Issa Rae Didn’t Ask To Be A “Beauty Icon”

by Danyel Smith
Christopher Patey/Contour by Getty Images

Gloriously four-eyed, Issa Rae is head-to-toe hugged by all black everything. Her phone’s on a low table in the lobby of New Orleans’ best hotel, and as she talks, co-conspirators call. Answering, her lobby voice switches to her boss voice and then back to her lobby voice so smoothly that perhaps her voice never changed at all. Even seated, the woman moves with crisp grace, relaxed but ready for whatever the world may next serve.

“My professional life story, it looks great,” Rae says. “Looks clean. It looks like, Oh, she overcame. But nobody knows the personal shit. I don’t put it…” where, she doesn’t say. Nowhere people can see, anyway. “But for sure, I am a mess.”

It’s believable.

Because of the stress that comes from wearing public strength. Because of the myth of Superwoman. Because it’s messy work, as Toni Morrison has said, to claim ownership of the freed self. And this is precisely what Rae (who has not just dreamed but executed) continues to do. So, yeah. It’s totally imaginable that the Capricorn-born Jo-Issa Rae Diop has an untidy personal side strewn with chaos and thirty-something disappointments.

But... she just seems really together.

If there is awkwardness — the hyper-self-awareness that Rae taps so relentlessly for her acclaimed Insecure, headed into its fourth HBO season this summer — it’s way at bay. Perhaps that’s because this building is not a hundred yards from the Mississippi River, and outside, the sky falls sparkling and beaded, as though in celebration of one of its daughters as well as the ancient spirit of Mardi Gras.

Or, perhaps it’s because we’re both black women. And went to high school, in different decades, in the La-Cienega-Boulevard-linked wilderness of black lower and black middle and black upper middle class Los Angeles. Where hooligans get up to shenanigans with the Harvard-headed. Where folks are figuring out how to function in the light-skinned-is-the-right-skinned myth-making capital of the world. In any case, over the course of an hour, Issa Rae — who does the shouldn’t-be-revolutionary-yet-revolutionary work of bringing fully dimensional black characters to the masses — says that what she does is not really rocket science.

I don’t like to pretend we’re the most important people in the room. We’re not.

Yes, she is a thrillingly successful young writer, producer, and actor (she takes care to rank the writing and producing ahead of the acting). But Rae compares herself to friends who are practicing the actual science of, say, “coming up with a cure for something.”

There’s more than one way to save lives, though. And when her self-deprecation is pushed back on, it turns out that even that is not just authentic but purposeful. “I don’t like to pretend we’re the most important people in the room. We’re not. We’re not. Yes, we display culture. We’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing. And people place us on a pedestal. But,” and she says it firmly, “no.”

We display culture. In truth, Issa Rae and her cohort create culture in what remains a hostile environment.

Even with a revolutionary surge of lucrative and acclaimed non-white Hollywood narratives including Black Panther, Girls Trip, Hidden Figures, Middle of Nowhere, A Wrinkle in Time, Queen Sugar, Dope, Underground, the Creeds, Luke Cage, BlacKkKlansman, Survivor’s Remorse, Straight Outta Compton, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, Fences, Atlanta, Black-ish, Nappily Ever After, Being Mary Jane, The New Edition Story, Claws, Get Out, Us, The Chi, Power, and perhaps the last gleeful histrionics of a roily Empire — as recently as mid March, the news was still bad for television writers of color.

Discrimination and harassment. White male writers getting promoted while pitches from black creatives are ignored. Even in a historic year for black women in Hollywood, film criticism remains overwhelmingly white and male, and directorial gains for people of color are flat. This is the universe in which Rae is Emmy-nominated and Golden Globe-nominated (twice) as an actor. This is the world in which Insecure (of which she is creator, writer, and producer) works as Rae’s all-access backstage pass to previously all-white Hollywood ‘hood. And there she’s set up shop.

So if such things can truly be imagined, if the tough magic between the generations is as strong as we will it to be, Rae is positively our ancestors’ wildest dreams come true — as well as the embodiment of even this era’s highest hopes. It’s badass.

It’s also a lot. “I definitely feel sometimes overwhelmed,” says Rae. Overwhelmed feels differently to different people. “I just feel worthless,” she says. “My mood is different. My energy is different.” At the suggestion that Capricorns place a high value on being happy all the time, Rae is beautifully blunt. “I just want to feel like I’m content,” then adds with what feels like her whole heart, “Who doesn’t?”

Christopher Patey/Contour by Getty Images

It’s so easy to set ever more expectations for Rae. Tempting to look at the existing constellations and decide already where her star will hang. To young-legend her to death with comparisons. Let’s categorize this woman who tips over the carts of the status quo like they aren’t filled with decades of segregation and complex excuses for keeping rom-coms and prestige cable as white as the world in which so many wish they still lived.

Are you a kind of Carol Burnett? Pearl Bailey? Lucille Ball? What about Cicely Tyson — for the regalness, and the longevity. For inspiration and goal-setting, though, Rae looks more to Oprah Winfrey — "She’s not first and foremost an actress," Rae reminds — and to Debbie Allen, the multi-hyphenate who first wowed in the ‘80s Fame film and television series in the role of bohemian, inspirational, yet no-nonsense Lydia Grant.

Allen, (among many other accomplishments) saved A Different World from pallid primetime blackness by honing it to HBCU authenticity. “Debbie Allen is somebody I look to because she was also directing, producing, obviously dancing... she’s someone who I’m like, Wow! Half of that is good enough for me.

Half? Hold up.

I’m always going to find the funny in whatever situation.

While it is a drenched Thursday before Fat Tuesday, Issa Rae — who is in fact Louisianan on her mother’s side, and Senegalese on her father’s — is not in NOLA for a Mardi Gras-themed family reunion. Rae’s in New Orleans filming Paramount romance The Lovebirds with Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, The Big Sick), and this is far from the only project in her docket. Rae is set to star with Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You, Get Out) in a “time-hopping love story” called The Photograph. And Little, in which she stars with Regina Hall and 14-year-old Marsai Martin of Black-ish (the latter serves as co-executive producer with Kenya Barris and Will Packer), is in theaters in April.

Rae also doing amazing stuff like being the voice of Dr. Indira on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. And headlining Comedy Central’s Clusterfest in June with John Mulaney and The Roots. It’s a mix, for sure, but for Rae, that’s part of the draw. “Some of the projects that I’m doing now are dramatic,” she says. “But then that’s just who I am — I’m always going to find the funny in whatever situation.”

This may just be where the overwhelm comes in. Rae cannot see three days off in a row through Christmas. Besides the upcoming weekend, when she'll have a girlfriend in town and hang with her cousins some, that means no “friend time,” as she puts it. AKA no space to have the sort of pure interactions that Rae thrives on and that often still fuel the writing on Insecure. The way her calendar is looking right now, she says, “I know what I’m doing through the first quarter of next year. That’s just crazy.” She isn’t slowing down, though. “It’s what I work for,” she says. “I still love what I do. The hardest part is just sometimes not having a break.”

That Rae’s origin story is now familiar makes it no less remarkable. Her The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, launched in 2011 buoyant with millennial blackness, stood out in a sea of same-y web series. “I would read every single comment,” she recalls of her YouTube channel. “There’s something about me that feeds off... I can take the constructive element out and just wonder like...What does it mean?

By 2013, Rae was taking in stride ABC passing on I Hate L.A. Dudes, which she worked on with Shonda Rimes. In 2016, she swung back with the premiere of Insecure. In an era of cord-cutting, Insecure rules not just critically, but also at social media via pure strategy, and by confidently showcasing specific and funny Southern California black lives. They matter — and Rae’s writer’s room has a very-Seinfeldian-yet-womanist ability to create narratives about the hilarities of nothing, and joys and shame of everything.

She does this while looking like the star and the brand that she is. Last year, Rae collaborated with CoverGirl for its Exhibitionist collection of 48 lipsticks, part of an ongoing push across the beauty industry toward expanded, more inclusive shade ranges. The campaign, which included a hilarious video short featuring Rae and three of her real friends, was totally her, but that level celebration of her physical self is still unreal to her. Even as her skin glows and her smile gleams and her dimple deepens, she isn't about to let a major beauty sponsorship get her thinking she's some sort of beauty. “That’s part of the business,” she says.

Coming up in colorstruck L.A. — in a colorstruck world — Rae was not getting chose. “I was like... they’re not fucking with me. OK. This is not it for me.” A brown-skinned girl, talking about brainwashed boys. The shit is heartbreaking. And common. And scarring.

To be pretty all the time? No. Because it’s just not something that I could ever do...I was never that to begin with.

“If you grow up in L.A.,” she says, and it’s true, “light skin [is it]. There’s just a different [type]... Long hair... I just wasn’t that type.” Well, now, Rae is part of a cinematic movement wherein the many hues of black skin are deeply and gorgeously saturated — properly lit and shot, after years of being washed out by lighting professionals literally more focused on the skin of white actors. And, with her awkwardness front and center — in Vera Wang and Prada — Rae is a totally relatable beauty queen. Those single coppery cornrows she often wears, from temple to ear-ringed lobes, is an elegant and strong interpretation of a tween style so many of us wore, back when the act of braiding was a comfort, and when the approval of others was the ultimate prize.

But Issa Rae — skin aglow and a smile like morning — you want to believe she’s falling into all of it with glee. “Ooh,” she says with close to a shudder. “To be pretty all the time? No. Because it’s just not something that I could ever do... I was never that to begin with.” She says she did grow up confident, though. “Like, Well, I’m not their cup of tea, so what else can I focus on? 'Cause I’m also like, I gotta be known for something. So I just focused on being smart.”

Christopher Patey/Contour by Getty Images

As a young teen she was focused, writing church plays and the like. But there was a flip side as well. “A mess,” she sums up her younger self, echoing her appraisal of her present one. “A thirsty, confused, validation-seeking mess. But also pretty headstrong, very imaginative.” She always needed to be doing something, she says. Was the type that wanted “homework” at the age of four. “I just needed to stay working. Maybe that’s the Capricorn in me … but I just liked creating. I wrote a lot at 13.”

And at 34, she is guiding other people through the work. Rae’s ColorCreative initiative, launched Spring 2017, works “to create more visibility and opportunities for women and minority writers.” But she is feeling the call to do more. “I’m trying to figure out my purpose beyond this,” she says.

Rae may also direct her energy toward education, prison reform, financial literacy, and ownership. “That's something I’m on in terms of supporting... black businesses. I’ve noticed that [it’s] a refrain that’s happened over years. We always come to this point of like, We gotta buy black… and then we lose that. No. I want to focus on making sure that’s a thing. We have the power to do that.”

Makes perfect sense for the Stanford University grad who majored in African and African-American studies, whose “I’m rooting for everybody black” comment on the 2017 Golden Globes red carpet went immediately viral. Rae wants to narrow her plans down soon, though. “Because,” she says, bringing up a phenomenon not uncommon to intensely successful and/or privileged people, “you feel guilty, too.”

Can she just be, though? Along with her Avengers-like cohort of Shonda Rhimes, Barry Jenkins, Will Packer, Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen, Donald Glover, Lena Waithe, Lee Daniels, Kenya Barris, Mara Brock Akil, Ice Cube, Tracy Oliver, F. Gary Gray, Rick Famuyiwa and more — can Issa Rae just be? Be brilliant and awkward and give back and create new stories that will be remembered for all time?

Can she hang with her girls in rainy New Orleans and also continue to make stuff that respects black people and celebrates black women, and finds the funny in all of it? Can we somehow remind her that we are each of us a mess, and awkward, and that’s why her work is so essential to the culture?

“The most important thing,” Issa Rae says, “[is] I have to feel like a human.” Same, Issa Rae. Same.