Quantcast

Get Into Zoe: The Black Doll Reminding All Of Us Of Our Magic

Yelitsa Jean-Charles is using smarts and authenticity to connect with toy lovers.

Boss Up - Home Page

We've all been loving the extra love, attention, and support black culture has been getting lately. Who can be mad at more focus put on supporting racial equality, black inclusion, and black business? Some of us have been on the support train and are OGs at carrying that torch while others are just now pulling up a seat at the diversity table. Nevertheless, the ugly faces of police brutality and racism have sparked a movement where people of color are being applauded, loved on, and appreciated. Our voices, perspectives, businesses and brands are being amplified. (It's about time, don't you think?)

With the huge focus on racial injustice and black culture right now, we're all yearning for more and more black boy and girl joy, and doll-maker Yelitsa Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls, has dropped more than her contribution in the bucket with Zoe, a doll she hopes will continue to inspire little girls to love themselves.

"The country is hurting and healing, and people are having really important conversations around race, representation, and what equity looks like," the 26-year-old entrepreneur told xoNecole in an exclusive interview. "As a black business owner, that means a lot of people are passing the mic and [talking about us] because they recognize how important it is to support not only black businesses but businesses that are doing the work in terms of creating moments to talk about identity and changing the narrative for the future."

Courtesy of Yelitsa Jean-Charles

It's been proven that our early interaction with dolls can have major effects on our self-perception, self-esteem, as well as our communications and socializing skills, and though we've come a long way in terms of brown dolls in rotation, there's always room for improvement in representing today's diversity. Jean-Charles had her own experience as a little girl who wanted dolls that looked more like her. She had to the opportunity to find a creative outlet in college for a project where she reimagined the popular folklore character Rapunzel as a brown girl with kinky curly hair.

"My classmates said, 'This looks so much like a doll.' I took the idea to Facebook and realized a lot of people have these experiences where we didn't have dolls that looked like us growing up," Jean-Charles recalled. "True, they had brown skin, but you have to do so much more than paint [a doll] brown to connect with children. Creating a doll with hair that children could wash and style to learn how to love themselves was the next step for us so we created Zoe."

Courtesy of Yelitsa Jean-Charles

"I had that conversation on social, realized there was a problem, and the next natural step was to do some research to find the solution. I applied for the Brown University Social Innovation Fellowship. I presented the problem and [expressed that] my doll was the solution to the fact that kids don't have products that represent them. They gave me $4,000 to work on the company that summer, which was enough capital to support ourselves---the small team we had---in addition to doing some guerilla marketing to find out whether there was a need for this product. Can we get people to buy it?"

Jean-Charles would then be accepted into an accelerator program where she and her team developed a Kickstarter campaign and attracted $50,000 in pre-sales for the first version of Zoe. They've since relaunched the doll, partnered with My Black Is Beautiful for a product line that children can use on both their hair and Zoe's, and the demand has grown even more from there.

As campaigns were sparked online to promote black-owned brands and businesses, Jean-Charles found herself right in the middle of it with a recent tweet about Zoe that went viral. It was retweeted more than 135,000 times and got more than 1 million likes.

"We've been building an audience for the past five years, so Healthy Roots Dolls isn't an overnight success, but now if you didn't know us, now you know!" she said with a laugh. "We had already sold out the week before the tweet went viral, and I had just worked with the team to transition the website for pre-orders. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it or not, but I'm so glad I did not close the website before the tweet went up. Our Instagram following doubled, my own personal Instagram following tripled, the company's following tripled as well, and now we have thousands of new [supporters]."

Jean-Charles said she and her team have been discussing strategy for keeping up with the high demand, preparing for the upcoming winter holiday season, and remaining close to her customers---old and new.

"I think this was ideal timing so that we could properly prepare for the demand we can expect based on the popularity of our product. It's a great way for us to measure the impact and measure demand and show people, 'Hey, this is not just niche.' Our dolls are for children who love dolls. It's all about giving children options, and by doing that you're helping unpack the issues that we have in our culture and in our society about race and identity by exposing them the people they will interact with in the world. Healthy Roots is in a position, ideally, [to offer] products that can do that. That makes me happy because I know the long-term impact we will have in making sure that everyone is treated equally and fairly and everyone is loved."

For more of Yelitsa, follow her on Instagram.

Featured image courtesy of Yelitsa Jean-Charles

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.

Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

The daily empowerment fix you need.
Make things inbox official.

To be or not to be, that’s the big question regarding relationships these days – and whether or not to remain monogamous. Especially as we walk into this new awakening of what it means to be in an ethically or consensual nonmonogamous relationship. By no means are the concepts of nonmonogamy new, so when I say 'new awakening,' I simply mean in a “what comes around, goes around” way, people are realizing that the options are limitless. And, based on our personal needs in relationships they can, in fact, be customized to meet those needs.

Keep reading...Show less

Lizzo has never been the one to shy away from being her authentic self whether anyone likes it or not. But at the end of the day, she is human. The “Juice” singer has faced a lot of pushback for her body positivity social media posts but in the same vein has been celebrated for it. Like her social media posts, her music is also often related to women’s empowerment and honoring the inner bad bitch.

Keep reading...Show less

I think we all know what it feels like to have our favorite sex toy fail us in one way or another, particularly the conundrum of having it die mid-use. But even then, there has never been a part of me that considered using random objects around my house. Instinctively, I was aware that stimulating my coochie with a makeshift dildo would not be the answer to my problem. But, instead, further exacerbate an already frustrating situation…making it…uncomfortable, to say the least.

Keep reading...Show less

Gabourey Sidibe is in the midst of wedding planning after her beau Brandon Frankel popped the question in 2020. The Empire actress made the exciting announcement on Instagram in November 2020 and now she is spilling the deets to Brides magazine about her upcoming wedding. "It cannot be a traditional wedding. Really, it can't be. I don't want anything done the 'traditional' way," she said. "Our relationship is very much on our terms and I want it to be fun, like a true party."

Keep reading...Show less
Exclusive Interviews
Latest Posts