While my life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets, I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, coexist. And for me, they must.
I’m consistently asked how I keep a foot in two contrasting worlds – one in the entertainment industry, predicated on wealth and indulgence, and the other in humanitarian work. To me, it’s less of a question of how can you do this, and more a question of how can you not? Below I share my candid thoughts on this very topic…
“I don’t know, Flower. You were just born that way.” This is my mom’s response to the aforementioned question, and indicative of the character traits she knows me to have so well: opinionated, driven, and with a deep desire to affect change. “It’s just who you are,” she says. (And yes, she calls me, “Flower.”) I’m sitting in my trailer with her in Toronto where we film “Suits,” now in its sixth season. This in and of itself is a novelty – the idea of my mom sitting in my trailer, on a show in which I am a series regular, and that’s lasted more than half a decade. It’s surreal. We never would have dreamt that this would be my reality, our reality, as my mom eats the special order of scrambled eggs the production assistant just brought her from the catering truck. This is not where we come from. Yes, my hometown is Hollywood, California, but what you think of as The City of Angels, and what I know to be home, are two very different things.
So let’s begin there.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, a California girl who lives by the ethos that most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach, or a few avocados. I’m being cheeky, clearly, but it speaks to the temperament I grew up around. With a free-spirited clinical therapist for a mom, and the most hardworking father you can imagine (a television lighting director by trade), I always had a foot in two worlds, because their work and home environments were so vastly different. With my mom, we spent time traveling to remote places – taking trips to Oaxaca, Mexico where I saw children play in the dirt roads, peddling chiclets for a few extra pesos to bring home. My mother raised me to be a global citizen, with eyes open to sometimes harsh realities. I must have been about ten years old when we visited the slums of Jamaica. I had never seen poverty at that level and it registered in my glazed brown eyes. “Don’t look scared, Flower,” she said. “Be aware, but don’t be afraid.”
My father was the lighting director on two television shows as I was growing up. And there I was, behind the scenes of a glossy soap opera and a TV sitcom, surrounded by famous actors and their glam teams, multi-million dollar budgets, and crew lunches that always included filet mignon and enough sweets to make you think you were at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. What I didn’t know then was that just twenty years later I would appeal to the executives on my show to ensure that our extra filet mignon and sweets aplenty were no longer thrown away, but rather donated to a soup kitchen I had been volunteering at since my arrival in Toronto. Or that they would say, “Yes.”
Despite the contrast of my two worlds growing up, there was a powerful commonality: both my parents came from little, so they made a choice to give a lot – buying turkeys for homeless shelters at Thanksgiving, delivering meals to patients in hospice care, donating any spare change in their pocket to those asking for it, and performing quiet acts of grace – be it a hug, a smile, or a pat on the back to show ones in need that they would be alright. This is what I grew up seeing, so that is what I grew up being: a young adult with a social consciousness to do what I could, and to, at the very least, speak up when I knew something was wrong.
I was just eleven years old when I was in my classroom at Hollywood Little Red Schoolhouse and a commercial came on for a popular dish washing liquid. The tagline of the campaign said, “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” The boys in my classroom yelled out, “Yeah, that’s where women belong. In the kitchen.” My little freckled face became red with anger. I went home and wrote letters to powerhouse feminist attorney, Gloria Allred; to a host of a kids news program; to the soup manufacturer; and to Hilary Clinton (who was our First Lady at the time). With the exception of the soap manufacturer, they all pledged support – and within a few months, the commercial was changed to, “People all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.”
I spoke about this in a speech I gave for International Women’s Day with UN Women just two years ago. It is a testament to the fighting spirit I had as a young girl, and the responsibility I now feel as a grown woman; and even more so as an actress. The moment Suits became successful and I realized people (especially young women) were listening to what I had to say, I knew I needed to be saying something of value. This is also, in part, why I started this website, The Tig. I knew that girls were checking the site to see fashion tips or how to get a stellar blow dry, but in reframing the beauty content to include think pieces about self-empowerment, or feature dynamic women such as Fatima Bhutto, I was hoping to integrate social consciousness and subjects of higher value than, let’s say…selfies. A subtle means to pepper in what really matters.
And don’t get me wrong – the entertainment industry matters: it gives people an escape, a catalyst to laugh, to reflect, and to balance the realities of life. Plus, my gig as a working actor is the hand that feeds me. Without that hand, I could never be the hand that feeds another at this level. Were it not for my show and website, I would never have been asked to be a global ambassador for World Vision or an advocate for UN Women, both of which are honors I relish. And it makes sense that I see it that way, because while most become star struck by A-list actors, you’ll only see me gobsmacked with delight in the face of leaders affecting change. Put me in a room with Madeleine Albright or former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and for once in my life, you’ll find this girl with the gift of gab, unequivocally without words.
It was just last year that I was in the van heading back from Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. I was in the country as an advocate for UN Women; I had a week of meetings with female parliamentarians in Kigali, celebrating the fact that 64 percent of their government are women – the highest in the world. I was also spending time speaking with grassroots level female leadership at the refugee camp a few hours outside of the capital city. Driving back on the dusty roads that day, now back on the grid of tech and Hollywood, I received an email from my managers with a request for me to attend the BAFTAs. I had never been and had always romanticized the idea of it – and per the email, a high end jewelry company was going to fly me in, get me dolled up in the fanciest of gowns, and I would travel straight from Kigali to Heathrow, to the makeup chair, and immediately onto the red carpet.
My brain, heart, spirit couldn’t shift gears that quickly – from the purpose-driven work I had been doing all week in Rwanda, to the glitz and glamour of an award show – plus the pomp and circumstance that comes with it. “No,” my heart said. And it wasn’t a soft whisper to myself; it was a lion’s roar. Because I looked out the window, seeing a world of verdant beauty that had been riddled with genocide and unrest only 22 years prior, but having recovered with a decisive choice to be better, to overcome. The children’s magnetic smiles, the rolling fields, the goats and thump-thump of the ground as we drove..my decision was clear. My gut said, “No.” While my two worlds can coexist, I’ve learned that for me, being able to keep a foot in both is a delicate balance – because while they are not mutually exclusive, guiding my heart though the swinging pendulum from excess to lack of access is sometimes challenging.
When I gave the speech for International Women’s Day, and UN Secretary General Bahn-Ki Moon led the standing ovation, I thought, “This right here, this is the point.” To use whatever status I have managed to garner as an actress, and maximize my opportunity for impact with the moments of value that resonate far greater than an audition ever could. I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works. And this type of work is what feeds my soul, and fuels my purpose. The degree to which I can do that both on and off camera is a direct perk of my job.
But here’s the other thing that I think is often misconstrued: the assumption is that by doing humanitarian work, that there is some sort of savior mentality, when the truth is that the connections you make on these trips have so much reciprocity – if there is an imbalance, it is most certainly the other way around. I returned to Rwanda earlier this year as Global Ambassador for World Vision, and while I was there, met a young girl named Claire whom I immediately felt drawn to. She was on the third hour of her walk to bring her father medicine – a task that for most of us would be a quick Uber to the pharmacy. These small moments of perspective anchor me to what’s important. And in my industry that is often riddled with superfluous demands, my barometer of what’s valuable is validated on these trips. Not to mention, when I share my photos with my friends, they note that undoubtedly I never look happier than I do when I am on field missions. It’s a different smile than the one for the paparazzi – it’s the one that doesn’t require any retouching.
With fame comes opportunity, but in my opinion, it also includes responsibility – to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings, and if I’m lucky enough – then to inspire. A truly impactful moment for me was when a teenage girl, Emily, who follows me on social media, shared a letter saying my aid work inspired her to do a humanitarian trip to Costa Rica; she happens to be on the trip as I write this piece, and I check her Twitter updates grinning widely – seeing myself in her, and remembering my days volunteering on LA’s impoverished Skid Row when I was her age. I see what Emily is doing and I think, “YES.” Whatever I’ve said and shared has landed somewhere, and this incredible young woman has decided to #bethechange she wishes to see in the world. Whatever small part I had to do with that is the most affirming and humbling part of my life.
So be it an Instagram post that tags #adoptdontshop with a photo of my rescue pups, a speech advocating for women’s rights, a trip to a refugee camp in Rwanda, or traveling to Afghanistan to support our troops overseas, these are facets of my life that I share with as much gusto as I do behind the scenes photos with my cast; perhaps more so. And while my life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets, I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, coexist. And for me, they must. My eleven year old self would be proud, because while I may not have realized it at the time, I, in fact, have always had a foot in the world of entertainment as well as the world of public service; my life now is simply a more heightened version of the very reality in which I grew up. And, truth be told, it’s the most beautiful gift I never knew I always had.
*A condensed version of this story can be found in the November 2016 issue of Elle UK, as revised and edited by the Elle UK team.*
**Photo Credit: Gabor Jurina**