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Halle Bailey, Danielle Brooks Share How They Overcame Personal Challenges at Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards

On Thursday, stars graced the brown carpet ahead of Essence‘s 17th annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards, where the honorees vulnerably highlighted the overall themes of faith, perseverance, joy and celebration.

With celebrating joy also comes the acknowledgement of the challenges many Black women have faced in the entertainment industry, as honorees Halle Bailey, Danielle Brooks, writer Nkechi Okoro Carroll and Starz exec Kathryn Busby shared how they each dealt with the ebbs and flows of their careers.

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At the event, held at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, Bailey opened up about the struggles of being in the spotlight. From “being burned,” learning some hard lessons along the way and prioritizing her privacy, the star said she still keeps the responsibility of being a positive influence for the next generation at the forefront.

“Although we signed up for the challenges of the spotlight, in this current climate, that spotlight burns brighter, hotter and uninterrupted, whereas the scrutiny of its magnification leaves no concealment,” she explained, referring to the racist backlash she faced when cast as Ariel in 2023’s The Little Mermaid.

Despite starring in The Little Mermaid being one of her “proudest moments,” Bailey shared she discovered two things about being Black in Hollywood: “It can be unfair, and it can expose you to criticism just for being you. Not because you’re a bad actor or you’ve given a poor performance but just because you look like you do.”

The criticism Bailey faced led her to making one of the most important decisions in her life, in protecting her son and “perfect little angel” Halo from the spotlight. She reminded the audience that women before her, including her mentor Beyoncé and fellow singer Lauryn Hill, had done the same thing with their pregnancies.

“There was no way in hell I was going to share the biggest joy of my world with anyone,” she said. “Halo was my gift, he is the greatest blessing and I had no obligation to expose him, me or my family to that unyielding spotlight…with the state of the world in the place that it’s in with men trying to force their will on our bodies and our reproductive rights, no one on social media and for damn sure, no one on the planet was going to tell me what to do with my body or what to share with the world.”

The singer-actor set the tone for the remainder of the luncheon, as each of the honorees shared their plights and how they overcame each barrier placed in front of them.

Busby, the president of original programming for Starz, emphasized that throughout her life, she learned a valuable lesson of not accepting the circumstances in front of her from her mom, aunt and grandmother, who all left Trinidad to follow their dreams. “They marched ahead because they didn’t believe in limitations, and neither do I,” she said.

Limitations, including lack of representation and being the only Black person in the room, led her to “fighting the good fight.” The exec emphasized her excitement at being honored and reminded the people in the room to “please don’t believe it when they say Hollywood don’t want to hear our stories, because I’m here to tell you that we do want those stories.”

President and CEO of Essence Ventures, Caroline Wanga, shared similar sentiments to Busby, saying, “Even with everything that happened in the entertainment industry last year, and we are sensitive to that and want to play a role in economic inclusion, what we have to teach people how to do is to live in the intersection of joy and justice,” she said. “So while we fight for justice in Hollywood for those of us that are Black, we celebrate the joy in this room today.”

Lightening the mood with viral hit “Made For You,” Grammy-winner Muni Long hit the Essence stage to perform the catchy tune, followed by a conversation with All American showrunner Carroll, who transitioned into entertainment from a career in the Federal Reserve.

The writer explained it’s the support from mentor Gina Prince-Bythewood and fellow Nigerian Yvonne Orji that keeps her going. “She refuses to let me devalue my worth or the value of what I bring to this planet,” Carroll said of her friendship with Orji.

Closing out the ceremony, was The Color Purple star Brooks, who shared her testimony of trials and tribulations throughout her career. During her speech, Brooks touched on experiencing imposter syndrome and noted how rejections ultimately prepared her to tackle the difficulties she’d later face as an actress in Hollywood.

“I remember being so frustrated with God, asking him like why I don’t understand, this feels very cruel on so many levels,” she shared. “I kept searching for the why; the answer I was given was that ‘The no that you have to accept is for someone else’s steps to be ordered and you best believe someone had to be given the no for your steps to be ordered.’ And that just relieved me and helped to surrender.”

Brooks explained that surrendering the desire of being seen was a key step in healing from external validation: “I had a bad habit of letting others’ validation dictate my worth. If I wasn’t hand selected for that job…I let it make me feel like I was worthless.”

“But then I remember, as I set back and let God take the wheel, that before I even came out of my mother’s womb, I was selected,” she emphasized. “I always been the crème de la crème, baby, from every 4B coil placed on my head to the soles of my 10.5 size feet, every inch of me was crafted with purpose. I was chosen because He had to show that a small-town country girl who used to feel so unlovable because of her stretch marks, her pimples and her plump belly could and would one day grace the cover of Essence magazine as the baddie that she is.”

The Oscar nominee explained how a woman who was once overtaken by imposter syndrome can now stand before large groups of people as a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and still find a way to say “hell no,” referencing her character Sofia’s song in The Color Purple.

“The next time imposter syndrome creeps its way into your spirit, I want you to remember the purpose of the imposter is to manipulate everything and everyone around it,” she said. “And the next time it tries to manipulate you, know that the doubt is the real imposter, the self deprecation is the real imposter, the fear is the real imposter, it’s not you.” She concluded with telling the crowd to “keep going.”

She added, “You have everything that you need inside of you; you have been chosen for the assignment. Even the struggles, your downfalls have been selected for you to get your triumphs and your victory.”

Stars including Zendaya, Normani, Erika Alexander, Letitia Wright, Teyonah Parris, Aldis Hodge, Marsai Martin and Anthony Anderson also stopped by the event, hosted by Method Man. The Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards special will air on OWN and stream on Max on March 15.

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