“I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot.” ~ Jean-Michel Basquiat
There is an unspoken blessing and curse as it relates to being associated with the biggest show on television — the obvious blessing, of course, being the euphoric avalanche of fame, which comes with being a part of such a beloved show. Such is the case for most of the cast of Fox’s cultural phenomenon “Empire.” Save for the two main stars who had previously carved out notable careers (Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson), the show is mainly comprised of relative newcomers whose stars have been thrust into the stratosphere seemingly overnight thanks to the success of the Lyon family.
That’s an indisputable blessing.
But, what about the flipside to that success? For many of the characters, their identity and their character are in many ways one and the same. For example, Jussie Smollet, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers all are forced to live in the shadows of Jamal, Hakeem and Andre Lyon. The same can be said for many of the show’s other characters who may find it difficult for the public to view them as anything other than what they see every Wednesday night — from Anika/Boo Boo Kitty (Grace Gealy), to Rhonda (Kaitlyn Doubleday), and Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones).
As “Empire” prepares for its highly anticipated spring return, there is one star who has done an admirable job of carving a place for herself that exists outside of the show. Enter Serayah, the ravishing beauty who captivated our attention as Tiana Brown. With a recently announced CoverGirl deal completed, as well as the ink drying on a new record contract with Sony Music, things are suddenly looking rosy in the land of Serayah.
If things go according to plan, this will be the year that you learn her name.
It is good to see you back in L.A., since I know that you have been in Chicago nonstop filming ìEmpire.î How have you been spending the time back here?
I am finally going to be able to work on my music, so I just want to be in the studio and nothing else.
There were a ton of other questions that I could have led with, but you just gave the exclusive about your music. Tell the world about this new music.
Yes, I just got signed to Sony, and I’m super excited. But I’m also focused on working really hard because I want people to take my first project seriously, so I’m looking forward to really putting in the hours.
That’s amazing. So how much did being on the show play a part in this happening? Is ìEmpireî like the ultimate stepping-stone for an artist like you?
I think that for me, and for a lot of the other actors on the show, it has definitely helped give us a platform. I mean, the world didn’t know about me before “Empire.” But I’m here now, and it was cool to work up to Sony seeing enough in me to want to put me in this position.
What was life like before the show?
Life was really hard. It was a struggle. To be honest, I didn’t even have a place to stay when I was auditioning for “Empire.” Literally, after we shot the first couple of episodes, I took my first check, and finally was able to rent an apartment. But that was my journey. I was going to school, and I was working at H&M, and it was a grind. But I truly feel that when you’re at your lowest, that’s when God can truly come in and bless you.
How did you tell your job that you were quitting to work on a TV show?
I wish I had that humility, but to be honest, I just never went back. After I got called back for that second audition, I said to myself that I was just going to step out on faith, and I didn’t go back to work.
Now you mentioned how you got an apartment with your first check. What else was on that initial list of things that you had to buy?
Well, maybe a couple checks later is when I got a car, but that’s about it. I’ve really been focused on saving. I haven’t been making big purchases like that, and I still shop at H&M.
Well, I hope they still give you a discount.
No. Unfortunately, they don’t.
There are so many people who watch “Empire.” Who has been the biggest celebrity to reveal to you that they watch the show and are a fan?
I would have to say Beyoncé. When I found out that she watched the show, and knew who I was, I almost fell to the floor. It was at the Grammys, right after Taylor [Swift] won Album of the Year. And so, I was going backstage to meet her. As I’m walking, I notice Beyoncé passing me. I didn’t want to miss the moment, so I reached out to her and said, “Thank you so much for being such a great inspiration,” … and she was nice, and replied, “Thank you so much.” But as she was walking away, she stopped, turns back around, and says, “Hey, I just realized who you were; you are doing such a great job,” and she gave me a hug. I literally had tears in my eyes. It was such an amazing moment, and it provided me confirmation that I am on the right track.
That is such an amazing moment, but it also leads me to something that Iíve been curious about. How did you and Taylor Swift become BFFs?
It started with a call from her management. They wanted to gauge my interest in being in the “Bad Blood” video. So, during the call, she was actually on the call, and from there we just hit it off. The video was so much fun, and it didn’t feel like work at all. We were just hanging out, and then went to In-N-Out Burger afterward.
With all this celebrity happening so fast, what are some of the things that you have been guarding against?
As it relates to fame coming fast, I think one of the things that I am the most mindful of is paying attention to my money, and the people that I have around me. That affects a lot.
There ís always a party, always an event, and always somewhere that people want you to be to hang out. Is it hard to stay focused on the craft with all of these cool things that are now at your disposal?
You know, it’s not that hard for me because I’m a homebody. I’d much rather be at home, or doing something chill with my friends than being at a party. But I think that the balance comes from me just reminding myself to stay on my daily goals. And also, my mom does a great job at keeping me focused on the big picture.
How important is it for people to be able to distinguish the difference between Serayah and Tiana Brown?
That’s like one of the most important things to me, as it relates to me and my character. When the show first came out, people would see me and say, “Oh my God, it’s Tiana.” But now it’s changed as they come up and say, “Aren’t you Serayah?” You don’t understand how much that means to me, because I want my music to be taken seriously as Serayah … and I want other projects to be taken seriously as Serayah. I know that Tiana is such a big character to me because it’s my first, but I also want them to see that there’s so much more to me other than this character.