The woman behind CoverGirl’s ‘I am what I make up’ marketing campaign Ukonwa Ojo added Ayesha Curry and Issa Rae as brand ambassadors

When Ukonwa Ojo left Nigeria for the United States to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she had no clue she’d eventually become global senior vice president for Coty Inc.’s CoverGirl brand, but she knew she had a dream.

“My parents were gutsy enough to let me move to America by myself to follow my dream,” said Ojo. “I always knew that I wanted to work in business, and America was like the nirvana of business.”

Fast-forward to the present day, where that same bravery kicked in when Ojo, who joined CoverGirl in the fall of 2016, gave the brand a makeover by changing its slogan, “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl,” to “I Am What I Make Up” after just a year at the company. Ojo and her team added more brand ambassadors to round out their roster. Along with singer Katy Perry, the new CoverGirl ambassadors included chef and author Ayesha Curry, who is half of a power couple with NBA All-Star Stephen Curry; Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure; fitness guru Massy Arias; 69-year-old model Maye Musk; and professional motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but the feedback has been incredible and allowed CoverGirl to bring a lot of innovation to market with bolder colors, deeper tones and glitter with a spring collection that will launch 114 new products.

Making tough decisions isn’t new for Ojo, who decided to change her career after working nearly six years in the finance department at paper company MeadWestvaco. A finance and accounting major in college, she was good at math but realized that she wasn’t in love with it and couldn’t see herself doing it for the rest of her life. Then she heard about brand management.

“I realized that what I didn’t like about finance was that I worked alone most of the time. But with brand management, I’m constantly collaborating and building together with so many departments,” said Ojo. “I’m a classic extrovert, so I get energy from other people.”

Ojo earned an MBA at Northwestern University and, while there, interned at General Mills, where she spent seven years. She handled marketing for brands such as Betty Crocker, Honey Nut Cheerios and Progresso from 2004-11. Later, she worked on branding for the French’s mustard portfolio, as well as Durex and K-Y in London for the British multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser until 2015. She stayed in London and joined Unilever as senior global director for Knorr, the food and beverage brand, before moving to New York as a CoverGirl senior vice president. With more than 20 years of marketing and brand management experience, she now oversees the cosmetic brand’s global strategy, advertising and communications.

The Undefeated visited Ojo at Coty’s offices in the Empire State Building to learn more about CoverGirl’s evolution, how she exemplifies why “you are what you make up” and why she lives by her Instagram bio, “working hard, playing harder and praying hardest.”

What is a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about this job and the beauty industry: It’s so fast-paced. I can be looking over the innovation within production operations, presenting to our board of directors or the executive committee, reviewing a pitch from our media partners who may have an amazing idea to meeting with our sales team on how we’re going to drive growth for that quarter. The scope of my role is so broad that it keeps things interesting and my brain challenged.

What’s the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?

The brand means so much because of the impact it has on culture, and that creates such a rewarding feeling for us. The challenge derives from that same responsibility of running such an iconic brand. Whatever you do, you know you’re standing on the shoulders of giants and that you’re pushing culture forward through the brand and the business.

What was behind the decision to change CoverGirl’s slogan from “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl” to “I Am What I Make Up”?

The decision came from really listening to people. I learned how makeup is so much more than cosmetic, and every day when they stand in front of the mirror with their makeup bag they are actually creating who they wanted to be that day. Women play so many different roles in society, and our makeup changes based on those roles because it’s a form of self-expression, and there’s a story behind each look. We realized that some of these looks weren’t so easy, breezy, and in some ways that was limiting us to go on that journey with her to create whoever she wanted to be that day.

How has CoverGirl evolved in how it chooses ambassadors?

It’s never easy picking a CoverGirl because of the legacy and history of what it stood for. It’s one of the hardest things we do as a team because it’s far more than just beauty that meets the eye. We’ve historically always stood for inclusiveness and diversity, but it was primarily limited to ethnicity. We wanted to continue to celebrate ethnic diversity but also the beauty that comes in all ages and vocations. A lot of our CoverGirls usually come from the entertainment industry as models and actresses, but we thought, ‘How awesome would it be to show women in various roles that are pushing society forward?’

Why did you choose Ayesha Curry, Issa Rae, Massy Arias, Maye Musk and Shelina Moreda?

We loved that Ayesha Curry was a chef, entrepreneur, a mom and a wife and was playing these roles in such an inspiring way. Massy Arias, a fitness sensation that could kick anyone’s butt at any time, is balancing that with brand-new motherhood and the ups and downs that come with that and was still thriving on that journey. And then we have Issa Rae, who we loved because she was really pushing the boundaries in Hollywood about what entertainment should look and feel like. She’s a director, producer, writer, actress and just a strong role model for women. [Model] Maye Musk exemplifies how even at 69 years old you can still do what you love and inspire at that same time. Shelina Moreda is the first woman to have raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at the Zhuhai International Circuit in China.

We just wanted to show all of the different ways that women really thrive in society and have that be an inspiration to us and other women out there.

How can we increase diversity in managing advertising and brand campaigns?

I believe it’s a combination of not knowing that this is a career path and how there’s still a long ways to go on representation on all levels in this field. That’s why I try to be visible in my role, whether that’s with mentoring, participating on panels and speaking engagements so African-Americans not only know but see that this is a path here for them too. Brands, especially those that impact culture, have to have diversity in front and behind the camera to authentically push diversity and inclusivity. I’m very intentional at building a strong and diverse team.

Is it better to be feared or loved as a leader?

I don’t subscribe to fear and would never want to generate that on my team. If I had to pick a word, it would be respect, and I would choose that over being loved. As a leader, you’re going to make decisions that people aren’t always going to love, but if they respect you and you’re transparent, then they’ll recognize that your intent is right.

What is your advice to young women who don’t feel beautiful because they compare themselves to what they see on social media and in Hollywood?

Beauty really does come in every shape, size, ethnicity and vocation. It’s so important that we champion that and show how beauty is confidence. People try to water it down to an idealized vision of beauty. But at the end of the day it is confidence, and when you learn to accept who you are, you will automatically perfect beauty into the world.

What would be your personal theme song and why?

“Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna, because I believe in writing your own rules. People could have statistically said where I should end up or what a senior executive should look or lead like. I love challenging those notions. Like our slogan says, ‘you are what you make up,’ and you can become whoever you want to be.

Briana Owens’ Spiked Spin isn’t just the new wave in wellness — it’s the new standard The hip-hop-heavy spin class has become a haven for women and men of color

Want to make health and wellness guru Briana Owens laugh? It’s simple. Ask her how many times she’s heard the phrase, “I’ll be damned if I go to SoulCycle while Briana’s got Spiked.” The line is a flip of Jay-Z’s I’ll be damned if I drink Belvedere while Puff got Ciroc, from 2017’s “Family Feud.”

Spiked Spin is Owens’ creation — a hip-hop inspired soul-cleansing physical sermon moonlighting as a high-intensity spin class. Her target: wellness issues in the black community. Owens’ is about “generational health.” It’s what wakes her up at 6:30 every morning. But in the nearly two years since Spiked got off the ground in New York City, the paranoia of the days, weeks, hours and minutes leading into her inaugural event stay with her.

“Treat everything like your first project” is advice Biggie Smalls offered with regard to staying humble — and it’s advice Owens, born in Queens, New York, follows daily. Before Spiked, many knew her as an interactive and detail-oriented part-time spin instructor at a private gym in Columbus Circle in Manhattan. That Owens embarked on her own path in came as no shock to friends and family who knew of her ambitions as a rider.

The then-marketing specialist at CBS reached out to every one of her New York e-mail contacts, telling them of her first event. That took place at the lower Manhattan gym 10 Hanover Square. These days she can laugh about her early days, but it was so funny two years ago before her first solo class under the brand she created. “I was just so anxious, so freaked out. [But the class] was actually amazing. Once I did the first one, I kinda was like, ‘OK, I think I’m on to something.’ ”

That “something” continues to evolve in the $3.7 trillion global wellness industry, according to figures from the Global Wellness Institute. Fitness and mind-body, which Owens specializes in, accounts for $532 billion. Yet it’s an industry where black women are traditionally underrepresented, though awareness of the problem has inspired a new wave of women of color to punch their way in via avenues such as fitness, spin classes, yoga and more. Spiked Spin still takes place at 10 Hanover Square — her home base until the brand’s flagship, permanent headquarters open, “very soon.” In the past year and a half, Owens said, Spiked has opened its New York doors to at least 1,600 women and men — many who look just like her. The numbers don’t include the pop-ups Spiked has held in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Having already been featured in several outlets, the 2011 Hampton University alum is humbled by the continued growth of her class, her brand and, most importantly, her as a woman. She credits the omission she saw in the industry as inspiration, but she’s equally as complimentary to her longtime boyfriend Zach, whom she frequently features both on her personal and work Instagram pages. What’s next for Owens, Spiked Spin and the health and wellness industry? One thing’s for certain. Owens has something to say.

Instagram Photo

Music is obviously an integral aspect of working out in general. But why is particularly important with Spiked?

Full transparency — the whole idea for Spiked came from music. Before I even thought of this as a business … I was teaching classes and having to download music that would never be on my iTunes. I was having to talk to co-workers or look up Top 40 and look up all these songs that I would never listen to in my personal life. I loved my classes and I loved the students who came to my classes, but I realized this is the kind of music they like and if I want us to have a good workout … that’s where I got my first idea saying I’m going to teach a class with hip-hop. Instead of playing Taylor Swift, I just wanna hear Future. I don’t even wanna do the Beyoncé vs. Jay Z. I wanna hear ’93 Ice Cube. I wanna go in! You can come to Spiked Spin and hear Eazy-E or you could hear Drake or Luther Vandross. It is always gonna be hip-hop, R&B and soul, because that’s who I am. I think of it like when you go to the club. If the music isn’t poppin’, you don’t wanna go. Before we go somewhere in New York or Atlanta, we always ask, ‘What’s the music?’ That’s how I approach the class. The vibe has to be right.

But how do you find time for balance in your life with CBS, Spiked, your personal and social lives? Especially in a city like New York.

It’s definitely a challenge! As Spiked is growing, I’m learning how to be more creative and fluid with my time. As much as people think I’m doing so much socially, there are a lot of things I don’t get to do socially because I’m usually, if I’m not at work, I’m teaching class. If I’m not teaching class, then I’m usually doing something relevant with Spiked.

Don’t even talk about what your body looks like. What is your heart doing?

I wake up early. That’s something I’ve had to commit myself to because, trust me, I love to sleep! But I don’t have that luxury as much now. I usually try to get my day started around 6:30 a.m. so I still have time to work out for myself. Then I go to work. Then I go teach. And after teaching, I focus on anything that I have to do for Spiked. I’m extremely organized. I think that’s something that has helped me for a long time.

The issue of women of color in the health and wellness space has become a necessary topic of conversation. But since you’ve really been immersed in this field, what have you seen as the biggest example of progress?

When it comes to those … who are not as educated on the field, or live in lower-income areas, they have the least amount of awareness. That’s where, for me, there’s trouble. And there’s trouble [where] people who are aware of wellness and enjoy it … they deserve to have an experience that keeps them in mind. They shouldn’t have to go to a class that only plays a certain type of music or only have a certain type of instructor. And then there’s also that set of demographics who no one even thinks about. No one’s talking to. They [can be] unaware of just the basic things, like moving for your heart. Don’t even talk about what your body looks like. What is your heart doing? Do you know you’re at a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure? All these things. Those are the conversations that are not even being had. Before we even get to body image, foundationally there’s a miseducation. Within our community, there are levels. And with those levels, look up health statistics. There’s a direct correlation with income and health.

There are definitely strides being made. There is some representation. Is there opportunity for more? Of course. One person can’t do it. How many more people can be inspired to be part of this conversation, and figure out how to reach the people? So we can have a larger effect on what I call #generationalhealth.

Courtesy of DJ Akisanya

What was the moment when you realized this passion of yours was becoming your new reality?

It’s something that’s been happening over time. Spiked Spin started as a ‘business’ because people paid for my service. I didn’t even realize the passion that I had for the conversation element of it. And for the importance of it beyond the class. It literally just started as a class. Like, here’s a cool workout that’s hip-hop. It’s fun. I am my No. 1 target audience. That’s where it started.

Since then I have met so many people, men and women, who have literally cried and said, ‘I needed this. Beyond the classes, I needed to feel like I’m important. I needed to feel like I can do more than whatever I thought I could do.’ That’s when I started to say this is bigger than the class. This is a conversation. This is empowerment. These are people who have not felt like they mattered in the space. My one-on-one conversations with people are where I really find the drive to keep going.

Pursuing your passion as a woman of color in this space … how important is it to have a partner [her boyfriend of seven years and college classmate Zach Thompson] by your side in this journey? It’s something that gets overlooked when we hear success stories.

It’s actually one of the best things. We’ve been together since I was 21 years old. I’ve been about 20 different people in these seven years. He’s seen the evolution to this point … little things that most people probably don’t pay attention to, but when I take a second to reflect, I realize how much of who I am is directly correlated with … things that he has seen in me before I even saw them in myself.

Him just being supportive like when I come home and say, ‘I wanna start this business.’ He doesn’t say is this a crazy phase. He’s like, ‘Aight, let’s do this.’ He’s always, always, always been supportive. It feels good because in this process there are people who support me wholeheartedly and there are people who don’t. It’s just nice to see he’s remained consistent all the way through my hardest days when I’m probably just yelling at him over something that has nothing to do with him. He gets me. It’s nice to have someone who isn’t a business partner. He has no skin in the game aside from wanting to see me win. But he’s still 100 percent in as if it were his baby, too.

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How much of a blessing has it been to really see the support of your community? The classes are inclusive to everybody, but what does it make you feel when you see a room full of carefree black women really getting something out of your classes?

In real time, it’s (pauses) literally the best feeling. That’s because I realize I’m not the only one getting something out of it. Whatever they’re getting from it, they consistently get it and they feel good about it. The room is filled with electric energy. Just so much love and support. It’s not only just women. It’s women and men. We end every single class with what we call ‘The Spiked Way.’ It’s a few moments of reflection, of support, of love, self-acceptance. You can tell those are the things the room is filled with the entire time. It’s an overwhelming feeling of excellence. It feels so, so great.

‘Black Panther’ dominance: ‘A movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths’ The superhero epic bests even ‘The Dark Night’


As of today, Marvel’s Black Panther has crossed the billion dollar box office mark globally. The film is the sixteenth Disney Studio film to reach this milestone — and it did so in less than a month — and it’s only the fifth Marvel film to achieve this accolade. Other films that have earned this amount include The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: Civil War. Black Panther continues to impress financially, as it also is now the No. 9 release of all time and after this weekend, it will be the No. 2 superhero release of all time, besting The Dark Knight, which earned $535 million domestically. Black Panther has already claimed the No. 1 February debut, among other achievements, and it’s one of only 4 films to surpass $100M mark in second weekend.

“This is the first time that a movie has opened in February and made $1 billion globally,” says Phil Contrino, the Director of Media & Research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “The notion that moviegoers will only come out in droves during the summer and the holiday season is now officially dead. Compelling content will play well at any point in the year.” Overseas, Black Panther will shoot past the $500M mark this weekend, after its Friday opening in China – the last market for the film to open in — where it grabbed a first day estimate of $22M. That the film has been able to excel — and breakdown long-held theories that films with largely black casts don’t sell in overseas markets — is remarkable.

“A movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths. Black Panther’s emphasis on the importance of family and identity helped it transcend race, and that’s why it’s had no problem playing so well around the world,” Contrino says. “Audiences are sending a clear message that they want to see more diversity on the big screen. I really hope that five years from now we can look back at Black Panther as the moment that permanent change began.”

How LeBron James plays when his most famous fans are at the game Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Diddy, Rihanna and Drake all bring out a very different LBJ

So we’re courtside when LeBron get a f— ring/ Yeah, I bet I be there / I be there.

Drake, from his 2010 “You Know, You Know

A man of his word, Drake was in fact present in 2013 at Miami’s American Airlines Arena when LeBron James captured his second ring with the Heat, beating the San Antonio Spurs in a dramatic Game 7. Whether Drake was actually there with someone else’s girlfriend, as the song alludes, is a discussion for another time. But the line is powerful because sitting courtside for a LeBron game, especially a championship game, is as big a status symbol as there is in all of sports. How does he do, though, as a player when Drake and other big stars are courtside?

Does the je ne sais quoi of being courtside, so central to the allure of the NBA, affect James’ stat line? Actually, it kind of does. This is relevant because the league flaunts courtside culture — especially during the Cavaliers’ annual two-night Hollywood extravaganza. It kicks off in a few hours with the Clippers playing host, and then on Sunday with Lonzo Ball and the Lakers (both part of a six-game road swing). With both games televised and taking place at Staples Center, where he captured his third All-Star Game MVP last month, chances are more than a handful of stars will be courtside for The King’s annual Tinseltown pilgrimage.

LeBron’s love for music and music’s love for him is a well-documented two-way street. But how does ’Bron hold up when his most famous musical fans are in attendance? By cross-referencing photo archives and box scores, what we have here is a very unofficial representation of LeBron’s performances when Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Diddy, Rihanna, Drake and Usher (and their combined 62 Grammys) pull up on him at his places of business. It’s good to be The King. And apparently, it’s just as good to watch him — up close and personal.


Rapper Jay-Z and Beyonce look over at LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Research conducted on 17 games from April 14, 2004, to June 16, 2016

LeBron’s record: 11-6 (.647)

LeBron’s averages: 31.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.9 steals (52.3 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors (June 16, 2016) — 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks on 59.3 FG% (W)

Beyoncé and Jay-Z attend a lot of games together, but it was more revealing to break the stats down separately — especially as Jay-Z attended some of his games solo. The 11-6 record is slightly misleading, as five of those six losses came early in LeBron’s career. LeBron has actually won nine of his last 10 games with Blue, Sir and Rumi’s mom courtside. There’s the 49-point masterpiece he unleashed on Brooklyn in the conference semifinals that she witnessed firsthand, husband by her side, on May 12, 2014 (only hours after footage was released of the now-infamous elevator scene). There was the royal meeting seven months later when she and Jay-Z again visited the Barclays Center to watch ’Bron (who’d returned to Cleveland earlier that summer), along with Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, nearby. And the aforementioned decisive Game 6 win over the Warriors in the 2016 Finals.

All jokes and tinfoil hat conspiracies aside, one thing’s for sure and two things for certain. The King, at least as the past decade has shown, nearly always puts on a show and walks away victorious when The Queen is nearby. Rumors of an On The Run 2 tour with Beyoncé and Jay surfaced this week. Just judging by the Cavs’ erratic play pretty much all season long (aside from an early winning streak), ’Bron might want to persuade the couple to hold off on the running until the summer.


LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shakes hands with Jay-Z during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on December 8, 2014 at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on 30 games from November 5, 2003, to June 1, 2017

LeBron’s record: 19-11 (.621)

LeBron’s averages: 30.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals (49.2 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors (June 16, 2016) — 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks on 59.3 FG% (W)

JAY-Z is the celebrity who has been linked to LeBron James for the longest length of time. The two are so close Jigga once recorded a diss song on ‘Bron’s behalf—aimed at DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy during a 2008 playoff series versus the Washington Wizards. We first learned of their friendship when James visited (but never played at) Rucker Park in 2003 as a guest of Jay’s Reebok-sponsored team at the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC). The championship game against Fat Joe’s Terror Squad team actually never happened due to a blackout in New York City. The infamous moment became fodder for the 2004 smash record “Lean Back.” Dating back even further, an 18-year-old pre-draft LeBron allowed ESPN’s The Life into his Hummer as he rapped, word for word, JAY-Z’s “The Ruler’s Back.” Jay-Z also attended LeBron’s first home opener in November 2003, a loss against fellow rookie Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets.

In his 2001 Blueprint manifesto “Breathe Easy” Jay-Z raps that he [led] the league in at least six statistical categories / best flow, most consistent, realest stories, most charisma / I set the most trends and my interviews are hotter … Holla! A decade and a half later, add a likely seventh: Most LeBron Games Attended by an MC. As with LeBron when Beyoncé attends, the majority of the losses Jay-Z witnessed came early in James’ career, as he lost five of the first seven. But since the start of the 2008-09 season, LeBron is 12-2 in 14 games with Jay nearby. And Jay-Z has been on hand for several LeBron classics, including two 50-point games at Madison Square Garden and a mammoth 37-14-12 triple-double in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals (a series LeBron and the Cavs lost in six). Interestingly enough, both Jay-Z and Bey were at Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals on the road against the Boston Celtics. That was the last game that James won as a member of the Cavaliers until his return in 2014.


LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat speaks with Recording Artist Sean P. Diddy Combs prior to the New York Knicks , Miami heat game on December 6, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on six games from Feb. 4, 2009, to June 12, 2017

LeBron’s record: 4-2 (.666)

LeBron’s averages: 32.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks (54.4 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Feb. 4, 2009 @ New York Knicks — 52 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists on 51.5 FG% (W)

If I were a once-a-century basketball player with a flair for the dramatic, it’s difficult to imagine a celebrity more fun before whom to put on a light show than Sean Combs. Barack and Michelle Obama, maybe? Maybe. Diddy has never not been on the pop cultural scene since he became a household name in the early ’90s jump-starting artists like Jodeci and Mary J. Blige (and, of course, The Notorious B.I.G. — who was tragically murdered 21 years ago today). So it seems odd the Bad Boy Records founder hasn’t been to more LeBron games.

Although King James lost the last two games that Diddy attended, LeBron absolutely puts on a show in front of the man who invented the remix. Yes, it’s the smallest sample size, but James averages the most points in front of Puffy, a man no stranger to putting numbers on the board himself. Diddy was in attendance on James’ legendary night in Madison Square Garden nine years ago, only 48 hours after Kobe Bryant’s 61-point masterpiece, when The King set one of the gaudiest stat lines of his career: 52 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists. But really, the whole evening was only a subplot for the real story: One of the all-time great memes was born that night — and even if by proxy, we have LeBron to thank.


Rihanna watches as LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers plays against the Golden State Warriors during Game One of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2015 in Oakland, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Research conducted on nine games from Jan. 16, 2010, to June 1, 2017

LeBron’s record: 4-5 (.444)

LeBron’s averages: 30.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.9 steals (52.9 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 1 of 2013 opening round vs. Milwaukee Bucks (April 21, 2013) — 27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists on 81.8 FG% (W)

I went back and verified these numbers at least five times. The math just wasn’t adding up. And, to be honest, it’s still not. For one, Rihanna, the most famous King James celebrity superfan on the planet, had to have sat courtside at more than nine games. Then again, it’s not like Rihanna’s work ethic doesn’t put her on the same plateau as James — so maybe it’s due to scheduling conflicts? There’s no way The Bad Girl sports a sub-.500 LeBron record. But that’s what the archives reveal.

The last two games she attended were the Game 1s of the 2015 and 2017 Finals. The former was an Oakland thriller soured by Kyrie Irving’s series-ending knee injury. The latter was also in the Bay, but new to the scene was a (near) 7-foot pterodactyl named Kevin Durant — with whom RiRi engaged in some in-game banter. The 2017 battle has also since become known as “The Jeff Van Gundy Goes Rogue” game, thanks to Rihanna. She missed the 2016 Finals preparing for the international leg of her ANTI tour. Photo archives show she hasn’t attended a Cavs game this season, although she may be saving her mojo to right the wrongs of playoffs past. She has, however, name-dropped The King in her and N.E.R.D.’s recent “Lemon”: The truck behind me got arms / Yeah, longer than LeBron. So, yes, the support very much remains.


Drake talks to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during an NBA game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on November 25, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Research conducted on 18 games from Oct. 28, 2009, to Jan. 11, 2018

LeBron’s record: 12-6 (.666)

LeBron’s averages: 30.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals (50.7 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 5 of 2016 NBA Finals @ Golden State Warriors (June 13, 2016) — 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks on 53.3 FG%

They’ve partied together, worked together and made music together. Aubrey Drake Graham and LeBron James have been connected ever since Graham released the genre-bending 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. Since then, Ebony and half-Ivory are lightning rods in a pop culture universe in which both are kings of their crafts. Given Drake’s love of basketball, and the seemingly endless LeBron mentions in his catalog, 18 games feels like a lowball, although Drake has been courtside for two games that altered the narrative of James’ career: the aforementioned 37 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7 vs. the Spurs in 2013 and the robust 41-16-7-3-3 he unleashed on the Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, a win that sparked the greatest comeback in NBA history.

Drake and LeBron have fun at each other’s expense in the moment. During the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Drake openly mocked the Cavs via Instagram. Of course, the trolling proved short-lived, and to be quite honest, Drizzy probably should have left ’Bron alone. By the end, all that was left was LeBron taunting Drake during a game and the Cavs advancing to their second consecutive Finals. Fast-forward a year later, after a Cavs sweep of the Raptors, James asked Drake where the margarita move was afterward. The Cavs and Raptors have played only once this season, a 34-point blowout by Toronto, and Aubrey was there to see the drubbing. The two squads square off again in Cleveland on March 21. Only “God’s Plan” knows whether the Toronto rapper/singer/actor will bring More Life to the seasonal rematch with his courtside presence.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson hugs LeBron James at a basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on March 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Research conducted on seven games from February 15, 2007, to March 19, 2017

LeBron’s record: 6-1 (.857)

LeBron’s averages: 30.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals (55.4 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: January 17, 2013: Heat @ Lakers — 39 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, three steals on 68.0 FG% (W)

You’d think Nicholson—the West Coast equivalent of Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden —would be at every game, but alas. And here’s the thing, if you’re a faithful Lakers fan making preparations for The Great LeBron Chase of Summer 2018, you absolutely need Jack. Of everyone on this list, LeBron has the highest winning and field goal percentages in front of Nicholson. I’m pretty sure a call from him would work better than engaging in billboard warfare with Cleveland and Philadelphia.


LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates in front of musician Usher in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics during the 2010 NBA Playoffs on May 1, 2010 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on 28 games from March 8, 2005, to June 7, 2017

LeBron’s record: 15-13 (.536)

LeBron’s averages: 28.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals (43.7 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 7 of 2016 NBA Finals @ Golden State Warriors (June 19, 2016) — 27 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks on 37.5 FG%

By organization hierarchy, Usher has technically been LeBron’s boss for nearly a decade. The man who gave the world the greatest back-to-back album rollout in R&B history with 2001’s 8701 and then his magnum opus, 2004’s Confessions, became a minority owner of the Cavaliers in 2005. Usher’s been present for a handful of dynamic LeBron performances: 47 points against Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat in 2006; the infamous “crab dribble” game in Washington that same year; the game-winning 3 against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals; and the signature defensive play of ’Bron’s lifetime, aka “LeBlock” in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.

Unexplainably true, though, is LeBron’s field goal percentage with Usher courtside. It’s way lower in comparison to the other five. At 43.7 percent, the next closest is with Jay-Z present, at 49.2 percent. However many times I looked at the games, stats and factors involved (road games, playoffs, defensive matchups, etc.) there’s no other reason than the fact someone had to be the odd A-lister out — though Raymond is the only one on this list who can say they won a ring with LeBron.

Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.

There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

How Kobe Bryant celebrated his Oscar win The NBA superstar partied with ‘Vanity Fair’ and hung out with Jay-Z and Beyoncé


Kobe Bryant could have had his first big Hollywood moment 20 years ago.

It was Black Mamba, after all, whom director Spike Lee pegged as Jesus Shuttlesworth in his 1998 film He Got Game. Bryant was all set to play the basketball phenom, the son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington’s incarcerated Jake Shuttlesworth. But he changed his mind before they started filming in 1997. The role ultimately ended up going to Ray Allen.

But Bryant’s become a Hollywood star in his own way. Sunday night, of course, he won an Oscar for best animated short film for Dear Basketball, his retirement letter. From there, the five-time NBA world champion took his statuette to the Vanity Fair party along with revelers such as Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Christopher Walken, Donald Glover and Matt Bomer. Also in attendance at the magazine’s annual bash were rapper Drake, Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, Sean Combs, Naomi Campbell, and Olympians Gus Kenworthy, Adam Rippon and Lindsey Vonn.

Instagram Photo

Bryant later headed over to West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, where Jay-Z and Beyoncé were throwing a private party honoring Blige’s Oscar moment. Of the 150-plus in attendance were Tracee Ellis Ross, Drake, Tiffany Haddish, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak, Shonda Rhimes, Whoopi Goldberg, Usher, DJ Khaled, Oscar winner Jordan Peele and Angela Bassett — all of whom received invites instructing them that there would be “No sitting, only dancing.”

At the West Hollywood hot spot — which, under normal circumstances, is crawling with celebrities — there was a casino setup, and at around midnight, Joe’s Pizza made a huge delivery. Bryant said a week earlier that he doesn’t regret just now getting his big Hollywood moment — he’s not an in-front-of-the-camera type.

“I’m not the most patient of a person,” he said. “When you look at actors … and the downtime involved … it’s just too much for me. I was 17 at the time, and I wanted to … play ball. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well. I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season.”

He says he loves the art of creating. “It’s like putting together a puzzle,” he said. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

Oscars 2018: Kobe Bryant’s win exposes the limits of #TimesUp NBA great wins an Academy Award for best animated short film

If anything demonstrates the limits of #TimesUp and our collective ability to process allegations of sexual assault and what to do with them, it’s Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar for Dear Basketball.

On Sunday night, Bryant, who wrote and starred in the animated short film, ascended to the stage with director Glen Keane to accept his award.

#TimesUp and #MeToo were industry-shaking movements that have brought real change to the way we discuss sexual harassment and assault. They’ve helped bring about the resignation of a sitting U.S. senator and multiple elected officials. The movements even had an impact on who appeared on the stage at the Oscars. Casey Affleck, who was accused of sexual harassment, declined to present the Oscar for best actress, breaking with tradition. Affleck won the Oscar for best actor in 2017 for Manchester by the Sea. Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence were tapped to present in his stead.

But as much as Hollywood talks about cleaning up its own ranks, going so far as to kick alleged serial predator Harvey Weinstein out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an accusation of sexual assault from 2003 was not enough to prevent academy voters from honoring Bryant and his film. (After lengthy pretrial maneuvering, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, prosecutors in Colorado dropped charges against Bryant after the woman who had accused him of sexual assault decided she was unwilling to testify.)

On the night where the movement was clearly visible, whether through “Time’s Up” pins or mentions by Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel, Bryant’s win leaves a big question: Has change truly swept through Hollywood?

See The Undefeated’s Kelley Carter interview Bryant here.

Kobe Bryant: Oscar nomination is proof I can do ‘something other than dribble and shoot’ On the eve of the Academy Awards, Bryant talks how basketball helps him in Hollywood and what’s next

This, quite literally, is a whole new game. But trust that Kobe Bryant is ready to suit up for this next chapter. One of the NBA’s biggest stars officially left the game on April 13, 2016, five months after he announced his retirement from professional basketball on Nov. 29, 2015, via a poem that he wrote called Dear Basketball. Bryant was nominated for an Oscar (best short, animated), becoming the first former professional athlete to ever get such a nod, after he set his retirement poem to animation with illustrator Glen Keane, who is best known for his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

On the eve of Bryant’s first Oscar moment, we sit in his Orange County, California, offices — storyboards are hidden in the back, but there’s a wall of portraits for all to see. He points at a Michael Jackson portrait. “My first mentor,” he said.

Books about animation and film production are stacked on bookshelves. And the small group of people working for Granity Studios are buzzing at their desks nearby. This is Hollywood Kobe Bryant. And you should get used to him because he’s going to be here for a while.

Here are 14 nuggets from our conversation, and some outtakes as well.

1. On writing.

“I always enjoyed writing. I had a really great teacher … who taught me the art of storytelling and writing and composition. When I came to the league, I kept writing, kept practicing. When I got injured and we were making a news film — that’s when it kicked in for me. I found enjoyment in writing that film, and writing each chapter … what should we do next? That’s what really kicked it off.”

2. On creativity.

“I love the art of creating. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

3. Why Dear Basketball is an animated film.

“Once I wrote the story … it called for animation. … Games where you play great games, where you play terribly, days where you’re training, you feel unstoppable, and days when you feel like [you’re] not going to get through it. It had to be hand-drawn animation because of the imperfections that come along with [all] that because … as a viewer you can feel the soul of … Glen Keane as he’s animating. You can feel the texture of it. Twenty-four frames per second. No step skipped.”

4. On what being nominated for an Oscar feels like.

“I’ve always been told that as basketball players the expectation is that you play. This is all you know. This is all you do. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think that you want to be a writer — that’s cute. I got that a lot. What do you want to do when you retire? ‘Well, I want to be a storyteller.’ That’s cute. This is … a form of validation for people to look and say, ‘OK, he really can do something other than dribble and shoot.’ ”

5. On what types of projects he’s gravitating toward …

“They all center around sports. How do we take sports and tell beautiful tales, beautiful stories that connect to human nature? If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does. But what separates music from sports is that sports is something that unites people, something people do together.”

6. On what he’s working on for ESPN …

“[Detail] is the first show. The original concept came from, how can I help the next generation of elite basketball players? What information can I pass along, from what I learned from some of the most brilliant basketball minds? A thing that came to mind, aside from going out on the court and actually working with them, is how to study the game. … It’s a very intricate look into how to study the game.”

7. On Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah’s been a really big mentor. When I … had the original idea of starting a company, a studio, she was the first person I reached out to. And she was gracious enough to give me about an hour on the phone and tell me how she built Harpo Productions from its start to where it is today. She’s been absolutely amazing.”

If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does.

8. On Shonda Rhimes.

“Shonda [Rhimes] was gracious enough to open up her doors for us to … spend the day in Shondaland, the sets of How to Get Away With Murder, and actually sit in on a table read for Scandal. She’s been great to talk to over the phone as well. I actually picked her brain — we were at the White House waiting in line to take a picture with President Obama and the first lady, and she was standing in front of me. And I was like, ‘Excuse me, Shonda, I have a couple questions … OK, so, when you write a script, like, where do you start? Do you start with plot first or character first?’ And then we just started talking. I said, ‘So when you write, how much room do you leave for the actors to be able to kind of make the characters their own?’ The relationship started from there.”

9. On helping make Hollywood more diverse.

“I’m looking at this industry, the animation industry, the writing industry, novelists … and I’m seeing a serious lack in gender diversity. And I want to make sure that we bring the opportunities to children to express themselves, even if they don’t ever want to grow up to be writers.”

10. On what he gets from Hollywood that he never got from basketball.

“The ability to make sure things are as good as we believe they can be before we release it. Basketball, you don’t get that chance. You practice all you want, but when the lights come up, if you play like an idiot, you look like an idiot. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, ‘Cut! Take two!’ In Hollywood, we can sit around as a team and nitpick plot, nitpick character and shots and movement of the story, and go over it and over it and over it again and again and again until we feel like it’s where we need it to be.”

11. On how filmmaking makes him feel …

“I love it. I do. I love it. I’ve been really fortunate to love basketball as much as I have, but I love storytelling every bit as much as I love basketball.”

12. On applying his life as a former NBA star to that of a budding filmmaker …

“Trust. That’s been the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with as an athlete — trusting the guys around me. Trusting that they’ll do the work, trusting that they’ll make the right play when it matters most. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with as an athlete, and because I went through that progression as an athlete, it’s a lot easier for me to do that as a creative.”

13. On working with Ava DuVernay …

“Our studio … is a part of the … fund that she’s championing, along with the city of Los Angeles. We’ll have plenty of internships here. That’s the best way to learn as well. You can sit down in the class all you want, but the best way to learn is to actually have interns come in and put boots on the ground and get to it. Actually give them responsibilities, actually give them assignments that lead to the execution of ideas.”

14. On where he’ll put his Oscar if he wins one this weekend …

“I’ll probably sleep with it! When I was a kid, the first time my parents bought me an official, leather NBA basketball, I slept with it for about a week. So it will be [wife] Vanessa, [third daughter] Bianka, me, Oscar. That will be our sleeping arrangement.”

‘Essence’ celebrates black women at annual pre-Oscar gala Tiffany Haddish, Danai Gurira, Lena Waithe and Tessa Thompson all honored


Just about everyone in the space at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was patting away tears.

The General — our general — was in the middle of delivering an impassioned speech about beauty and about how, despite having physical attributes that run contrary to traditional American beauty standards, as a child she was embraced by a majestic-looking woman 31 years ago with long flowing braids who cupped her face in her hands and told her she was beautiful.

And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That woman, said actor Danai Gurira — whom the world now is coming to know as General Okoye from Marvel’s Black Panther — was Susan Taylor, the legendary editor who ran Essence magazine for many years.

It was appropriate that Gurira was honored by the magazine at its 11th annual event that always happens the week of the Academy Awards. The luncheon is preamble to the big event, and in many ways is as significant as the Academy Awards themselves. It was the place where Lupita Nyong’o delivered a powerful speech about being a dark-skinned little girl in 2014 — days before she would go on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsy in 12 Years A Slave — a speech that had everyone in the room that year nodding their heads in understanding, regardless of the actual hue of their skin.

Tiffany Haddish speaks onstage during the 2018 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Oscars Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 1 in Beverly Hills, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence

This event is a safe space. And it’s a place where black women are celebrated by the communities that cultivate them, inspire them and uplift them even when the rest of the industry doesn’t know to do any of those things. It’s a place where before Gurira even launched into her beautiful, tear-inspiring speech, she led everyone into the Stevie Wonder version of the “Happy Birthday” song for Nyong’o, who turned 35 this week.

This year, the event also honored Tessa Thompson — who talked about how awful she felt about the advantages lighter-skinned women in this industry have, and how she loved existing in a time where diverse representations of black womanliness was ever-present.

“She told me that my broad features and my brown skin looked beautiful when classmates did their best to convince me otherwise. She went to a beauty supply store with me, where she bought an eco relaxer, which we were prepared to apply together,” Thompson said of her mother, who is of Mexican descent, while the crowd laughed. “But she was proud and patient when I decided I wanted to keep my then-crusty, crunchy, over-gelled curls because she realized that being the fullest expression of yourself is an act of bravery. She wanted me to be brave and because of her, I aim to be.”

Tiffany Haddish brought laughter and levity despite talking about having been a foster child and a homeless adult. Lena Waithe talked about being a gay black woman from the South Side of Chicago who grew up loving the Wizard of Oz because of a scene where the Good Witch tells the munchkins to “come out,” a refrain Waithe repeated while asking others in the room — in the industry — to embrace who they are regardless of fear. “They were forced to hide in hopes that one day we wouldn’t have to and now look at us, still hiding. Being a gay black female is not a revolutionary act,” Waithe said, talking about the black LGBT community that came before her. “Being proud to be a gay black female is.” And, of course, Gurira also talked about the power that Black Panther is having on young kids.

“Sometimes I forget what it was like to be that young, to struggle in your own skin that much,” she said. “To grapple with a world system that was clearly not made with us in mind. To be unsure of your place in this realm, of how you will ever find it or how you will ever like yourself, let alone love yourself.”

Each of the afternoon’s honorees were presented by someone remarkable: Gurira was honored by Nyong’o, Thompson was honored by Janelle Monae, Waithe was honored by Justin Simien and Angela Bassett and Haddish was honored by Lil Rel Howery. The event was hosted by Yvonne Orji and will air on OWN on Saturday at 10 p.m.

Kobe Bryant, Quincy Jones, Halle Berry honor Cheryl Boone Isaacs at private pre-Oscars event The pioneering former Academy president is presented with legacy award

When the legendary Quincy Jones took the stage on Tuesday night, he immediately launched into a story. It was about hanging out one day with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Yao Ming. He said he’d grabbed a chair and stood on it so that he was able to look down on the three NBA big men — and instructed a photographer not to shoot his feet. The crowd laughed.

But this night wasn’t actually about sports. Jones was one of many celebrities and true icons to pay tribute to Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who was presented with the inaugural Legacy Award at ICON MANN’s sixth annual pre-Oscar dinner. The dinner was the conclusion of a day-long takeover that also included daytime panels at the SAG/AFTRA headquarters, like an intimate conversation with Boone Isaacs and director and producer Reginald Hudlin and a Black Panther panel that was moderated by ICON MANN founder Tamara Houston.

Jones had just been introduced by Kobe Bryant, who told the dinner guests at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel — Halle Berry, Nia Long and Shannon Sharpe among them — that he’d cold-called Jones when he was 18 years old to ask for advice. “I asked the most random questions,” Bryant said before stopping to laugh at the memory. “I said, ‘How do you do what you do?’ And he laughed. And he proceeded to break down his process. It’s important … to understand the great minds that came before you, and how you do what you do in hopes that we can create something … in our own disciplines and industries to future our own craft.”

Bryant and Jones were among a long line of famous folks and industry influencers who lauded Boone Isaacs and her contributions to film, as well as her work to diversify the voting body of the Academy, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which started in 2015 after April Reign created the hashtag. The dinner was hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, and before Boone Isaacs took the stage, a parade of people paid tribute to her — some were creative, like rapper and actor Common, who performed a few verses about the power of black women. Others, like Berry, were emotional.

“I’m so proud to be your friend. I’m so proud of everything you’ve done. I’m so proud to be a black woman when black women like you are leading organizations like the Academy,” Berry said to Boone Isaacs. “All the work that you did while you were there has changed the way the Academy runs, and nobody takes that away. I was saddened when I got the news that you weren’t running for re-election, I was, because it meant so much as a black woman that you were there. I felt safer. I felt better about it.”

By the time Boone Isaacs took the stage, she used sports as an analogy, citing the days when there were Olympic games with no black swimmers, when there were no golf champions and when tennis had no diversity. It wasn’t until people of color were given opportunities that progression happened in those sports. There’s still more work to be done, she was careful to note, but she sure was happy that she was no longer the lone person in a space. The organization also announced a special scholarship named for Boone Isaacs and her late brother, Ashley Boone Jr., who was a groundbreaking motion picture marketing and distribution executive for many years in Hollywood.