The most valuable lesson you can learn in life is how to love and respect yourself.
I am not a big fan of award shows. I never have been really. I recognize their importance, vote when fan involvement determines who wins, and occasionally tune in to support actors and artists I avidly support. I just cannot sit for three hours and watch names being read off cards. Maybe it is because I'm restless, maybe it's because I'm easily distracted, but everyone knows if Shonda Rhimes came out with a three-hour Scandal special I'd sit through it without batting an eyelash.
So I guess I really don't like award shows. But last Sunday, no one in the third floor common room in my dorm building would have known that. I sat front and center, monitoring Twitter out of one eye and waiting for notifications to start lighting up on my iPhone with the other. The average student probably would have thought I was a film nerd like the rest of the population at my arts school. Those who knew me knew the real reason I was watching the Oscars so intently this year.
I was watching it to see my role model, in my teenage vernacular, "slay me." What does that exactly mean, you ask? I was waiting for her to show up to the red carpet, looking completely and utterly gorgeous, and more importantly waiting for her to talk on a very important subject matter, #OscarsSoWhite. She was bound to answer the big question everyone had in their minds: why she chose to attend and present at this year's show. You see, my role model has a particular way with words. I knew she would give an honest and heartfelt answer when discussing her personal choice. Often times it is daunting to be in front of a camera speaking on difficult topics, especially in a day and age when anything you say can be whittled down to a soundbite that can be misinterpreted. Every word matters. Every inflection matters. If I were in that position I would most likely freeze, even if I had anticipated the question at hand and practiced my answer a thousand times in front of the mirror.
Nothing seems to ever intimidate my role model. No question seems too daunting for her. I watched her talk about her decision to attend the Oscars at my first press conference a month ago. My heart had stopped when it was asked, but I should have never doubted her ability to swiftly and poignantly answer it. Just as she did then, she responded to Robin Roberts' identical question with passion and elegance.
"...for me, I felt like my voice and my heart…[are] best used at the table."
There is a lot of discussion surrounding Kerry Washington's decision to attend the Oscars, particularly in the Black community. I would love to write on it, but given that I am White I do not feel as though it is something I can fully speak on.
Instead, I want to talk about why I so eagerly sat in front of the television awaiting Kerry's arrival, why I wanted to hear her speak in interviews on the red carpet, and why I wanted to see her present at the Oscars even if it only was for two minutes.
In short, why am I such a big fan of Kerry Washington? Or as many refer to her as, "the star of Scandal?" Who really is she; who is she to me?
I get asked the first question a lot. The mistake a lot of people commonly make is correlating my admiration for Kerry with my admiration for Scandal. The idea, I understand, is not so far fetched. Anyone who has known me for more than two minutes knows I love the popular Shondaland series, especially the character of Olivia Pope (and her torrid love affair with Fitz. Sigh. I'm a sucker for star-crossed lovers.). Anyone who knows me knows not to bother me on Thursday nights. My suitemates literally evacuate our dorm when the clock strikes eight and Grey's Anatomy begins. When I lived at home, my family let me have the whole left wing of our house to myself. When it comes to Scandal, this fan does not play games. I post reviews on YouTube every week analyzing the episodes, loving the game of finding all of the parallels and deeper meanings. I am well known in the fan community and often tweet back and forth with fans and the cast and crew on Twitter. I am, as Olivia Pope always says to her gladiators, all cylinders.
I will never forget the first day I found the show. I was having another dark day, but I managed to pull myself out of bed and downstairs to the TV room. I laid down on my couch and turned on Netflix. Scandal was in my recommended queue and it caught my eye. I had heard good things about it and needed a new series to get into. I love politics and a good drama, so I decided to give it a try. This show would end up changing my life forever in many aspects. I loved how it was not afraid to tackle the hardest subjects and put them on the screens of millions. It was art imitating the rawest parts of reality and it was the first show I saw that dared to do that. By the end of the first episode, I was completely captivated by Olivia Pope, but even more captivating to me was the woman who played her. I had heard her name before, and in a moment of deja vu I remembered seeing her in People magazine years ago and thinking she was gorgeous, but I didn't know much about her. So I did what I always do and opened up Google.
There are many things that struck me about Kerry off the bat. Number one, her beauty. Most would agree with me that she's beautiful, but I am talking about a beauty that lies underneath the skin. Kerry Washington's beauty stems from a place deep inside of her.
There's beauty in her acting, in the way that she puts her heart and soul into every part she plays. She has brought tears to my eyes from her amazing portrayals of Olivia Pope, Broomhilda, Della Bea Robinson, the list goes on. She does not even need to speak for me to understand her characters and feel their emotions, even in their most complex and difficult moments.
There's beauty in the way she carries herself. She seems to float down the red carpet and exudes confidence like I have never seen before. She is never full of herself. She's always grateful, always thanking God for her blessings, always so full of thanks and heart. She is not afraid to admit her flaws and talk about her experiences. While she keeps her private life to herself, and understandably so, she opens her heart publicly and stands up for what she believes in.
I see her beauty shine when she is behind the podium, and not just as Olivia Pope. She is most beautiful when she is Kerry, rallying support for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention or calling for inclusive media representation at the GLAAD Awards. She entrances me with every speech she gives. I have never seen someone consistently speak with so much heart and passion. I always leave her speeches with a new thought and more inspired than ever before to be a bigger activist.
Kerry Washington defines true beauty. She has a warmth to her that naturally draws you in. You want to be her, but even more so you want to be like her. Kerry celebrates individuality in storytelling and her own life. She believes that in telling stories, we can better understand ourselves and each other. She urges you to look at your own story and own it proudly. For me, that has not always been easy.
I was bullied in middle school. The sad reality is that most girls are bullied at some time during their early teenage years. It is something that is pretty much unavoidable. When I tell my story, most people tune out. Bully is a word that has become virtually meaningless because it is overused and over-generalized. The lessons presented in classrooms are outdated and rarely strike a chord with youth. In this day and age, we do not see the "schoolyard bully" situations anymore. There often is not one bully or one true source to be able to pin down. Many young girls accept treatment that they do not deserve because they do not see it as bullying. Because of this, they feel ashamed when it all starts to get to them. Kids are sick of being taught to not "be mean" over and over again and thus stop caring about building a more inclusive and accepting environment altogether. The thing is though, being a person affected by bullying is part of my story. It is what ripped the life out of a girl who always stood up for the underdog even at the expense of herself. It is why I cried myself to sleep every night and prayed desperately to God for a better tomorrow. It is why at thirteen years old I was wondering who would show up to my funeral. It is how I lost my friends, the common respect of my peers, and the vivid person I once was.
Through finding a stronger faith during this time, I truly started believing in the common notion that everything happens for a reason. I fully believe that God put me through the trials He did to make me the stronger and well-rounded woman I am today. But even though I recognized my journey, I did not embrace my story as fully as I wanted to. I still placed a lot of blame on myself and carried huge weights on my shoulders. In a sermon in front of my peers and congregation, I told my story and how I made my way out of the darkness. I wanted to believe that my journey was over, that I was in that "happily ever after" phase, and that things would only get better. But at the end of the day, I still found myself feeling all of the old feelings I thought had gone away.
This is when Kerry Washington came into my life. She was not in my life when I was facing the brunt of the challenges, but she came into it afterwards. I fully believe that this was the next part of God's plan. If you do not believe in Him, you could call it fate. I am forever grateful for the few that were always there for me, namely my mother. But there had to be some other force in the equation to open my eyes and motivate me, and that force came through her art, activism, and self.
Tionne Watkins, the lead singer of the group TLC, put it best when she said, "A role model can teach you to love and respect yourself." I never knew how to put Kerry's influence on my life into words until I saw this quote. As a writer and an artist, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to find the right words to describe something. I got chills when I read this because I finally had found them: the words to answer the big question "Why is that lady from Scandal my role model?"
I am still on a journey to accepting and figuring out who I am and can be. Kerry Washington tells me that is okay. She taught me to embrace the journey. She told me to love my passions: volunteering, analyzing (or if we're being frank, geeking out over) books and films and television, running my YouTube channel, singing and playing guitar, working with youth, and countless more, openly without fear. She showed me that my passions can light up others' lives. From a very young age I was very involved with civic engagement and working with nonprofits, but with her guidance I realized it was part of a bigger calling. I now proudly volunteer at a preschool three days a week in the Greater Boston area to prepare at-risk students for Kindergarten and run the Young Gladiators Fund, a Scandal fandom organization that supports various non-profit projects. Most recently, I raised money through YGF for the Boys and Girls' Club of Santa Ana in honor of Kerry's birthday.
But above all else, Kerry Washington demonstrated to me the importance of self-respect. I take time to meditate now, allow myself to feel all of my valid feelings instead of internalizing them, find healthy release in working out daily, and overall focus on caring for and loving myself. Kerry's words and actions made me come to the conclusion that it is not selfish to think of myself sometimes. I realize now that this whole time, like Kerry's character Olivia Pope in Scandal, I spent so much time trying to help and please others to avoid helping myself. I did not respect nor love myself. They always tell you that it gets better, and that's true, but instead of looking to tomorrow I needed to look at the now. I needed to make changes in my daily life to get closer to that better tomorrow.
I kicked the New Year off in the same fashion as I typically do: alone. All of my friends were out at parties, Snapchatting me beer pong towers and drunk selfies. At first, I felt down like I did every year. But then I looked up at the book sitting on my end table. It was Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes. I picked up my laptop and opened a new document. I sat and mapped out resolutions for the year. These were not things I could simply check off of a list; they were lifestyle shifts. Instead of dropping ten pounds, I was going to work towards living a healthier life. Instead of trying to keep up appearances on my own, I was going to start seeing the college therapist. That would not be me admitting admitting weakness, it would be me caring about my mental health and well-being. Instead of going out because my friends were going out, I was going to go out only when I wanted to. In all, I was going to make this year about working on myself. It was going to not be a quest to find who I once was; it was going to be a quest towards loving and celebrating who I am today.
So far, this year has been the best one yet. I got to attend my first press conference, and it was for none other then Kerry. Throughout my life I have had a love for the arts and activism similar to Kerry's and I got to ask her a question about it. Never in a thousand years did I picture myself at nineteen being at a press conference working, let alone a press conference for my biggest role model. In a three days I leave for a trip to Los Angeles that will end with seeing Kerry and the rest of the Scandal cast at their PaleyFest panel, an event I never dreamed of actually attending in person. I still have my down days, but I am happier. Every day I respect myself a little more, and every day I love myself a little bit more. It is not a perfect upward trend, but it is my journey.
Kerry's voice and heart has had a huge impact on my life. She was right when she told Robin Roberts that those aspects of her are best used at the negotiation table. Kerry Washington is one of the rare public figures who consistently takes the spotlight off of her and shines it on an issue that needs it. She is not just the actress on Scandal. She's an ambassador for Allstate's Purple Purse Foundation that helps women in financial abuse situations. She's the face of Neutrogena and stands for embracing all kinds of beauty. She works on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Activism. To the children at Warren Lane Elementary School in Inglewood, California, she is their beloved Ms. Kerry who takes them on field trips and frequently surprises them by showing up to their performances. She is a role model to me and so many other people of all different genders and races. I could go on, but you get the point.
My role model is pretty kick ass. I could say it more eloquently, but I am not as good with words as she is. I wrote this piece for two reasons: one, to tell those who wonder why I never shut up about her why I never shut up about her. But more importantly two, I do not want the public to look at Kerry Washington as just an actress from Scandal anymore. I do not want to hear her say in another speech, "I don't want you to just remember that the lady from Scandal came to talk to you today-", even if that's an unrealistic expectation. By telling my story, I hope that you got to know her better because she is a special individual using her platform to do amazing things.
Kerry Washington is impacting lives every day. This is how she has impacted mine, and I know there are plenty more stories out there of how she has impacted others' lives. Kerry stresses the importance of storytelling, and she is a part of mine. At the end of the day I was the person who pulled myself up, but she is the person who showed me how to. I feel her spirit when I look into the eyes of the children of the preschool where I volunteer. I feel her energy when I am behind the podium, prepared to speak on something that is important to me. I feel her heart every week when I see her interact generously with fans on Twitter.
I probably will never get to spend the day with Kerry Washington, even though I have found myself wishing for that quite a few times. But if I did get to, I feel like we could talk for ages. Maybe we would do some Pilates, me failing miserably and her probably laughing at me. Maybe we would volunteer together and bond over our shared admiration for working with youth, maybe go over to Warren Lane to hang out with her lively students.
Maybe someday. If Kerry can believe in mermaids, I can believe in the someday.