Emmy Winner Lena Waithe on Coming Out, Racism in Hollywood, and Her Plan to Write a Black Lesbian Into Prime Time
Lena Waithe made history Sunday as the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series. Next, she wants to make gay TV history.
Two days after her much-acclaimed Emmys speech, which came seconds after accepting a history-making award, Lena Waithe is still happily reeling.
“Oh man, it still feels like a dream come true,” Waithe, the first African-American woman to win the Emmy for writing a TV comedy series, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a phenomenal feeling. My home has a lot of flowers. There is a lot of love being sent in. On social media I’m seeing bits and pieces. I really feel the love. I feel such gratitude for everyone that was rooting for me. It means the world to me, it really does.”
Waithe won the Emmy, with co-writer Aziz Ansari, for a Season 2 episode of Master of None, following friends Denise (Waithe) and Dev (Ansari) through a series of Thanksgivings, spanning 30 years and Denise’s coming-out process to Dev (who is more interested in getting high) and her mother, played by Angela Bassett. It is both very funny and beautifully observed.
Dressed in a brilliant black and gold-patterned tuxedo, Waithe, 33, delivered a speech thanking her mother for inspiring her; her girlfriend Alana Mayo (“I love you more than life itself”); and her “LGBTQIA family,” as she described it. “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door put on your imaginary cape, and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
As for LGBTQIA representation on the small screen, “we do still have a way to go,” Waithe told The Daily Beast. “I want to create a show where a black gay woman is the lead, where she is the protagonist, she is the person whom we are following. That is still yet to be done. I have faith. I hope we can make it happen, we still don’t have that. We don’t have a show where a queer brown male person is the lead.
“I think Doubt with Laverne Cox was a huge leap forward. Unfortunately, it was short-lived but it was still a notch on our belt. I think we need more of that. The world is ready. They are. Let my episode (of Master of None) be an example. They’re ready for it.
“Now it’s about me doing the work, doing the heavy lifting and making sure that there’s something a network can get behind, and then hopefully other people can follow suit. We need more of that, more than we can ever know.”
So, is she writing such a drama, featuring a black lesbian protagonist for prime time, this reporter asked.
“Yes, I’m writing something. Yep, yep, yep, I’m working on it,” Waithe said laughing. “I’m working on it, I’m working on it.”
She declined to divulge anything about the character, plot, and setting.
“All that stuff I can’t say. I’ll just say things are looking good and people should stay tuned.”
“For the most part I’ve had a really great experience in Hollywood,” Waithe told The Daily Beast. “But I’ve definitely learned when you’re not a white guy here you’ve got to really play chess. You’ve got to navigate it to do certain things. The business was a boys’ club for a long time. Now a lot of ladies are breaking down doors and making moves. There’s a power shift, a paradigm shift, happening. We’re in a transitional phase, like when you come out there’s that ‘uncomfortablity.’
“For a few years we, black people, are in that space of ‘uncomfortability’ in Hollywood. That means we’ve got to really carry ourselves with poise and grace, so that way others can come through. Once the paradigm shifts completely, you won’t need that as much. But I still think we’ve got to be our Barack Obama. That’s totally fine. That’s part of it. That comes with the territory, and I’m honored to carry the torch.”
The Emmys this year were cited as an example of diversity.
“It definitely shifted a lot of inches Sunday night for sure,” said Waithe. “But we still have to keep pushing it. We have to make it our responsibility to make sure writers of color are not only in the room but being heard; that they have a real voice, not being rewritten left and right, not being used as publicity tool, and not being exploited.
“It is their voice, it is their work and they must have the freedom to tell their stories in the ways they want to tell them.
“When you really let voices shine, that’s when magic happens. I’m an example of that. Donald [Glover, Atlanta] is an example of that. Issa Rae [Insecure] too. Michaela [Coel] of Chewing Gum. Barry [Jenkins] and Tarell [Alvin McCraney, of Moonlight], Lin-Manuel [Miranda, of Hamilton]. When people like that want to create, you have to get out of the way.”
‘I Wanted to Celebrate the Beauty in Our Community’
After Waithe left the Emmys stage on Sunday night, she got a high-five from Hamilton star Christopher Jackson—who sang the background to the ‘In Memoriam’ segment; fellow winners Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies) and Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) congratulated her; then she danced the night away at the Netflix party with the young cast of Stranger Things: “I picked Millie [Bobby Brown] up and swung her around. I love those kids. It was a phenomenal night.”
It’s rare to hear the extended LGBTQIA acronym in a high-profile awards speech, this reporter said.
“The ‘I’ and the ‘A’ are sometimes left out,” Waithe said. “People have said to me they didn’t know what they mean, and I’m happy to answer them”: intersex and asexual. Those folks are part of our community. I wanted to include them in that moment. We are all ‘othered,’ we are all looked at as different. I wanted to celebrate the beauty in our community and the camaraderie among all of us. And I didn’t want to leave them out.”
Waithe called herself a “queer black girl” in her speech, so this reporter asked if she had a preferred way of defining herself. “‘Queer’ and ‘lesbian’ work,” said Waithe. “I go back and forth between the two. I really am a proud lesbian. I’ve always been a lesbian from day one. I’m a gold star. I’m definitely a ‘proud black lesbian.’ I wouldn’t mind using that.”
On both red carpet and stage Waithe looked gorgeous in her tuxedo. It was made by Jhoanna Alba of ALBA Legacy. “I could not have asked for a better tux,” said Waithe. “That will hang in back of my closet till the end of time and I loved it. I felt like the queen of the night.”
Ansari had asked Waithe to make the speech if they won. “In terms of the queer community, particularly brown people, I shared that award with all of them,” said Waithe. And while she made history herself, she adamantly added that she was “not the first black woman who wrote something funny,” namechecking Susan Fales Hill, Yvette Lee Bowser, Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince-Bythewood (whom Waithe once worked for), Regina Y. Hicks, and Karin Gist.
“The list goes on and I want to share this with them,” said Waithe. “All the work they have been doing led my path to that stage, and I also share it with other women of color in TV writing rooms and women of color who will eventually be in those rooms.”
As for coming out to a TV audience of millions, Waithe said: “Look, coming out is very difficult. It is not something I ever thought I would do a second time, but I’ve got to say that the second time around is much easier than the first because I survived it.”
In the ‘Thanksgiving’ episode of Master of None, “It was really nice to be able to tell the story from my point of view. I have a lot more perspective and a lot more courage now, a lot more confidence in my skin now. It’s not to how-to guide. I hope it inspires people who have come out. I hope it encourages people who are afraid, to give them courage to come out.
“I think it takes courage on both sides. It was just as scary for my mom as it was for me. We’ve gone on a long journey, and I’m really proud of where we are on our journey now. I hope we can be of hope to some people. With time and patience and some learning and growing, you really can get through to good place.”
Waithe’s mother, Laverne Hall, texted her the night of the awards to tell Waithe how happy and proud she was of her. “I’m proud of the journey we’ve been on,” said Waithe. “We both wear the scars of the trials and tribulations proudly, and we’re really happy that we can be a poster mother-daughter for that time in people’s lives.”
‘I Loved Television, Mimicking It, Watching It’
Waithe grew up with her mother and sister, Lauren, on the South Side of Chicago, from the age of 2 to 12 in her grandmother Tressie’s home. (Her grandmother died before Waithe could tell her that she was gay, but Waithe thinks she probably knew.)
“It was working class,” said Waithe of where she grew up, “’hood adjacent’ but not in it. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I never wanted for anything. I was a very energetic kid, definitely a ham. I never had aspirations to be an actor, but if someone knew me as a kid they’d tell you, ‘Yeah, the world is her stage.’ I was hyper, definitely exhausting. I loved television, mimicking it, watching it. You’d always find me in front of it, absorbing, studying. I’m glad now to be part of it.”
Growing up, Waithe’s favorite shows were A Different World (“it really spoke to young people—going to college, being smart, being fly”), The Cosby Show, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, alongside more “old-school” offerings, as she describes it, like Mary Tyler Moore, who is a hero of Waithe’s, Maude, Full House, The Golden Girls—and the “guilty pleasure” of Saved by the Bell. “We watched everything, man. My sister and I watched so much television: It influenced me in a big way.”
In Waithe’s predominantly black district of Chicago, her aunt Diane Hall lived nearby, her grandmothers’ neighbors popped by to play cards, and there was a Neighborhood Watch scheme. “It was a great way to grow up. I was definitely raised by a village. I cherish those people who raised me.”
She didn’t miss having her father present. “That's because my parents divorced when I was 2. I hadn’t had it, so I couldn’t miss what I wasn’t aware of. It felt really normal for me. A big reason that I’m proud to be a black woman and admirer is because I was raised by them. I think black women are magic. I honor and cherish them so much, I really do.”
The culture shock for her mother when Waithe came out wasn’t just because she was a lesbian, but because she had “leaned in to my masculine side” ever since she was little.
Back then it was tricky for her mother to have a “tomboy” daughter, today because she “wears a tux to the Emmys and plays with gender roles. It’s new, it’s about educating them in a way they understand.”
For Waithe’s family, “as a black person I already have a target on back,” and being gay added another target, “but I can’t deny who I am and I have to be myself unapologetically, and that does create a bit of a clash. But the more proud I am of who I am, the more my family will have no choice but to embrace it because I embrace it myself.”
Growing up, Waithe asserted her identity with confidence. She never felt comfortable in traditional girls’ clothes. The strange thing about coming out was she had never not been herself.
“But my mother thought, ‘OK, Lena dresses that way. She’ll date a guy eventually.’ I needed to pipe up, really assert myself, say, ‘I’m gay woman and this is how I dress and this is who I am.’ That pushed me to be a proud gay black woman because I had to be proud for my family. That was a journey for me, but it really made me stronger and made me own everything about myself.”
Waithe came out to her mother in a Los Angeles diner in her early twenties. “I’ll never forget it,” Waithe said. “It was not fun. She cried. It was very dramatic. The last thing you want to make your mom do is cry. It’s the worst. I didn’t cry. I stayed really strong. Things were weird for a while, there was a lot of push and pull. Peace and resolution took a few years, for sure.”
Alana is the only girlfriend Waithe has bought home for Thanksgiving dinner, although in the Master of None episode there’s a mini-succession, including both the woman who becomes Denise’s present-day partner as well as an alarming woman based on a real-life ex-girlfriend, called “Nipples and Toes.” Ansari wanted to use the real person’s identity on screen, Waithe said, laughing. “I told him no. I told him I didn’t want to get sued, and I didn’t want him to get sued.”
‘She’s My Partner, My Life Partner, My Better Half, She’s Everything’
Waithe’s ambition was always to be a television writer, and eventually have her own show, which she will have next year when her drama, The Chi, premieres on Showtime.
“The ‘Chi’ (pronounced “shy”) is the nickname for Chicago, the city we’re from,” said Waithe. “The drama will focus on the young black people living on the South Side. I’m extremely excited to see ‘the first show on TV created by Lena Waithe.’ I’m really eager for people to see it. I hope they dig it.”
Her off-camera ascendancy began with an assistant job on the TV series Girlfriends. She worked with Ava DuVernay on the film I Will Follow, and Justin Simien, creator of the movie Dear White People.
As seen in Master of None, Waithe has built an acting career alongside her producing and writing career (beginning with a role in Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback).
Next year Waithe will appear in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—“the king,” she calls Spielberg. Waithe has written another film she would like to film next year, and would like to create something for Kym Whitley, who played her aunt—scene-stealingly—in the ‘Thanksgiving’ episode of Master of None. “She’s an unsung artist in this town,” said Waithe.
Waithe is also hugely admiring of her partner Mayo, a former executive at Paramount and Vimeo (full disclosure, owned by IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company), now looking for her next professional berth. “She’s a big champion of interesting writers with unique stories to tell,” said Waithe. “She’s one of the soldiers on the front line making sure writers like myself not only have a voice, but that folks get out of the way to let writers’ voices soar.
Waithe and Mayo are not married, “but hopefully soon,” said Waithe. “She’s my partner, my life partner, my better half, she’s everything. ‘Wife’ would only be the tip of the iceberg. She’s phenomenal. She’s my lady.” Do they want children? “We definitely want to have kids, though not for a few more years.”
There is one more mystery. In the Master of None episode, Denise gazes up when high on marijuana upon a Friends-era Jennifer Aniston poster on her bedroom wall. Does Waithe still have a poster of Aniston on her wall?
Waithe laughed heartily. “You know what? I used to have a fly one in my old apartment, but when Alana moved in it got the boot. It somehow got lost in the move. I’ll always have love for Jennifer. I think she’s fly as hell, she’s super-dope.”
Waithe met Aniston briefly at the Critics’ Choice Awards after the first season of Master of None. “She could not have been more lovely, more kind, and beautiful but no, now I’ve got no pictures of Jennifer Aniston anywhere. She’s always in my heart though.”
And who knows, maybe Aniston might end up as one of the love interests of a certain black lesbian lead character on a certain prime-time drama at some point in the future.