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Samira Wiley Wants You to Stop Putting Her in a Box

Samira Wiley

Samira Wiley has range.

Sure, as an actress, she can make you laugh, sob, or make you think. But here, we’re talking about her style. One day she’s blowing us away with her glamorous gowns and sparkly looks on the red carpet, arm in arm with her equally stunning wife, Lauren Morelli. The next day, she leaves you agog with a plaid button-down, a pair of jeans, a beanie, and a cool-girl smirk on a nonchalant Instagram post. In fact, she prides herself on her ability to pull off just about any outfit she chooses.  

“Having that androgynous look is really important to me — it’s important for me to go to a clothing website and be able to see things that are not necessarily in the completely straight vein over here and the gay vein over there, because I kind of live in the middle,” she told Out this week. “I love the red carpet, don’t get me wrong. People try to act like ‘That’s not the real Samira, every day she’s in jeans and t-shirts,’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s all me, my box expands everywhere.’”

Besides, Wiley, the daughter of Baptist co-pastors (before your eyebrows raise, yes, they are very pro-LGBTQ), is used to donning her Sunday best — “it’s second nature to me,” she says. Of course, she and Morelli pulled out all the stops for their charming, colorful, confetti-laden wedding in 2017, officiated by Wiley’s parents. But even at a wedding fit for Martha Stewart, Wiley kept it real.

“The first part of my vows, I had my vows in my hands, my father-in-law hands them to me,” she recalls, and then her voice deepens, getting into character. She slyly looks up from a sheet of paper she’s pretending to be her vows. She told her wife, “‘Hey girl. What’s up? Your feet hurt? I know they hurt, girl.’” But of course, she can’t stay so serious. “I know everyone around us was like, ‘What?’ But I had to do it.”

Wiley clearly values reality. Realness. That’s why, Wiley says, if she was going to work with a clothing brand, it would be for one where she could actually see herself in the clothes. A brand for which she wouldn’t “have to go and imagine too much.”

Enter Aerie, the major retailer for young women that specializes in underwear, active apparel, and loungewear, all focused on body positivity. In 2014, Aerie announced that its ad campaigns would not use retouching and photo enhancement that tends to go hand-in-hand with women’s apparel, especially lingerie. You would think such a thing would be daunting — billboards and ads everywhere, no Photoshop, no outlandish filters, no fakery — but Wiley takes solace in this approach.

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“I think there is so much power in owning your body and owning it for yourself,” she says. “It’s so empowering and it’s such a sign of strength to be able to say, ‘This is mine, flaws and all.’ And I literally mean flaws and all, to be able to look at a picture and say ‘This is my one little nasty piece of me, but that’s me!’”

Wiley adds her name to a new slate of Aerie “Role Models,” along with several of your other faves: fellow actresses Busy Phillips and Jameela Jamil, snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, and YouTube star Molly Burke. They join current Role Models, poet Cleo Wade, model Iskra Lawrence, and gymnast Aly Raisman — women who were chosen not just for their looks, but for the conversations they’ve helped to spur on everything from politics and civic engagement (Wade) to body diversity (Lawrence); beauty standards and psychology (Jamil) to the #MeToo movement (Raisman).

“I don’t have really huge ideas about fashion,” she says, “but I know what makes me feel good, and I like what makes me look good, and sitting down with all of those women, none of them are like me. And none of them are like the next one, so I feel like we can all really represent different parts of this generation of women. But I’m glad I got in there.”

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In her career, though, Wiley has been known for working with a cast of women who look different from each other. She was at the core of fan favorites on Orange Is the New Black, and now plays the cool, tough Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale. Later this year Wiley will star in Vault, a heist flick set in the 1970s alongside Chazz Palminteri and Don Johnson.

With such a youth-focused brand, it’s clear to Wiley how important it is for Aerie to show a range of what real women look like, and how they embrace themselves. Wiley’s close with her family, and is especially concerned about the world her nieces grow up in, and the messaging they receive about their own bodies. If anything, she says, she hopes young women will learn not to automatically hide their flaws, but decide to embrace them and perhaps even find ways to highlight them. But maybe, she surmises, that’s what the generation behind hers is already absorbing from more body positive messaging — and frankly, each other.

“I feel like there’s so much to learn from Generation Z!” she says “We talk about wanting to teach the younger generation, but keeping that hand in hand with learning from the younger generation is the only way we’re going to figure it out. And I think that I’m learning to do that now with social media and stuff. My nieces are really good at that. Trying to have that open conversation of whatever it involves — fashion, like-minded thinking, whatever — to be able to have that conversation be reciprocal rather than just ‘I know something now and I need to teach you about it.’”

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