From Intern To Director Of Creative Media: Maura Chanz Got Here By Risking It All & Moving To LA
In xoNecole's "How She Got Here", we uncover the journey of fearless, ambitious women at the top of their game with unconventional not-so-everyday careers. Instead of asking them about their careers, xoNecole dissects the hardships, rejections, and nontraditional roads traveled by these women to create the positions they have today.
It would be remiss of me to not pay homage to the woman who took me under her wing like a lost little sister and presented opportunities to me in the entertainment industry that sculpted me into the woman I am today. Maura Chanz is one of the leading creative minds behind Yara Shahidi'sUnguided IGTV series, director of creative media at 7th Sun Productions, and my Spelman sister.
When I first met Maura, she was a media intern at the BronzeLens Film Festival and ambassador for BET's "What's At Stake?", a student-led digital series in Atlanta. After a stint in front of the camera as a host for Bossip TV, she moved to Los Angeles and is now making the film and television industry her b*tch by creating content, making a name for herself, and living her best melanated life.
For this installment of "How She Got Here", xoNecole spoke with the TRIBE founder about her working relationship with Gen Z powerhouse Yara Shahidi, the ballsy move of packing up and moving to Los Angeles on a whim, and the qualities needed most when pursuing a career like hers:
Buying Her Big-Girl Plane Ticket:
Maura was no stranger to the Los Angeles lifestyle—seeing as how she had moved there before in her early teens to pursue an acting career—but she was determined to move back after an opportunity had presented itself. She knew that this was the time to bet on herself. "I think it's just knowing that you don't know that you're going to get another opportunity—and it was an opportunity to move. I may not have gotten another one. Not to say I wouldn't, but I just don't know. When you get that moment, you have to take it," she told xoNecole about mustering up the courage to pack up and book her flight to L.A., which she noted as "the best decision of my life." Under the apprenticeship and mentorship of Mara Brock Akil when moving out to Los Angeles, Maura further poured into her passion for entertainment production and continued to spread her wings into an industry that welcomed her with open arms.
"I think it's just knowing that you don't know that you're going to get another opportunity—and it was an opportunity to move. I may not have gotten another one. Not to say I wouldn't, but I just don't know. When you get that moment, you have to take it."
Maura credits Los Angeles for reigniting her spark, drive, and ambition within herself all over again, almost as if the battery in her back was surged with 30-times the original energy capacity. "It almost was like having to prove myself again. I had to regain a certain level of hustle, and I had established myself a little more in that space in Atlanta. Coming here to a new market was a steep learning curve," Maura admitted to xoNecole about having to play larger.
Though she was transitioning from independently producing content to her first official Cali gig working on OWN's Love Is, she rose to the occasion of running up a steep learning curve. "Yes, there's TV and things there, but a lot of the jobs are still coming from [Los Angeles]. They're bringing people there. Getting to play on the scale that I'm at, I don't think that I would have been able to do that in Atlanta."
Maura had the security of knowing that she could go back to her Georgia home whenever she would like, but she couldn't imagine herself flourishing more in the Atlanta industry than she already had especially because the job market was booming in the South because of the West Coast. Moreover, as someone who received her degree from Spelman College in Comparative Women's Studies, Maura is quite certain that she will always land on her feet in the alternative event that pursuing her dream did not work out the way she intended.
Lucky for Maura, she never has to turn around again. Though there may have been a few shortcomings, she doesn't have a single regret about her decision. "I really had to minimize my lifestyle: I had my own place in Atlanta, I had to get a roommate here. I was actually making more in Atlanta working at Bossip and then transitioning to a production role, I took a pay cut," she said about making some adjustments upon her move to Los Angeles.
"I really had to minimize my lifestyle: I had my own place in Atlanta, I had to get a roommate here. I was actually making more in Atlanta working at Bossip and then transitioning to a production role, I took a pay cut."
Maura knew that the reward was greater than the risk at hand, including the rewarding feeling of self-assurance and learning to trust her gut feeling. "You're a smaller fish in a big pond as opposed to a bigger fish in a small pond and sometimes in those types of situations, some people are going to drown and some people are going to rise to the occasion. It's just about your dexterity, your tenacity and just pushing through. Honestly, it was the best decision I ever made in my life because if I didn't take that leap, I would not be soaring like I am," Maura said to xoNecole before going into more detail about her latest venture with a certain actrivist we all know and love.
Photo courtesy of Maura Chanz
The Fateful Run-In With Yara That Turned Into An Opportunity of a Lifetime:
After ending her apprenticeship with the great Mara Brock-Akil around April 2018, Maura crossed paths with Grown-ish star and Gen-Z activist Yara Shahidi and her mother Keri, but this was not the first time they'd met. They actually met a year prior at ESSENCE Fest, but this time around Maura was developing a project and it was the perfect time to catch up. Once Maura let the young star and her mother in on her project development, they expressed immediate interest in learning more. Like the true go-getter she is, Maura offered to contribute her consulting services to the dynamic mother-daughter Shahidi duo who had their ABC deal coming up. Two years later, Maura is one of the creative minds behind Yara Shahidi's Unguided series on IGTV.
"Yara's such a dynamic person. I learn so much from her literally every day, and I wanted to bring the pillars of her life to something that was fun and engaging, but also something unfamiliar," she praised the young actress. Upon the beginning stages of conception, Unguided was brainstormed to be more than a stereotypical vlog collaboration through a social media platform with a Gen Z influencer. These non-traditional concepts included Yara not looking directly into the camera and hearing her end-of-day reflections in her journal about her daily experiences. "I wanted to share that piece and I think sometimes there is a lot of value of not doing things in the moment," she described the series.
"Yara's such a dynamic person. I learn so much from her literally every day, and I wanted to bring the pillars of her life to something that was fun and engaging, but also something unfamiliar."
For the debut episode, the production team, including Yara and Keri, invited Maura to Paris, France to which she agreed almost instantly. In Maura's mind, she wanted to pursue Unguided from the angles of what she wanted to know about Yara's mind and how she views the world. From building a personal relationship with Yara, it rang a bell that she was very passionate about her favorite author James Baldwin - which encouraged Maura to pitch the retracing of Baldwin's steps through Paris by "leaning into Yara's brilliance and mind for the delivery."
With the Shahidi team on deck, including Afshin Shahidi, Yara's father, on the creatives, each episode comes together seamlessly to tell the unguided stories of Yara Shahidi - pun intended. "A large part of my job is taking Unguided and ensuring that Yara's through line is through the projects that you see and Yara's values are visible and incorporated across different forms of media. Whether that be doing digital content, social content or even TV and film," Maura said as she continued to peel back the layers of Yara Shahidi for xoNecole. "People only know so much about her but she has an incredible sense of humor, she's really into all types of quirky things that people may not know so even ensuring those things that you may not think are innately Yara but I know they are." Today, Maura serves as the Director of Creative Media at 7th Sun Productions, which recently inked a first-look deal with ABC a few months ago. On her thoughts on the projection of the production company, she expressed her excitement to see Yara "in that producerial capacity."
"When Yara comes into a conversation, it's going to be elevated so I expect for the world to see themselves reflected all in this landscape, see people of color getting to exist and piercing that veil that we barely get to pierce. Yara and Keri are really passionate about being gatekeepers and opening that door wide for new emerging talent; they love collaborating in that way. I expect for you all to discover your new faves through the work that the company's doing," she boasted about her new role and what's next for 7th Sun.
To anyone who may be looking to collaborate with any established figure in the entertainment industry—especially on Yara Shahidi's level—Maura advises one thing: make it about them and not you. "The one thing you need to do is discover what's unique about them. It's about taking the time to learn that person. I know what makes her excited so when I'm producing and developing ideas, I know her so well at this point and that just comes from really paying attention," Maura said transparently about her creative process. "When you're coming into something and collaborating especially with somebody of Yara's stature, this isn't about my creative ideas. Maura's very different from Yara. As someone who is working with talent, it's not about my perspective, it's Yara's."
"When you're coming into something and collaborating especially with somebody of Yara's stature, this isn't about my creative ideas. Maura's very different from Yara. As someone who is working with talent, it's not about my perspective, it's Yara's."
Part of Maura's process is asking Yara about her interests, what she listens to and her own curiosities while entangling the story that they're both trying to tell. "We prioritize things that are important to her and I'm led by her. I think it's humbling yourself in some way and yeah, you may have brilliant ideas but how is that connected to the party that you're collaborating with? Whose platform is this being used on? Is that what their audience connects with? It's not about what's my vision because those things may be very different," she continued to challenge xoNecole readers about their perspective.
Photo courtesy of Maura Chanz
5 Lessons We Can Learn From Maura Chanz's Journey:
Change your perspective on hearing the word "no".
"I don't think I even ingest 'no's'. Maybe I've had one and I didn't even read it as a no. I can't think of one but I'm sure there has been one. It's just all about perspective."
When one door closes, another will open.
"I was fired toward the tail end of Love Is… and it was really just a steep learning curve. Coming in at that level of where you're assisting a showrunner who's producing and directing, I didn't come from having a background as a [production assistant] or really being outside of talent. I didn't have any behind-the-scenes experience. I actually got on unemployment and figured out what I learned from this.
"From the outside, it looked like a failure, but it wasn't. That led me to developing the project that got the attention of Keri [Shahidi] and Yara [Shahidi]. The bounce back was just taking a moment of stillness."
Confidence can get you in the right rooms.
"Confidence. A lot of people are creative and a lot of people have a lot of these things, but you have to believe that you deserve to be in this space. You have to believe that you have value, that you will change this industry, and that you have something to contribute. If you can walk with that confidence and remember that value, you will remain undaunted, and that's the biggest piece about this industry—seeing it through.
"This is not a 'you go through four years of school and you're a doctor' type of thing; you may not see the fruits of your labor for 30 years. Everyone's journey is going to be different because there's no linear path, but if you keep that confidence, you'll be OK."
Consistently create and the right opportunities will find you.
"Create. I've always been creative: I started my site, I was producing with Kofi [Siriboe], and what drew people to me was the work I was already doing prior to me pursuing other things with them that I created. I had respect, and I had something to show for my own pursuits. You can't wait to be on the set of a movie for that to be the first time you're creating anything."
Know your worth.
"I never doubted my values, knowing I have unique values in every space I'm in and not being afraid to share that."
For more information on Maura Chanz, follow her on Instagram or check out her official website.
Featured image courtesy of Maura Chanz
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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