Born into the world of entertainment, Deja Riley is a star in her own right. And if her last name sounds familiar, it is because she is the daughter of legendary producer and King of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley. But rather than rely on her father's connections and last name, Deja chose to forge her own path into the entertainment industry. Going from dancing professionally with the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and the queen herself, Beyoncé, to now becoming one of the most sought-after MIRROR home fitness trainers, a lululemon global ambassador, and the creator of her own fitness brand, the Sweaty Smiles Squad.
In an exclusive with xoNecole, Deja opens up about her professional dance background, transitioning into a career in fitness, being an advocate for Black people in the fitness industry, and the importance of 'Deja Dailies' to her self-care routine.
xoNecole: Let's first get into your dance background. How long have you been a dancer and how did you begin dancing for some of our faves?
Deja Riley: Dancing is actually something that I've always done. My parents put me in dance at the age of three so it's always been a huge part of my life. Once I started competitively dancing at 12, I started taking it more seriously. When I moved to LA at the age of 19, my first dance job was working for Laurieann Gibson as her assistant. She was a huge mentor who gave me my first celebrity gig which was on Dancing with the Stars with Lady Gaga.
Since then, I have danced for Britney Spears, J.Lo, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and the list goes on and on and on. So it's something that will always be a passion of mine. And I think that that is why I love dance fitness so much. It's because I get to incorporate both my passion for wellness and then my passion for dance as well.
xoN: What made you decide to transition into the health and fitness space?
DR: I've just always had this inclination to move my body. I love movement of all kinds. It varies from yoga to HIIT workouts. I love kickboxing. I love boxing. So at the age of 27 or 28, I was transitioning out of the dance industry. I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift. It was time to switch gears into something a lot more fulfilling for not just my body, but also my spirit and my mind.
It took six months to a year for me to fully make the transition. But I had already been working out a lot so I decided that I wanted to lean into fitness even more. At first, I was like, maybe I'll do some fitness modeling. Then I was like, maybe I'll go into personal training. And I landed in group fitness where I started my fitness journey as a leader.
"I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift."
xoN: As a Black woman in the fitness industry, what hurdles have you had to overcome?
DR: That's a great question. Representation is so important. Especially because when I was a little girl, I didn't have very many examples of that. But we have more today. And it is up to trainers like me and other, Black and brown women to continue to pave the way and show our young Black women that you can lead a healthy and happy life. I think that is part of my mission, as a trainer, as an advocate, as an activist. I take that responsibility very, very seriously. In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer.
I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood. When negotiating my contract for lululemon and MIRROR, I had to seek advice from other mentors in other industries because I didn't know anyone within our industry to help me navigate that. So now mentoring people that come after me is very important. I currently work with an organization called Fit For Us which advocates, supports, and continues to push the agenda forward for Black wellness and fitness professionals. That is near and dear to my heart.
I've done things like fireside chats, one-on-ones, and being transparent about fair wages and what other Black fitness professionals should look out for in their contracts. I think it is important that we continue to band together and teach those that come after us on progressing and pushing forward. And that's what I'm on a mission to continue to do.
"In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer. I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood."
xoN: As the daughter of super-producer Teddy Riley, what was that journey like making a name for yourself and not relying on your father?
DR: I think what is often perceived by the public is that I got to where I am, because of my dad, and it's quite the opposite. We can never escape the name. My siblings and I work very hard. We all have different careers in different industries. And we all do our best to let our work and our character speak for themselves. My dad instilled in each one of us a very strong work ethic. So it was never an option to only lean on my last name. I always had to work for everything that I had.
When I was in the dance industry, I had to audition just like all of these other dancers and work for the job. My dad wasn't making phone calls to choreographers or artists for me to get the job. But I think that I do have the privilege and the honor of being able to get industry and career advice from somebody like him. He has paved the way for so many in the music industry, and I'm hoping to do the same in the fitness industry.
xoN: How do you prioritize yourself and approach self-care in your busy life and the different titles you juggle day-to-day?
DR: I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first. I use my 'Deja Dailies' -- my own internal assessment I roll through -- to set the tone for my day. I meditate first thing in the morning and take time to read and journal. I usually get into my favorite book of the month, read articles that challenge my brain or inspire me and then take time to journal and take into account feelings that I need to get out on paper and release.
I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul. I make sure to intentionally set the pace of my days; even if that means going to bed early or waking up earlier, ultimately I do what's necessary to be my best self each day.
"I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first... I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul."
xoN: What are some sustainable lifestyle changes that people can incorporate into their lives?
DR: So I'm going to give a little bit of motivational advice, and that is you have to do something that you love. If you don't find what resonates with your heart, you're eventually going to quit doing it. There are so many ways to move [your body]. Also, "Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can."
That's actually a quote from Arthur Ashe. I think we oftentimes forget that he, like many others, had to start somewhere too. So I go back to that phrase often. And if you get overwhelmed, from looking at the entire staircase, just focus on one step, focus on being present.
For more of Deja Riley, follow her on Instagram @dejariley.
Featured image courtesy of Deja Riley
Whether it was your group chat, social media feed, or your favorite media outlet covering the spectacle, I’m pretty sure you’ve come across the viral Black wedding between actress KJ Smith (Sistas, Raising Kanan) and actor Skyh Black (All the Queen’s Men, Sistas). From their grand entrance to Jay-Z, Kayne West, and Beyoncé’s song “Lift Off” to KJ’s standout dance routine and the endless celebrity appearances, it’s an addictive TikTok scroll you can’t help but delve into.
But what many people would be surprised to know is that the couple’s original wedding plan was nothing like what it grew to be. What started as her simply scrolling through posts to get ideas eventually transformed into what the internet knows now as #TheBlackExperience. In an exclusive conversation with xoNecole, KJ walked us through her planning process, the morning of her wedding, and what she thinks of the online response.
Some women have their whole wedding planned out, from the bridal gown and venue to the bridal party and playlist. However, KJ was not one of those people. “I didn’t foresee a wedding in my future,” she reveals. “I was just gonna be the boss chick, rich auntie. I didn’t force love in my life until recently. I never had an idea of what a dream wedding would look like, it was easier for me to elope.”
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
And to many people’s surprise, that was their original plan – until Skyh brought up a valid concern. He was raised by his grandmother and thought she should be at the wedding, and naturally, that led to KJ wanting her grandmother to be there as well – then her mom – and later her sister – and, you’ve gotta invite the besties too, right? From there, the guest list continued to blossom. Much like the updo and pop of color bold red lip, she wore on her special day, which was initially on her Pinterest board as a soft glam look with her hair hanging on her shoulders, KJ is okay with changing her plan if it brings her and her loved ones happiness.
So let’s get into the wedding, which took place in Malibu, CA. The first thing you should know about the celebrity couple is that they’re non-traditional. They know, and they don’t care. So, in true unconventional fashion, they shared the morning of the wedding together.
“I woke up with Skyh, we walked our dog, had black coffee, and said good morning to the people who stayed at the venue with us,” she says.
Now, it was time for hair and makeup. While she was getting glammed up, she had Black-owned McBride Sisters wine and champagne (which ties into The Black Experience theme) on deck with her mom and friends, had her besties help rework her vows, retried on every outfit (sis is very Type-A), took photos, and ended the early-celebration with prayer and meditation. It seems very non-Bridezilla, I said.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company,” she explains. “The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
Things moved quickly, and before she knew it, it was time to line up to walk down the aisle.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company. The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
KJ Smith and her bridal party
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Since everything started with their grandmothers, the couple wanted to ensure they honored them and planned to keep an element of their wedding traditional. Although we’ve all seen the reception videos and photos online, you may have noticed visuals from the wedding itself are harder to find.
“We planned for it to be traditional, but we’re not like that, so we tried to create those moments. We jumped the broom and had a salt ceremony (where the bride and groom individually pour salt into a glass container, symbolizing their lives becoming one.) But honestly, still, nothing was traditional about it.”
She goes on to explain that her mom caught the holy ghost coming down the aisle, her glam team was on deck, and she became so nervous with excitement that she had an anxiety attack – something she struggled with for years, she explains tearfully. Her friends had to literally cheer her down the aisle because of how overwhelmed she felt until she eventually calmed down.
“Skyh was standing there with his hand on his heart; we have our own little language, and I could feel the support,” she shares.
It was surprising to hear all these emotional moments happened before the party we saw online. That is until she once again got into the backstory.
“As a Black woman actress, for so long, it was popular to be mysterious and secretive, but that’s not who I am or what I like. Plus, we both wanted to create an experience for everyone there. We are the people who always host family and friends,” she says. “Like for me, the first order of business was getting sandals for the women so they can dance all night long. We had oxtail, D'ussé, and a coffee and sativa lounge – which is part of Skyh and I’s lifestyle and routine. We wanted to bring them into our world.”
Skyh Black (L) and KJ Smith (R)
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
She went on to discuss the dance routine she did for her husband at the reception, which has taken over the internet. Apparently, that’s another thing that didn’t go according to plan. According to KJ, she had promised a performance at their joint bachelor/ bachelorette party, but her outfit got stolen from her car. So, Skyh ended up performing for her – complete with a strip tease. Still, she never forgot her promise to dance for him.
So, she hired her friend as a choreographer, learned the routine, made friends and family watch it endless times, and attended Beyoncé’s Renaissance show a few days before for a confidence boost. It ended up being a show to remember. But that wasn’t all the night offered. Lil Mo performed, and the guests received special goody bags featuring their favorite Black-owned products like journals, hair care, and more.
“We made sure everyone was taken care of all night. That kind of stuff makes us happy. I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives,” she says.
But naturally, the internet is going to internet, and while there were countless people praising the event and applauding the newlyweds, some thought it was too over the top. I was curious to know her thoughts on some of the criticism.
“It’s cool. We did what we wanted to do. I’ve decided to share my world with people. Just how I went on social media platforms and found inspiration, I want people to do the same,” she explains. “I don’t think it's fair to my supporters not to give that out. There’s so much I wanna share with brides, specifically Black brides. I love that people are adding it to their Pinterest boards."
"I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives."
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
“I’m happy with it because we did what we wanted to do. They can do what they wanna do. Don’t be cruel, though, because you will get blocked,” she said, laughing.
The more I spoke with her, the more her sense of freedom shined through. People are always going to have their opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to live your life, and it seems like the couple realizes that and embraces that power. She also stressed the importance of not living for others and the lessons life has taught her.
“I’ve been to countless weddings, and I’ve been in countless weddings. I’m a generally older bride. So when women in my demographic get married, and you and your husband are busy working people like us, you deserve to have the one you want to have,” she shares.
“This is what we wanted to do. Our loved ones love and support us. We did so much to honor them, but we also wanted to start our own tradition, legacy, and creation. I'm not going to be pulled back into ideas of the past when I’m trying to create a future with my partner. “
If you’d like to see more of the couple, you probably won’t have to wait long. Although no content is planned yet, she admits to being an oversharer. “Me being open and transparent about my experiences lets people know it’s okay to have flaws; it makes you human, and for many years, I didn’t believe that was okay. I had pressure to be perfect, and I’d crumble every time,” she explains to xoNecole.
Now, she owns her flaws and uses them as a superpower to connect with her community and feel and express her love.
“Some people give us [Skyh and KJ] a hard time because they say we just seem too perfect. I’m like, why is that a bad thing? I love the people I love. From my man to my mama, to my friends - unabashedly. We move through time and space how we want to move. If we did it another way, we’d let ourselves and our union down.”
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Feature image by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Aoki Lee Simmons Recalls Being Talked About For Her Looks As A Child & Where She Stands With Her Dad
It's hard to grow up underneath the harsh light and the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a supermodel mogul mom, a media mogul dad, reality TV shows, and Baby Phat runway shows to the mix, and you'll have a taste of what it was like for Aoki Lee Simmons growing up in the limelight. All that glitters isn't gold, and personal challenges don't discriminate against tax brackets.
Earlier this year, Aoki made headlines alongside her mom, Kimora Lee Simmons, as they publicly revealed what they had been going through privately as a family. Amid Russell Simmons' rape and sexual misconduct allegations, he is also estranged from the family, which all came to a head following a public dispute about Father's Day. Aoki supported her mother's claims that Russell had allegedly threatened their lives and also posted a recording of a video call between the two where he could be seen yelling at Aoki. She also told the public how damaging their conversations and relationship had become for her mental health.
Aoki would eventually stand by her truth in the days that followed, posting to her Instagram account, "Until a short time ago, this is the man who told me 'always defend and look after your mother girls' and 'never let a man curse at you, you call daddy if a man ever tries to yell at you or scare you that's never ok! Real men don't shout at women and girls." She added, "So to all the toxic men in my comments using 'I'm defending him' to be foul and talk about all the grievances you have with women, you can save it. It's pathetic. He would agree I know that for sure."
Despite navigating troubling times as a family, Aoki had an incredible year so far in terms of achievements. Alongside her part-time pursuit of modeling, she was able to graduate from Harvard University with a double major. At 20 years old at the time, she stands in history as one of the youngest Black women to accomplish such a win. One of her latest career moments can be found on the September cover of Teen Vogue.
The now-21-year-old spoke candidly about reading online about her looks as a kid, the advantages of being a "nepo baby," and where she stands on what happened with her dad.
Aoki on her looks being scrutinized and critiqued at a young age:
“At the time, I was reading a lot of crazy stuff: 'Poor her, she got the dad genes.' There were literally articles like, ‘Celebrity Kid Gone Wrong’ — and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m 11.’"
On benefitting from being a nepo baby:
“It’s totally true. I had no idea if I’d do modeling without my family, without their name helping me. I sometimes think when I look at shows or shoots — if I had done it, and it was that bad, and I was not me, would I get another shot? Would I have had the chance to develop the way that I have?”
“All you can do is be grateful and try to stay in your lane a bit."
Aoki on having no regrets about exposing her fractured relationship with her dad online:
“I don’t regret it. Part of it was already out there. There were reasons I thought it was reasonable to publish, because it was playing out in, like, a silent bubble.”
To read the cover story in full, head over toTeen Vogue.
Featured image by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows