it the Treehouse, literally, there was a tree growing inside. But I bought it because it was $6,500, and my mentor had purchased it for $2,500. Even though it was ugly, it was structurally sound. So it wasn't one of those things where I had to do anything to it. We put a new roof on it, boarded it up to winterize it, and made sure it was safe. We had to buy a vacant property permit for it. I didn't know what equity was, I was just buying time until I conjured up enough to figure out what I wanted to do at home, but it was worth a lot. Year two [of investing], I started to really get into markets and stuff like that. By year three, the house directly up the street had sold for almost $200,000, and it was smaller than mine. I didn't know it was going to end up being a good deal, but now I knew that buying a house for $6,500 was OK."
3.Check The Comps
"When you're in real estate, you do what's called comps, or comparable property. So if you ever want to know what your house is worth, you have to find something that's comparable to it. Then we look at the work that was done to it. Obviously, if I put a waterfall and elevator in my house, and you got a little patio and vinyl sliding, mine is going to be worth a little more. But this is how you compare the numbers and you look at what [the] dollar consistency [is] in that area. You look at the last three things that sold and you get the average."
4.Buy Cheap Properties At Auctions
"When you buy a house in an auction, you get the equity, but you don't get the debt. There are actually nice houses sometimes, especially foreclosures. Somebody went through the whole mortgage process and out of the 30 years they might've had a good 125 months and they can no longer pay the mortgage. You are getting all of that equity per penny on a dollar because somebody else fell on hard times, which is bad for them, it's very sad. But if they're losing it anyway, you just happen to be the one to purchase it.
"I had purchased my own property for $1,700, and what was really interesting about it was that when I purchased it, I didn't even have to buy it. I had the money. But when you are at an auction, you can't pay for it there. You have to actually finalize your paperwork elsewhere on another day. I had to put down a deposit. The deposit is either 10% or $600, whichever is the highest. After that you have 30 days to do one or two things, the first thing you can do is obviously pay the remaining balance. But the second thing that you can do is sell the property, which I thought was really cool. I ended up returning like two or three days later and then I decided to go back every single month because they had them every month. I still have the $1,700 property. Right now the comp in the area is like $175,000. It's a bad area, but it's coming up. So I will just wait."
5.Buy Properties With Positive Cash Flow
"For myself, I'm looking for positive cash flow. I'm an urban investor so I like to stay true to my roots. I think people spend a lot of time focusing on gentrification, and they are pushing us out. I got a home that's in the city right now that's worth $600,000, you can't tell me that I'm being pushed anywhere. I typically stick to urban properties and the overhead is way less. We usually have about 1,200 to 1,600 square feet, depending on if it's a corner house or not. So with that being said, it's only but so much work that needs to be done to a house of that size."
6.Decide If You Want To Flip Or Rent
"As an investor, I never went in with the intention to flip. I sold one or two during the course of time just because I needed some fast cash and because I'm living off of the rental income, so I was like, 'All right, let me free up something.' Then I would sell one and replace it with two more, but I wasn't really interested in the flipping aspect. Some people need a quick flip. I have children and I like freedom. To me, flipping is too much of a job. You do all this to make money to then do what? You have to do it again because once you get the money, you've got to spend it on something. I like the idea of buying a house and renting it out. Right now my portfolio total is $3.2 million, cash flow is a little under $50,000 a month."
7.Look For Hard Money Lenders
Courtesy of Jamisa McIvor-Bennett
"Hard money lending is a go-to for investors because it doesn't require tax returns and you don't need anything except a good deal because they're funding you based on how much the property is worth. You do need 10% of the money because they'll give you money to purchase and rehab it, but they don't give you the money to fix it up outright. So you have to actually put money into it and then they reimburse you. And when they reimburse you, you use the reimbursement money to keep going. When you are getting a regular loan from a bank, they need at least two years of consistent tax returns. With hard money lending, you decide how much the house is worth. So it's easier to get funding, but you have to pay more upfront and altogether because it's interest-only payments too.
"The benefit of it is [money] is accessible fairly quickly. But you got to do it right because the first couple of payments are interest-only payments, and then you still owe whatever you borrowed. So let's say you did $100,000— $50,000 to purchase and $50,000 to rehab, times it by 10% interest. You owe $10,000 additional on a loan, where a normal loan is usually around 3.5% percent or so. So now you divide that $10,000 by 12 months because usually the loan is between 12 to 13 months. You have to pay them $830 every single month. Then at the end of the loan, you still give them back their whole $100,000."
8.Cash Is Still King
"You definitely get more of a return when you leverage, but the moment that you get a mortgage you owe somebody else. The market goes up and down, and what can end up happening is if the market crashes like it did last time, the value of your property decreases, which is why it's good to be an owner. Let's say for instance you bought a property worth $100,000. A bank will give you up to 80% of what the property is worth. So at $100,000, they will give you the $80,000 to play with. Then the market crashes, now the $100,000 property is only worth $60,000.
"You borrowed $80,000, so now you owe $20,000 more than what it's even worth. Not to mention most people who are investing don't even live in their investment property, so they still maybe have a mortgage. Now, you're struggling to even pay what you owe. If you are a more financially stable person, you can move money around, and then investors do things called diversification, so they have different streams of income other than [real estate] investments. But it depends on what your risk tolerance is."
9.If You Don’t Have The Cash, Consider Wholesaling
"Wholesaling isn't hard at all. You find a seller and you find a buyer. The most involved part is having time. That's what people underestimate. If you don't have credit or money, you have to have time, because the hardest part of wholesaling is finding a seller. But it's definitely not difficult depending on the numbers. Let's say a friend came to you like, 'Listen, I've got this house, I'm over it. I want to sell it for $80,000.' You sign a contract. You don't actually have to have the money when you sign a contract because the contract says that if the original buyer can't secure funding or can't close, they have the right to assign it to somebody who can. You sign a contract agreeing to purchase it for $80,000. You know I buy houses. You call me like, 'Hey, I have a house for sale for $100,000,' and if the numbers make sense and it's worth what you're asking for, I buy it and you give her $80,000 and take the other $20,000."
10. Protect Your Primary Residence
"Every person's situation is different, but I'm not going to ever tell a person to outright start with debt unless they absolutely have to. Once you lock into a 30-year mortgage, you owe them, no matter what. If things go right, good. If things go bad— you lose your job or you break your foot — you owe [the bank], and this is your primary residence. You want to always make sure your home is safe. You should be in a situation where your assets protect your liabilities. Even if you live in a house and you're like, 'I love it, it's beautiful,' it's a liability. It doesn't do anything for you other than makes you happy when you see it. You live there so you're not getting any gains from it."
11. Consider Investing In Multi-Family Units
"The idea is you get a mortgage and you get a multi-unit as opposed to a single-family. A multi-unit can be a duplex or a triplex, or it can even be a quad, which is four units. You live in one unit, you rent out the other units, and what they pay covers what you owe. Now it's not so much of a hassle on you, and then at the end of the day, you are still building equity. So if you ever decide you want out, you can still pull the equity out of your house and then reinvest it into a single-family, or you can go on to a nicer house and a nicer place."
12. Change Your Mindset Towards Money
"Believe it or not, people in urban communities have a whole lot of money. You still got people like, 'I'm not ready to buy,' and I think they're just afraid. When it comes to these properties, these tenants, they spend money consistently. I've met people who've rented for years straight, never missing a day. How do you have the discipline to know that you have to pay a landlord, but you don't have equal discipline to pay yourself? How do you invest in somebody else's equity and tell yourself you're not good enough to do the same thing for yourself? And they do it time and time again."
13. Ignore The Naysayers
"I tell people, it's not what you do is how you do it. I see people posting like, 'It's not like she got it from the muscle.' I did. [My grandmother] didn't give me 20 houses at random, she gave me an opportunity and I made the best of it. I've read, 'Oh she sold her family's legacy for money.' No, I've created a legacy. There was none."
Jamisa McIvor-Bennett is the proud owner of Rosebud's Investments, which offers individualized services in investor processes, for both new and seasoned investors who are looking to enhance their knowledge and expertise, and helps provide a blueprint for purchasing property without using credit.
Featured image courtesy of Jamisa McIvor-Bennett
Originally published on March 2, 2020.
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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.
Chief Mom Officer: 23 Quotes From Working Moms Finding Their Balance
The truth is, Black moms create magic every single day. Whether we're juggling motherhood with a busy 9-5, a thriving business, or staying at home to run a household, no day is short of amazing when you're managing life as a mommy. This Mother's Day, xoNecole is giving flowers to CMOs (Chief Mom Officers) in business who exemplify the strength it takes to balance work with motherhood.
We've commissioned these ladies, who are pillars in their respective industries, for tidbits of advice to get you through the best and worst days of mothering. Here, they share their "secret sauce" and advice for other moms trying to find their rhythm.
Emmelie De La Cruz, Chief Strategist at One Day CMO
"My mom friends and I all laugh and agree: Motherhood is the ghettoest thing you will ever do. It's beautiful and hard all at the same time, but one day you will wake up and feel like 'I got this' and you will get the hang of it. After 4 months, I finally felt like I found my footing to keep my kid and myself alive, but it took vulnerability to take off the cape and be honest about the areas that I didn't have it all together. The healing (physically and emotionally) truly does happen in community - whatever and whoever that looks like for you."
Alizè V. Garcia, Director Of Social & Community Impact at Nike
"I would tell a new mom or a prospective mother that they must give themselves grace, understand and remember there is no right way to do this thing and have fun! When I had my daughter three and a half years ago, I was petrified! I truly had no clue about what to do and how I was going to do it. But with time, my confidence grew and I realized quickly that I have all the tools I need to be the mother I want to be."
Nikki Osei-Barrett, Publicist + Co-Founder of The Momference
"There's no balance. I'm dropping sh*t everywhere! However, my secret sauce is pursuing interests and hobbies outside of what's required of me and finding time to workout. Stronger body equals = stronger mind."
Lauren Grove, Chief Experience Architect, The Grant Access, LLC
"I try to give myself grace. That’s my mantra for this phase of motherhood…grace. I won’t be able to get everything done. To have a spotless house. To not lose my cool after an exhausting day. Those things can’t happen all of the time. But I can take a deep breath and know tomorrow is another day and my blessings are more plentiful than my pitfalls."
Rachel Nicks, Founder & CEO of Birth Queen
"You have the answers within you. Don’t compare yourself to others. Curate your life to work for you. Ask for help."
Tanisha Colon-Bibb, Founder + CEO Rebelle Agency + Rebelle Management
"I know love doesn't pay bills but when I am overwhelmed with work or client demands I take a moment to play with my baby and be reminded of the love, energy, science, and Godliness that went into his birth. I am brightened by his smile and laugh. I remember I am someone's parent and not just a work horse. That at the end of the day everything will work out for the good of my sanity and the love within my life."
Christina Brown, Founder of LoveBrownSugar & BabyBrownSugar
"Learning your rhythm as a mom takes time and can be uncomfortable when you’re in a season of overwhelm. Constantly check in with yourself and assess what’s working and what’s not. Get the help you need without feeling guilty or ashamed of needing it."
Mecca Tartt, Executive Director of Startup Runway Foundation
"I want to be the best for myself, my husband, children and company. However, the reality is you can have it all but not at the same time. My secret sauce is outsourcing and realizing that it’s okay to have help in order for me to perform at the highest level."
Jen Hayes Lee, Head Of Marketing at The Bump (The Knot Worldwide)
"My secret sauce is being direct and honest with everyone around me about what I need to be successful in all of my various "jobs". Setting boundaries is one thing, but if you're the only one who knows they exist, your partners at home and on the job can't help you maintain them. I also talk to my kids like adults and let them know why mommy needs to go to this conference or get this massage...they need to build an appreciation for my needs too!"
Whitney Gayle-Benta, Chief Music Officer JKBX
"What helps me push through each day is the motivation to continue by thinking about my son. All my efforts, though exhausting, are to create a wonderful life for him."
Ezinne Okoro, Global Chief Inclusion, Equity, & Diversity Officer at Wunderman Thompson,
"The advice I received that I’ll pass on is, you will continue to figure it out and find your rhythm as your child grows into new stages. Trust your nurturing intuition, parent on your terms, and listen to your child."
Jovian Zayne, CEO of The OnPurpose Movement
"I live by the personal mantra: 'You can’t be your best self by yourself.' My life feels more balanced when I offer the help I can give and ask for the help I need. This might mean outsourcing housecleaning for my home, or hiring additional project management support for my business."
Simona Noce Wright, Co-Founder of District Motherhued and The Momference
"Each season of motherhood (depending on age, grade, workload) requires a different rhythm. With that said, be open to learning, to change, and understand that what worked for one season may not work the other...and that's okay."
Janaye Ingram, Director of Community Partner Programs and Engagement at Airbnb
"My daughter's smile and sweet spirit help me to feel gratitude when I'm overwhelmed. I want her to see a woman who doesn't quit when things get hard."
Codie Elaine Oliver, CEO & Founder of Black Love
"I try to listen to my body and simply take a break. With 3 kids and a business with 10+ team members, I often feel overwhelmed. I remind myself that I deserve grace for everything I'm juggling, I take a walk or have a snack or even head home to see my kids, and then I get back to whatever I need to get done."
Jewel Burks Solomon, Managing Partner at Collab Capital
"Get comfortable with the word ‘no’. Be very clear about your non-negotiables and communicate them to those around you."
Bridget Bogee, Marketing Lead At Meta
"Ask for help and always prioritize making time for you."
Julee Wilson, Executive Director at BeautyUnited and Beauty Editor-at-Large at Cosmopolitan
"Understand you can’t do it alone — and that’s ok. Relinquish the need to control everything. Create a village and lean on them."
Salwa Benyaich, Director Of Pricing and Planning at Premion
"Most days I really try to shut my computer off by 6 pm; there are always exceptions of course when it comes to big deals or larger projects but having this as a baseline allows me to be much more present with my kids. I love the fact that I can either help with homework or be the designated driver to at least one afterschool activity. Work can be draining but there is nothing more emotionally draining than when you feel as though you are missing out on moments with your kids."
Brooke Ellis, Head of Global Marketing & Product Launches at Amazon Music
My calendar, prayer, pilates class at Forma, a good playlist, and oatmilk lattes all help get me through any day.
Courtney Beauzile, Global Director of Client and Business Development at Shearman & Sterling
My husband is a partner who steps in when I just can’t. My mom and my MIL come through whenever and however I need. My kids have many uncles and aunts and they will lend an ear, go over homework, teach life lessons, be a presence or a prayer warrior depending on the day.
Robin Snipes, Chief of Staff at Meta
"Enjoy the time you have to yourself because once kids come those times will be few and far between."
Monique Bivens, CEO & Founder at Brazilian Babes LLC.
"For new moms, it is very important that you get back into a habit or routine of something you use to do before you were pregnant. Consider the actives and things that give you the most joy and make the time to do them."
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Featured image by Westend61/Getty Images
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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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