Not too long ago, Serayah McNeill was just leading a normal life in Los Angeles. The 19-year-old actress and singer worked at H&M, attended business classes at Pierce Community College, hung out with friends, and went on auditions. But all of that changed when she was cast in Fox's smash hit series Empire as fierce pop star Tiana Brown, who is based on strong women in the music industry like Beyoncé and Rihanna. "Those are the referred names from producers," McNeill says of who inspired her character. "As for me, I love Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Lauren Hill, Aayliyah — all of these performers have gotten me. I just pull inspiration from them and their great energy."
McNeill also greatly values how Empire became a showcase for strong female characters like Tiana and Cookie Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson). "I think it's important because society sees it and a lot of... society's trends [come from] what's on TV, in music, and on social media," she says. "For Empire, I think it's great because Lucious has this ex-wife who's so powerful and strong and she believes in what she says, and she does what she wants. You get both sides — a powerful man and a powerful woman and I think that's great for TV and for society."
But before making her acting debut as a powerful woman on Empire, McNeill, a strong woman herself, was living a normal life. Here's how the young actress and singer's life has changed since landing a role on the biggest show to hit TV this winter.
Auditioning For Empire
McNeill grew up dreaming of being on the Disney Channel and getting a role on her favorite show, Hannah Montana. She had been taking dancing, acting, singing lessons since her childhood and after graduating from high school, she went full-force into auditioning for roles.
A friend from high school alerted McNeill to the audition for Empire, where she tried out for Tiana in front of casting director Leah Daniels Butler and Lee Daniels himself. "I got to audition a few different ways and it was one of the best audition processes I've ever had," she says. "It was just fantastic. From the start, they gave me a lot of free will for bringing out the character artistically, and that's what I love about the show."
McNeill's mom actually got the call that she had landed the role of Tiana with three simple words. "The casting director called my mom and said 'Lee loves her' and that was it," she says. "That just made my year to hear those words."
Rise Of Empire
As her first major on-screen role, McNeill was very nervous to see herself on TV for the first time. "I was covering my eyes and then I opened them to watch the show," she says. "I was like it's OK, it's OK. It's the biggest thing I've ever been apart of and I fell in love with it. Being able to act in that spectrum and see my self on screen is...wow."
Suddenly, McNeill went from being virtually unknown to being part of TV's top show and soundtrack, which debuted at No. 1 a few weeks ago. "I'm just speechless," she says. "I went from writing music in my room to being a part of the No. 1 selling album on iTunes. I just feel very ecstatic and filled with joy."
Since then, McNeill's social media following has skyrocketed with every appearance she made on the show. "I have all of this feedback and I'd say 95 percent of it is all positive," she says. "That's all I could ask for."
The actress and singer has also gotten recognized in random places, like a recent Chris Brown concert in LA, and has loved interacting with fans. "Sometimes I can go places and be completely unbothered," McNeill says, furrowing her visor and glancing around the Los Angeles Coffee Bean and Tea we are sitting in. "But in other places, once one person notices, it's like 'oh shoot.' But it's really cool to be noticed."
Since playing Tiana on Empire, many doors have opened for McNeill. She'll be recording and releasing her own independent mixtape of original music this summer and hopes to continue working with some of her mentors from Empire, like songwriter Jim Beanz.
While the project is still in the early stages, McNeill has a specific sound in mind for her new music. "I want to hit a lot of elements within it so it's very diverse, but it's definitely going to be a very lighthearted, fun record," she says. "I feel like it's great for the time that it's coming in spring and summer. I have a lot of fun records on Empire and I want to keep that ball rolling for right now."
McNeill is also taking online classes towards a degree in business and giving back to the community. Last week, she spoke to students at the Los Angeles Job Corps and earlier this year she visited fans at a performing arts high school in Chicago.
"We're on TV, but we're still people and I want everyone to know that and understand that concept," McNeill says. "I know from when I looked up to the stars and celebrities I loved, you can easily feel like you're less, but you're not."
Image: Frank Micelotta/FOX