There are triple-threat talents and then there is Ariana DeBose. The 29-year-old has been singing, dancing and acting her heart out on Broadway for just under a decade, including appearing in Hamilton and receiving a Tony Award nomination for playing the title role of Donna Summer herself in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. But it wasn’t always jazz hands and broad(way) smiles.
For our Screen Queens issue, GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith meets Ariana DeBose – the Broadway actor turned screen star of Netflix’s The Prom, who opens up about racism, coming out as queer and becoming the representation we so need on our screens.
Before her career began, Ariana quit her musical theatre degree at Western Carolina University after three months, moved to New York and first emerged on the entertainment scene at just 18 in 2009 on the US talent series, So You Think You Can Dance. Just before her elimination Ariana was told by the judges that she “didn’t have enough passion or love”. Her response to that misguided put-down in retrospect?
“That’s your opinion, but I don’t have time for that.” Yasss (screen), queen.
“As a kid I felt an ugly duckling. I never felt pretty… Now that I’m here, I think my younger self would say, ‘There was a space for your face!’”
Instead of letting the earlier criticism knock her, Ariana doubled down on her ambition and didn’t stop striving even after finding success in some of Broadway’s most coveted ensemble roles. “After Hamilton, I thought, I’m going to try for something bigger and I made a really hard decision to not go in for ensemble parts anymore,” Ariana shares.
“People around me looked at me like I was crazy. But I also was willing to do the work to be taken seriously. It wasn’t a catwalk – I had to train, I had to get my butt in class and after that point the work didn’t get easier, it all got harder,” she sighs. But her determination paid off, and she won the role of Donna Summer. “It was a special job; I got to create a role for other women who look like me to potentially play. Ultimately women, we always rise. We just do.”
Now Ariana is having to master a different beat – all over again – as she swaps the stage for Hollywood’s sound stages. “Hollywood has its own rhythm and I don’t march to it yet,” she says defiantly, as we chat via Zoom. Ariana is in Vancouver where she’s filming a new musical comedy series on Apple TV called Schmigadoon! “I don’t enjoy being labelled as one thing, because I don’t do just one thing,” she says. “I do many things, often at the same time.”
Ariana wears: suit, shirt belt, all St. John; rings, Missoma Ariana’s own
Ariana certainly doesn’t do things by halves, and making her screen debut as a star of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix remake of Broadway musical The Prom is testament to that. Ariana stars as Alyssa Greene, a closeted lesbian teen whose girlfriend Emma (played by fellow GLAMOUR UK coverstar, Jo Ellen Pellman) is banned from attending the high school prom by Alyssa’s own mother, the head of the PTA, played by Kerry Washington. However, all is not lost as four washed-up Broadway stars played by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells, who are desperate to partake in a bit of activism to reignite their careers, come to the small Indiana town to serve justice – and make-overs. Think High School Musical but with MORE glitter and sass.
And it doesn’t stop at The Prom for Ariana; she is also starring in Steven Spielberg’s update of West Side Story, which will hit screens in 2021, playing the fierce Anita – the same role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar.
“I have been told, ‘You’re not Black enough. You’re not urban enough.’ But I’m like, ‘What defines Black… if you resonate with the performance or what I’m offering you, what does my level of Blackness have to do with anything?'”
“I had just finished a shoot day on West Side Story when I got the phone call that I booked The Prom,” Ariana says, shaking her head at how ridiculously amazing that statement sounds. “I looked at West Side Story as an embarrassment of riches and thought nothing like this is ever going to happen again and then to be in my trailer and get that phone call that you’re going to get to work with Ryan Murphy, Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells. I thought I was being punked.”
After the shock of landing the role subsided, the reality that Ariana would be playing a closeted teen began to speak to her for deeply personal reasons – she herself came out as queer to her teacher mother, Gina, after attending dance school. “I was really lucky in my childhood. My mom was amazing. I didn’t really come out,” Ariana shares.
“We were in the car and we had left an intensive dance class. Travis Wall, Elizabeth Jones, Martha Nichols – all these incredible dancers were there – and I was like, ‘Gosh, they’re all so beautiful. Ooh, I’m tingly all over!’ And I said, ‘Mom, I think I could like boys and girls. But I really think I could like girls.’ She was like, ‘OK, moving on.’ It wasn’t a thing. I got lucky. I think that’s just how parents should react and then carry on.”
However, Ariana is all too aware that not everyone who ‘comes out’ is greeted by love, acceptance, or, crucially, respect. So much so, that Ariana and her co-star Jo Ellen have teamed up to launch The Unruly Hearts Initiative. The website is a hub for LGBTQ+ youth who need support – or allies inspired to help – giving a list of resources and organisations that help with secure housing solutions, mental health access and mentorship and educational support. “There wasn’t a day that I went to work on The Prom that I didn’t realise we were making something that I knew I didn’t have growing up in terms of young people who will get to see themselves on screen and be given a template of the possibility of that happy ending,” Ariana tells me.
“I started dating a woman very publicly and the reality of walking down the street, holding a woman’s hand is not widely accepted, even in New York city… The names that you get called, the things people say – folks can be so crude.”
“If I had had this film when I was younger, I think I just would have made sense of things more quickly. You see Emma – who feels very alone – has adults who rally around her and they become her chosen family. That depiction is so important for young people to see that no matter what your circumstance, if your blood relatives are not ready to accept you, there are people out there who are. Don’t assume that you’re not loved or you’re not wanted. Keep looking. Don’t give up,” she adds.
Ariana wears: dress, Ulla Johnson; boots, Stuart Weitzman; rings, Missoma Ariana’s own
Does she feel like ‘coming out’ is an ongoing journey, I ask? “Acknowledging my sexuality for me has gone hand in hand in my journey with identity. I’m a Black woman, I identify as Afro-Latina and I’m queer,” Ariana agrees, referencing that she was born to an Afro-Puerto Rican father and a white mother. “It’s a constant journey of discovery of all of the layers that make you who you are,” she says. “I believe in a sexual spectrum and I also am a woman. I also reserve the right to change my mind whenever I want so, I make space for all of that. I don’t think that you’re ever – or at least for me – really through with the journey of coming out. Every day I wake up and I’m coming out in a different way. Whether it’s coming out to just acknowledge my beliefs or I’m wearing purple today for the queer teens of the world, because we’re not here for the bullying. Every day you’re coming out for something!”
“I identify as queer and I am on the rainbow family, LGBTQ+ spectrum,” Ariana continues as we talk about the power of labels. “My journey with sexuality is ongoing, which is why queer is my word. But I accept all the other words that are in our alphabet and I respect how anybody wants to define themselves. There’s not one way to be gay. There’s not one way to be straight. There’s not one way to be Black. There’s not one way to be Latina. There’s just not one way of being human.
“When I chose queer as my word, it empowered me to love that. It let me explore so many other things about myself. The second I defined myself on my own terms, life got more fun and I felt empowered to speak my mind,” Ariana concludes.
What have been some key turning points in accepting herself? “So deep, so fast,” Ariana jokes, flashing a camp humour I am very much here for. “When I moved to New York, I was 19 years old, and I had a full reckoning with reality. I’d just been voted off a reality TV show – namaste – so I was dealing with how I was feeling about that. I had left college and I chose to move to New York city, the concrete jungle to pursue my dreams. When I got there, I realised, ‘girl, you’re Black!’ When I was a kid, I never really had racial prejudice thrust in my face,” she says, physically gesturing to her face.
“This is something that still happens every day. People do discriminatebased on the colour of your skin in whatever way. Then three years into living in New York, I started dating a woman very publicly and the reality of walking down the street, holding a woman’s hand is not widely accepted, even in New York city. That was really hard. The names that you get called, the things people say – folks can be so crude. Those are just the most personal examples of realising, ‘Oh, you’re different.’ The world’s made great strides, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Ariana wears: jumper, Longchamp
The prejudice Ariana has faced on the street has also infiltrated her career. “I have been told, ‘You’re not Black enough. You’re not urban enough.’ But I’m like, ‘What defines Black? Whatever, I’m over here doing me and if you resonate with the performance or what I’m offering you, what does my level of Blackness have to do with anything?’ That’s been an interesting journey to navigate.
“I still navigate it and not feeling worthy enough at times, which is irritating. I can’t believe that that’s something that we still deal with, trying to feel worthy of acceptance within your own community. That’s the whole thing about The Prom. You’re watching Alyssa trying to find the courage to stand up and say, ‘This is me,’ because she’s afraid of not being accepted by her community, by her parents, by the world. She thinks being LGBTQ+, being lesbian, makes her unworthy, and that’s not true. Me being all of the things that I am makes me more worthy.”
“I said, ‘Mom, I think I could like boys and girls. But I really think I could like girls.’ She was like, ‘OK, moving on.’ It wasn’t a thing. I got lucky.”
Ariana was certainly made to feel worth it on the set of The Prom and aside from obsessively watching Meryl, who Ariana calls a “a theatrical craftsman”, she was stunned by her onscreen mother, Kerry Washington. “I think she’s one of the smartest women on the planet – I swear. To see how she is multitasking, she’s running her production company and then learning her lines while she’s getting her face beat. Then you watch her go on set and she’s Kerry Washington as Mrs Greene whilst she’s acknowledging the background actors are her scene partners. She was a leader on set and I learned so much,” Ariana beams.
“I couldn’t believe the little girl gang that manifested and Nicole Kidman, she’s just over here trying to be like, ‘Ariana, what you thinking darling?’ My face is a dead giveaway, so every once in a while, she’d say, ‘Cover your mic, just do this. You’re going to be fine, girl!’ She would just give me little tricks of the trade every once in a while. It was cool to see these incredibly successful women take the time to talk to new people on the scene and let us know that we belonged. If you talked to Jo Ellen, I would bet you money, she says the exact same thing. We had a seat, it was warm. It was great.”
Did she feel that there was a seat for her, before her experience on The Prom set? “As a kid I felt an ugly duckling. I never felt pretty, which is strange because if you talk to my family, they would say, ‘Oh my God, you were a beautiful child. You were stunning. You were so cute,’” Ariana answers, mocking an adorable baby voice before continuing. “I equated beauty for a long time with what I saw on screen or on a television set. I never thought in a million years that I would end up in movies. I never thought I would be pretty enough to do it consistently. Now that I’m here, I think my younger self would say, ‘There was a space for your face!’
“For a long time, I didn’t really understand that there was a difference between me and Meryl Streep on my television or Diane Keaton or Emma Thompson or Helen Mirren,” she adds. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand. Then as I got older, I was like, ‘Oh, but there is a difference!’ Then Halle Berry came along for me and Kerry Washington came along in mainstream media – that was a gamechanger. But it took time.
“In your formative years what you see really shapes so much of who you’re going to become and so many of the things I experienced during those formative years have allowed me to be the empathetic person that I am. To me colour is part of what makes you ‘you,’ but it’s not your whole thing. I’m very aware of it but I don’t think this needs to define everything that makes us who we are.”
Thankfully, people who are in their formative years – and beyond – now have the representation they have long needed on screen, in the form of Ariana and long may this Screen Queen reign.