2022 WOMAN OF THE YEAR: THE STARLET WONDER: NAFESSA WILLIAMS
BY: COREY GUEVARRA, EDITOR IN CHIEF
PHOTOGRAPHER: SAMANTHA SPENCE
HAIR: ANNAGJID (KEE) TAYLOR
MAKEUP: JASMINE MADISON
STYLING: ORETTA CORBELLI
Nafessa Williams is already not playing fair! Yes she’s an incredible actress & wildly successful entrepreneur, but to sweeten the deal, she’s a real life, homegrown, PHILLY girl! No, not like touristy, liberty bell & rocky steps Philly girl. I’m talking Overbrook Park, Rita’s WaterIce, TastyKakes & mustard on pretzels Philly girl! With all of that said, this (our very first) 26:NEXT! 'Woman of the Year' cover & conversation conducted by myself, a fellow Philadelphian, made getting to celebrate a hometown hero nothing short of an honor!
Even as a little girl growing up, Nafessa Williams ALWAYS knew! Though watching Phylicia Rashad portray Clair Huxtable initially inspired her into the safety net of following a path in law, after deeper introspection, she realized that she’d actually wanted to be the star ON the screen much more than the character in the courtroom. Stardom called to her in unexplainable ways even then.
As we began our interview, one thing was apparent, Nafessa Williams’ energy is infectious. In her eyes there’s a renewal, excitement & sincerity not [always] easily found in Hollywood. Though she’s already racked up quite the resume, she still has that fresh, effervescent energy, ready & excited, similar to a starlet preparing for their first big feat. If this is who greeted me on a chilly day in December 2022, then the 21 year old who was on track to become a lawyer & who took the chance at an audition after being denied time off, must’ve been a sight to encounter & as we continue to see, a force to be reckoned with! Fresh off her most recent birthday, Nafessa found herself immediately dropped into the media frenzy of her highly anticipated role in the already critically acclaimed Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. Ironically her 2nd time being casted in a life story about the vocal legend, Nafessa describes the coincidence saying “she’s always been my auntie in my head, so to sort of continue being a part of this ‘Whitney universe’ that keeps coming back around, the artist in me & the fan in me are just ecstatic”. This time around Nafessa can be seen portraying Houston’s long time best friend Robyn Crawford as the flick promises a glimpse into the previously unexplored friendship, with accurate details only second to Crawford’s telling New York Times best seller “A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston”.
SO TAKE US BACK TO THOSE PHILLY DAYS, I KNOW YOU WERE SO INSPIRED BY PHYLICIA RASHAD’S CLAIR HUXTABLE CHARACTER THAT YOU WERE ALL SET TO BECOME A LAWYER! PLEASE TELL ME HOW WE WENT FROM NAFESSA WILLIAMS ESQ TO NAFESSA WILLIAMS’ IMBD? :-)
It was always on my radar but I just didn’t have connections of course in the beginning, so it just felt like a hoop dream you know. It seemed so far fetched I’d thought ‘how do I even accomplish that’, so I had my safe plan, go to school, become a lawyer. I was well on my way, I started working at the law firms, but I hated it to be honest. Very quickly I was like ‘this isn’t for me’. ‘This ain’t it’ . I was 21 at the time & I just had to get real with myself. I was like’ Fessa you KNOW what you REALLY wanna do, just go for it’! ‘You’re gonna be green, there will likely be failures, you’ll probably fall on your face a couple times’, -BUT I promised myself, if I make it a priority, I was gonna take it all the way! I’m not into shoudla-coulda-wouldas, I didn’t wanna be 20, 30 years down the line, saying ‘aw man, auntie had it back in the day, she coulda went for it, but she didn’t’! So… I went on an audition, even after the firm I was with told me I couldn’t take off, I went anyway. By the time I got back, I was fired but honestly it was the first day of the rest of my life! – The best thing that EVER happened to me! After that I started taking advantage of the nearby New York scene, began studying up there & the rest became history!
YOU STARTED IN SOAPS CORRECT? A REALLY BIG SOAP IN FACT; ONE LIFE TO LIVE… WHAT WAS THAT FIRST BIG PROCESS LIKE FOR YOU?
Yes!!! That was the first glimmer of hope that let me know that God was with me, it was all the confirmation that I needed to keep going! It was huge, we all grew up watching the soaps. I’d always heard that doing a soap opera was great training for actors because we film an entire script in 1 day vs regular tv shows, it’s 8-10 days on 1 script. So it really was like a crash course, you have to work really fast, you don’t get a lot of takes & it builds up the muscle within you as an artist. Albeit short-lived I’m really grateful for my time on the soaps (Nafessa also appeared briefly on The Bold & The Beautiful). Once ‘One Life to Live’ was cancelled I moved to LA & suddenly it was like starting all over again. In New York, I’d began to make a name for myself, so LA was new terrain for sure. But I honestly didn’t mind, I knew that I wanted to play in the big leagues, I wanted to make movies & that was the town to do it!
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO GO FROM THE LAW FIRM FIRING TO YOUR FIRST BIG BOOKING?
Honestly it didn’t take long at all. In a matter of about a year & a half, I booked ‘One Life To Live’ & it was like “Ok God!” …like if I can book that, I can book another, all I ever need is for 1 casting director to say yes. It literally only takes that 1 YES. So I kept going, kept working &…God met me!
FROM THERE YOU JUST KEPT BUILDING YOUR INCREDIBLE RESUME. FAST FORWARD SOME YEARS & THEN BOOM ‘BLACK LIGHTNING’! YOUR CHARACTER & HER IDENTITY WERE SO PIVOTAL, LIKE LITERALLY HISTORY MAKING. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT ANISSA THE 1ST TIME YOU READ FOR HER & WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO TELL HER STORY?
Wow, so Black Lightning changed my life! -I was just really grateful that God chose me to give a voice to Thunder. I know what it’s like being underrepresented as a black woman in the industry, in fact we know all too well what that’s like in America. So when you add another layer of being a black lesbian or black queer woman, I was really just honored to jump on as an ally & give a voice to that identity because we all want to be, we all deserve to be represented! -And personally, even now when I hear “the first black lesbian superhero”, I still can’t fully wrap my brain around the magnitude of it! I’m just grateful. Because of Black Lightning & because of Thunder, now we’re seeing even more queer superheroes & I’m so humbled that I was chosen to give a voice over to that light, it was & will forever be very important. Not only was Thunder queer, she was an activist, she stood up for what was right at a time where we continue to NEED more of that in our societies. I felt like we (the show) were adding to that conversation, doing our tiny part, I felt like I was walking in SO much purpose as Anissa!
OK SO BACKING UP JUST A HAIR, IN 2015 YOU WERE IN THE MOVIE “WHITNEY” & NOW… WE’RE GETTING READY TO SEE YOU TAKE FLIGHT IN “I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY” HOW DID IT FEEL GETTING TO SOMEWHAT LIBERATE THIS FRIENDSHIP’S STORYLINE BETWEEN WHITNEY & ROBYN &….WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THIS SORT OF UNDENIABLE WHITNEY THREAD THAT’S CONTINUING TO SHOW UP IN YOUR LIFE?
I’m honestly just like, ‘wow auntie’, like she’s my auntie for real! LOL. The artist in me & the fan in me are just excited to be able to give voice over to Robyn, especially because she was SO important to Whitney’s life. I honestly believe that they were soulmates, they just couldn’t live out loud together back then you know? I wanted people to see the loyalty & the adoration & the love that they actually shared for one another! It’s a huge part of her story & I think it’s time for it to be told. I think that Robyn ALWAYS had the purest intentions for Whitney, she was very protective of her & I appreciated that because so many people who were around weren’t there with those good intentions. Robyn however truly, sincerely had her back & it’s just really time for that truth to be told. It honestly makes me sad when I think about the fact they couldn’t be who they were back then, so this movie, this story, it feels redemptive that way to me & I can’t wait for everyone to see it!
I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU’D BE INTERESTED IN ONE DAY TAKING YOUR COMEDIC CHOPS TO SNL? WE’VE PRIMARILY SEEN YOU IN MORE DRAMATIC ROLES SO FAR… PLEASE TELL US ABOUT THIS SECRET COMEDIC PERSONALITY OF YOURS LOL…WHAT IS YOUR HUMOR LIKE NAFESSA?
Ha! Im kinda crazy lol… I just like to have fun, I love to make people laugh! I love doing impersonations & because I’ve done so much dramatic work in my career, I’d love to one day switch gears & do more comedic work that I also feel I have living within me! So yes, I wanna do SNL, at least like twice in my life! I’m okay with not being a full time cast member, but I definitely want to host at least twice!! So this is me putting that out into the universe! -Please remember that I said this today!!! :)
ANY COMEDIC ICONS IN PARTICULAR?
YES! Tichina Arnold & Tisha Campbell are my comedic heroes, like I wanna do that kind of funny! I love how they always went there you know, they made the ugly faces, they didn’t care about looking a certain way, they were just always committed to delivering the funny with their whole entire body. I love Martin [Lawrence] he’s my favorite, that was my favorite TV show! In stand up, I love Mike Epps, the list can go on & on. But Tichina & Tisha have always been my first memory of truly aspiration, leading funny women, funny black women!
WHO IS YOUR [PERSONAL] BIGGEST INSPIRATION NAFESSA?
My biggest inspiration in my life, I’d have to say is my mom. One thing my mom taught me that I carry with me is my spirituality. Because of that foundation, I’ve always felt like I could have or do or become anything. –She introduced me to my relationship with God… People always ask how I did this, how I manifested this life & honestly that’s my answer; my relationship with God that my mom instilled in me very early on. -It can be a tough industry, you hear ‘no’ way more than you hear ‘yes’ so, I’m just grateful for my faith, it keeps me going. That’s also one thing that I found very inspiring about Whitney. Growing up I would hear her speak very boldly about her love for God & her spirituality. I remembered thinking when I get there, that it’s gonna be equally as important to me to be transparent & let the world know that it was God who brought me here!
" MY ABSOLUTE DREAM ROLES THAT I’D LOVE TO PLAY ARE BEYONCÉ + OR DIANA ROSS! "
OK SO NOT ONLY AN INCREDIBLE ACTRESS, WRITER, PRODUCER, BUT ALSO A FASHION ENTREPRENEUR!!! TELL ME ABOUT Y-FEAR & WHAT SPARKED IT’S CREATION:
You know, I love fashion & I aways knew that I wanted to have my own line one day. I just wanted it to also have a larger purpose beyond or in addition to aesthetics. Everyone is making clothes for us to look fly, but no one is thinking about our mental wellness & how the 2 can connect. So Y-Fear was created for us to also THINK fly as well! To have the reminder that our fears & egos are not real & are just ideas we create in our minds. -Therapy is a huge part of my life & often in the black community we’re not really taught to embrace therapy as a way to heal & as a helpful tool to navigate through life. So my mission with Y-FEAR is heavily centered around sparking or being a part of that mental health wellness awareness conversation through fashion, through aesthetic. The brand is purpose driven, so people hopefully come for the fashion, but they stay or at least get led to the greater conversation of mental health & wellness.
WHO OR WHAT IS YOUR DREAM ROLE NAFESSA?
-Ok so…. I WANNA PLAY BEYONCÉ!! …Now I’m not the biggest vocalist, but I KNOW I could do it! My absolute dream roles that I’d like to play are Beyoncé AND/or Diana Ross!
WHEN YOU’RE NOT ACTING OR BEING A MOGUL, WHAT CAN WE FIND YOU DOING IN THE NAME OF EASE & SELF CARE NAFESSA?
Traveling. Being by a beach! I love to travel, I went to Turks & Caicos for my birthday this month & I’m going to St. Barts for the holidays. I feel really at peace when I’m near the ocean. I love to just meditate & journal & pray by the water, I feel super close to God when I’m around bodies of water. Beyond that, I’m okay with just laying on the couch & watching tv. I’m THAT girl, give me some cozy pajamas, some food, a great movie or show & I’m good!
-Oh & massages as well, they’re another huge part of my self-care regimen! My therapist said to me one day ‘just as hard as you work, your level of self-care should match that’. So I’m paying that sentiment forward to anyone out there reading this. Basically work hard, but ‘self-care’ just as hard as well!
ANY MANTRAS OR WORDS YOU LIVE BY NAFESSA?
“It’s already written” –Everything I desire, Anything that shows up for me as something I want to go after, I feel like God wouldn’t give me the vision, if it wasn’t meant to be manifested. This sentiment also works both ways for me, it also helps me get through the tougher times in the industry. My perspective on things that didn’t work out is that it’s okay, what’s meant for me, all my future roles & future yeses have already been written! –In fact I have a new Y-Fear journal coming out called the “It’s Already Written” journal! -Journaling & our abilities to be intentional with our perspectives are endlessly important.
"I’M REALLY PROUD THAT I CHOSE TO BE BRAVE + TRUE TO MYSELF + GO AFTER THE LIFE I GENUINELY WANTED TO LIVE!"
WHAT DO YOU THINK OR BELIEVE HAS BEEN YOUR OWN PERSONAL BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT SO FAR?
Going after my dreams! Going for what I truly want in this life. I’m grateful that I won’t ever have to look back on my life with regret, filled with all of the things that I didn’t do or were too scared to do. I really meant it when I said getting fired was the fist day of the rest of my life. I’m really proud that I didn’t settle for society’s norms & I didn’t just take what was handed to me. I made the different, maybe even stronger & definitely life altering decision to hand it right back & go get the unspoken! I’m really proud that I chose to be brave & true to myself & go after the life I genuinely wanted to live. I believe THAT is my biggest personal accomplishment.
WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO BE SAY 26 YEARS FROM NOW?
Wow. Ha!… 26 years from now, I would like to have a family of my own, hopefully my kids are giving me some grandkids somewhere around that time. I wanna be traveling the world as much as possible, I still wanna be in the industry though, I love acting & I wanna do it until I literally can’t anymore.. But I wanna be living a life of ease, more than anything for sure!
FINALLY OUR STAPLE QUESTION, TO ME THE MOST FASCINATING AS THE ANSWERS HAVE BEEN EVERYTHING FROM AN ITEM TO A STATE OF BEING….WHAT’S YOUR DEFINITION OF LUXURY NAFESSA?
My definition of luxury is a life of ease, my definition of luxury is peace! If we’re talking tangible things however, I gotta add-on luxurious vacations! There aren’t a lot of things I spend frivolously on, but travel & harnessing the best possible experiences of somewhere new, I will happily pay to have it be the MOST luxurious memories & experiences possible.
–Also can I add in food? I recently did a cleanse & diet shift & the correlation to eating clean, fresh, unprocessed foods & experiencing elevation in spirituality & connection with God are undeniable. So ease, 6 star travel & eating the best, healthiest foods that enhance overall well-being are my definitions of total luxury!