She’s like the Olivia Pope for women of color! A fixer of sorts, that seeks to shift negative perceptions of Black women in the media and entertainment. This week’s Working Girl, Image Activist Michaela Angela Davis, discusses her passion for being of service to Black women and girls everywhere!
Name: Michaela Angela Davis
Location: Brooklyn, NY (By way of Washington D.C.)
Profession: Image Activist, Writer & BET Networks Brand Editorial Director
How do you define an Image Activist? What does image activism entail?
An image activist is anyone that creates, supports and celebrates positive images of people of color. In my case, I focus on women of color, specifically. An image activist is also anyone in the business of telling stories and putting out narratives whether as a writer, speaker or media personality. As an image activist, it’s my responsibility to tell “our” stories because other people have created a narrative for us that usually paints us in a bad light. There are disproportionate amounts of instances in the media and on TV where women of color are shown in negative or violent situations, so an important part of what I do is expanding positive examples in the media, which is a large part of my role at BET as Editorial Brand Director. I look at it as PR for black women as a collective.
How did you get started?
I started out as a fashion stylist and then became a fashion editor and journalist. My real interest was the intersection of fashion and culture; particularly urban culture, fashion and Black American history and really looking at our history and our history of style. As a result, my fashion editorial work started to become a little more scholarly and even as I was working as a fashion magazine editor, the stories I did had some back story. It wasn’t just about reporting trends; it was also about telling stories and creating images that reflected our culture or a story that was inspired by some moment in history.
Before my career in fashion and publishing, I studied theater. I went to Duke Ellington High School of the Arts which is an amazing institution for nurturing young talent in the arts. We weren’t just nurtured; we were highly trained in our craft. So it wasn’t just all these talented kids that can sing and dance; we were given a lot of theory and we were being trained to be artist professionals. Having had such great training, New York was really the only place to go because that’s where the best were. So I came to New York for school and theater in 1983 (I got out of high school a little bit early).
My aunt was an associate fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She had an amazing career because she was, if not one of, the only independent stylist at the time. She was so fly and so amazing that Richard Avedon, an icon in fashion photography, loved her so much that he wanted her to work with him exclusively on most of his projects. He soon pulled her out of the staff at the magazine and she started working with him independently. Prior to that, independent stylists didn’t really exist in the 70s and 80s– there were fashion editors on staff at magazines and people who worked at ad agencies but now there’s June Ambrose, Ty, Rachel Zoe and many more. Jo Anne Butler Davidian became another freelance stylist prior to me coming to New York in the late 80s. She worked in fashion at a time when there were so few women, so few people of color and the industry was really run by White gay men. They were the storytellers, whether in hair, makeup fashion, photography, so she made it her mission to train more women of color. I became her assistant as did a friend of mine, Johnetta Hamilton Boone who now does all (most) all the costume designs for Tyler Perry’s movies. Also – Debbie Medeiros Baker the costume designer now with the Wendy Williams Show and Mary Tan Hobin a wardrobe designer that ended up doing The Cosby Show all came up through Jo Anne. Another really fierce stylist named Patty Wilson started during that time as well and when she got one door open, she trained an army of women of color. It wasn’t about being cute, it was about excellence. We had to know our designers and we were taught to leave a place better than we found it. I was lucky and got in at the bottom at a very high level because one of my first shoots was with Mr. Avedon.
My interest in fashion soon started to outweigh my interest in theater, but I saw the connection between the two. Many of the fashion editorials were theatrical. We were telling stories, just like you would in theater. So at that point, my path really started to go more towards fashion. Fast-forward to when my career took a real change: it was when I went back to D.C. to be a major stylist whereas in NY I was a high-end assistant. You can be in that position for a long time and do really well, but when I went back to D.C., coming from NY I was able to have a little bit more cache. I met a photographer named Ruven Afanador – who’s a master, so we started working together and came back to NY which is when my life changed in terms of how I looked at fashion and how I was using it. I was at an event in 1991 and Susan Taylor, ESSENCE Magazine’s Editor in Chief at the time, was there. She was magnificently dressed and looked like she didn’t even touch the ground when she walked. I had my daughter with me (she was a baby) and had just gotten my first picture in Vogue. It wasn’t major, it was small but it was Vogue! So I met Susan and she asked me who I was and what I did [for a living] because I probably had on some outrageous outfit [laughs]. I said “I’m a fashion stylist and I just got my first picture into Vogue.” I was all excited and she said, “That’s great, but what are you doing for your people?” I was like errr…what? What she said didn’t leave me. I started thinking, what am I doing? What is my legacy? What type of example am I leaving for my daughter? And that’s where the activism started – and with my fashion work, the goal became to create more images of women of color.
When I first started the activism work, it was really through music videos when I worked as a freelance stylist for a number of recording artists. We were all talking about music videos and asking ourselves ‘what is happening?’ When rapper, Nelly wanted to have a bone marrow drive at Spelman College for his sister, at the time he had just put out his controversial video “Tip Drill” and the young women at Spelman, particularly Moya Bailey, welcomed his request on the condition that he come and have a conversation about his video. Nelly refused and so the girls at Spelman declined his request to support his bone marrow drive, and I thought, wow, that was a great move! At the time I was at ESSENCE Magazine and thought; let’s go support those women at Spelman. They’re already taking a stand and we’re a big media brand, so they decided to hold a big town hall, which ESSENCE hosted, and we started a year-long campaign called “Take Back The Music” – which created a free and safe place for young women to talk about how they were feeling about their images in music videos. That’s when I started calling myself an Image Activist.
What’s an average day like?
My alarm goes off at 7:00am and the hardest thing I ever have to do, is get out of bed. I LOVE to sleep. Sleep is awesome, but once I’m awake, I’m ready for the day! I’m not a cranky “waker-upper.” I’m just hard to get up, but I’m working every day to try to get up a little earlier. That’s my goal. The first thing I do is pray before getting out of bed. I then have a glass of water with lemon juice and take my medication for a thyroid condition I was diagnosed with a couple of years ago. I meditate and then hopefully, I work out – whether it’s [at my apartment] once a week with my trainer or at my local YMCA. I then print out my calendar to see what meetings I have lined up and then I plan what I need to do for that day; who I need to call. I’m definitely a lists person so I make lists to help keep everything straight. I find that I even have to factor in Twitter time otherwise it will take me away and I’ll be gone all day. Then, I may go into BET. My current and biggest project to date has been working with BET for nearly four years in doing their entire re-brand, and it’s been an amazing experience. As Editorial Brand Director I make sure that all creative — whether an on-air ad or a promo that has been developed, is in the brand’s voice. For example, I was central in helping develop the new “We Got You” tagline which is really smart and speaks to the relationship the network has with the Black community. It’s like saying “we got your back.” I’m very committed to Black media and with BET being the largest media entity for Black people around the world, there’s a lot of pride in having the Black community trust you. It took us two years to get those three words – the process was really intense.
Why do you do it?
I love young Black women and it’s an amazing time to be a young Black woman with vision! Anything that’s ever been good about anything I’ve done, whether it was the birth of my daughter or the beginning of my activism, at the end of the day, young women are who I serve. And though I’ve worked with different brands over the years, who I’ve served hasn’t changed. It’s still that girl I’m serving.
Ups and downs you sometimes face on the job:
A lot of people don’t get it [being an Image Activist] which can be frustrating. Also, trying to monetize the idea of image activism outside of getting paid for speaking engagements is quite difficult as well. My biggest challenge; however is staying on mission and staying focused through those times when the phone isn’t ringing. Or staying motivated and staying in love when you’re not at all the fierce parties or when people aren’t re-tweeting you. And then of course, there’s some of the personal stuff – keeping myself loved and taking care of me. The positives to what I do? I get to work with amazing Black women and to be honest, the love and support that I get is so real, so frequent and so honest…I feel it’s a privilege to work in service of Black women and girls. There’s no bigger reward.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
Being a mother to a really, really, really dope 22- year old daughter, Elenni Davis-Knight! She just got out of college and started working at a fashion designer showroom called Pamella Rowland where she handles all their social media at the entry level. She loves PR, branding, marketing and digital media, which is what she went to school for. However, I think at the end of the day, she’s going to work in the Beauty industry. I’m glad she’s looking in that direction, because it’s a recession-proof field and there’s lots of money, not to mention, a lot of women in power.
What might be next for you?
Working with BET to develop a whole women’s vertical which was announced this year at upfronts and will have on-air components, a robust digital life, events and weekly column which for me of course, means more writing. Also my conversation series MAD Free feeds into a lot of the things I do, and focuses on liberating conversations with revolutionary women. If I were younger, I would consider creating and building my own digital experience (website), but it involves doing so much as far as driving traffic and trying to find advertisers. At this point, it makes more sense to build something with BET especially because their digital imprint is insane. They can get up to 5 million unique visitors a day, making them the number one online destination for Black women, which is bigger than The Huffington Post Black Voices, NBC’s TheGrio.com and ESSENCE.com. It’s where Black women are going more than anywhere else, so it’s time to build. I follow where the sisters are, so it’s less about getting the sisters to follow me. I want to reach them!
What are your top 5 hair tips?
- Have a great cut! There’s no shortcut for a great shape.
- Keep your hair moisturized! I do a deep conditioner once a week (I call it putting my hair on bed rest) and love using the new Monoi Repairing Hair Mask, by Carol’s Daughter. I try to have one intense workout while I’m deep conditioning; however I avoid Bikram Yoga because you sweat so much and the product gets all over your face! Instead, I’ll put on a bandana and go do a spin class. It’s like getting a steam treatment and a great way to combine working out and working out my hair!
- I use a non-suds shampoo. If I can help it, I only do a wash once a week, but it depends on my work out schedule. I apply the shampoo on my hair when it’s dry because it helps break down a week’s worth of products. I noticed that if I wet it first, it just activates all the dirt and oils.
- Stretch it out! I use a leave-in conditioner almost daily and for my natural hair, and to get more of an elongated curl, I stretch out my hair while it’s wet and pull it up tight into a ponytail.
- I really love Hair Rules’ Hydrating Finishing Cream. The entire Hair Rules system is my go-to! It’s my foundation, and Anthony Dickey who co-founded the salon, cuts my hair. He keeps my hair happy… you’ve got to have happy hair!
Fun Facts: When she was little, Michaela was obsessed with late country singer, Johnny Cash and still thinks he’s really cool! She also loves exploring anything that interests her and is very interested in metaphysics as it relates to her spiritual practice and sees it as a way of thinking and organizing her spiritual life. She loves Bikram yoga – which she credits for curing her carpel tunnel.