Essence Atkins may be three decades into her career, but the Ambitions star doesn't take her long-standing success in Hollywood for granted. Though OWN's sizzling drama has approached its midseason finale, the veteran isn't pulling any breaks. "I'm on my way to acting class," she beams seconds into our call.
Essence may have landed a role on The Cosby Show after acing her first-ever audition as a teen and later became a familiar face on television as Yvette in the 90s sitcom Smart Guy, yet she doesn't move with an air of conceit. Her longevity is no mystery. She continues to approach the business as a student eager to grow and equipped to execute.
Best known for her work in comedy, the Marlon alum steps into unchartered territory on Ambitions, displaying another layer of her immense talent as Amara Hughes. Season one finds the assistant U.S. attorney tracking corruption in Atlanta's City Hall all while attempting to save her marriage after infidelity—a fight that takes a grim turn after an old foe and the sins of her past invade her world.
In this xoChat, Essence hints at what's to come when the OWN drama returns and bares her heart as she discusses finding balance between motherhood and career, giving herself permission to evolve past her mistakes, and tackling intimacy onscreen in her single season.
xoNecole: ‘Ambitions’ is a departure from what a lot of your fans know you for. What makes taking on this project both exciting and challenging?
Essence Atkins: The challenge, really for me, is being away from my son. We shot the show on location in Atlanta, so I was gone for seven months. I flew back and forth to be [in Los Angeles] as much as possible, and the production team was so amazing at making sure that I had pockets of time when I could come home. A one-hour drama schedule is so different. Doing a sitcom, the hours aren't so long. It's almost like having a 9 to 5 except for the days you shoot in front of a live audience. When I was shooting Marlon, it was a 15-minute drive from my house.
It was easier in terms of getting to work and the production side of it. What was so fun was exactly that: playing a character that so many people aren't used to seeing me play. Amara is way less together than most of them. As successful as she is, there are many aspects of her life that are a hot mess and in turmoil, and that was exhilarating for me to play someone who is so flawed, who has so many broken bits and so many pieces where she is so human. As I age and mature, I find that my life and complexities are much more interesting than when I was younger and the roles were more about being cute and fun and the object of someone's desire. Amara's story is really about her growth and pain, and I love that.
Something I imagine that bonds you to your character is family. Amara is working on preserving her marriage, and we also see how she grapples with her daughter being away at boarding school. What have you learned about yourself when trying to strike a balance between motherhood and the demands of your job?
I'm grateful to have a partner, even though we're not married any longer, who's supportive. My ex-husband is really involved and is a great parent to our son. I'm really fortunate that he works with me really well in terms of making sure that our son has stability and consistency even though my life isn't very stable. I know that a lot of single moms are truly doing it on their own, and I can say that I do have help, and I have help in someone who loves my son as much as I do. There's a lot of grace I have to give myself when I miss stuff. Being away from my son, I miss certain milestones and big moments in his life, and I can get buried in guilt sometimes about that.
At the same time, I understand that part of the benefit of my career and success is that it affords him a life that a lot of kids can't have in terms of extracurricular activities and access and the way he gets to do things and move in life. There are definitely moments where I beat myself up about not being able to be there physically, but I have also learned in this journey of being away from him, working on Ambitions in particular, how resilient he is and how okay he is. He did great in first grade, and I was gone for almost all of it. He finished with straight As on the principal's list, and he did exceedingly well. I think that, ultimately, kids are incredibly adaptable and as long as they know that they're loved, they really can flourish, and he knows that he's loved, and that was something that I was assured of in this season.
Essence Atkins in 'Ambitions'
Courtesy of OWN
"There's a lot of grace I have to give myself when I miss stuff. Being away from my son, I miss certain milestones and big moments in his life, and I can get buried in guilt sometimes about that."
[Your character in 'Ambitions'] Amara is really going through it right now. She’s determined to save her marriage, but just when her husband is ready to let go of her infidelity, her past literally shows up to haunt her. Where does she go from here?
There are so many question marks. The next seven episodes after the midseason finale are so action packed. As far as Amara goes, the one thing I can say is, she's going to go through it even more than she already has. You learn what a person is really about in times of great trouble, and how a person behaves in adversity is very indicative of who they are, so I think that people will really get to know and fall in love with Amara and what she's about. I also say when there's love, there is a possibility of resurrection. I believe that love and hope can really make miracles happen, and I believe that her and [her husband] Titus love each other.
When I look at Amara’s life, there are so many people reminding her of where she used to be. Has there ever been a time in your life when someone wouldn’t let go of their memory of you or afford you space to grow? If so, how did you overcome that?
Not that long ago, I had to let go of a long-term friend for that very reason because they were holding onto a grievance, something I had done that really hurt them, but it was from literally 30 years prior. I thought, 'If you're still holding onto this, I don't know how we can be friends because you somehow feel like I owe you something, and I feel like we've moved past that. I can't go back and erase what I did, but if you haven't forgiven me after all of this, then what is it that we're doing here?'
It was really painful to let go because it was a long-term friendship and somebody I still love to this day and wish them well. If people continue to hold on to who you used to be, you can stay stuck if you stay stuck to them. I have no desire to remain barred by who I used to be. I'm a product of my own evolution, and I work really hard on myself to improve myself and if that's not seen, then you're not looking at me anymore. You're looking at who I used to be.
Courtesy of OWN/Photographer: Peggy Sirota
"I have no desire to remain barred by who I used to be. I'm a product of my own evolution, and I work really hard on myself to improve myself and if that's not seen, then you're not looking at me anymore. You're looking at who I used to be."
You opened up about your divorce three years ago. When it comes to your personal life today, is romance a priority for you at the moment or has it taken a backseat?
It's taken a backseat big time. There's not a whole lot of opportunity for me to date. I definitely need someone who understands that I don't get to be spontaneous. I don't get to Netflix and chill. I have a son, I have a life, I have a career. There's a lot of moving pieces, so whoever I'm partnered with has to understand there are priorities and there are a lot of things to be considered in having time to spend together. It's not that I'm opposed to romance or partnership. I just don't prioritize it the way I did when I was single and didn't have a child (laughs). It's just a different dynamic. It would be nice. Somebody actually asked me the other day if I would get married again. I would like to think that I would get to a place where I would want to.
Even though romance isn’t centered in your life right now, it’s definitely centered in Amara’s. This series brings a lot of heat to the screen. How did you adjust to the amount of steamy scenes you have to take on?
Oh, honey. Prayer and squats (laughs). There's the outside confidence, which is just making sure that I feel good and look good to me and that I'm proud of how my body is and not feeling any kind of shame so I can be unabashed in that dynamic. But there's also the prayer aspect, which I really say honestly, because I don't have regular intimacy in my life and to go to set and kiss all day and be hugged up on somebody and then go to an empty apartment...there was a lot of pain in that for me because I'm pretending to be in love and have this great relationship but in real life, there's a deficit. The contrast of what was happening onscreen versus what was happening in real life was glaring at times. You make out all day, but in real life the only people kissing you are being paid to do so, and that can be excruciatingly ouch (laughs). I have incredible friends who get it. When you're talking about whatever your obstacles or problems are, you want people who are going to encourage you but who also aren't going to dismiss it. There's sadness in that, and the people in my life get that.
"There was a lot of pain in that for me because I'm pretending to be in love and have this great relationship but in real life, there's a deficit. The contrast of what was happening onscreen versus what was happening in real life was glaring at times."
Aside from stretching your talent on ‘Ambitions’, you’ve set your eyes on producing and expanding as a creative all around. When you look ahead, what are you most excited about?
I just produced an independent feature called Open along with my friends Terri Vaughn and Cas Sigers who have a production company in Atlanta called Nina Holiday. It's about a couple in an open marriage, and I'm really excited about that. We just started putting together a rough edit, and it'll be coming out next year. I also starred in the project. I'm looking forward to not just being in front of the camera, but bringing things to life that my friends are the leading ladies and men of. Success to me is not just about me and what I'm doing. Success to me is about the opportunities that I help create for others that deserve it.
For more Essence, follow her on Instagram. And be sure to catch the midseason finale of Ambitions tonight (August 27) on OWN at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
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This article is in partnership with Sensodyne.
Our teeth are connected to so many things - our nutrition, our confidence, and our overall mood. We often take for granted how important healthy teeth are, until issues like tooth sensitivity or gum recession come to remind us. Like most things related to our bodies, prevention is the best medicine. Here are five things you can do immediately to improve your oral hygiene, prevent tooth sensitivity, and avoid dental issues down the road.
1) Go Easy On the Rough Brushing: Brushing your teeth is and always will be priority number one in the oral hygiene department. No surprises there! However, there is such a thing as applying too much pressure when brushing…and that can lead to problems over time. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and brush in smooth, circular motions. It may seem counterintuitive, but a gentle approach to brushing is the most effective way to clean those pearly whites without wearing away enamel and exposing sensitive areas of the teeth.
2) Use A Desensitizing Toothpaste: As everyone knows, mouth pain can be highly uncomfortable; but tooth sensitivity is a whole different beast. Hot weather favorites like ice cream and popsicles have the ability to trigger tooth sensitivity, which might make you want to stay away from icy foods altogether. But as always, prevention is the best medicine here. Switching to a toothpaste like Sensodyne’s Sensitivity & Gum toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth will help build a protective layer over sensitive areas of the tooth. Over time, those sharp sensations that occur with extremely cold foods will subside, and you’ll be back to treating yourself to your icy faves like this one!
3) Floss, Rinse, Brush. (And In That Order!): Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it”? Well, the same thing applies to taking care of your teeth. Even if you are flossing and brushing religiously, you could be missing out on some of the benefits simply because you aren’t doing so in the right order. Flossing is best to do before brushing because it removes food particles and plaque from places your toothbrush can’t reach. After a proper flossing sesh, it is important to rinse out your mouth with water after. Finally, you can whip out your toothbrush and get to brushing. Though many of us commonly rinse with water after brushing to remove excess toothpaste, it may not be the best thing for our teeth. That’s because fluoride, the active ingredient in toothpaste that protects your enamel, works best when it gets to sit on the teeth and continue working its magic. Rinsing with water after brushing doesn’t let the toothpaste go to work like it really can. Changing up your order may take some getting used to, but over time, you’ll see the difference.
4) Stay Hydrated: Upping your water supply is a no-fail way to level up your health overall, and your teeth are no exception to this rule. Drinking water not only helps maintain a healthy pH balance in your mouth, but it also washes away residue and acids that can cause enamel erosion. It also helps you steer clear of dry mouth, which is a gateway to bad breath. And who needs that?
5) Show Your Gums Some Love: When it comes to improving your smile, you may be laser-focused on getting your teeth whiter, straighter, and overall healthier. Rightfully so, as these are all attributes of a megawatt smile; but you certainly don’t want to leave gum health out of the equation. If you neglect your gums, you’ll start to notice the effects of plaque buildup, which can irritate the gums and cause gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum disease. Seeing blood while brushing and flossing is a tell-tale sign that your gums are suffering. You may also experience gum recession — a condition where the gum tissue surrounding your teeth pulls back, exposing more of your tooth. Brushing at least twice a day with a gum-protecting toothpaste like Sensodyne Sensitivity and Gum, coupled with regular dentist visits, will keep your gums shining as bright as those pearly whites.
Imma tell y’all what — it seems like not one week goes by when I don’t see some sort of so-called term that has me like, “What in the world?” For instance, when I first stumbled upon “self-partnering,” honestly, I laughed. Then shared it with some other single people as well as married folks I know. And I kid you not, every individual was like, “What the heck does that mean?” When I told them that it was yet, one more way to seemingly define single living, basically everyone’s follow-up was, “Oh, brother.”
Why can’t (more) singles just be single and be okay with that? Good Lord. Why does there need to be some sort of relational play-on-words to make it sound like we’re with someone — even if we’re not?
Now masturdating? Even though it’s not even close to being a “real” word, it’s something that also brought a laugh outta me — although it was then followed by a genuine smile. The laugh because I almost immediately caught the play-on-words. The smile was due to the intention behind it all.
If you’re not familiar with what masturdating is and you’re curious about why you should even care, take a few moments to at least skim through what it’s about and why I think participating, as a single person, is a pretty cool (and effective) concept.
Masturdate: a date w oneself
What’s Masturdating All About?
Masturdating. Okay, so let the word marinate for just a moment. What does it sound like? Yeah…exactly. And since a huge part of masturbation centers around self-pleasure, it’s cool to explore how “self-dating” could produce similar (as far as pleasure is concerned in a broader sense) results. Because masturdating is all about spending quality time with yourself, pampering yourself, treating yourself— and yes, taking yourself out on dates.
Any of you who may think that masturdating is a consolation prize — and a pitiful one at that — for not being able to go out with another human being or get that dream $200 first date that social media was all in a tizzy about last year (bookmark that) — personally, I think that you’re the demographic who needs to try out masturdating first and the most. Why? Off top, I’ll share my three good reasons.
3 Reasons To Strongly Consider Masturdating
1. It’s an intimate way to get to know yourself better. I’ve been working with couples for a pretty long time at this point and if there’s a pattern that I see arise, OFTEN, it’s that two people are oftentimes so busy trying to “find their person” that they didn’t even know who they were. As a direct result, they found themselves in a relationship with someone who only complemented the “kiddie pool version” of who they were.
That’s why it can be so beneficial to spend time getting to know yourself on the “deep end” of things: what makes you tick, what your passions are, what you want most out of life, what are your interests beyond obvious things — and masturdating can help you to discover all of this. Whether it’s traveling alone or taking out a weekend to drink some wine and journal, the more you get to know yourself, the clearer you’ll be about who complements you on a romantic and friendship level.
2. It will definitely help to boost your confidence levels. I guess since I’m an ambivert, I don’t really get why people freak out at the mere thought of going to a restaurant or movie alone. Personally, I think it requires a helluva lot more energy and gumption to wait around and plan stuff with other people (#Elmoshrug). However, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, there’s no way around the fact that the more comfortable you get with doing things alone, the more your confidence levels will increase — no, soar — because of it.
One article that I read on the topic said that doing things alone can make you more creative, improve your mental health, and help you to be totally okay with being alone (so that you’re not “needy” for other people’s attention). A psychotherapist from a New York Times article on the benefits of spending time alone said, “Getting better at identifying moments when we need solitude to recharge and reflect can help us better handle negative emotions and experiences, like stress and burnout.” And when you’re able to stare negativity in its face without flinching, how could that not make you bolder, more self-secure, and hopeful about your life?
3. It will teach you to value your time more effectively. In every facet of your world, you’re gonna operate from a healthier place if you’re operating from a “full cup” rather than an empty one. When it comes to this topic, think about it — if you’re constantly waiting on someone to call you to go out or wishing for a dream date with some guy, all you’re doing is wasting precious time that you could be spending taking a cooking class or hell, hiring a chef to make you dinner at your own home.
Indeed, waiting has two sides to it: when it’s in the form of patience, it is indeed a virtue, yet when it’s wrapped up in the notion that you’re not really living life unless you have an audience…it is totally working against you. Choose wisely.
10 Solo Date Ideas To Help You To “Master” Masturdating
So, what if you’re someone who has either never considered actually masturdating before or you don’t really know what to do beyond dinner and the movies? Here are a few ideas to consider:
1. Attend a workshop or masterclass that you’re interested in. If there’s something that you’ve always wanted to learn, sign up for a workshop or masterclass. The cool thing about this option is there are probably some in your city, as well as some that you can find online (like here) that are convenient and affordable.
2. Binge-read at a local coffee shop. Aside from their coziness and oftentimes inviting scents, I once read that a lot of us gravitate to coffee shops because we can be around people without having to actually socialize with them. So, if you want to “hang out” while still being able to enjoy a bit of solitude, take a book that you’ve been trying to finish to a local coffee shop, order your favorite latte, and sit in a big-ass comfy chair. Usually, you can sit there for hours, and the staff will be just fine with it (another bonus).
3. Have a spa day in the next town. You can never go wrong with a spa day. And while going with a friend can be fun, sometimes there’s too much talking transpiring to be able to fully chill out and relax. So, go off of the grid, get a change of scenery, and hit up a spa in the next city (or town). There are lots of studies out here supporting that day trips or “daycations” can actually be really good for your long-term health and well-being.
4. See a community play. Some of the best solo dates that I’ve ever been on consisted of taking in some of the local arts in my city. What’s really cool about this particular option is, oftentimes, they are extremely inexpensive, if not totally free of charge (in exchange for making a donation or putting money into a tip jar).
5. Plan a trip. Whenever people say something along the lines of, “If you don’t expect anything, you won’t be disappointed,” I know that they low-key have some (additional) healing to do from past disappointments. There’s simply too much intel out here to support that anticipation (of good stuff) makes us more motivated and optimistic, keeps our dopamine levels up, and makes life more exciting overall.
Since traveling alone is more cost-effective, gives you the freedom to do whatever you want (when you want), and increases the possibility of meeting new people and having new experiences on your journey — why not devote a day this weekend to planning a solo trip? All the way around, it’s good for you.
6. Try your hand at your own “$200 date.” Uh-huh. Roll your eyes if you want to, but it’s real easy to talk left about how a man should be able to just drop $200 like it’s nothing…until you actually try to do it. So yes, while taking yourself out on this type of date could serve as a bit of a reality check, it can also “scratch the itch” of waiting on some dude to do it for you. It’s also way less emotionally draining because, at least when you’re taking your own self out, it’s guaranteed that you’ll enjoy the company…right?
7. DIY some pampering. When you get a chance, check out “5 Reasons You Should Unapologetically Pamper Yourself,” “Want To Love On Yourself? Try These 10 Things At Home.,” “I’ve Got Some Ways For You To Start Pampering Your Soul,” and “When's The Last Time You Actually Pampered Your Vagina?” The bottom line here is pampering is all about, not mere self-maintenance; it’s all about treating yourself to levels of EXTREME SELF-INDULGENCE. So, if nothing else tickles your fancy on this list, at least consider doing that, chile.
8. Feed your creativity. Something that I used to be really good at is art. That said, one of my goddaughters is insanely talented, so she has reminded me to tap back into it. Also, a big part of what got me into the writing world is poetry; I actually used to be a house poet at a local spot. Sometimes, my best quality time moments with myself have been revisiting these creative sides of me — and this is definitely easier to do (and enjoy) alone.
9. Try some stargazing. When’s the last time you took a blanket into your backyard, laid down on it, and just stared at the stars for hours on end? While some say that stargazing can teach you to be mindful, others say that being in that form of nature reduces stress, while others believe that looking up at the universe at night can increase your attention span. All solid reasons to give it a shot, if you ask me.
10. DO. ABSOLUTELY. NOTHING. Let me tell you something that nobody will ever be able to make me feel bad about: doing absolutely nothing. I’ve got data to back me up. Good Housekeeping shares that doing nothing can help you decide how you want to respond or react to certain things. I like howThe Guardian says that taking this approach helps you to regain control of what you give your attention to.
TIME magazine says that it can ultimately make you more productive.BBC offers up that it can help you tap into your ingenuity.Henry Ford Health says that it can make you kinder and a better problem-solver. So, if you want to invest in yourself, do nothing sometimes.
Closing Thoughts from the Lovely Javicia Leslie
While some of y'all may know Javicia Leslie from being the former Batwoman, I discovered her back in the day from the indie series Chef Julian (and yes, "Julian" was right to say that "Mo" looks like Tatyana Ali...the real ones know). Sometimes I'll hop on her IG to see what she's got going on and this story popped up within a few hours of me penning this...so, I took it as hella confirmation.
TREAT YO SELF. WAIT FOR NO ONE.
WAIT FOR NO ONE. TREAT YO SELF.
RINSE AND REPEAT.
Sooo…what kind of masturdating plans do you have for this coming weekend? While going out with others has its perks, hanging out with yourself has a ton of ‘em too. Enjoy!
No…for real. ENJOY!
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