Vanessa Bell Calloway has done it all. Before becoming an actress and racking up honors for her work on screen and the stage, the Ohio native got her start as a dancer, performing with famed companies like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. After appearing in the classic musical Dreamgirls, Calloway landed a role on All My Children before moving west to Hollywood where her career took off.
Calloway’s credits are almost too numerous to name, but the veteran has had memorable roles in Coming to America, What’s Love Got to Do With It, The Inkwell, and Daylight, to name a few. Most recently, the actress stars and directs on the hit Bounce TV series, Saints & Sinners, where she plays the show’s leading (and probably juiciest) role, Lady Ella.
While Calloway’s career is one only few actress attain, it hasn’t been all hearts and rainbows. In addition to balancing her family responsibilities with the difficulty of being a Black actress in Hollywood, Calloway had an experience with breast cancer that nearly shook her resolve. Still, the resilient star not only survived, she thrives! Calloway recently celebrated her 60th birthday with an epic party that was just as fabulous as she is.
EBONY caught up with the actress ahead of the premiere of the Centric show, Being, to chat about what she’s learned over the years and how she looks so damn fly.
EBONY: This is one of those shows that goes in depth about a person’s life and sometimes they share things they never talked publicly about before. So, why did you want to be on Being?
Vanessa Bell Calloway: First of all, anytime anybody asks you to do anything that is celebrating you or highlighting your life, just the fact that they cared enough about me, who am I to say no? It’s a form of flattery to me and I take those things seriously, because in the long run, people don’t have to care about you. Also, it’s a way to get a chance for people to see who you are, or who you’re trying to be, and sharing information–especially to young people. It’s a nice way to pay it forward and give back.
It’s a positive show, and what I like about it is it’s showing me in my element. I really like the show that they did for me because we have a variety of things that I do–that’s my life. I feel like it’s celebrating me. I had all the reasons to say yes and very little reason to say no.
EBONY: When you agreed to be on the show, was there anything in particular that you really wanted to get across? You’ve been in the business for so long, was there something you wanted to focus on?
Calloway: What I wanted to focus on and what was really important was that my story was told the way I told it. Often you do these biography type of shows and they want to put their twist on it to make it dramatic, and you don’t get to change my narrative–I made that very clear. I’m very flattered, but you can’t change my narrative because it works for a soundbyte. Once I let somebody change my narrative, that’s what everybody thinks is fact.
I knew that everything I was going to talk about was important. I’ve had a great 60 years, it’s been amazing, and I have a lot to share. So it’s not that one thing is more important, but they’re all, accumulated together, are important to me. And it’s important to me that they’re discussed and presented in the right frame and fashion and in the right order. My voice, not somebody else’s voice who wants to interpret what my voice should be.
EBONY: You’ve been in the business a long time and have done so many things. Is that one of the things you’ve learned throughout the years–to be very meticulous about your image?
Calloway: When you’re first starting out and you don’t have the clout to get things like photo approval and when you’re a young actress they don’t give you a lot of stuff. Especially being a Black actress. When we were young, you couldn’t hardly get a job let alone have power over stuff. So you start seeing stuff that you don’t like. So I’m very meticulous about my image, about my family’s image, and I have to have total control of photos that go out of me, my children, my family, anything that’s said. Just like I told you, I always tell interviewers to please feel free to contact me to clarify anything because that has happened to me when people are rushing to write articles and they kind of misconstrue what I said and they write it the way they think it is–and that ticks me off. You have to control things, especially with the social media, because once it’s out there, it’s out there. And that becomes the fact.
EBONY: What are some of the other lessons that have really carried you throughout your career?
Calloway: So many! Not only are there lessons in my career, but there have been life lessons. There are lessons I’ve pass on to my children. I’ll give you two of my favorites.
One of my favorites is it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. You get to stand up for yourself, you get to say, “I don’t like that, I don’t want to do that.” I used to be very emotional, I’m still passionate, but I’ve learned how to contain that emotion and don’t answer right away, take a beat, think about it, then respond to somebody. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to answer people right away. I’ve learned how to say, “Can I get back to you about that?” Now I’ve given myself time to really assess what you asked me to do or what the situation is, think about it, then come up with a plan. Then by doing that, when I come back to you, it’s not what I say it’s how I say it.
The other thing that I’ve learned is to stay ready to be ready, and I tell this to young people all the time. You don’t have time to get ready. So, what that means to me is if you don’t like your hair, your weave is wack, your teeth need fixing, if your attitude needs adjusting and you need therapy, you really want to lose 10 pounds–whatever that is for you–then you need to work on it starting now. I can’t tell you the type of calls I’ve gotten on Thursday and I was at set on Friday, or on Friday and I was at work on Monday. One time I left the audition and got fitted for the costume right after I left the audition. I didn’t have time to get ready, I had to already be ready. And these aren’t just career lessons, these are life lessons.
Also, if something scares you, you run toward it, not away from it. I’m not sure where I got this from, but when I was young, people would say, “Hey Vanessa can you do…” and I’d say, “Ok, I’ll do it,” then I’d be like oh my God, what did I agree to do? I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, I just knew that I needed to do it. I knew it was something that I needed to do for my career, and I would say ok, then I’d have to figure out how I was going to pull it off. What that taught me was there’s nothing you can’t conquer. So instead of, “Oh my God, that’s scary, I can’t do that,” you say yes and then it kind of works itself out.
I have a one woman show about Zora Neal Hurston that’s basically a 90 minute monologue, and when I was asked to do it, I was like, oh my God, this is going to require a lot of work. But I said yes immediately because I knew I’d figure it out.
EBONY: Happy belated birthday, you just turned 60 and just had a huge party.
Calloway: It was epic. I had an epic birthday; it was amazing. I savored and enjoyed every moment. My party started when my guest started arriving the Thursday before my birthday and the last person left Tuesday afternoon (my birthday was on Monday). I had a ball everyday; there was not one thing about my birthday that didn’t go well. Everyday was special, every moment was great, I had so much fun.
EBONY: One of the interesting things about women in general, but especially in the business is that age is a big deal. A lot of people aren’t very forthcoming about their age.
Calloway: I have a campaign called, “This is my 60, how do you rock your age?” The site is howdoyourockyourage.com. I started it in honor of my 60th birthday because of exactly what you’re talking about. I’m so tired of women hiding and lying about our age while men are celebrated and we’re made to feel like we’ve got to go out to pasture and die if we’re over 40.
Everybody’s 30 or 40 or 50 is different. One day you’re going to get to 50, God willing, because there’s no alternative. Either I had a 60th birthday or I was dead–there’s no gray area. I want to see 61, and one day I want to see 90, so that means I have to keep having birthdays. So what am I supposed to do? Be ashamed because I’m getting older? No, how about I embrace myself, my age, the space that God has put me in, and learn from and teach other people and we support each other as women, because we’re all beautiful–different sizes, shapes, colors–and we celebrate ourselves as we grow older and become better.
My motto is: look your best, feel your best, but most of all, be your best at any age.
EBONY: Last year you had everybody talking after re-creating your look from Coming to America, so what are your tips and secrets?
Bell Calloway: My tips are very simple. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You’ve gotta exercise, make sure your diet is tight, I drink lots of water–hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, moisturize, moisturize, moisturize, and exercise, exercise, exercise, exercise. You have to pay attention to your body and your lifestyle. You have to take care of your skin, your teeth, your mental being, whatever it is. And then expect the changes that will come. Yes, I look great at 60, but if you put a picture up of me 30 years ago next to me, I look 30 years younger. I’m never going to look like that again, and I’m okay with it. You have to be able to accept the new changes that God brings along the way.
EBONY: Part of the aging process, or really the living process, is bouncing back from setbacks. You have kids, what do you tell them about being resilient?
Calloway: Like that song, we fall down but we get up. There’s a couple of things I tell my kids. The test of who you are is not if, but when, you fall down, how do you get back up. That starts the beginning of who you are–the recovery. No one’s exempt from hard times.
It’s very simple. You fall down, you get up. You fall down again, you get your ass back up. You fall down 10 times, get up and keep it moving and never quit.
Something else I tell my kids, “Eat the crow while it’s hot, it goes down faster.” When you make mistakes, you know when you’ve messed up, nobody has to tell you. Eat the crow while it’s hot. Not only does the situation get responses quicker, it goes down better. Take ownership about who you are and what you’ve done. Things like that, you’d be surprised how good it is for your health. Less stress for your emotional life and your spiritual life. Those things really matter.
Being airs Saturday nights at 10 pm on Centric. Catch up on EBONY & Centric’s entire interview series here.