Don’t let the Awkward Black Girl persona fool you: Issa Rae oozes confidence. A confidence that makes itself apparent in her ability to walk the Emmys’ red carpet and say, “I’m rooting for everyone black.
” Or to share the big screen with and work for a 14-year-old executive producer (Marsai Martin) in her latest project, Little. Or to sit down with a complete stranger after an hours-long photo shoot and have the sort of conversation usually reserved for close friends.
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“It’s kind of shady that y’all did this [shoot] now, because I’m in an eating phase,” Issa says with a laugh. Her HBO brainchild, Insecure, isn’t filming at the moment, she explains, and those toned Michelle Obama arms she sports on-screen aren’t necessarily a year-round thing.
” After watching her Louisiana-born mother learn to cook various recipes inspired by her Senegalese father, Issa realized there was no reason she couldn’t do the same.
That determination and willingness to simply try new things only adds to the confidence she radiates.
She has every reason to come off that way: Insecure—which will soon begin production on its fourth season—is Issa’s baby. She executive-produces, writes, and stars on the HBO series and has an Emmy nomination to her name because of it.
In 2015 she published The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a delightfully honest memoir that, much like her breakout YouTube Web series of the same name, displays a relatability that has been crucial to her comedic writing fame.
“I was gaining New Money Weight.” As Issa saw it, the seemingly unlimited access to good food was one of the perks of her hustle.
“When you get a good job, you’re like, ‘I can afford to eat at restaurants all the time!’ That adds up in weight.”
It wasn’t long before that New Money Weight started to mess with her self-esteem—so much so that she was motivated to make some changes. Not under doctor’s orders, or because she was trying to hit some magical BMI, but for herself.
Like for so many of us, the desire to exercise every day doesn’t come naturally to the 34-year-old L.
A. native, and she freely admits it.
“I was a big excuse person when it came to exercising and eating right. I’d have spurts of trying to work out and being good.
Then once I fell off, I’d be like, ‘Well, there’s always next year. Let me make it my New Year’s resolution.
’ But even then, I would still be eating wrong while exercising vigorously.” (Issa is more “paleo-leaning” in her eating habits now, having rediscovered bacon after being a vegetarian for 15 years.
Lacking the time to work out while shooting Insecure definitely didn’t help her consistency, but what did was finding the exercise regimen that worked for her. When she’s intent on getting that work in, her alarm is set for 4:55 a.
m., and instead of heading to her local gym, she takes to the streets.
“Let me not put extras on it,” she says, lest I think she’s about to detail some sort of extreme CrossFit-inspired routine worthy of a superhero flick. “I exercise for, like, an hour each day.
Besides, she explains, even if she’s not loving the physicality of it all, those hours are essential for her mental well-being—something she only discovered via a happy accident.
“You know those earbuds that you put in your ears? I was running, and one fell. It was dark outside and I couldn’t find it.
So I was forced to just be alone with my thoughts, and I was like, ‘Oh, I need to do this more often.’ Those moments are the most creative.
I think finding those moments while also nurturing your body is important.”
Casually, Issa mentions that she gets check-in calls from Debbie Allen and Ava DuVernay. “We, as black women, don’t take care of ourselves enough,” Issa recalls the Selma director telling her after she tried to laugh off a mysterious out-of-the-blue allergic reaction that left her face completely swollen.
Issa wasn’t planning on going to the doctor unless it happened again.
DuVernay’s incredulous response of “Sis, if it happens again?! Are you kidding me?” was the kick she needed.
That encouragement to make the time for herself and get to the doc was a crucial reminder.
Luckily, Issa was fine, and once the swelling went down (and she could see a computer screen again), it was back to work on the myriad of projects she has lined up for 2019. Up first: The Dolls, a limited-run series on HBO about the 1983 riots in small-town Arkansas that erupted over Cabbage Patch Kid dolls.
In addition to writing the series (along with her Insecure collaborators, Amy Aniobi and Laura Kittrell), she’ll star with fellow HBO vet Laura Dern, who picked her out for the project when they were sitting together at the 2018 Golden Globes.
The movie-musical, announced in late 2018, finds Issa teaming up with her producing partner Deniese Davis and Aniobi. Though Issa isn’t a huge fan of musicals (“I only like West Side Story and The Lion King”), hearing Davis’s pitch centered on people of color sealed the deal for her.
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All., she’ll rely on one major tenet of her work ethic dating back to her YouTube days.
“Find a good team. Find a good team.
” Issa repeats the words like a mantra. “It matters.
…It’s enabled me to not lose my mind.”
As a boss, she’s made sure to cultivate an environment in which her writing staff feel heard and consider themselves collaborators. With her team in place and her approach to wellness ever evolving, Issa’s future is looking bold, daring…and of course, secure.
Styled by Jason Rembert • Photograph by Ben Watts