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Tired. That’s how the normally indefatigable multihyphenate Ariana DeBose is feeling this bright mid-May morning. Tucked away in a cozy-looking nook of her sunlit New York City apartment, DeBose is sporting a simple gray hoodie, a halo of delightfully unruly curls, and a wry “the show must go on” smile. She was up early recording voice overs for Apple TV+’s Fraggle Rock reboot, just finished a meeting about an upcoming film project, and tonight she’ll be onstage at a fashion charity event—this all one day after the photo shoot for this story. “That just seems to be the season I’m in,” she says, relaxing into her wingback chair. “There’s always something to do.” As she’s discussing her jam-packed schedule, her cat, Frederick Douglass (a husky Blue Russian named after the famed abolitionist), suddenly insinuates himself into our conversation, purring his feline two cents. “He talks a lot,” DeBose tells me. “He has much to say.” So, what exactly would the chatty Mr. Douglass have to say about her at this moment? “That mommy works too much, and it’d be really great if she’d take a vacation and just be home,” she responds before bursting into laughter. “That’s what Freddy would say about me.”
These are indeed hectic times for DeBose, and though she’s rightfully exhausted, she is also grateful for the recent flood of opportunities. “I think I’ll be pinching myself for the rest of my life,” she says, beaming. The sophomore season of Schmigadoon!, a sendup of mid-century musicals starring DeBose and veteran stage players Kristin Chenoweth, Tituss Burgess, and Alan Cumming, is currently available to stream on Apple TV+. Next, she’ll appear as an astronaut on a life-threatening mission in this month’s space thriller I.S.S. Later this year, the 32-year-old makes her superhero franchise debut in Marvel’s Kraven the Hunter, playing the voodoo priestess Calypso. And just in time for the holidays, she’ll voice Asha, a plucky teen intent on saving her kingdom from a wish-hoarding ruler in Disney’s animated musical Wish.
Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee had been tracking DeBose’s career closely since her days as the character “Bullet” in Hamilton, and immediately thought about her for the role in Wish. Still, she was relieved when the actress nailed her audition. “There are so many folks you fall in love with as performers, but when you’re hearing them cut to an animation picture it doesn’t quite work,” Lee explains. “When you hear her it’s an embarrassment of riches. She never does a line the same way. She gives you texture each time. She goes deeply into the lines and her comedic timing is really sharp. Some people have it and some people don’t. She does in spades.”
It’s not lost on DeBose that an openly queer woman voicing a Disney princess—or “heroine,” as she prefers to describe her character (“I grew up on Disney princesses, but when you're a heroine, you're the author of your own story”)—is groundbreaking. Against the backdrop of Disney’s ongoing tussle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over his “Don’t Say Gay” Law, which prohibits public school teachers from speaking about sexual orientation and gender identity, her portrayal comes at a particularly challenging moment in America’s march towards a more inclusive union. “Even with the tumultuous times that we live in and with all the anti-LGBTQ+ hate legislation, what’s going on in Florida, they’ve stood by me,” she says of the company. “They’ve allowed me to be a real partner in the making of this movie. If I can create a great working environment and be a part of the positive things that are going on, that makes more room for other people who look like me, who identify like me to come in and do the same.”
DeBose’s own heroine’s journey is the stuff of fairy tales. After winning the Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar last year for her spectacular turn as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, the Afro-Latina star not only cemented her status as one of Hollywood’s reigning triple threats, but she made history, becoming the first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award for acting and only the second Latina ever—ever!—to take home an acting Oscar. Rita Moreno won the first…for playing Anita in the original West Side Story more than 60 years ago. (DeBose also won a Golden Globe, as well as SAG, BAFTA, and Critics’ Choice awards for the role.) “It’s everything that I wanted. It’s everything that I had prayed for and thought maybe one day in my fifties I would experience, and then it showed up [20 years earlier]!”
Raised by a single mother who worked as a public school teacher in North Carolina, DeBose, who began dance classes at age 3, says she’s been driven since childhood. Instilled in her early on was the enduring belief that if she worked hard enough, anything was possible. “I wasn’t brought up to either shy away from my goals or my dreams,” she says. She happily leans into the conversation as we begin unpacking why ambitious women have historically been regarded as intimidating; why those who are audacious enough to demand more from life are deemed selfish, untrustworthy, or worse. “Ambition is scary to some people, because when people see someone going after their dreams, it can be a reminder of all the things that they did not move forward to accomplish. That can create animosity and resentment, and that can feel threatening,” she says. “It takes courage to be ambitious, to dare to go after what you want or believe you can achieve. And that is not for everybody. And that’s okay.”
Chasing after her dreams hasn’t come without its challenges. After her heartbreaking elimination from the reality competition series So You Think You Can Dance, DeBose fled to New York. “I was recovering from what felt like shame at the time,” DeBose, who was then 19, reveals. “I was so disappointed in myself…I wanted to make the show and make it to the final five. I make the show and get voted off the first week. It felt awful, but it was also the best get-your-priorities-in-check moment. It was humbling. So humbling.”
Intent on proving judge Mary Murphy and her cohorts wrong, DeBose threw herself into auditioning. Two years later, she made her Broadway debut in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Bring It On: The Musical. Stints in Pippin, Hamilton, and a Bronx Tale quickly followed. Her 2018 turn in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical earned her a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Soon the New York Times was declaring her “one of the most sought-after musical theater actresses of her generation.”
Miranda says that he was initially drawn to DeBose’s infectious spirit. “I remember her as this really talented kid with energy coming out of her eyeballs,” he says, wildly gesticulating in DeBose style to illustrate his point. “Her talent was undeniable. She was a little mini Debbie Allen. You’re like, ‘Oh, you can just do all the things.’”
“Ariana has such a light,” Nicole Kidman, DeBose’s co-star in The Prom, writes via email. “Her commitment to the craft is boundless, she just shines.”
And while DeBose’s rise from Broadway ensemble player to top-billed movie star has been as meteoric as it is remarkable, she did worry about being tokenized and cast aside after the tinsel of award season 2022 faded. Her greatest fear, she once said in an acceptance speech, was being told, “Thank you for checking all those boxes for us, and now please take your Oscar and go away.” But far from being banished to the annals of Academy history, DeBose has a prime seat at the proverbial table, plum roles on lock, and—in perhaps a twisted sign that she has truly arrived—even survived her first major Internet brouhaha. Earlier this year when she opened the BAFTA awards, she gave an exuberant performance celebrating female thespians for which she was mercilessly mocked online.
For those who took a pop culture sabbatical that fateful week in late February, DeBose delivered a high-octane medley that included shout outs to nominated leading ladies in a personalized rap written for the occasion. It was theater-kid earnest and wonderfully over the top, with lyrics like, “ANGELA BASSETT DID THE THING/VIOLA DAVIS, MY WOMAN KING” belted to the rafters in all-caps at a DeBosian Level 10.
Columnists penned think pieces dissecting the spectacle. Remixes and memes flooded social media. The Guardian hyperbolically dubbed it “one of the all-time great berserk musical performances.” Because she’s had so little time to adjust to her newfound, post-Oscar fame, being at the center of a media storm was particularly jarring. “I didn’t always enjoy how I felt during that moment, and I don’t wish it on somebody else,” she says quietly.
For the record, DeBose’s original idea was a spare ode to Madonna’s “Vogue.” DeBose adds: “What I initially started out with was much simpler. It was just a list of names, to be honest.” The producers, however, wanted something showier, and, in the spirit of collaboration, DeBose worked with their team and “we came up with something that was as far as I was willing to go, and that also met their needs.” She refuses to delve into post-show conversations with the producers. “Lessons were learned,” is all she’ll offer, cryptically. She later adds, “Every time you step out on a stage, there's a chance it's not going to go well for either you or for the audience for whatever reason. And it seems that that was one of those performances. You win some, you lose some.”
Few could have weathered the firestorm as gracefully as DeBose. She went on to sell merch emblazoned with lyrics from her ill-fated ditty and donated the proceeds to Mermaids, a UK-based charity that supports transgender, nonbinary, and gender diverse children. If confronted with a similar mob, I would’ve spent days hiding out in the fetal position, verbally self-immolating in a giant puddle of tears, I tell her. She admits, “I did cry once, but it was because I felt so bad that my grandmother was seeing the really horrible things that were being said that had actually nothing to do with the performance, that were just ripping me apart. That's when I cried, because my grandmother loves me, and she doesn't want to read that.”
This Sunday she gets her second shot at headlining an awards show as host of the Tonys. With the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, it was initially unclear whether or not the show would be televised or if DeBose would still participate. Both are a-go. DeBose says that while she “honors” the WGA’s battle for better compensation, Broadway, still recovering from the pandemic, needs her support as well. “We get this one night to come into homes across America to show people what this community does and ultimately, that exchange feeds back into our livelihoods, into keeping these shows running, to keeping people employed, allowing people to have healthcare, a pension, to get back on their feet,” she says. “I would've regretted not showing up for them in a time like this.”
It’s her first time performing on a major awards stage since the BAFTAs and she’s not not nervous. “Have I developed a little bit of stage fright? I would be lying if I said, ‘no,’” she confesses. “But I also challenge myself and I do scary things every day. And if I’m afraid of something, I should probably do it.”
How do you not let self-doubt cripple or paralyze you?, I ask. She allows herself to feel the fear, she explains, but refuses to let it linger. “I have found that trying to act as if I don't feel something is not helpful. Pretending it's not happening, not helpful. Yes, I performed at the BAFTAs. Yes, the Internet had a moment about it. Yes, some things were said that I didn't appreciate and that I found very hurtful. And yes, eventually the tide turned on the Internet and people found what I saw in it: the fun, the joy. But that doesn't mean that along that little journey, I didn't feel my feelings about having the Internet make fun of me for being me and doing what I love to do. I don't understand that part of society. I don't understand why we use social media to just straight up pick on people.”
That dark period taught her who her real friends are, forced her to erect new boundaries, and deactivate her Twitter account for good. “I don’t fuck with Twitter anymore because it’s the hater Olympics. Why do you need a gold medal in hate? I don’t get it,” she says. “I’m ambitious, but I’m not in the business of ripping people apart. So, you keep your gold medals in hate and I’m going to go do me somewhere else.”
Energy matters to DeBose; she’s an energy person. “Good natured humans” and “great vibes” are on her checklist when deciding on a project. “You’re going to be in the same room with a specific group of people for quite a long time, so find people that you enjoy and respect and maybe even admire… If your energy is rank, I’m a no,” she says definitively. “I don’t fux with that. Keep your rank energy over there.”
So what can viewers expect on Sunday? Not a custom rap, that’s for sure. “I have some incredible dancers joining me, and we're going to celebrate the community and the achievements of the people in the room.”
Achievements. Critical accolades. Wins. When you take home an Oscar for your first major film role, and already have a Tony nod, naturally talk of one day EGOT-ing swirls. “I wouldn't say that I choose projects with the sole goal of trying to achieve an EGOT—that's never the goal,” DeBose makes clear. “But it would be quite a coup and an absolute benchmark if I were to achieve it. …I mean, hell, why not? Why not try?”
There’s no denying DeBose has the talent and determination to pull it off. But for now, she’s not thinking about more golden hardware for her mantelpiece. Her aims are loftier—if that’s possible. “I want to make things that not only I can be proud of, but that my communities would also be proud of,” she says, later adding, “I choose to use my ambition to make art to champion others. I like that I get to work that way. It’s a luxury to work that way, and I know how privileged I am.”
Photographer: Lelanie Foster | Stylist: Eliza Yerry | Hair Stylist: Ursula Stephen | Makeup Artist: Brigitte Reiss-Andersen | Manicurist: Leonobi Galvez | Set Design: Elaine Winters | Production: Erin Abeln @ Eventure NYC
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Lola Ogunnaike For more than a decade, Lola Ogunnaike has traveled the globe as a feature writer and television correspondent, covering key events in entertainment, popular culture and politics for the New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, BET, MTV and Al Jazeera. In that time, Lola has interviewed a wide array of notable figures, from First Lady Michelle Obama and Jane Fonda to George Clooney, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Kevin Costner, Oprah Winfrey and Chinua Achebe. Lola currently moderates an interview series at the Wing, the world’s leading women-focused, co-working space collective and she’s an anchor at People TV, where she hosts breaking news specials, red carpet coverage and the popular series Couch Surfing, a weekly nostalgia trip that features actors sharing exclusive recollections from their storied careers. When she’s not “surfing,” Lola can be found discussing the intersection of pop culture and politics on MSNBC and CNN. Prior to leaping into the world of television, Lola worked as an Arts & Leisure reporter for the NewYork Times and prior to joining the New York Times Lola was a features reporter at the New York Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine, New York Magazine, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Food & Wine, In Style, USA Today, Essence and Vibe. Lola currently resides in Manhattan with her husband and toddler son.
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