How Gia Peppers Is Becoming This Generation's Game-Changer One Talent At A Time
In xoNecole's Finding Balance, we profile boss women making boss moves in the world and in their respective industries. We talk to them about their business, their life, and most of all, what they do to find balance in their busy lives.
The first time I met Gia Peppers, I was a student in the WEEN Academy, a four-week crash course in the entertainment industry.
We had been told that one day during the academy, alumnae would come by and have a WEEN roundtable, a day many of us were nervous about because you never know what to expect in the academy. As my WEEN sisters and I sat around in a circle, alumnae, including Gia, came in, offering discussions of Black women just talking about life, the industry, and perseverance.
Of all the things from that day, I remember making a mental note about something strange about Gia (she probably noticed me just staring at her and maaaybe was creeped out). I took note of how energetic she was, yet simultaneously, how calm her spirit felt. Up to that point, I had only known the name and face through my constant Instagram stalking, cheering on the sidelines because I just thoroughly loved another DMV (D.C., Virginia, and Maryland) native killin' it. She was someone I immediately made my big sister in my head, constantly following by example.
But Gia is one of those people who will steal your heart before you know it. She's young, but wise beyond her years. She's nothing short of showing people what putting in the work looks like, but also what it means to stay humble and never be above anything or anyone. But behind all the 'Gram flicks, the BlackGirl Podcast, and the nightly games during NBA season, how does Gia keep it all calm, cool, and collected?
In this installment of xoNecole's Finding Balance series, sitting outside a cute little café in the city, Gia and I chatted, woman to woman, sister to sister, creator to creator, and woman of God to woman of God. We talked work, life, and of course, balance.
xoNecole: What does an average week look like to you?
Gia Peppers: Lately, it's varied. Every single day comes down to planning and executing when you're a freelancer. Nowadays, I do a lot of hosting and get to do cool work as an on-air talent. Before, I was a journalist, but I knew I wanted to be talent. Of course, there's different perks involved, including the money. People were willing to help get me where I wanted to go, but you have to become more intentional about what you put out, and it has to be dope, especially since you don't have a standard 9-5.
During NBA season, it's a lot about travel. If I have a shoot, I'll be up and there by 8-9 AM. Then after, I get on Amtrak and get back to D.C., chill, do my makeup, and have everything ready for production meetings at 5:30. From 6-9 PM, we're hosting the game. Mom picks me up from the game, and then Dad and I will get up at 5 AM and he'll get me to the train and I'm back in NYC by 8 AM.
I also make sure to work out, pray, meditate, and set my intentions for the week.
I get a lot of really great headspace there, and then I'll work outside cafés, and sit and plan out what I want to do for the rest of the week. For me, I have waited way too long and there's all this work that I have to sift through, like my EPK! I always prep before things, so if there's an interview or event happening, I'm studying my script or writing it if I have to. It's about seeing what's coming down the pipeline and then preparing for it. I'm also getting better about posting on Instagram, and the community I've created online is really dope, so I try to put some dopeness out into the atmosphere. It's part of the territory as a host. So when it comes down to it, it's down to planning and execution.
When things get stressful, how do you get back to yourself? What role does religion and faith play in your life?
I grew up in the church. When I got to college, that's when I learned what's really inside of me, as I feel most people go through. I knew that I always had an awareness of my calling and purpose, probably because I'm the oldest in my family. I had to be an example for my brother and sister, but it shaped a lot of who I am. Even now, I'm not a wild kid, but I try to balance life when I can. Everything that we do is up to us, whether we try to act like it's a piece of a bigger picture or not. Everything we do is bigger than us. I learned how to hone in to the higher frequencies out there.
When you pray, you can ask God for help. You can tell Him you're upset, and He will help you out. It's an everyday decision to choose yourself, your health, and your dreams. You can accomplish whatever you want, it's just going to take work to do it.
But what happens when you get those thoughts of doubt? Those thoughts that tell you you can't be great?
It can be tough because people try to say "greatness" is this thing that only one person can do. Anybody can be great, but do you have the guts to be great? Can you walk around with egg on your face and 20,000 people look at you? Can you be the same person when you win OR lose? I had to learn how to be that person, but it also starts with understanding that you have to take care of yourself and be aware of your body and its needs. Step back and take some time for yourself, replenish yourself when you need to. The entertainment industry can take a lot out of you, and you need to find the things that work for you, whether it's a sermon or motivational podcast.
Awareness is the key.
You have to have people who believe in you even when you don't believe in yourself. Write it down so when you forget, you can see it. And you have to do the work. If that means listening to your favorite love songs to get yourself in alignment, you gotta fight for yourself. When bad thoughts come through, you have to sweep them away, and tell them that's not true. Those things slowly but surely get you back.
Do you exercise?
I have a trainer! She has helped me become more aware of what I'm putting into my body and how much time it takes to really keep your body on track. You don't have to be extreme and do all this stuff to your body. I think once you get into this mental state that you realize you have the power to transform anything, including your body and your mind, the physical exercise really becomes nothing. Get those endorphins going! Working out has helped me, but you don't have to join a gym. You can do what you need to do while at home or outside. But I need a trainer, because I know I'll be at the gym and just be on my phone. (Laughs)
I want to know how you find balance with friends.
From the time I was a kid, my mom had us in several things. I was taking ballet, and then piano, and vocal lessons because I was trying to be Beyoncé. So, I really learned at a young age that life is compartmentalized in different ways and experiences that help you achieve. I've always been okay with having multiple things going on at once, and I'm a person who can operate in that. Like, if I stay still too long, I'll be like, "I have to get out of the house." Again, everything is intentional.
Check on your friends, celebrating and showing up for them and yourself. Putting out that you need your friends.
Our sisterhoods and our tribes have kept our culture together. If you find someone who makes you feel more inspired, stick with them. I came from the Girl Scouts, but also WEEN Academy, who gave me people who work in the industry and look out for me. Join organizations, learn how you can get into spaces with women. Create your peer spaces.
Family, I'm nothing without them. Black moms can be a bit crazy, but my mom does not give me a choice when it comes down to talking to the family (laughs). I learned on my own spiritual journey, God puts you on this Earth with people on purpose. I have one job — to love the people in my life, my parents, and siblings. Even if you don't have a family, creating your family is dope. Just stick with the people who give you positivity, and be sure to pour back into them.
Oh, I'm still learning about dating. (Laughs)
How have you learned the power to say "no" to things that don't serve you?
It is a situational basis, everything is different. As a person who is in the middle of her journey, sometimes the right tradeoff is worth it. Not looking at the dollar signs, but seeing the larger payoff.
You have to be smart with how you choose your opportunities, because every opportunity isn't the same.
I think the reason I was so out of alignment was because, at some point, I allowed myself to stop being aware of my purpose, but also, just taking care of the spiritual part. Being in a relationship with God has to be an everyday relationship like you would be with your boo. I stopped caring, I gave the "no" rejections more power than "yes", and I just gave up because I'm human.
What's the hardest part about all of this? All that you do?
There are so many hard parts to this. Being an on-air talent is hard because you don't have an agent, you're just hustling. I'm a hustler by birth, but the hardest part is staying in the hustle mode but also giving yourself the space to regroup. Also, the disparity in pay between men and women is REAL. I'll talk to my male counterparts and they'll tell me they got twice as much.
Moments like that remind me it's about being vocal and finding out which battles are worth it.
If you have the power to be like, "Hey, so she shouldn't be getting paid less because she's a woman," and utilizing your power to help others, you should use it. Every battle has its own set of war tactics, but everytime you go through it, you add something to your arsenal. You have to be really focused and determined on what your big picture looks like. It can be tough, but remember who you are, whose you are, and where you're going, and you'll be fine.
For more Gia, follow her on Instagram. Check out past Finding Balance ladies we've featured by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of Gia Peppers
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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