With a résumé that boasts a starring role as Taystee in Orange Is The New Black, the upcoming Angry Birds feature film, and her Broadway debut as Sofia in The Color Purple, this Juilliard grad is using her well-deserved spotlight to put to rest some highly outdated industry stereotypes. As Danielle puts it, “It’s really cool to feel like the woman I always wished to see on television.” You started off at Juilliard, a pretty traditional place. What was the value in that?
“One of the greatest things I learned at Juilliard is that the training doesn’t stop once you have the diploma. That rings so true, [especially during] my first year out of school when I was really struggling to get a job. That’s when I realized I had to learn how this business works — I’m still learning now.” What’s the one piece of advice you’re SO happy you didn't listen to?
“I was 17 when I got into Juilliard, and during my second year there, a director said to me, ‘You should drop out or take a year off because you need more life experience.’ I’m so thankful I didn’t listen, because everybody doesn’t have to have the same path; everyone is having an experience. If I had listened to that advice, I wouldn’t be on Orange — I wouldn’t be doing all of the other things I’m doing now.”
It’s really cool to feel like the woman I always wished to see on television.
“My fans, really. When I go on Instagram and see comments about body image, people are so encouraged and encouraging to me! This helped me find my purpose and truly understand that there are women out there who are hurting because they feel like there's no one out there representing them.”
What are your thoughts on Hollywood's tendency to typecast actors for specific roles?
“There are still leaps and bounds I’d love to see taken in this industry. I wish people would be more open-minded, especially in movies. I’m looking at Fantastic Four, and I’d love to do something like that — a physical action movie would be really cool. Some people might look at my shape and body and think, Mmm, no, she can’t do the things that are required. I’m a very healthy young woman, I work out five times a week with my trainer. [It should not be] about your weight or how you look — just that you are the right actor for that part.”
Taystee herself is a bit of a rule breaker, but she’s also smart, funny, and a good friend. Is that something that attracted you to the role?
“I was excited when I got this role because I felt that I could change the way we view African American women on television. So often we are just known as the ghetto, loud ones, the hood chicks. There are so many layers to who Taystee is; she’s very well educated and has made some bad choices because she wants to have a family and feel loved. The way she relates to other women, we relate to each other. Taystee always has her girls' backs and if she doesn’t, she rewrites the wrongs. It’s exciting to rework stereotypes in that way and to change the way we relate to women who are incarcerated — it’s something I’m proud I get to do.”
She said it, but you were thinking it. As the founder of Fuck Cancer, Yael’s responsible for the nonprofit organization that empowers and educates youth about the importance of early cancer diagnosis. And furthermore, she's created a community — both virtually and in person — that takes into account all those affected by the fucking devastating disease. Just the phrase "fuck cancer" makes a big statement. What’s the most powerful part of having this strong, perhaps polarizing name?
“Before I even decided to start a charity, I made my mom a shirt that said, 'Fuck Cancer.' People’s responses to her were so astounding, and that was the catalyst to start this organization. The first time we say, ‘fuck cancer,’ it’s cathartic. It's defiant. It’s a war cry.” Beyond the name, what else did you strive to do differently when you launched Fuck Cancer?
“Our voice is one thing. We focused on youth very specifically, in part because I was a youth at the time. When my mom got sick and I was trying to help, I was shocked that I wasn’t valued in the way I knew I could be because I wasn’t in the demographic most likely to get cancer and I certainly wasn’t one of the big donors.” "[Fuck Cancer] is not a research organization. In general, we focus so much on the [physical] body when we get cancer — rightfully so, to some extent — but your heart, mind, soul, and relationships are all affected as well. Fuck Cancer can talk about these things, because while we aren’t doctors, we are human.”
I don’t think people are expendable. That’s the approach that is going to fuck over a lot of companies in the long run.
“That people are replaceable. We were having an issue with an employee, and an adviser said, ‘Get rid of her. Everyone is replaceable.’ In our office, a lot of people are patients, survivors, or people who have lost a parent or child, so everyone has their own unique emotional baggage. I believe that we are where we are because of the unbelievable people who have chosen to build with us. I don’t think people are expendable. That’s the approach that is going to fuck over a lot of companies in the long run.” Do you remember the first time you realized your work was groundbreaking?
“One of my oh-my-god, call-your-parents moments was when I was 22, about a year in, and I got a call inviting me to the White House for the Next Generation Leaders Conference. My response was, ‘You know I'm Canadian, right? And our organization is Fuck Cancer, right?' Getting respect from really legitimate organizations and people wasn’t just cool — it was impactful.”
What’s next for Fuck Cancer?
“I’m really excited about some of the programs we are launching with partners, hospitals, medical schools, and the old establishment, if you will. We need to be able to grow with the needs of our community. [For us,] that means trusting that everyone has equally valuable input and that together we'll build something way stronger than the boss man giving directions downward would.”
In early August, Cipriana, along with her identical twin, TK Wonder, announced they were both signing with IMG Models. For the street style star and cofounder of Urban Bush Babes, a lifestyle site dedicated to celebrating the natural hair movement, this accomplishment is particularly sweet — it marks her return to the modeling world on her terms. When you first moved to New York, you worked as a model. What made you stop?
“In over a decade in the modeling industry, I had a lot of good experiences as a woman of color, but I had problems with different brands and clients just because of the texture of my hair. My hair is kinky — it doesn’t really lay down flat — so I was always asked to change it to conform to what was thought of as more ‘beautiful’ or more sellable to a mainstream audience. It was very conflicting. I saw my beauty through the beauty of my mother, my role model. My hair texture is very similar to hers, and I was constantly being told that my hair was not beautiful. That was a big factor in my leaving the industry.” And then you started Urban Bush Babes. Why?
“I wanted to create a platform for women where they would feel comfortable being themselves, no matter how they wanted to wear their hair or dress or what music they wanted to listen to. I wanted to break down the walls associated with women of color, because in the mainstream media, you only see one side of the woman. You don’t really see multifaceted lives of women of color on a consistent basis — but you should.”
I wanted to break down the walls associated with women of color.
“I definitely didn’t think it was groundbreaking. It was big for me internally, though, because I was so self-conscious about the texture of my hair. I was like, Ahh, I chopped all my hair off! What do I do? Realizing that natural was [having] a big moment, that’s when I truly felt like myself. I was on the journey to becoming who I wanted to be.”
And now, you’re returning to modeling. What’s different this time around?
“When we met with IMG, they said that they love what we are about and the message we are sending. They love us exactly as we are. It’s on a different level this time.”
“I have no interest in creating editorials with a classic, thin, white model,” says New York (by-way-of-Canada) artist Petra Collins of her work. “For me, that isn’t interesting.” Instead, Petra has established herself as an irreverent, honest, sometimes shocking storyteller through her photography, curation, and very memorable collaborations. And at 22 years old, she’s only getting started.
You didn’t go to school for photography, so you never learned some of the technical skills. What’s the effect of that?
“I struggled a lot with photography in high school — I almost failed [it], and my teacher hated me. I especially struggled with the traditional teachings of black and white and the very mechanical way of doing it. That’s not how I approach or feel about it. “With any medium you are working in, technical skills obviously help, but your mind is what you really need to expand. That is how you create work. That’s the role of the artist — to change the way you view things. It’s why studying Criticism and Curatorial Practices [in college] was so important; I read all these texts that I was able to bring into my work.”
For as long as we've known you, we've considered you a rule breaker. When you started working professionally as a photographer, how did you maintain your vision and sense of self?
“Doing fashion, I would cast my friends and [other] people that I thought needed to be represented. That’s something I felt was important, and I’m lucky that I’m able to do it — not that many people get that control. If I have that privilege and the platform to create images, I might as well use them to make something different."
If I have that privilege and the platform to create images, I might as well use them to make something different.
"Whenever I expose myself in the most truthful manner, because that’s always scary. It’s one thing when you are photographing others, but when you are exposing yourself and your insecurities, that’s the biggest risk. I recently posted a picture on Instagram of me with my skin fully broken out, and I got so many mean comments. But I also got comments thanking me. We have the tools and the power to create images — we should try to make them as truthful as possible."
With that in mind, what’s next for you?
“I really want to break into film. It’s such an important medium, and it's accessible to the masses. I have recently been acting in Jill Soloway’s show, Transparent, and seeing how in control she is on set makes me want to do it, too. There are very few movies that tell any other narrative besides a dude as a protagonist getting over a girl, or whatever. [I want] to create three-dimensional women characters.”
As the voice behind the art-meets-fashion blog and CFDA-recognized Instagram, Pari Dust, this former interior designer got her start staging photo shoots in private spaces — without permission, mind you. Several years later, they’re opening their doors to her. When starting out, what was the biggest risk or challenge?
“There are a lot of blogs out there, but I never really got anywhere by looking at other people. I just existed in my own vacuum a bit and tried to create my own thing. Putting Pari Dust out into the world was the hardest part, because I’m kind of a perfectionist. But I had faith in the idea and thought it could add value to the blogosphere. That was the most important thing.” At the beginning of Pari Dust, you technically weren't allowed to hold photo shoots where you did. Why do it?
“I knew that galleries are really formal and that they would never permit a fashion shoot, especially from someone who was coming out of nowhere. I just had to do it and take the risk of being really uncomfortable or getting kicked out, which happened. I’m also very determined, so if I have an idea I want to execute, I will stop at nothing. In the beginning, I would never ask permission.”
I never really got anywhere by looking at other people.
“It took a bit of time — about nine months after I started Pari Dust — before I was invited to shoot an exhibition. It was the Wangechi Mutu exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum on a day that the museum was closed to the public. It was just myself, Tylor (my photographer), and a guard, and I remember saying I wish we could always shoot like this. Shooting at the museum when it was empty felt like a very special gift.” What walls are you hoping to break down next?
“With social media growing stronger and more rampant, the barrier between art and fashion is lessening. My goal is to ignite the process of discovery in others, to offer a shift in perspective, and to perhaps [cause] a break in our traditional ways of thinking. I plan to get in the studio with artists more, where ideas come to form. I think this will add another layer of depth to the content I am putting forth.”
Not only has Dannijo, a line of luxury power-piece jewelry, lasted seven years, but it’s done so without caving to industry norms. Be it launching during the recession or scrapping a traditional marketing plan, Jodie and Danielle, the sisters in charge, are still on their way upward. You took a big risk launching Dannijo in 2008 during the recession. What proved most challenging?
Jodie: “It was an interesting time, but for us it ended up being an advantage. A lot of bigger companies had to rethink the way they were marketing or selling as customers got smarter and expected more. For Danielle and I, it was about figuring out new ways — without a budget — to be scrappy and use Instagram and other social media as marketing and advertising tools. Being young and naïve can be an advantage, because you don’t overthink things." Once you started to establish yourselves, what else did you discover you'd do your own way?
JS: “We don’t do traditional ads in magazines. Part of that is budget constraints, but I also don’t think that’s how customers shop these days. They aren’t flipping through magazines and seeing advertisements that make them want the products. It’s about allowing your customer behind the scenes. [Social media] is not just pushing jewelry down people’s throats all day long, it’s showing our inspiration, travels, Fashion Week shows, fitness, tech, music, etc.” What advice about starting your own business are you glad you didn’t listen to?
Danielle: “A friend who tends to give great advice said, in early 2010, ‘Don’t go into iPhone cases. It’s such a cheap product line, and it’s going to bring down your luxury factor, not be successful, and hurt your brand.’ We felt like that wasn’t the angle we were after. This was a time when bloggers and influencers were front-row at Fashion Week, and we saw it as cool guerrilla marketing.”
The biggest problem in this industry is that sometimes people don’t change the model, they just do what’s worked.
DS: “How people view luxury fashion jewelry. More and more since the recession in 2008, women have turned to jewelry as a means to update their look. It really does stand the test of time. “The other thing is the way people shop for jewelry. Traditionally it has been behind a case, which feels stale and intangible. More recently, it has this whole new life — enabling your customer to really access and experience jewelry.” How has Dannijo bought into that new life?
DS: “The interaction people have with jewelry is [still] archaic and old-school — to have a glass case and find someone with a key to try something on. We’ve had a lot of success with our pop-ups, where women could go in and play with the jewelry, individualize their looks, and interact with it without feeling like somebody was watching them. That’s our biggest thing with fashion jewelry: It is the new norm. It’s what people wear on a day-to-day basis instead of diamonds, and it should be treated in a different way. The biggest problem in this industry is that sometimes people don’t change the model, they just do what’s worked.” Feeling inspired? Share your plans for achieving successes big and small with #FaceForward.