The second episode of Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones features an extraordinary actress and writer, Imani Vaugh-Jones, who currently stars as Zayla on NBC’s latest drama, Ordinary Joe.
Recently, Imani’s 10-minute digital play A Single F*cking Retweet was produced by Purdue University and showcased as part of Coalescence Theatre's 2021 Black Lives Black Words festival. The screenplay for her thriller Valencia has been cleaning up on the festival circuit with awards and placements, including quarterfinalist for the 6th Filmmatic Drama Screenplay Awards, Finalist for the May Independent Short awards, and Best Thriller Screenplay at Festigious Los Angeles. She is a Dihvinely Konnecked Fellow with Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre and a proud Capricorn ♑.
Filled with Capricorn energy, this episode delves into Imani’s childhood, career, challenges and growth opportunities, rejections that led to success, and self-care practices.
GROWING INTO YOURSELF
Imani was born a creator, and her Capricorn quality of wanting to do everything by herself led her to become a bad-ass self-starter.
Imani was a teenager when her family lost everything, including their house and their car. She says she couldn’t even get her hair relaxed because there was no money for it. But this challenge didn’t stop her from figuring out how to do it herself. Imani watched many Youtube videos and learned how to do her own box braids. “I remember finishing my head and I felt God tier – I did that!”
It was the moment when Imani realized that she can provide for herself when no one else can. This springboarded her for the rest of her life to be anyone she wanted to be.
Tivi viewed this story as a testament to the power of a Black woman.
“I just want to acknowledge how the wizardry of Black Girl Magic literally makes us feel empowered,” Tivi says. “Your story is rooted, in my opinion, in your Blackness and your ability to embrace it.”
Currently, Imani stars as Zayla on NBC’s latest drama, Ordinary Joe. The show airs every Monday and you can stream it on Hulu and Peacock.
“It felt like soul food working on that show,” Imani says. “It was so wonderful getting to know the cast and the crew.”
When it comes to Black hair or makeup, many actors on set continue to face challenges as productions don’t provide enough makeup artists and hairstylists who are familiar with natural hair texture and dark skin tones.
For example, according to The Hollywood Reporter, in November of 2019, actress Gabrielle Union (an executive producer on Hair Love) claimed she was fired from NBC’s America’s Got Talent after being told that her hairstyles were “too black.”
Laci Mosley, an actress on Pop TV’s Florida Girls, told THR, “We’ve all cried in our trailers.” She posted on Twitter about a bad makeup experience on a film set, “I’m a dark skin actress in Hollywood and like 3 union makeup artist[s] know how to do my makeup and they’re all busy as hell.”
Imani’s hairdresser on set was a Black woman whom she greatly appreciated. Imani usually crochets her hair in faux locs and that’s how she was cast.
“I actually shared a moment with my hairdresser on set where she and I were both like ‘crochet dreads on national TV! This is crazy!’” Imani says.
“There’s still work to be done but look how far we’ve come,” Imani continues. “Having my hair that I did myself – a very traditional Black style – on the nation’s most-watched network… That was amazing. I have no words.”
Just like Tivi wanted to work in media for its lack of representation, Imani started her own digital magazine after her freshman year in college for people of color to write in their own voice about the things they care about. Super Dope and Extra Lit covers news, culture, opinion, and, in Imani’s words, “shade.”
She says the publication has gone through cycles. It was really popular when they first launched it and then Imani graduated and had to focus on getting jobs. The magazine came back in 2020, inspired by the global unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And in 2022, she [the magazine] is about to come out the gate with a vengeance,” Imani says.
Imani didn’t start her career in film and TV. She has a theater background and education. Working in theater was her dream until she was living it – once she achieved her dream, Imani realized she was not fulfilled anymore.
“For a second, I felt like a failure because that was the dream,” she says. “And it was the learning moment – that my dream has changed.”
Imani still wanted to be an actress but instead in film and TV. “For some people, it might sound like a small shift but they are very different mediums. I was trained in theater, I didn't have film and TV training. I felt like I was starting my whole life over,” she says.
It was a grounding moment for Imani to realize that her dreams can change. She says people are constantly growing and changing, and that’s OK.
“Even some people who have your best interests in mind will try and convince you that you need to stay on this path, but it’s not always the best thing for you,” she says. Listening to herself and tuning out the voice of others was a key lesson for Imani.
She says it doesn’t matter if you went into debt for your education and now your career path has changed. What if what you’re doing is making you miserable?
“Either way, you will be 100k in debt so at least be in debt and happy!” she says.
Living a life of an actor means accepting many rejections and moving on. 2021 was the toughest year for Imani, but also the year that forced her to grow the most. She says she was experiencing heartbreak after heartbreak. Many roles that she auditioned for fell through even though she had gotten the closest she had ever been to being cast. “It can be devastating to realize that I can just try and try and still not get it,” she says.
What Imani realized in 2021 was that nothing is owed to her. Shifting her mindset was what got her through this challenging time.
“I found beauty in releasing expectations and learning to hang my hat on the fact that I did the best job I could have done. Once I did that, that's when things started coming,” Imani says.
Once she shifted her perspective, she booked Ordinary Joe. Then, booked another project that she was flown out for, then another. All the opportunities started arriving one after the other.
“We as Americans love to tell these overnight success stories. And yes, it felt like overnight success once I had that mindset shift, but before the mindset shift, it was three years of a lot of NO's and one year of intense painful NO's,” she says.
This reminds Tivi how her friend always says to hold things with an open palm. She says it’s her “Capricorn-ness” that makes her want to grab on to things.
“But it’s our resistance that causes us pain. If it doesn’t hurt me and it’s gone, then ok, my palm is still open for something else to drop in here,” she says. “So to your point, Imani, understanding that nothing is owed to me and I don't take it personally is such a hard but crucial lesson to learn.”
Imani agrees. She says it was abundantly clear to her that she wouldn’t get anything in 2021.
“SOME YEARS ARE GLORIOUS AND SOME YEARS ARE LABORIOUS,” Imani says.
Practicing self-care is crucial, especially if you’re going through one of those “laborious” years. How does Imani do it?
She says she swears by affirmations and practices them every day. She truly believes in saying out loud what you want and how you want to feel about yourself. “Even if you don’t believe in affirmations, you need to find time to unplug,” she says.
When Imani was going through her rigorous acting program, she was training 11-12 hours per day, which didn’t leave her time to listen to her body. ‘I’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t listen to your body when she’s nice to you, you will have to listen once she starts screaming.” So “listen to your body!” she advises.
Cooking has also brought a lot of pleasure to Imani. Instead of reading the recipes on a screen, she prints them out, puts them in page protectors, and keeps them in a binder.
Imani says self-care has become an industry, which advertises products like face masks and bubble baths. “But self-care is also doing things that you don’t want to do, like exercising after you’ve been sitting for eight hours instead of watching TV,” she says.
“I think we have started to conflate self-soothing with self-care and they are not the same thing,” she says.
Imani has a lot in store for her in the next year. She has recently become a producer of One Last Christmas, her first feature film. It’s a comedy about Christmas that has a diverse cast and features people of color and a queer couple. The movie will air in the winter of 2022. Stay tuned!
In March, Imani will find out if Ordinary Joe has been renewed for season 2. She’s also gearing up to write her next play and her next screenplay.
ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF
Imani’s advice to her younger self is to “invest in yourself,” which she only started doing just over a year ago.
Imani used to wear glasses but recently decided to get Lasik surgery. She says she also invested in Invisalign. “Putting that money into myself made me elevate my own worth. I put money into the project that is Imani.”
She says the investment doesn’t have to be monetary – you can invest your time in learning new skills that you always wanted to possess.
“Girl, stop pushing yourself aside because you think that you are not a priority. You ARE your OWN business,” Imani says.