Amanda Seales Opens Up About Her Journey And The Importance Of Knowing Your Value
The professional path that Amanda Seales continues to carve out for herself is both innovative and inspiring. The comedian, actress, writer and producer is constantly creating and takes pride in perfecting her crafts. Seales, a former MTV VJ with a master’s degree in African American studies from Columbia University, is a series regular as Tiffany on HBO’s “Insecure”, has guest starred on Blackish, and hosts her refreshingly honest weekly podcast “Small Doses.”
She is also the creator and host of the comedy game show, “Smart, Funny & Black”, which explores the intersection of black popular culture, politics and current events. With the “Smart, Funny & Black” Lituation 101 Tour kicking off later this month, Seales took time out of her hectic schedule to talk to Forbes about her extensive career, the value of trusting your instincts and how black millennials who hope to emulate her success should start by being comfortable with exactly who they are.
Candace McDuffie: “Insecure” is now in its third season and has been recognized and praised by viewers and critics alike. Why do you think this show has been so successful—and what do you think it means to black millennials?
Amanda Seales: I think the show has been so successful because we were overdue for another honest black woman experience show. There is a canon that we are proud to be in the next line of. From “A Different World” to “Living Single” to “Girlfriends”, we were just overdue to have a black woman’s experience in a comedic space back on the screen. It speaks to millennials because it really does authentically depict the differences and the nuances of being a black woman millennial. There is specificity in that. With Issa presenting such a unique experience, so many more people feel like they can attach to it which is different but effective. I wish more people would create in that space; there’s this twisted thinking that if you make something super general more people will gravitate to it. But when you make a story super general there’s nothing to anchor you. You’re just floating in the wind.
McDuffie: I’m sure you get asked a lot about all of your creative endeavors with being an actress, a comedian, singer and host. You do it all so well. Have you been strategic about every project you’ve done or has your career been a natural progression? A few notable figures in entertainment have tried branching out in the past and they just flubbed.
Seales: If you’re not good at juggling, then you’re not juggling. I always tell people that. If you’re dropping a lot of balls then maybe you shouldn’t juggle. And that’s fine…there’s different ways of working. For the earlier portion of my career, it was ‘I’m being led in this direction….oh let’s try this out.’ It wasn’t until I turned 30 and got clearer on what I felt I needed to do to find my purpose—which was comedy. At this point, it’s not that it’s strategic but my intuition with business has become sturdy and solid and I really do trust it. I have people around me that also trust it. I think for a long time I didn’t have people who understood where I was coming from. They were giving me advice on what would be good for them.
The more that I learned about myself and what I bring to the table, it made it clearer for me to chart what courses I should be going. I talk a lot about your worth versus your market value and that dichotomy is so important for a lot of us coming up in business because it saves you a lot of stress. For a long time, I didn’t have a balance in terms of my worth and my market value; I was just a very talented person who hadn’t done any work that truly demonstrated my talent. I had to make a conscious decision to change the type of work that I’m doing…I needed to change the type of spaces that I’m speaking in. It’s not as much about strategy than if something feels right. I’m also very fortunate to have a very vocal social media audience that is truly tapped into what I’m about and say exactly what they want.
McDuffie: Can you talk more about your experience navigating the entertainment industry as a black woman? You were on “The Breakfast Club” recently and talked about the sexism you’ve experienced, but can you delve more into other challenges you’ve faced?
Seales: In general, we’re always dealing with the angry black woman trope. People also have a problem with a black woman being her own boss. A lot of artists fall back from that role, especially if they get an agent or a manager. In certain spaces I do, but ultimately when I see a project through I want to know the ins and outs and the integral elements that are going to make it happen. If certain people don’t show up or don’t do what they’re supposed to do, I am the one who it falls on. I am someone who is very hands-on and eventually, I’ll be in a position where I don’t have to have all of the hands-on conversations. That’s what business growth is, right? You learn to delegate, to identify people’s skill sets and understanding their levels of discernment and their instincts. It takes a second to get there and the way you get there is by demonstrating you can do things with or without other people—that’s been my basic business model.
McDuffie: As black women, I think one of the biggest stigmas we face is that people think we’re only able to talk about black things. And that our knowledge only goes so far and that if it’s not about hip-hop then we don’t have the range.
Seales: We are in the information age and have access to everything. I’ve made it my business to condition and train folks to understand that you’ll never know what’s going to come out of my mouth. If you listen to my podcast, “Small Doses,” you might get a “Lord of The Rings” reference out of the blue. You know you can count on a “Harry Potter” reference. Then I might talk about the nickel defense in football. With the concept of standup, black women for so long were sequestered into this space of only talking about ‘black women thangs’ which consisted of our genitals and our man. I have way more to offer than my vagina and a brother.
McDuffie: As someone who uses their platform to educate and inform, what do you think about celebrities using their power recklessly—especially when it comes to their political affiliations? The biggest example of this is obviously Kanye West supporting President Trump, but do you think black celebrities can afford to think that way?
Seales: It’s fantastic that we have “equal rights” and I put that in quotes because it’s really a matter of perspective. Freedom of speech is rooted in choosing how you speak. We are conflating the issue when we say he has his right to an opinion. No one is questioning that. The question is: why is that your opinion? And also, when you have a large platform why are you being so reckless with your misinformation? We don’t have the luxury of that. Even though some good things are still happening, we are in a very, very bad time.
When a movie like “Black Panther” comes out and it’s incredible, we become wrapped up in it. But there are still children at the border being taken from their parents and being put in detention centers. What’s being done is unbelievably heinous and it’s being done out of sight, but visible enough for us to know that it’s happening and not knowing how to stop it. So when you see certain celebrities with the reach that they have, speaking the way they do, you have to realize it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When people say they can separate the art from the person, you’re funding their ability to continue to speak recklessly and in hurtful ways that can have very dire repercussions. And at this point, we have to take a stand and start believing in something other than just ourselves.
McDuffie: You’ve been doing standup comedy for years and now your game show “Smart, Funny & Black” is set to kick off a 10 city tour later this month. Can you talk about what goes into a production this ambitious?
Seales: Doing standup is different than doing “Smart, Funny & Black”. This show is an experience that I built from nothing that started in my living room and is now a nationwide tour. When you are putting these things together, people come in, people come out, people have ideas, some of them don’t work, some of them do. You just have to keep pushing and work with people who are able to see more than what’s in front of them. I’m very lucky to have an agent—Mark Gordon at CAA—who was able to see the vision of my comedy when no one else could. He has been able to build a touring business for me as a standup and a touring business for “Smart, Funny & Black” that gives people an opportunity to see this show. With that being said, it’s still my show; I have to know about the ticket count and come up with marketing ideas. I will always have input and insight that is different than anyone else’s because this came from me and is my creative baby. With comedy, people have suggestions but ultimately it is your naked truth on the stage. The stakes are higher with “Smart, Funny & Black” because it is so unapologetically black—and we need that to win.
McDuffie: Are there any last gems you want to impart on young black female comedians or actresses who want to break into this industry but honestly have no idea where to start?
Seales: Start with you. People always ask me how I’m so confident—it’s because I know myself. Confidence comes from knowledge and information about something. As a performer, the more you know about you the more tools you’re able to play with when it comes to portraying characters and discussing different topics. I had to get to the crux of ‘well Amanda, what makes you funny? What’s so interesting about you and how you speak?’ What I realized is that I’m an incredible storyteller, I have a unique vocabulary, and I have unique experiences as someone who has been completely immersed in the music business, who has lived in the hood as well as the suburbs, who has an American existence as well as a West Indian upbringing. Looking back on all these things helped me to better understand where my funny is. Once I knew that, I could make anything funny because I know the formula. Once you learn more about you, you then have the formula to express why you should be in certain roles. We tend to spend too much time trying to figure everyone else out. Just figure you out and you’ll be in the door.
You can find out more about the “Smart, Funny & Black” tour here.