We love a man who isn't afraid to speak his mind and keep it all the way real, and when it comes to love and relationships, Jean Elie certainly doesn't hold back. It's no surprise that Elie caught our attention on HBO's Insecure as Ahmal Dee—Issa's smart-mouthed little brother who appears on the last few episodes of Season 2.
But while we certainly appreciate having a little eye candy on the show, we have our eye on Elie for other reasons. Beyond the humor, the Haitian-American is proving himself to be one to watch, snagging credits on ABC's American Crime and visually directing music videos for Timbaland co-signed artist Brandon Tory. Not bad for someone who just a few years ago decided to quit his day job and hopped on a one-way flight to Los Angeles with only $1,000 in his pocket to pursue his acting and directing career.
That kind of ambition alone makes us just a bit curious about the actor after the cameras stop rolling, so we sat down with Elie for some real talk about his insecurities, his thoughts on cheating and why he prefers tomboys over supermodel types.
What was it like when you found out that you landed the role of Ahmal Dee on Insecure?
I was shocked! (laughs) It literally took two weeks before I heard anything back. And usually if I don't hear anything back within a week, it's out of my head. Then, I got a phone call at the most random time of the day and they were like, “Hey, Insecure called and said they want you to play Ahmal." Then my boys were like, “Yo, what's wrong?" And I was like, they called and said I got the role for Ahmal, to play Issa's brother. I was like, this is crazy. Like that's nuts. What does this even mean? What happens next?!
What are you most excited about with playing Issa's brother? Where would you like to see this role go?
I would love to see him extend into a third season. I'd like to get more back story on his character, to see what he gets himself into-what his MOUTH gets him into because he has a smart mouth. I'd also like to see what his life is like outside of Issa and his beef with Kelli. Like, what's going on with that?
Insecure deals with a lot of the modern complexities of dating. Molly and Dro, in particular, have blurred the lines of their friendship and have become lovers. Do you think it's ever okay to blur the lines or do you prefer to just keep friends as friends?
It's cool to blur the lines, but it's more important to have a conversation. As awkward as it may be, have that conversation to know that this is what it is and this is what we're doing. Being with your friend can make it the best experience in the world, you know? Because it doesn't have to be about sex, you're actually enjoying each other's company. You're able to be honest and open with one another. Communication is key in any relationship – as long as you have an open channel to talk to one another it'll always work out. But you also have to accept the fact that someone's going to end up hurt in this situation if you guys don't make it an official thing some time down the line. Especially if that conversation isn't had.
Molly's professional life is flourishing. But her personal life and her love life is kind of trash – especially with her making the decision to hook up with a married man. Is there something to be said about ambitious and successful people and their dating life? Do you think it's hard to balance being successful while also trying to date successfully?
Yeah, I think anything is possible. It's not impossible, but it's hard. Molly is a strong, black, independent queen who does her own thing but she's also flawed like everybody else. I think once she gets rid of expectations, which is what we all should do, we'll all do better.
Expectations on relationships, on careers, on anything that we have – it usually ruins things. We have an idea of what things should be instead of really accepting what it is. I try to get rid of my “should." Everybody has their own time. Everybody has their own process. Things will happen when they're supposed to happen, not when you want it to happen. Especially in relationships. I try my best not to look for something. I let things come to me.
"We have an idea of what things should be instead of really accepting what it is. I try to get rid of my 'should.'"
So, you're not sliding in any DMs?
Nah, I'm not sliding in any DMs. But I am liking the 100th picture though. I will scroll down your whole timeline (laughs).
How do you navigate dating and finding a genuine person to spend your time with?
My friends, they help hook me up. I don't like those dating app situations. I've tried a couple of them before and I always end up with some type of weird person (laughs). Like you really have to read people's bios and some people don't have them. I went on a couple of dates with this one girl and she was talking a mile a minute – she was looking for a sponsor. So, my homegirls usually try to hook me up. Sometimes the relationship works, sometimes it doesn't. Usually my relationships start off as just friends, which is great, so it's like alright, I know you're not crazy. I know you're actually doing the things you said you're doing. But again, sometimes things just don't pan out.
Are you dating right now?
Yeah, I'm dating, but I haven't found anything serious yet. I'm still out here mixing and mingling (laughs). I have to feel like we're best friends and I can really talk to her about anything. I don't believe in cheating, so once I get in a relationship, that's the relationship I'm in. Nothing can come between me and the person I'm with, which is why we have to be super honest with each other. A lot of the time relationships fall to the wayside because people don't communicate properly or they start talking in circles and they end up breaking up. I try to be as honest as I possibly can with whoever I'm talking to.
"I don't believe in cheating. Once I get in a relationship, that's the relationship I'm in."
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
One of the songs on Insecure's soundtrack this season is called “Supermodel" by SZA. SZA also has a song on her album CTRL called “Normal Girl" and those two are arguably juxtapositions. What kind of woman attracts you more? Are you more drawn to the Supermodel IG Famous types or the girl-next-door Normal Girls?
I like the normal girls, the girl next door. I like them a little tomboy-ish. I'd like a girl that's nice, cool, pretty, cool with her family even if she still has to work some stuff out, likes the outdoors, and someone that can joan around with me (laughs).
What would make a woman stand out to you?
I love when a woman doesn't feel like she needs somebody to make her complete. If she doesn't feel like she needs me, then that makes me want to be there for her. If a girl is doing her own thing, that's attractive too. I don't want her to need a man in her life, I want her to want one. Because if the want is mutual, then everything will work out.
The name of the show is called Insecure and for good reasons. What's one insecurity or fear you have when it comes to relationships?
My fear is that I might leave a person in fear of my heart. Or that I might get scared and feel like this is it. I don't believe in cheating, but I've seen a lot of cheaters. If I get married, it's a wrap for me and her and I don't want that to happen. So, in fear of that actually being something that happens to me, that keeps me from locking stuff down.
There was a meme floating around Instagram that read: “If the love doesn't feel like 90's R&B, I don't want it." But what does Jean say?
90's R&B is cool. It's amazing (laughs). If the love doesn't feel organic, if it feels like we're forcing it – then I don't want it. If it doesn't feel like a natural thing, like we grew into it, I don't want it.
"If the love doesn't feel organic, if it feels like we're forcing it – then I don't want it."
Now Listening: Brandon Tory, Chance the Rapper, SZA, DRAM, Childish Gambino
Best Impersonation: Barack Obama
Favorite Food Places in LA: Comfort LA, Wurstkusche, The Federal
Favorite Food: French fries
Currently Binge-ing: Narcos, Viking, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones
Neo-Soul or Trap Music: Neo-Soul
Team Lawrence or Team Issa: Team Lawrence (his reasons were kind of legit ladies, cut him a break)
To tie you over until the third season of Insecure, be sure to get your fix of Jean Elie on Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Writer. Empath. Escapist. Young, gifted, and Black. Shanelle Genai is a proud Southern girl in a serious relationship with celebrity interviews, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and long walks down Sephora aisles. Keep up with her on IG @shanellegenai.
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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