This article is in partnership with STARZ.
Lights, g-strings, and dolla, dolla bills y'all. From the moment the DJ announces Brandee Evans' character Mercedes taking the stage, prepare to be beguiled. Stripping is about more than the tease, instead it's a lesson in athletics as the women treat the pole like the instrument to their musician. As Mercedes' heel-clad feet plant themselves firmly on the ceiling and she defies gravity mid-twerk, it's clear to all who are lucky to be a witness that the way she and the other women leave it all on the stage is nothing short of art. It was my very first taste of STARZ's hit show P-Valley, and I quickly understood what the hype was about.
This year has been a lot but one thing's for certain, 2020 is the year of women empowerment. Women have been elevating to new levels in every space. We are reclaiming our time, our bodies, our sexuality, our standards of beauty, and the lens in which those narratives are told. We are no longer standing for the disrespect and erasure of our identities and we are assuming our rightful places in this world through equality. Not only are we advocating for ourselves, but we have found the power in numbers to garner support. Women are showing up for women in the best of ways while also demanding that Black women be protected. In current times, we have seen too many examples where women are characterized as objects in the storyline.
Now we are rewriting those stories to show our power balanced with our femininity. Whether it is music, politics, education, business, sex work, women are creating safe spaces for other women to rise.
In its premiere season on STARZ, P-Valley has masterfully taken the theme of women empowerment and displayed it in the most complex of places: the strip club. When you think of strip clubs, the focus of the business is generally concentrated around the men who frequent them. Typically in strip club culture, the male patrons' level of pleasure is centered in most storytelling of the industry. Acclaimed playwright Katori Hall brings her special sauce to P-Valley, showing that the intricate lives of the women are where the real story of strip club culture lies.
P-Valley is based on Hall's play Pussy Valley which is set in the Mississippi Delta. On a panel discussing the inspiration for the show, Hall talks about being from the south, visiting strip clubs, and admiring the women's skill and athleticism which made her feel empowered. Hall decided to take a pole dancing class a few years later, which is where she found her connection to strip club culture. This propelled Hall to research and speak to the women of the industry to find out what their experiences were like and create a brand new viewpoint.
"I wanted to create a story an actual story platform beyond the stage they grace… so people could understand," Hall says. "Their story deserves to be heard."
The organizing principle of episode 2 “Scars” is “fantasy.” It’s all about subverting the male gaze. Switching power roles. Fantasy Friday’s, what Uncle Clifford WANTS to go down in the Paradise Room. And then...there’s Andre 👀 #PValley pic.twitter.com/yxc4Bf96bM— Katori Hall (@KatoriHall) July 20, 2020
Hall wanted to tell this story with the female gaze centered and destigmatize the male gaze to the strip club. That is to say, the show is not all boobs and butts, but instead, it humanizes the women to show a complete portrait of who they are on- and off-stage. This is how Hall transports us down to the valley where the girls got all the drama.
So, let's catch you up! (Caution: Mild spoilers ahead!)
So far on P-Valley, we have been introduced to a complex cast of characters who, in various ways, have found or are new to the local strip club in the fictional Chucalissa, Mississippi. The Pynk is owned by one of the most dynamic characters on the show, Uncle Clifford (she/her), played by Nicco Annan. Uncle Clifford is a non-binary, gender-fluid character who has a strict policy of no-nonsense. She is the embodiment of both masculine and feminine energies that are on full display when she steps in the room. She literally is the glue that holds not only the club together but also the delicate lives of the women who headline every night. Whether you are a current employee of The Pynk or an alum, Uncle Clifford has in one way or another came through for you in the clutch. In the first few episodes, we learn that The Pynk is in serious debt as Uncle Clifford has not been so wise with her money.
One thing she has is a big heart and will do anything for her girls, even if that means falling into debt. The Pynk is not only special because of the talent that resides inside, but it is also prime real estate for a new casino that is coming to this small town with promises of money for the city and especially its Mayor, Tydell Ruffin (played by Isaiah Washington). There is a battle for the waterfront property that The Pynk sits on, bringing tensions out between some of the city's key players. With the possibility of a new casino moving into town closing The Pynk, a wrench is thrown into everyone's plans to level up. What's even more intriguing is the romantic relationship Uncle Clifford finds with one of the club's frequent visitors.
While Uncle Clifford is trying to hold on to her club, the ladies find themselves in troubles of their own. Mercedes, played by Brandee Evans, is the OG of The Pynk and knows the club and its patrons inside and out. She can spot a baller from a mile away just by looking at his watch and shoes. She is a money-maker and her skills on the pole are unmatched by most of the women in The Pynk. However, she is as smart as she is skilled, and has been stacking away her cash for years in the hopes to purchase a gym to train her teenaged dance team. Mercedes wants out of The Pynk and has a big motivation driving her to level up. However, an unlikely familial relationship threatens her possibility of achieving her dreams.
Hailey Colton, a.k.a Autumn Night (played by Elarica Johnson), comes into town on the heels of a disastrous hurricane that ripped everything from her life. Hailey is a newbie to stip club culture and is learning the inner workings of the club night by night. She is staying lowkey and trying her best to stay out of the way. Until she overhears a conversation with Andre (played by Parker Sawyers), the godson of the Mayor, and Corbin Kyle (played by Dan Johnson) about how The Pynk is right in the way of a major casino development deal and needs to be acquired. When she tells Uncle Clifford the tea, they form a plan for her to continue to get information to save The Pynk. This partnership is what helps Autumn to find friendship bonds inside of The Pynk, empowering her to take control of her life after the disaster. She begins to confront parts of her past while navigating The Pynk and finding herself again.
Keyshawn, played by Shannon Thornton, is a new mother struggling to find her identity while working at The Pynk. She is an amazing on-stage performer, but off-stage, her life is a wreck. She is constantly showing up late for work with her baby in tow and we soon find out that she is in a physically abusive relationship. With Mercedes leaving, Keyshawn has a chance to become the new headlining act at The Pynk which empowers her to become bolder in her life. However, her relationship still leaves its physical marks on her life and she struggles to maintain. Diamond, played by Tyler Lepley, the super handsome and quite mysterious bouncer at The Pynk, keeps a watchful eye over Keyshawn from a distance. Recently, Keyshawn learns of a secret relationship happening inside of The Pynk and makes an unlikely business partner.
It's the storytelling for me! This show is revolutionary in its handling of women's empowerment through the lens of a female-centric voice in the gentlemen's club. Each character is deep and textured in their own right. You get wrapped up in each of their lives and root for them to find their way. As the season comes to an end, the fate of The Pynk and its beautiful ladies is decided. Each one of their stories will culminate and decide what their legacies will be. It has been one helluva ride for the characters and The Pynk has been the real "ride or die'' hero.
One lesson learned at The Pynk is that legacy and your story matters.
In honor of P-Valley's weekly homage to female empowerment, we asked a few women what unapologetic female empowerment means to them. Here's what they had to say.
"It's a marathon, not a race."
"Unapologetic female empowerment is understanding that 'it's a marathon, not a race' and that applauding another Queen takes absolutely nothing from you. As women, we all have something unique within in us that no one can take away. We all deserve a seat at the table in our own right. Celebrating your sisters is liberating and it looks good on you. Unapologetic female empowerment brightens you up."
"I tap into a sisterhood that supports me and uplifts me daily. It is such an exhilarating feeling to be surrounded by a circle of women that continuously pour into my creativity and cheer me on. Those are the moments that I remember when I'm having tough times. The womanhood around me is solid and loving. I love collaborating on projects with my friends and being able to assist with bringing their visions to life. When I'm winning, they are winning and the level of support is literally a revolving door. I practice unapologetic female empowerment by highlighting and supporting black women-owned businesses. By sharing kind words and inspiration to sisters. I practice listening without inserting myself or personal experiences; giving a safe haven for my sisters to be heard with no interruptions.
"I feel most connected with myself and my body as a woman when I'm roller-skating and embracing my most authentic self. I love expressing myself artistically through movement and tapping into my sexuality. I love wearing lingerie and dancing with my homegirls. I feel most connected with my womanhood when I submerge myself in moments of love and I'm patient with my journey. Whenever I'm taking care of my skin, exercising, or shaving my head bald I feel like a free woman." - Sydney Blaylock, writer, slayer, skater
"Saying how you feel is divine feminine energy."
"Unapologetic female empowerment means holding your head up high and not feeling as if you need to shrink yourself to make others feel comfortable. Black women are so apologetic. Saying how you feel or handling business without leading with, 'I'm sorry but...' is divine feminine energy."
"I have a retreat company where I curate spaces for Black women to release, relax, and unwind. During one of our sessions on the trip I had women write out what they loved about another woman on the trip, then we exchanged the papers. We each stood up and read what was on the paper. No one knew who wrote the compliment or who it was for which allowed each woman to find her own self in each of the affirmations. I say my prayers out loud. When I started to pray out loud, I noticed how powerful my words became. Because I knew they were powerful, I was more cognizant of what my prayer was. I began to say what I was thankful for more. I said thank you more in general.
"In praying to God, I was also affirming myself. We are essentially made in the image of the Almighty. Would you talk to God any old way? Not at all. By speaking words of empowerment and creating affirmations of thanks and positivity, I was able to be vulnerable in myself, in my womanhood to appreciate all parts of this journey."
"After having a baby, my body changed dramatically. I had to accept curves in certain places they hadn't been before. I also had to intentionally work out to not let those curves get out of hand! Ultimately though, one day I looked at my body and told her thank you. This body had birthed my daughter. This body was capable. This was the body of a mother, a grown woman. If I could look at other women and find their beauty, I had to find the beauty in myself." - Shanicia Boswell, writer, speaker, founder
"Fixing a woman's crown without letting the world know it was crooked."
"To me, unapologetic female empowerment means fixing a woman's crown without letting the world know it was crooked. It means covering my sisters with love, grace, and gratitude even when they can't see it in themselves. It means standing up to a world that tells Black women they aren't enough and reminding that woman of the fact that she's forever a queen in my eyes."
"I feel uplifted every time I step in the room with my xoTribe. I felt this way on a spiritual level during my first GirlTrek encounter. I found myself crying many times in many rooms with many women who knew and understood my pain. It was f*cking phenomenal. I've struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life and I'm finally learning to be OK with the things I haven't mastered––cleaning a home and making it spotless is one of them. Although I've always felt embarrassed and guilty for not being the best housekeeper, hiring one reminded me that I don't have to be good at everything. Coming home to a clean and organized house for maybe the first time in my whole life made me feel like I could take over the world.
"Thankfully, my job gives me an opportunity to uplift and empower women every single day. Between interviewing dope women and creating a space for others to publish their work, I'm constantly on the lookout for ways to help women shine their light on the world. To feel connected with self, I do my makeup. I take nude pictures of myself and save them in my camera roll for my own personal admiration. I take a bath with Ashwagandha- and Eucalyptus-infused bath salts. I moisturize my body from head-to-toe with a sweet-smelling lotion that is for the enjoyment of nobody but my damn self. I call the people I love so that they can remind me of who I am and I reminisce on old pictures to remember where I came from." - Pretty Honore, Senior Editor
"Meeting women where they are as who they are."
"Unapologetic female empowerment means standing in solidarity with women whose intersectional identity might not look like yours. It's ensuring that we extend the same hopefulness and encouragement to women (non-binary and binary) regardless of their sexual orientation, career path, or gender pronouns. It's thinking we all deserve more than the patriarchal violence we face on a day-to-day basis."
"I have more recently manifested a lot of great relationships that are budding sisterhoods but the connection has yet to grow strong enough for it to tap into my sense of womanhood. I'm hopeful that many of them will though, I simply believe there is more inner work that is required on my end. I recently felt the opposite of empowered in dealing with men. There is one guy who minimally sexually harasses me every time we speak. Each time I simply I ignore him, and I feel as though I have failed for not speaking up for myself.
"However, in sifting through my feels and my discomfort around telling him his actions were inappropriate, I further understood (in a way that I think will allow me to genuinely hold them closer moving forward) how difficult it has been for every woman who has been sexually assaulted and asked, 'Why now?' when they come forward in their own time. It's because the patriarchy, at times, snuffs the empowerment out of us and replaces it with fear bound by paralysis. And I have come to find that pulling back those layers of patriarchy and unlearning the ways we've been taught to hate other women by questioning their choice, autonomy, and voice is empowering.
"If there is ever a moment where my thoughts or actions don't align with my mission, I stop and ask myself why that is. There are times when this tough love mentality that so many Black women inherit gets in the way of genuine empowerment! And overall, my day-to-day acts of empowerment is meeting women where they are as who they are, which I cannot do if my first instinct is to always criticize or withhold love because it was withheld from me."
"A lot of my connectedness to self comes from spending time with myself. Sometimes this looks like having engaging dialogues with myself, about myself and the room for growth. At other times it looks like me spending quality time with myself, may it be a movie date (obviously pre-covid) or sex. I've been single for quite some time, so I've learned not to be embarrassed by my desire to have certain needs met and as often as possible fulfilling them on my own. I slap my own ass, make passionate love to myself with the help of my Hitachi, and sometimes lazy love myself while preparing for a nap. In a nutshell, I feel most connected to myself when I'm listening to and honoring my needs." - Kiarra Sylvester, writer
Catch the season finale of P-Valley this Sunday night at 8PM ET/PT on STARZ and on the STARZ app.
Featured image via STARZ
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Whether it was your group chat, social media feed, or your favorite media outlet covering the spectacle, I’m pretty sure you’ve come across the viral Black wedding between actress KJ Smith (Sistas, Raising Kanan) and actor Skyh Black (All the Queen’s Men, Sistas). From their grand entrance to Jay-Z, Kayne West, and Beyoncé’s song “Lift Off” to KJ’s standout dance routine and the endless celebrity appearances, it’s an addictive TikTok scroll you can’t help but delve into.
But what many people would be surprised to know is that the couple’s original wedding plan was nothing like what it grew to be. What started as her simply scrolling through posts to get ideas eventually transformed into what the internet knows now as #TheBlackExperience. In an exclusive conversation with xoNecole, KJ walked us through her planning process, the morning of her wedding, and what she thinks of the online response.
Some women have their whole wedding planned out, from the bridal gown and venue to the bridal party and playlist. However, KJ was not one of those people. “I didn’t foresee a wedding in my future,” she reveals. “I was just gonna be the boss chick, rich auntie. I didn’t force love in my life until recently. I never had an idea of what a dream wedding would look like, it was easier for me to elope.”
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
And to many people’s surprise, that was their original plan – until Skyh brought up a valid concern. He was raised by his grandmother and thought she should be at the wedding, and naturally, that led to KJ wanting her grandmother to be there as well – then her mom – and later her sister – and, you’ve gotta invite the besties too, right? From there, the guest list continued to blossom. Much like the updo and pop of color bold red lip, she wore on her special day, which was initially on her Pinterest board as a soft glam look with her hair hanging on her shoulders, KJ is okay with changing her plan if it brings her and her loved ones happiness.
So let’s get into the wedding, which took place in Malibu, CA. The first thing you should know about the celebrity couple is that they’re non-traditional. They know, and they don’t care. So, in true unconventional fashion, they shared the morning of the wedding together.
“I woke up with Skyh, we walked our dog, had black coffee, and said good morning to the people who stayed at the venue with us,” she says.
Now, it was time for hair and makeup. While she was getting glammed up, she had Black-owned McBride Sisters wine and champagne (which ties into The Black Experience theme) on deck with her mom and friends, had her besties help rework her vows, retried on every outfit (sis is very Type-A), took photos, and ended the early-celebration with prayer and meditation. It seems very non-Bridezilla, I said.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company,” she explains. “The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
Things moved quickly, and before she knew it, it was time to line up to walk down the aisle.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company. The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
KJ Smith and her bridal party
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Since everything started with their grandmothers, the couple wanted to ensure they honored them and planned to keep an element of their wedding traditional. Although we’ve all seen the reception videos and photos online, you may have noticed visuals from the wedding itself are harder to find.
“We planned for it to be traditional, but we’re not like that, so we tried to create those moments. We jumped the broom and had a salt ceremony (where the bride and groom individually pour salt into a glass container, symbolizing their lives becoming one.) But honestly, still, nothing was traditional about it.”
She goes on to explain that her mom caught the holy ghost coming down the aisle, her glam team was on deck, and she became so nervous with excitement that she had an anxiety attack – something she struggled with for years, she explains tearfully. Her friends had to literally cheer her down the aisle because of how overwhelmed she felt until she eventually calmed down.
“Skyh was standing there with his hand on his heart; we have our own little language, and I could feel the support,” she shares.
It was surprising to hear all these emotional moments happened before the party we saw online. That is until she once again got into the backstory.
“As a Black woman actress, for so long, it was popular to be mysterious and secretive, but that’s not who I am or what I like. Plus, we both wanted to create an experience for everyone there. We are the people who always host family and friends,” she says. “Like for me, the first order of business was getting sandals for the women so they can dance all night long. We had oxtail, D'ussé, and a coffee and sativa lounge – which is part of Skyh and I’s lifestyle and routine. We wanted to bring them into our world.”
Skyh Black (L) and KJ Smith (R)
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
She went on to discuss the dance routine she did for her husband at the reception, which has taken over the internet. Apparently, that’s another thing that didn’t go according to plan. According to KJ, she had promised a performance at their joint bachelor/ bachelorette party, but her outfit got stolen from her car. So, Skyh ended up performing for her – complete with a strip tease. Still, she never forgot her promise to dance for him.
So, she hired her friend as a choreographer, learned the routine, made friends and family watch it endless times, and attended Beyoncé’s Renaissance show a few days before for a confidence boost. It ended up being a show to remember. But that wasn’t all the night offered. Lil Mo performed, and the guests received special goody bags featuring their favorite Black-owned products like journals, hair care, and more.
“We made sure everyone was taken care of all night. That kind of stuff makes us happy. I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives,” she says.
But naturally, the internet is going to internet, and while there were countless people praising the event and applauding the newlyweds, some thought it was too over the top. I was curious to know her thoughts on some of the criticism.
“It’s cool. We did what we wanted to do. I’ve decided to share my world with people. Just how I went on social media platforms and found inspiration, I want people to do the same,” she explains. “I don’t think it's fair to my supporters not to give that out. There’s so much I wanna share with brides, specifically Black brides. I love that people are adding it to their Pinterest boards."
"I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives."
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
“I’m happy with it because we did what we wanted to do. They can do what they wanna do. Don’t be cruel, though, because you will get blocked,” she said, laughing.
The more I spoke with her, the more her sense of freedom shined through. People are always going to have their opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to live your life, and it seems like the couple realizes that and embraces that power. She also stressed the importance of not living for others and the lessons life has taught her.
“I’ve been to countless weddings, and I’ve been in countless weddings. I’m a generally older bride. So when women in my demographic get married, and you and your husband are busy working people like us, you deserve to have the one you want to have,” she shares.
“This is what we wanted to do. Our loved ones love and support us. We did so much to honor them, but we also wanted to start our own tradition, legacy, and creation. I'm not going to be pulled back into ideas of the past when I’m trying to create a future with my partner. “
If you’d like to see more of the couple, you probably won’t have to wait long. Although no content is planned yet, she admits to being an oversharer. “Me being open and transparent about my experiences lets people know it’s okay to have flaws; it makes you human, and for many years, I didn’t believe that was okay. I had pressure to be perfect, and I’d crumble every time,” she explains to xoNecole.
Now, she owns her flaws and uses them as a superpower to connect with her community and feel and express her love.
“Some people give us [Skyh and KJ] a hard time because they say we just seem too perfect. I’m like, why is that a bad thing? I love the people I love. From my man to my mama, to my friends - unabashedly. We move through time and space how we want to move. If we did it another way, we’d let ourselves and our union down.”
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Feature image by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Aoki Lee Simmons Recalls Being Talked About For Her Looks As A Child & Where She Stands With Her Dad
It's hard to grow up underneath the harsh light and the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a supermodel mogul mom, a media mogul dad, reality TV shows, and Baby Phat runway shows to the mix, and you'll have a taste of what it was like for Aoki Lee Simmons growing up in the limelight. All that glitters isn't gold, and personal challenges don't discriminate against tax brackets.
Earlier this year, Aoki made headlines alongside her mom, Kimora Lee Simmons, as they publicly revealed what they had been going through privately as a family. Amid Russell Simmons' rape and sexual misconduct allegations, he is also estranged from the family, which all came to a head following a public dispute about Father's Day. Aoki supported her mother's claims that Russell had allegedly threatened their lives and also posted a recording of a video call between the two where he could be seen yelling at Aoki. She also told the public how damaging their conversations and relationship had become for her mental health.
Aoki would eventually stand by her truth in the days that followed, posting to her Instagram account, "Until a short time ago, this is the man who told me 'always defend and look after your mother girls' and 'never let a man curse at you, you call daddy if a man ever tries to yell at you or scare you that's never ok! Real men don't shout at women and girls." She added, "So to all the toxic men in my comments using 'I'm defending him' to be foul and talk about all the grievances you have with women, you can save it. It's pathetic. He would agree I know that for sure."
Despite navigating troubling times as a family, Aoki had an incredible year so far in terms of achievements. Alongside her part-time pursuit of modeling, she was able to graduate from Harvard University with a double major. At 20 years old at the time, she stands in history as one of the youngest Black women to accomplish such a win. One of her latest career moments can be found on the September cover of Teen Vogue.
The now-21-year-old spoke candidly about reading online about her looks as a kid, the advantages of being a "nepo baby," and where she stands on what happened with her dad.
Aoki on her looks being scrutinized and critiqued at a young age:
“At the time, I was reading a lot of crazy stuff: 'Poor her, she got the dad genes.' There were literally articles like, ‘Celebrity Kid Gone Wrong’ — and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m 11.’"
On benefitting from being a nepo baby:
“It’s totally true. I had no idea if I’d do modeling without my family, without their name helping me. I sometimes think when I look at shows or shoots — if I had done it, and it was that bad, and I was not me, would I get another shot? Would I have had the chance to develop the way that I have?”
“All you can do is be grateful and try to stay in your lane a bit."
Aoki on having no regrets about exposing her fractured relationship with her dad online:
“I don’t regret it. Part of it was already out there. There were reasons I thought it was reasonable to publish, because it was playing out in, like, a silent bubble.”
To read the cover story in full, head over toTeen Vogue.
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Featured image by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows