For almost two decades, Terrence J has been a fixture on the pop culture landscape as a media personality, actor, producer, activist and philanthropist. The three-time Emmy nominee first made a name for himself as the co-host of BET’s iconic show 106 & Park. From there, he went on to star in FOX’s hit television series Star and was a part of VH1’s Hit The Floor. Previously, he was a co-anchor for E! News and also produced and hosted FOX’s Miss USA in 2016 and 2017. On the big screen, he’s starred in hits such as Sparkle, Think Like A Man, Baggage Claim, Entourage and The Perfect Match.
One of his latest projects is a partnership with AT&T’s Rising Future Makers Program, which recognizes and celebrates an esteemed class of 25 students from HBCUs who are making a difference in their communities and on campus. The program recently selected its second cohort which is one of the numerous ways that Terrence J is committed to putting a spotlight on HBCUs.
EBONY caught up with the media personality and spoke with him about his commitment to supporting HBCUs, his winning an Academy Award and his key advice for Black creatives in the media industry.
EBONY: You had the honor of being named the National Ambassador for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. As a proud graduate of North Carolina A&T, how has attended an HBCU influenced your life and career?
Terrence J: Going to an HBCU changed my life. First of all, I didn't get accepted to a lot of schools and North Carolina A&T took a chance on me. If they didn't take a chance on me, I would not have been able to go after my dreams the way I have. So, I'm very appreciative of my experience. I made so many friends that I'm still close with today. I met so many mentors that pushed me in the right direction. I had so many different job opportunities that I was able to get the skills that I needed while I was at school. Going to an HBCU completely changed my life and I'm so grateful that I went to one.
How did you become involved with the AT&T Rising Future Makers program?
This is my second year of working with the program. The AT&T Rising Future Makers initiative selects 25 of the best and brightest from HBCUs across the country. It’s like the Avengers of HBCU students coming together, who are super smart and super talented on their different career paths. They're highlighted in this program and it's really exciting because you get to meet the best from all these campuses. I had so many different opportunities in college that helped mold me in the direction of where I wanted to go. So for me, it's always been a passion to be able to help shape future leaders and creatives. We all have only a certain amount of time on this planet so it's very important to give as much as we can and sow the seeds in the future leaders of tomorrow. That's what this program is all about.
Recently, I read that you have become more health-conscious and completely changed your diet. Also, you introduced healthy eating options at HBCUs.
The older we get, the more we find out about our health. I made the choice to cut meat out of my diet which was very hard. I grew up in North Carolina and I love chicken, pork, and everything else. I'm not all the way vegan yet; I'm a pescatarian. For me, talking to students about healthy eating options is very, very important. On one of my campaigns, I partnered with Aladdin campus dining to promote Vegebond which is a plant-based meal program for HBCU students. This is very near and dear to my heart and I want to make sure that our future is empowered in all those ways.
Among your many achievements, you won an Oscar for Best Short Film as an executive producer of Two Distant Strangers. Can you describe how that moment felt?
You know, we put these things in our mind that we want to accomplish as far as awards or trophies. When you're in this industry, you go after it every day and you want to be recognized for your work. After 20 years, I kind of just stopped caring about that stuff. The moment, I stopped caring about it, we won an Oscar for Two Distant Strangers and it was an incredible feeling. I'm just very proud to have worked with a remarkable team. It was a story that needed to be told. It came out during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and we were able to capture a story that spoke to people. It's a blessing to be recognized for being part of such a great project.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring Black creatives entering the entertainment industry?
My favorite book is The Alchemist so I would tell anyone to read that. My favorite part of the book is when the central character goes to meet the wisest man in the world in his big castle. The wise man tells him that to learn the key to happiness is to hold a spoon and fill it with oil. The kid walks around and then he loses oil in the spoon because he’s watching the castle. The wise man puts the oil back in the spoon and tells him to walk around again, but this time to not pay attention to the castle. When the kid comes back to the wise man, he tells him the key to success is to make sure you hold on to your responsibilities and the things that are right in front of you. Also, take the time to look at the world that surrounds you. That's my advice for the next generation of Black creatives. Go after your dreams every day. Go after those big gigs, but don't forget that life is happening right now. It's the small jobs and the small shoots that add to your value so don't take any part of your journey for granted. Put as much quality and effort into your work as possible. The moment that you're only focused on the craft is when the universe will give you what you want. Life is short and we should always try to enjoy it all.