How We Met is a series where xoNecole talks about love and relationships with real-life couples. We learn how they met, how like turned into love, and how they make their love work.
One thing I've been seeing return to my social media feed is the opportunity to travel. Since the top of 2020, the world has been trying to figure out what "catching a flight" will look like in the future. And when you travel with your bae, it is an extraordinary experience that should be on everyone's bucket list. On a baecation, you are able to unwind from the daily Zoom meetings and experience another culture together. It's also another way to really take your intimacy to another level and grow closer to your boo mentally, physically, and emotionally.
One couple who prioritizes their love for travel and love for each other are digital creators LaNaiza Kelly and Mahdi Gaines. Originally from New Orleans, LaNaiza and Mahdi met each other at work when Mahdi noticed LaNaiza around the office and attempted to get to know her. One day, Mahdi joked that whenever she was around him, that there should be a smile. This exchange turned into an authentic relationship where they'd go everywhere together, including traveling the world.
As their love for each other grew, they created their own platform, Love at First Flight, where they share their journey of love and travel. This is a couple that knows how to put the bae in baecation. After three years, LaNaiza and Mahdi are still showing up for each other through amazing global experiences and smiling every step of the way.
In this installment of xoNecole's How We Met, LaNaiza and Mahdi share how their love story is based on honesty, authenticity, and unlearning bad habits.
How We Met
Mahdi: I was in marketing and she was in sales. I actually transferred over to the sales department and that's when we met. LaNaiza used to walk around with this mad look on her face. She is not a morning person. One day I asked her, "Why do you look so mad in the morning?" And she told me, "Don't worry about it." My response was, "Well, you need to make sure you smile when you're around me," and she told me she will make sure she smiles next time.
LaNaiza: Yeah, I think it was a pretty well-known thing at work that I was not a morning person, so I never looked happy in the morning. Then this guy tried to tell me to smile, and I was like, "OK." I am super-sarcastic, so every time I saw him after that I had the biggest smile on my face. That's really how things got started. It was just a bunch of sarcasm with each other.
Mahdi: Usually LaNaiza and I would hang out, but it was always with a group. But one day, we decided to go to this place called Barcadia. She came over that evening to my place and she was all dressed up. She blew my mind when she showed up. I felt I was underdressed. We had a really good time that night. It was amazing.
LaNaiza: I was a ball of nerves that night. I was actually really nervous and tried to avoid any kind of feelings toward him. I wasn't looking to be in a relationship, but he was very persistent. We hung out a lot already, but I felt that this time was different and it was turning into something more. I started freaking out. But that night was a really good night at the end of the day.
LaNaiza: I think the moment when I started to like him, I was thinking to myself, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' But I couldn't deny it, you know? I would notice myself feeling salty if I couldn't hang out with him sometimes, so I had to be honest with myself that I was ready [for a relationship].
Mahdi: It was pretty early on for me. Even when we were hanging out, I noticed that I stopped wanting to hang out as a group and more one-on-one with LaNaiza. At a certain point, I kind of knew that a relationship with her was where my mind was going. One night we were hanging out at this club and I told her, "You know what, what's going on here? I'm interested in you for real.'" I kind of laid it out on the table.
"At a certain point, I kind of knew that a relationship with her was where my mind was going. One night we were hanging out at this club and I told her, 'You know what, what's going on here? I'm interested in you for real.'"
LaNaiza: I love that Mahdi is super goofy. He has a great sense of humor and can make friends with anyone you can imagine. I really admire that about him because sometimes I can be a little standoffish. He still embraces that inner child in him. I believe that's the core of who he truly is.
Mahdi: LaNaiza has this hard outer shell that everyone knows about but she has the biggest heart ever. She cares about people, animals, you name it. That is something that really attracted me to her. Earlier on when we were dating, I noticed that soft heart. That really means a lot to me.
The "L" Word
Mahdi: I think it was a couple of months into the relationship for me. We moved so organically and I had strong feelings for LaNaiza. We were so close and she was my best friend. I could talk to her about anything even before we became a romantic relationship, so when we finally got together, it just clicked. This was everything I ever wanted and I have never felt this way about anybody. I started thinking about my future and she was the only person I wanted to be in it with me.
LaNaiza: For me, I knew I loved him but I didn't want to admit it. When I started to feel my walls coming down and I was comfortable to just be myself around Mahdi, that was when I knew. I used to never think about the future with someone and it just felt right with him. It was just one of those things where when you know, you know.
"I knew I loved him but I didn't want to admit it. When I started to feel my walls coming down and I was comfortable to just be myself around Mahdi, that was when I knew. I used to never think about the future with someone and it just felt right with him. It was just one of those things where when you know, you know."
Mahdi: What I've learned about love is that when you love somebody, you give that person the real you. A lot of people like to put up a front or try to be someone else in order to fit this ideal partner. But with LaNaiza, she is unapologetically herself. She reminds me all the time (laughs). I love that because that makes me want to be unapologetically myself too.
LaNaiza: I have learned that love is a job. It is a continuing thing that you have to work toward every day. There are times where we butt heads, but if you really love someone, you have to put in the work and the effort to keep the love alive—to show up for one another.
LaNaiza: In the beginning, we were both coming out of serious relationships. We were both in unhealthy relationships where we developed bad habits. We had to unlearn those habits in order to be with each other. We were honestly figuring out how to love essentially and learning how we would want to receive love. One habit I had to unlearn was communication. I am not good at communicating (laughs). I am very quick to express when I am angry. But for me it was learning how to express how I'm feeling when I am feeling it. Instead of holding it in and blowing up later.
Mahdi: For me, I had to unlearn a lot of things. I felt that I had to take care of everything like I did in my previous relationship, but LaNaiza taught me that I don't have to do everything. We are a team. With her, I feel like I am in a true partnership. I have never felt like this before. I remember we went on our first trip to Puerto Rico. The room was in my name and we were checking in. At first, I was going to take care of everything, but then LaNaiza stepped up and handled the check-in—honestly, better than I would have. As I watched her, I thought to myself, "You know what, I like this!"
LaNaiza: We both have busy lives, so I think it is important to carve out some time for hobbies. One of my favorite things to do is salsa dancing. It's a time for me to be social and it's also how I like to unwind. Mahdi and I spend a lot of time together so we try to carve out our alone time when we can.
Mahdi: So LaNaiza is a night owl and I'm an early bird. So I like to get a morning workout [in] at around 6 a.m. It's a good start to my morning and it helps me clear my head. Then when night comes around, I'm already tired but LaNaiza is still working on emails and things. It just works because she knows I'm out for the count anyways.
LaNaiza: I think one shared value is just being honest with each other. I think that should be the foundation in any relationship.
Mahdi: We also talk about our life goals a lot to each other. We keep each other motivated and focused on what the end goal is. We have meetings about it and everything.
For more of LaNaiza and Mahdi, follow them on Instagram @loveatfirstflight_.
Featured image via Love at First Flight
'K' is a multi-hyphenated free spirit from Chicago. She is a lover of stories and the people who tell them. As a writer, 9-5er, and Safe Space Curator, she values creating the life she wants and enjoying the journey along the way. You can follow her on Instagram @theletter__k_.
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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Tabitha Brown Explains Why She's Still Approachable After All The Success She Has Achieved
Social media personality, entrepreneur, and Emmy-nominated host Tabitha Brown have won the hearts of many with her kind demeanor and positive outlook on life, as evidenced by the uplifting videos she shares on her social media page.
The mother of two --who has been a part of the entertainment industry as an actress for over a decade with minor roles in films, television shows, and videos--became a household name in 2020 after her TikTok content of vegan food and inspirational posts went viral. In addition to the virality, Brown gained millions of followers solely based on her loving personality and was ultimately nicknamed America's Mom by her fans.
Since then, Brown has used her popularity to obtain various job opportunities. The list includes the 44-year-old's children's television show Tab Time, a haircare brand Donna's Recipe, a collection with Target, and a McCormick partnership for her Sunshine All Purpose Seasoning, among other things.
In a recent interview on Shannon Sharpe's Club Shay Shay podcast, Brown opened up about how she remains positive regardless of life's circumstances and why she continues to be an approachable figure despite all the success she has achieved.
Tabitha On Why She's A Positive Person
During the discussion, Brown revealed that her positivity comes from her late mother, Patricia, and how she dealt with her 2005 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS.)
According to John Hopkins Medicine, the terminal disease "affects the functions of one's nerves and muscles." The site also states that ALS can affect "any racial or ethnic group" around 40 to 70 years old. To date, there is no particular cause or cure for ALS.
During her mother's journey with ALS, Brown shared that her mom never complained or wished away the disease but dealt with it gracefully because she believed it was part of God's will. Sadly two years following her diagnosis, Patricia passed away in 2007 at 51.
Following the loss of her mother, Brown disclosed that she uses the lessons she learned from her mom in her "everyday life" because she knows that no matter what happens, it will not compare to what her mother endured.
"Listen, it plays a large role in my everyday life, in my everyday life. Even like right now, things I'm going through, I be like, 'I'd hate that I'm going through this, but there's nothing compared to that,'" she said.
Tabitha On Why She's An Approachable Person
As the topic shifted to how friendly and approachable Brown has been toward her fans over the years, the star explained that her kind demeanor has always been a part of her personality and will continue to be regardless of her celebrity status.
When asked why she usually makes time for her fans, Brown told Sharpe that it's because she understands that her supporters are one of the reasons she is successful.
"I'm going in. I'm going in for the hugs. I'm like, 'Hey, how y'all [doing]? I love that, but also like how dare I not have time for the people who helped me climb. You know, I am in this position because God said I could have it right, but because people support me," she stated while describing her past encounters with her fans.
Brown would add that her appreciation for her fans runs so deep that she is willing to take time out of her schedule to meet and talk to everyone when she has events.
"I have events, and if there's a meet and greet, you better not put a time limit for me because I'm going to see every person literally," she said. "It will go from an hour to 10 hours."
Brown wrapped up the statement by saying her meet and greets could take about 10 hours because she gets to know everyone in line.
With Brown's recent revelation about positivity and being approachable, it appears that she's found the formula of what it means to be a well-rounded person.
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