BY DYLAN SMITH, CLASS OF 2013 —
Every year, millions of young women travel to New York City to accomplish one common goal – to make it as an actress. For some, it’s just a summer fling with a fleeting dream. For others, they dedicate all of their time trying to “make it”. Many women are then left in a difficult predicament, where they must balance something like being a full-time student with trying to achieve what they consider to be their dream. .
“Okay, so do you want to hear how I’m gonna be discovered?” asked Phylecia Renae – her actual name being Phylecia Palmer – a college student who dreams of seeing her name in lights one day. “I’m going to be on stage in some fabulous little production and I’ll just be doing my thing. Someone important is going to be in the audience and just be like, ‘Who’s THAT girl?’.”
Palmer or, as she prefers, Renae is lively and often eccentric in her diction and word choice. To her, everyone is “darling” or “honey,” but there’s a warmth underneath everything she does that makes her story feel relatable.
One day, before her senior year in college, she decided to do two things she still considers crazy. First, she chopped off all her hair because she felt like all she kept getting were reactions that could be summed up by Renae as, “They would just look and be like, oh, here comes another black girl with some weave in her hair”. She cut it all off, getting some more positive reactions for what was considered an interesting choice. Her second crazy decision was to focus on acting over most of her other school activities, including that of parties, clubs, and even jobs – quitting all four of her jobs that she had in the previous school years.
She attends Saint Peter’s University, in Jersey City, which is conveniently located just a train ride to the city for auditions. Her degree in Marketing, which she is on track to receive in Spring 2013, acts more lke a back-up plan and has proven helpful in her acting career.
“People hear that [I am a Marketing major] and look at me [confused], but I see it as that, even if acting doesn’t work out, I still have a business degree,” said Renae. “Also, it helps me know how to brand myself as an actress and give the people more of what they want.”
Being Jamaican and a black woman, according to Renae, makes her struggle to the top a little bit different though. As she explains, there are always roles made for that of ‘Becky’ – the typical blonde hair, white girl archetype of a role in films – and, as common in media, there are extremely limited roles for black women.
“You know, it is hard,” explained Renae. They want you to be either, y’know, the prostitute or the druggie or the crackhead. You have to stay consistent and not give in. If you’re the crackhead [just once], you’re always going to be the crackhead… I don’t want to play the crackhead.”
Renae’s family though do not see her heritage as a obstacle for her, as they view it as just another challenge she can overcome. Renae’s father, in particular, believes his daughter to be someone very special, expecting to see her with an Oprah Winfrey-like talk show in the next ten years.
“What I love about Phylecia is that she can be whoever she wants,” added Roy Palmer, Renae’s father in a phone interivew. Renae’s father lives outside of New Jersey. “She’s always wanted to be an actress. She would be two and be acting or be singing to Whitney Houston songs in the mirror.”
Still, Renae is justified in her worries of being under-represented as a black woman trying to make it. According to Loop 21, an entertainment and television news website, only 5% of the total award winners in the 63-year history of the Emmy’s have been black actors. When it comes to an Academy Award, the percentage is even smaller, with only 4% of Academy Award winners since 1929 being black actors, according to USA Today in the February 24th article, “Despite Oscar notice, black actors still hit limits in film”.
“I’ve been told I am too big, I’ve been told I’m too black,” said Renae. “One time, as I walked away [after being told no], I heard the director go, ‘Maybe I should change the role to a white girl. All the girls who keep on coming in are really curvy’. I wanted to just turn around and be like, ‘Excuse me?’”.
Despite some directors’ lack of love for the curvier woman, Renae says she still loves what she does and that every audition just makes her more and more confident in her decision to pursue acting.
“It’s so fun audiitoning,” said Renae. “It’s so worth it – so, so worth it. The rejection is horrible, but the excitement of where these doors can lead me is everything. I’m just so passionate about it and the good of it makes it worth it despite the challenges of it.”
Renae also tries her hardest not to lose sight of her work and her friendships. “My friends ae really supportive for the most part,” added Renae. “However, since I do go on auditions, they’ll see me in class and then see me only again at night. They’ll be like, come on Phylecia, go out with us, have fun. I have to say, ‘No, honey,’ because I’ve been auditions all day and I’m tired.”
Renae wants to start-up a talk-show where she just gives tips and weekly advice to a wide audience. She believes that her classes in Marketing have taught her enough to really create what will become a huge brand in media.
However, Renae is having second-thoughts about making her education the top proriotiy, especially after turning down offers that consistently grow in size and pay.
“Managing school is difficult as, just recently, I got an offer for a show with touring company for a thousand a week,” explained Renae. “It’s like, do I stay with the degree that I’m so close to and can just taste, or do I go follow this chance that’s probably never going to come again?”
However, her passion seems unwavering, as she hopes to film and edit a weekly Youtube show of herself to expand her brand and exposure – while attending school and hoping to graduate on-time. As she says, she hopes that she walks from one side of the stage to grab her dipolma and finishes on another kind of stage, ready to be a successful actress.
“Hollywood needs me, darling,” said Renae with a laugh and her hands going everywhere. “They’re thirsty for me. They need me. I need to make it.”