From pageant queen to budding actress, Ashley Love-Mills has next

Images by DeWayne Rogers; Makeup & Hair by Kristen White

“You will not define me.”

“You will not place me in this box.”
“You will not stand in the way of the dreams that I have for me.”

After hearing and experiencing the story of Ashley Love-Mills, it doesn’t take much of a creative leap to imagine those words serving as the motivational catalysts that girded her with the strength to transform from a young pageant queen into the striking lead in Tyler Perry’s latest TV drama “Too Close to Home.”

Her story is the quintessential American dream, where you have a goal, work tirelessly to accomplish it, and then begin to see the fruits of that labor. So when Love-Mills stepped into the interview chair for her rolling out exclusive, the energy that she exuded was unmistakable: while she is thankful for the continued positive evolution in her journey, she knows that the work is just beginning. And to be honest, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before we really dive in, I was curious as to where you are originally from.
Originally, Orlando, Florida. My family is from North Carolina, which is where I was living and where I went to college. I eventually moved to Atlanta in 2013, after I gave up my crown as Miss North Carolina.

How did you decide to be involved in pageants? It doesn’t seem like your personality at all.
It’s not. To be honest, I didn’t find pageants; they found me. I got a letter from the organization that owns the Miss North Carolina USA system, saying that somebody that knew me from my high school suggested that I do the pageant. I ignored the letter, and I actually threw it away. As fate would have it, a couple of weeks later, my dad and I were watching TV, and I saw the Teen USA pageant on the television and it looked like the girls were having fun. Well, I was trying to break into modeling at the time, so I thought it would be good exposure. So, I wrote the organization a letter saying I still wanted to compete. That year, I placed 6th out of 96 girls. So from there, I just made the decision that I wanted to win, so I put my mind to it and eventually won Miss North Carolina USA.

Was the experience fun?
It became fun when I no longer let the pressure get to me. I wanted it so bad at one point that it was no longer fun. I put a lot of pressure on myself and it took away from my ability to relax. It also prevented the judges from really seeing me for who I was. But the final year that I competed and won was the year that I just let go and had fun. I had arrived at a point in my life when I just didn’t care about what other people thought. And so the year when I won, it was a lot of fun. It was easy and natural for me. I just had a way with the judges where I was very charming and was able to make them laugh. I also let them see my personality, and that I wasn’t just your typical pageant girl. I wasn’t raised in it, so I think I just brought something fun and different to the table. I think the judges wanted to see somebody different sent to Miss USA, so they chose me.

So you won Miss North Carolina by being yourself?
Yeah, I went completely against the grain and was myself, because the pageant world can be really fake. I’m sorry, I have to be honest, it’s really fake [laughs].

After giving up your crown to the next winner, was it a relief to finish that part of your life so you could get back to being authentically Ashley?
Yes! It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I dreamed about the doors that would be opened for me after accomplishing that goal, but it wasn’t how I envisioned it would be.

Was it a blessing? Totally. To be able to say that I was Miss North Carolina is something that nobody can take from me. I took full advantage of it and tried to do the best that I could with making more opportunities for myself.

So, the moment I put that crown on the next girl’s head, I was like, “Thank you, Jesus!” And I had to begin putting the pieces of my life back together, because I had set aside all my goals, and all my career aspirations with both acting and modeling to be Miss North Carolina for a year. That entire time, nobody knew that I made no money. I worked that job as the titleholder pro bono, and spent all of my savings and was broke when I gave up my title. That’s led me to Atlanta. I already wanted to come here to further my acting career, but because I had no money, I had to move back home with my mother, because I spent every dime I had on being a pageant girl.

So how did you finally escape being looked at as a pageant girl? What happened that finally allowed you to turn the corner and really have people look at you as an actor?
Well, have I escaped it? We’re talking about it now. I don’t think that I’ve escaped it. I don’t think I’ll ever escape it because it is a part of who I am and I don’t deny that. I’m not ashamed of it. Everything is about choices and I’ve always tried to be really smart about the choices that I’ve made in life, and at the time pursuing pageants was right for me. And now, I’m happy with where I’m headed as an actress.

How did it feel to have Tyler Perry cast you for his show “Too Close To Home”?

I was overwhelmed. I fell to the ground like, ‘Wait, what’s happening? I’ve booked a lead on what? … It’s for who?’ It was, if nothing, a huge sigh of relief. Finally, somebody saw something that I always saw in myself. Finally, it was more than hopes for next time. But while all of this was going on, it was still kind of hard to take in because the same day that I got the call about booking the show, I put my dad in a hospice and he died three days later. So it was very …

… Bittersweet?
Yeah, it was bittersweet. I did get a chance to tell my dad; I told my dad the next day that I booked the show. He didn’t respond, as he was heavily medicated with morphine. But I know that he really wanted this for me, and I had a chance to tell him that I was going to go to the call back right before we put him in a hospice. And he held my hand tight and he had tears coming down his face, even though he couldn’t say anything. So I know that he heard me.

What do you think the future holds for you?
I think the future holds a lot for me. I think I’m definitely going to do some serious damage in this business. My goal by age 30 is to become an A-lister. I’m not here to just get in and get out. I want to do it all. I want to be as mainstream as I can be … I want to appeal to all audiences. I want to be one of the best in the game as far as the types of roles that I play, and just run the gamut of doing everything. I went to school for this, so I want to conquer all facets of this industry. I studied TV/film in school, and I know it all — from cinematography to production and screenwriting, backward and forward. I guess the easiest way to put it is that I want to be a modern-day Oprah or a modern-day Tyler Perry. I want to create content that can reach all audiences and literally change the world.

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Get to know Ashley Love-Mills, the actor who plays Valerie, on Tyler Perry's Too Close To Home. (Courtesy of TLC)

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