The first thing that draws me in about 35-year-old model and content creator extraordinaire Nikia Phoenix is the striking way freckles paint her face.
Her unconventional beauty, no doubt, is the thing that grabs you first, but it's the quirks and fearlessness of her bold personality that echo enough within to make you stay. I could be biased though. I have been an avid reader of her blog, Model Liberation, for years. She talks style, beauty, hair, advice, and of course model life, and in a way that was very much “no bullshit". She gives it to you straight, no chaser, and it makes her beauty resonate with me more. It's so much more than what you see on the surface, it's skin deep.
“Being a freckled face, natural haired girl isn't easy. I've always felt different," she's said of herself, “Because of faith, I've been able to embrace who I am and prosper."
Phoenix had humble beginnings as a graduate of University of South Carolina, whose first job post-grad was that of a television news producer. She's always valued education and learning as a life long process. Somehow a chance meeting with Greg Alterman of Alternative Apparel led her to venturing off into modeling, which led to commercials, campaigns, and billboards. This, of course, brought about the fruition of her blog Model Liberation, which no doubt gave her the motivation to take her content creation to a new level with her work as Managing Editor for the women's lifestyle brand, Simone Digital and the revamp of her official site, Nikia Phoenix.
On one fine day, she was able to give it to me straight. We talked the modeling industry, self confidence, and what motivates her as a young creative.
On her first taste of modeling:
In the 90s, there were always these model searches held at malls that me and my friends would go to and try out for because we lived in a small town and had nothing else to do. Strangely enough, I always got picked for those. My mom was always like, “no, no, no, not gonna happen." Finally, one time she said it was okay because it was for a modeling school. Because it was just for a modeling school, it seemed so superficial to me, so I decided to go for the acting portion. I knew I wanted to pursue journalism in school and needed some time in front of the camera speaking, so what better way to get the best of both worlds? I did that. I had agencies in Atlanta interested in repping me and the plan was to do that part time while taking classes at Georgia State. I think that scared my mother because it ultimately ended up being a “no" so I had to walk away from it. At that point, I was like, okay well that's not supposed to happen.
On the jumpstart of her career as a working model:
I took the traditional route, went to college, got out of college, and got a job. That didn't really work out, so I went to L.A. While in L.A., I was in a coffee shop and got discovered by the owner of Alternative Apparel. It was funny because we were having this long conversation about community fashion and design. At the time I had reenrolled in school for fashion design. And you know how it is when you go to get coffee in the morning – if you have a scarf on your head you don't care. I had a hat pulled halfway down my face, but from that, he was like, “I want you to be in my campaign." (laughs) I was like, alright! When I went to see it was a legit set, it was a legit shoot. From then on, I took it seriously. This is what I'm supposed to do because modeling was something that kept coming up in my life, so this was what I'm supposed to be doing.
On the conflicts of being dubbed the “edgy girl" in her industry:
Even after having a major campaign running and other campaigns going, I still couldn't get representation. It was very difficult because they kept saying that I was this “edgy" girl – they kept giving me excuses for why I couldn't [model]. I felt like, 'Don't you see that I'm still here because I can?' Even now, I can walk into an agency and probably hear similar things. I've been doing this for 11 years, I'm obviously still good for it. When this dream of mine started in the 90s, that's when models were allowed to be “different". That is when unique beauty was embraced. Stacey McKenzie was the first black model that I really saw landing major campaigns. I was like, oh snap! If she can do it, I'm good, I'm good! (laughs). Then the industry started to change where they wanted more cookie cutter models that looked all the same. I was dubbed the not-so-PC term “exotic". There's nothing exotic about me, I don't know what you're talking about. I'd hear exotic or “edgy". I know I can give a mean side-eye, but I'm approachable (laughs).
On using the modeling industry's obsession with youth to her advantage:
I'm actually glad that my big break was when I was 25. That's the age most models retire, but that was when I got my first foot in the door professionally. I couldn't walk into agencies and be honest about my age. They'd assume that I was washed up if I told them my real age. What I'd like to say is first of all, black don't crack (laughs). I'm glad that I did start when I was 25 because by then, I was coming into my own as a woman and knew what I would and would not do. I knew that I wouldn't stand for a “no". If I was 16 and someone told me “no", I'd probably cry in a corner and be miserable for the rest of my life. When you're 25 and someone tells you “no," you're like really? Watch. So imagine now being 35 when people tell me “no" (laughs).
On her journey to self acceptance through self love:
There are moments when I don't feel beautiful – there are moments when we all don't feel beautiful. We're so critical of ourselves and we nitpick everything. We stand in front of the mirror and find the tiniest little blemish and fixate on it. And I have a lot of them (laughs). I was in a coffee shop the other day and this lady comes up, she's standing beside me, and she has her baby with her. This little boy was staring at me – not looking at all – just staring, like, what in the world? I am assuming he never sees black people with freckles (laughs). When that used to happen, I used to get offended. In the same moment that there was a kid staring at me like I'm from another planet, this woman comes up to me asking if she can take my picture and information because she has a friend that might be interested in using me for a campaign. There's God saying stop looking at things negatively, let me throw you a bone really quick.
On what turns her on:
Photos by: Alexia Lewis
Oh my goodness, am I going to kiss-and-tell? I love a man who anticipates my needs and makes me feel like we are the only two people who exist in that moment. He is my king and I am his queen and with every touch he reaffirms that union. There's no room for selfishness in our universe. I am not attracted to cockiness and I certainly don't want a man who is timid either. If I'm not afraid to let go, he shouldn't be either. Put in work and we'll get each other high.
On when she feels sexiest:
I am loved, confident, and I know who I am. It's not about comparing myself to anyone else or trying to play someone else's game. The ball is in my court. Feeling sexy has so much to do with being appreciated and knowing your value. I've come to realize that I don't necessarily have to seek that approval from the opposite sex. It's within me, I only have to believe it.
On her love of social media:
I love social media and the fact that it allows us to see that yes we're very different but we have so many similarities. Outside of my own family, it took a very long time for me to find other black people who had freckles. When you talk to other black people who have freckles, they say the same thing, “People picked on me", “People said black people don't have freckles", this that and the other. There's strength in knowing that we've all been through it and that we're all still here. I look just like my mom and when my mom and I talked about accepting who we are, she says that I helped her accept who she is because she would see the same struggles that she had with acceptance coming up in me and my sister. In order to be able to tell us how to deal with it, she had to be able to deal with her own issues.
On what she doesn't like about social media:
I read through comments on Instagram and sometimes those comments are not very nice. People love the internet because they can be somewhat anonymous. They aren't going to get approached on the street for the bullshit that they put online. I let it roll off of my back, but I might also say to that person that I am a human being, not an inanimate object. You might not think I'm beautiful, that's your opinion, but I think that I am beautiful. But like my grandmother says, “If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
On L.A living:
L.A. has its moments. I love this place, but I also don't love this place. I feel like there's not room for growth. You hit a glass ceiling and I am sure everyone feels like that in the places they live. In L.A., you either have it or you don't – there's not much room for in between. Sometimes I feel like I'm sitting on top of the world, but when you go for months without booking jobs or you still live in an apartment where you have a roommate, you're kind of like, okay, I'm not where I want to be yet. So then I think, relocating could be the answer. It's a gamble. It's definitely a gamble. It's not like those 90s sitcoms you watched (laughs). There's not a whole lot of people of color here. That's a smidge of my reality.
On her creative entrepreneurial endeavors:
Last year, I started writing down all of the things I wanted to do and I called it my "Oprah Plan." I asked myself, why isn't there a black equivalent of Jessica Alba with her Honest company? Why isn't there a black equivalent of Martha Stewart? I said, let me just do it. When you think about the apps that are doing well or the businesses that are doing well, they don't own a storefront. They don't keep products in house, they source you out to over sites that do. You go to them for everything. Why can't I own a marketplace for black businesses to do the same thing? I am working on that with my business partner. Also, being so involved with the beauty business, I am tired of hearing black women go through so many difficulties with finding products that work for them. I am working on a beauty shopping experience where I bring the products to them called Black Girl Beautiful, starting in L.A. with plans to bridge the gap in Atlanta later. In Atlanta, I hope to pull our resources together and understand that there is power in the village and create a networking event called Crème de le Crème where black creatives can come together and create for ourselves by ourselves. I also have a secret dinner club series in the works called Nikia Phoenix presents: Supper. That's just a little taste.
On doing things that ignite her soul:
This is a really exciting time not only for me, but all of us. I am becoming who I am meant to be. Modeling and blogging - It's all evolved into this... what I'm working on now. Are you living your dream or someone else's? That's real talk. I want women to know the power we control and the clout we possess. I want other creatives to understand that every no is an opportunity for a bigger yes. Through various passion projects, I am creating content dedicated to helping you believe in yourself. It's more than group therapy, it's legit motivation. If you're going to talk it, be about it... so let's go for it.
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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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Janelle Monáe Reveals The Real Reason Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Tuxedos
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe exemplifies how change can be a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation.
Monáe, who rose to fame in 2010 following the release of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, captivated fans' hearts with her powerful vocals, catchy tunes, and style. Around that time period, when various female artists were known to wear provocative ensembles on stage, the "Tightrope" songstress set herself apart by wearing her signature black and white suits and continued to do so for almost a decade.
In the later years of her career, after the release of her studio albums The Electric Lady in 2013 and 2018's Dirty Computer, many began to notice the shift in Monáe's artistry and fashion, which some widely praised.
Although the now 37-year-old rarely addressed the reason behind the transformation over the years, that would all change when Monáe sat down with radio personality Angie Martinez on her IRL podcast earlier this month.
During the interview, Monáe --who was promoting her latest album, "The Age of Pleasure"-- opened up about her mental health struggles, how she would cope, and why she chose to live in freedom.
Janelle On Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Suits All the Time
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In the May discussion, the "I Like That" vocalist revealed she suffers from anxiety, which she claimed would occur around "winter to spring."
Monáe added that when she has her bouts with anxiety, she tends to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Further in the interview, the "Lipstick Lover" singer disclosed that her emotional eating habits caused a weight fluctuation and that she could no longer fit into the suits she once wore earlier in her career.
Monáe explained that even though she tried to diet and exercise to return to her smaller figure, she ultimately stopped and made peace with herself with the help of therapy because she acknowledged that she isn't the same person she was nearly a decade ago and shouldn't try to be even if it was a highly "celebrated" version.
"I'm petite, but it can get thick... When I couldn't fit them suits anymore, and I was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?' I would be dieting, running, or exercising, trying to fit into [it]. I'm just like, 'No. No, we're here. This is where we are.' We [are] not about to be utilizing life trying to be an old version of ourselves. No matter how celebrated that version of me was. I'm here. I'm here," she said.
Janelle On Freedom
As the topic shifted to freedom and what that meant to Monáe, the "Primetime" vocalist shared that in this new era of her life, she enjoys it because she can boldly express herself however she wants and honor who she is as a person right now.
Monáe also revealed that she had found ways to become a better artist and the best version of herself because of her freedom.
"What is the new version of freedom? What does that feel like? That's usually when I feel the most free is when artistically, I can honor exactly who I am right now," she stated. "I feel most free as a human when I can honor exactly who I am right now."
Monáe's fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure, is set to be released on June 9.
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