Screen star grace gealey

ELLE (Canada) - - Radar -

when FOX’s new drama Em­pire ended its first-sea­son run ear­lier this year, it gar­nered 21.1 mil­lion view­ers, mak­ing it one of the most-watched shows—not just in 2015 but in net­work-TV his­tory— beat­ing out shows like 30 Rock and The X-Files. For a show that fea­tures a pre­dom­i­nantly black cast and de­picts the ins and outs of a fam­ily-run R&B record la­bel, it’s a tri­umph for not only FOX but also, as many pop-cul­ture crit­ics have noted, the black com­mu­nity. “This is what our world looks like, and to fi­nally have TV break­ing the mould and de­pict­ing it is a won­der­ful thing,” says ac­tress Grace Gealey, who plays Anika Cal­houn, a re­lent­less and un­com­pro­mis­ing R&B ex­ec­u­tive.

While tak­ing a break from film­ing the sec­ond sea­son in Chicago, the 31-year-old Cay­man Is­lands na­tive re­calls what it took to land the role of Anika: “I went to school for eight years to get two de­grees in the­atre, but after I grad­u­ated, it was re­ally dif­fi­cult to break into the in­dus­try. I was liv­ing from pay­cheque to pay­cheque. I worked so many side jobs; I had to hus­tle to make it work.”

Last year, Gealey, whose par­ents are both deaf, de­cided to quit act­ing to be­come an in­ter­preter. She had just started set­ting up her own busi­ness when she got the call for Em­pire: “It com­pletely changed my life. I thought, ‘Okay, I guess I’m back in!’”

For the ac­tress, be­ing able to work full-time in an in­dus­try that she cred­its with help­ing her re­gain her self-worth is a hard-won vic­tory. “I was bul­lied grow­ing up, and it left me ques­tion­ing my sense of self,” she says. “I was al­ways think­ing ‘Am I good enough?’” It was through act­ing that Gealey learned how to cel­e­brate her iden­tity: “It took a while, but I was able to de­tach my­self from that men­tal­ity. I was so happy to come out of that pe­riod, and all I want is for ev­ery­one else to be able to ex­pe­ri­ence that too.”

To help young girls deal with the ef­fects of bul­ly­ing, Gealey now works with Sav­ing Our Daugh­ters and its per­form­ing-arts ini­tia­tive Sav­ing Our Cin­derel­las: “When young girls are taught to truly em­brace their own in­di­vid­u­al­ity, they be­gin to un­der­stand that this is some­thing to be cel­e­brated.”

aliyah shamsher

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