OUT100: Lena Waithe, Artist of the Year

Lena Waithe
Photography: Roger Erickson

For the most part, awards don’t mean anything, particularly awards that come with elaborate ceremonies and decades of tradition. Those awards rarely hold significance except for the people who win them—the culmination of a concerted effort around a singular vision, embodied by a glistening gold statuette that will spend the remainder of its days on a shelf somewhere, away from the public eye that afforded it its significance to begin with.

But 2017 has been an odd year. Awards shows have taken on renewed purpose: serving as glamorous protests peppered with indictments of government policy and calls for inclusion, visibility, compassion, and that most hackneyed of concepts: love. From Moonlight walking away with the Best Picture Oscar in February to The Handmaid’s Tale scooping up almost every Emmy it was nominated for, Hollywood’s creative community is taking seriously its role as cultural documentarians in an increasingly frightening, exasperating, and exhausting time in our history.

Related | OUT100 2017

In September, when Lena Waithe took home the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, she became the first black woman and, not insignificantly, the first black queer woman to win that award, which she shared with Master of None creator Aziz Ansari for their beloved “Thanksgiving” episode. In her acceptance speech, she gave an impassioned shout-out to her “LGBTQIA family,” letting us know that she sees “each and every one” of us. 

Coat: Stella McCartney, Turtleneck: Canali

“The things that make us different, those are our superpowers,” she said. “Every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape... go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.” 

That she was recognized for a show about the personal lives and loves of black and brown people, for an episode about a young, queer, black woman’s coming of age, just a month after a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly and was speedily denounced by nearly everyone except the president of the United States, made the moment that much more poignant. 

“I wanted to say something about our community, particularly the queer community—to share that with them,” the 33-year-old writer, producer, and actress says, “because that’s what the story was really about: coming out.”

She continues, “It was bigger than me, bigger than one episode of television. To me, that was a moment to really see people in the community and tell them I see them and tell them the things that make us different are actually what make us special. If I wasn’t a queer black woman, I don’t know if I would have been standing on that stage. I hoped that they could see through me that when you tell your story, when you live your authentic life, only good things will come from it.”

Suit: Moschino, Shirt: Theory available at Bloomingdale's, Shoes: Prada, Rings: Armature

And the good things are piling up quickly for Waithe, who isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She’s busy tackling a new drama series The Chi—the first she’s ever written. Named after her hometown of Chicago’s south side, it follows an interconnected group of working-class African-Americans, and premieres on Showtime in early 2018. She also has a part in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel, hitting theaters in March 2018. She’s penned a film that she describes cryptically as a piece of protest art. And she’s hard at work on her long-gestating sitcom, Twenties, a thinly veiled account of her life when she first moved to Los Angeles.

“The lead happens to be a black queer girl,” Waithe says of the series, “which is revolutionary in itself because we haven’t seen that.”

May the revolution continue to be televised. 

Photography: Roger Erickson
Styling: Michael Cook
Hair & Makeup: Vanessa Evelyn
Photographed in Union Square, New York, on August 30, 2017
(Cover) Hair & Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin
(Cover) Jacket: Versace, Ring: Armature
(Cover) Styling: Mark-Paul Barro
(Cover) Photographed in Los Angeles

Tags: OUT100 2017

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