'Insecure'’s Kendrick Sampson Talks Activism & How Everyday People Can Affect Change
If I were to tell you that Kendrick Sampson's journey into activism was inspired by a sign in the bathroom, you wouldn't believe me. But the fact of the matter is, it's 100% true. A simple message, "Leave It Better Than You Found It," became the mantra that the Houston native would eventually tap into in order to shift his activism efforts from a simple act to a revolutionary lifestyle. He is coy yet hilarious as he divulges this story over the phone during a quiet yet busy evening in LA. And as he continues to speak, it becomes more and more apparent that while the impetus may be comical, his dedication to amplifying the voices of those who live in the margins of our society are indeed no laughing matter.
"I have a platform, I have a voice, and I need to do the work and utilize whatever privilege I have in order to keep people from dying. And I can't be complicit in that," he tells xoNecole.
He continues, "It's our purpose, I feel, to leave this Earth better than we found it. And so I really just leaned into that and who I am because it's completely righteous and justified. I've gone about different creative ways in doing it based off what I feel led [to do] and what's most effective, but there's definitely tactics and nuance to all of this."
And tactics and nuances seem to be the main aspects undergirding his new initiative, BLD PWR (pronounced "Build Power"). It's a liberation training, freedom-fighting measure that seeks to leverage the collective power of those primarily in the entertainment industry, to lend their platforms and voices to increase civic engagement and create real shifts towards transformational social justice. In partnership with visionaries such as Tia Oso and Mike De La Rocha, they hope to not only raise up the next wave of socially conscious entertainers but to also foster a safe space that cultivates both imagination and radical love.
We recently got the chance to chat with Kendrick about his new initiative--and here's what he had to say.
In your own words, describe BLD PWR?
BLD PWR is about taking action and how to do that in a healthy way. It asks how do you lift up those vulnerable voices without speaking for them? And how do you learn from your mistakes and what that looks like in a training process? We want to build up the next Harry Belafontes, Marsha P. Johnsons and all these amazing, dope, radical change-makers that were involved in the process and movement. Whatever privilege they had, they aided in uplifting those with a little bit less privilege. Whether it was with their resources, or creatively producing content, or just showing up at marches and protests.
Everybody has their place in the movement and we don't want to give anybody an excuse if they don't agree with people's tactics. We want to train up and foster that imagination. I believe that it's our job, our duty, and our purpose to go into every situation and leave it better than we found it. And to lift up the most vulnerable, seek out the most vulnerable, and empower them and work to liberate them.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"I believe that it's our job, our duty, and our purpose to go into every situation and leave it better than we found it. And to lift up the most vulnerable, seek out the most vulnerable, and empower them and work to liberate them."
What do you hope to accomplish with this initiative?
Ultimately, people look at LA and Hollywood as a culture beacon. And to be honest, the everyday organizers are the true heroes of our society, the people that dedicate their lives to liberating folks everyday, whether that's in environmental awareness or lessening the maternal mortality rate or closing the pay gap. These people are heroes but a lot of the time, they look to celebrities and people with platforms more than they'll look for the community organizers that are experts in this field or the educators for this information. And so we also have that privilege being in a position where we have people paying attention to us, and my goal is to train leaders within the entertainment industry. So that they'll understand that the real work is on the ground, lead people to their work, and use media attention to reflect and amplify the good work that's already being done.
I want those in the industry to feel confident enough to speak on these issues in the right way. And when they do make mistakes, learn how to correct those easily and not retract back into a corner. I want to have a safe space to where we can foster the radical love and deconstruct all the things we suffer from--talk about it, bounce ideas off [each other] and then push that out into culture.
You’ve been known for your outspokenness and views on today’s social issues as much as your acting. When did you realize you wanted to pick up the mantle of activism? Was there a defining moment: what was it and how did it affect you?
There wasn't a clear defining moment, but I feel like my whole life, I just had this inclination towards trying to do right. And a lot of times it was more so about being right and that was a selfish thing. I think God used that against me to where it was like, 'If you really want to be right all of the time, you need to acknowledge that you're not right. That you don't know everything, you can't be a know-it-all and it's impossible. You need to humble yourself.' So I listened to God in that and try to do my best in allowing that to lead so that I can follow and be an example in that. And it's manifested itself into different ways throughout my life.
Eventually, I was posting stuff while Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum and I was connecting with different movement folks and other people that were socially conscious and getting advice. I was trying to hang back and go behind the scenes and have meetings and such. But then I realized I was placating the oppressor really, in that I didn't want to come off as an "angry black man". And when Eric Garner was murdered and got all this media attention and there was so much injustice and anger--I finally said to myself, 'You know I am angry, I am black, and I am a man.' But if I don't speak out and I try to placate people and not come off as this stereotype, then I'm aiding the oppression.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"If I don't speak out and I try to placate people and not come off as this stereotype, then I'm aiding the oppression."
The descriptor says that this initiative is: “A National Platform For Artists, Athletes and Entertainers Committed to Using Their Influence For Social Justice.” Do you ever think that there can be art/entertainment WITHOUT activism or are they always one and the same?
Yes and no; it depends on how people understand activism. A lot of people think that every project should be an activism-centered project. They think that there needs to be a protest or a statement on something. And I don't necessarily think that. But I think the way we approach stories should be activism in the sense that our lives are activism. Think about Insecure for example, there's no clear policy that they're trying to push, but it was activism in the sense that it told the story of vulnerable communities that had not been seen before in that space.
And that's so essential and important. So many groups of people of different ethnic groups, genders, and ages come up to me and say they watch Insecure. And now they're privy to an experience that they weren't before. It's not an educational piece, but it helps bring peoples stories to life and humanize them in a way that our society has historically been opposed to. So stories like that, that just tell a simple love story or life story of brown people or indigenous people--that show the humanity in people that aren't normally humanized. That's activism.
"I think the way we approach stories should be activism in the sense that our lives are activism."
Does your acting career play a part in your role as an activist?
I think people think I work a lot more than I do, meaning the projects and they think I'm consistently on set. And unfortunately, I'm not. But a lot of that is because I have to pick and choose what I want to do. Now I'm not gonna sit here and make it seem like I'm picking and choosing all my roles because there are a lot of things that I audition for that I just don't get. But this isn't a woe is me, because I get a lot more work than some actors do--but it is a very conscious effort to not take roles that are problematic, to avoid stereotypes and oppression, misogyny.
I have worked on projects because people are willing to change content, but I definitely think that activism is a lifestyle. And our career should fall under that umbrella. My career is a tool to do that work. Not a side from that work, it's not a side job. It's a part of my purpose and I do my best to utilize every aspect of my life with that purpose.
"My career is a tool to do that work. Not a side from that work, it's not a side job. It's a part of my purpose and I do my best to utilize every aspect of my life with that purpose."
Can anyone take part in BLD PWR or is it just for the aforementioned groups of people?
It's for creatives, but it's not for everybody. In particular, it's with those with platforms or those who are building platforms. There's no size to it but it's for people who are doing socially conscious work--or who WANT to do socially conscious work. So it's writers, filmmakers, storytellers, actors, athletes. It's open to influencers of all facets, but especially within the entertainment business. The main focus is to make sure people with platforms are more informed of the work of everyday organizers and are actually a part of and aiding that work.
When you think of this initiative 5-10 years from now, what do you want it to look like?
I want it to look like an army of freedom fighters. That we're out here building multiple safe spaces, we fostered other people's initiatives and communities, and that we won't necessarily get the credit for it. You won't be able to fully grasp the scope and reach of what we do and manifested in the world. I want it to amplify other people's work, the people on the ground, and in my heart, I want to be able to say, "That's beautiful that I was a part of that and no one will ever know."
But ultimately, [I] want to see safe spaces for the liberation of the most vulnerable folk and people of color, black, brown, indigenous folks and uplifting their stories and bringing them into the center. And having Hollywood lead the charge. Because there is no change, no revolution without art. The most effective communication is art. And part of that is oration and speaking and creating these stories and being active on social media, kneeling. All of that is a part of it.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"There is no change, no revolution without art. The most effective communication is art."
For someone looking to get more involved in activism or maybe just starting out, what are a few key things they can do RIGHT NOW to affect change?
Figure out what you're most passionate about because we can't cover everything. Find a local community organizer or organization that's working in that area. Because I guarantee you someone is already doing the work on whatever issue you want to take up. Then pursue your education and information in that area. See what the movement landscape is. For those who want to participate in training, they can go to bldpwr.com.
If you're in LA, there's Reform LA Jails, that seeks to transfer millions of dollars that they want to use to build new prisons and invest it into alternatives to incarceration for the homeless and mentally ill.
For more information about BLD PWR, check out their website here. Follow BLD PWR on Facebook.
Featured image by Getty Images.
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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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Chilli Opens Up About Flak She Received For Refusing To Settle In Dating And How Matthew Lawrence Has Everything On Her 'List'
Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas' dating journey displays how refusing to settle, and setting standards could lead one to find their ideal partner.
Over the years, The TLC group member had high-profile relationships with music producer Dallas Austin, with whom she shares an adult son, and R&B singer Usher.
Since then, Thomas has confirmed that she’s now dating actor Matthew Lawrence. Thomas and Lawrence, who were romantically linked in the summer of 2022 when they were spotted vacationing in Hawaii amidst the Boy Meets World star's grueling divorce with Cheryl Burke, would confirm their relationship in January 2023.
In a statement released by Thomas' representative, Christal Jordan, toPeople magazine, Jordan revealed that the couple had been dating since November 2022, two months after Lawrence's divorce was finalized. Jordan also shared that since Thomas began dating Lawrence, the singer is the happiest she's ever been.
To date, the couple has showcased their love by uploading various dancing Instagram posts on their respective accounts and talking about their whirlwind romance in numerous interviews.
Recently, Thomas opened up about her relationship with Lawrence during a virtual interview with The Tamron Hall Show. While recalling her VH1 dating series, What Chilli Wants, which aired on the network from 2010 to 2011, the 52-year-old provided information about why she set such high dating standards in the form of a list known as "Chilli's Checklist" and the steps she took to prepare herself for love.
Chilli On Matthew and Her Dating List
During the May discussion, Thomas disclosed that she wanted to show women the importance of setting standards, and although, at the time, she received massive backlash for it, she refused to settle when it came to love.
Thomas received scrutiny for her list because many thought some of her standards were unobtainable. Thomas' requirements for an ideal partner included not wanting someone that drank, smoked, or ate pork.
In addition to all those qualities, the star also wanted someone that loved God. Because of Thomas' determination to find her perfect match, the "Creep" vocalist claimed that she "waited it out."
"On my show, I always hoped that women see the importance of having high standards. I got a lot of flack from that, but I don't care. For me, I just waited it out. I'm like, 'Lord, if it happens, wonderful. If it doesn't, I'm still okay," she said.
As the topic shifted to Lawrence, Thomas raved about her new beau and shared that the 43-year-old had met all the qualities she wanted in a partner, from his physical appearance to his love for God.
"Matthew, honestly, he's the list... He is my entire list, and so I thank god every day for this," she stated.
Even though it may have taken years and several failed relationships, it is inspiring to see that Thomas refused to settle and worked on herself along the way until she found her person.
Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas’ Next Chapter & Romance With Matthew Lawrence
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