Jeanai Chassagne wears the mighty “S” on her chest of the successful, sexy supermom. Jeanai (pronounced in your best French accent) is the owner, operator and creator of Body by Jeanai in Chicago. “My children have seen people’s bodies change through my work. I don’t talk fitness, I live it. And I love that they respect what I do.” The single mother strove to achieve balance in her children’s lives. “I don’t think my kids felt any lack for anything. Their dad is so active in their lives, and their parents are friends. We’ve known each other for so long, our families are family.”
Jeanai co-parents Sydnie and Braxton with her children’s father; the former couple never married. She believes that meeting and connecting so young (she was 17, he was 20) made them see one another through rose-colored glasses. “You know, perfect in each other’s eyes,” she says. “Then you have kids—the sunglasses are removed and you see the real human side of people.”
The relationship lasted from 1987 to 2006. “I felt like the promise of marriage was like a carrot dangling in front of me. That carrot allowed him to receive the best, most high use out of me without any movement toward the union.” At some point, Jeanai thought, “I am quite okay. We do not have to take it further as it relates to a formal commitment. I don’t ever want to be emotionally manipulated.” Aware of the wonder woman she is cultivating, “I am grateful for the person I’ve evolved into. Ultimately, I’m grateful for every heartbreak, every woe. I don’t look at anything as a failure and I am grateful. When it comes to a relationship, there are things I will not accept. I don’t think I have to.”
A personal trainer and group fitness instructor, she was invited to be one of Michelle Obama’s pilot trainers for the Let’s Move campaign—developed to fight childhood obesity and encouraging movement. “I did Zumba fitness with the little children,” she says. “I was elated to do it! The kids would come back and say things like, ‘My mom ate a piece of cake and I told her we would have to do 15 jumping jacks after.’ You realize how effective it is to start a health-conscious lifestyle early. It can transcend generations.”
A graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a business degree, Jeanai got the drive to move the crowd honestly—she is the protégé of Marcia Chassagne-Kilpatrick, a fitness expert of 30 years. “My mother, for three decades now, has owned, operated and expanded her Jazzercise franchise. I was always in the midst of a group exercise environment.” Launching her own brand of fitness in 2001, she says, “Body by Jeanai is a natural progression.”
“My mother was a single parent,” she says. “I remember her working three jobs: a government job, she did hair in the basement of our home, she worked at Marshall Field’s—and she did all of these things to keep her girls in Catholic school and be able to afford to ballet, tap dance, girl scouts and sports. I saw this. I understood that she gets up early, she stays up late, she goes to work and she still comes home and cooks. So it made me, as a child, want to be helpful and accommodating. I understood what I was seeing.”
On that note, excuses don’t go over well with the entrepreneur. “I know what one is capable of. Through the example that my mother set for us, I truly believe that the only limitations we have in life are the ones that we accept.”
The second daughter continues, “Did that mean I didn’t miss having my father around? I absolutely did. Especially since I believed that he was the best thing since sliced bread! I was a girl in love with what she missed.” When her father and mother divorced, he was no longer present in his young daughters’ lives. Jeanai humbly admits to the hurt a living father’s absence inflicts upon a daughter. “I also think that my past relationship [with my children’s father] may have taken the fallout for some of that [pain],” she says. As an adult, Jeanai appreciates her father in her life. “And he has a wonderful and active relationship with his grandchildren. I enjoy living vicariously through their connection.”
Jeanai’s mom raised three American beauties, each three years apart. “I’m the middle sister. My older sister, we call her Lady but her real name is LaJeune. Growing up, Lady was super bossy, super smart. But here’s the thing: she was always right!” Michelline (also known as Michi) is the youngest of the three. Jeanai describes her Brooklynite sister as “colorful, spiritual and kind.” From her father’s second marriage, she has another sister, Nia, seven years younger than Michi.
“I love them all. There is nothing like having sisters. It’s one of my biggest blessings that I am so thankful for every day. I think I’ve always wanted a brother, but I wouldn’t trade having sisters for anything,” she maintains.
Sydnie, 20 and Braxton, 17, have traveled with Jeanai’s mom and stepfather to explore China and to India on a tiger safari. “I took them to the Dominican Republic. We are a traveling family. We get away from life as we know it to experience different foods, cultures, music, air. My parents are on their way to Vietnam. Don’t ask me why, I guess they’ve been everyplace else!”
Sydnie spent her senior year of high school in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. While Jeanai supports the idea of travel, her teenage daughter living in Cruz Alta for a year took her aback. “Sydnie has become this fearless spirit. I never would have done that as a teen. She didn’t even know the language. When she was awarded the scholarship, I wanted to say, ‘She’s really not that special! She doesn’t clean her room, I have to make her practice the violin…’ I wanted to sabotage the whole thing. I finally accepted that she was leaving at her going away party! Sydnie’s courage is amazing. And now she speaks Portuguese fluently!”
Braxton is a graphic designer, a guitarist and a gentleman. “Every single morning he says, ‘Good morning, how was your rest?’ Always thoughtful, his mom recollects, “One day picking him up from school, he gets in the car and says, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I respond nonchalantly, ‘I’m good.’ ‘How was your day?’ I answer, ‘It was okay.’ He asks, ‘Why was it just okay?’ Then I realized he’s not just asking me inane questions; my son is truly interested in my day. I had to slow it down, be present and take advantage of this opportunity to dialogue.”
Achieving success as a family, the fitness guru believes that emotional health is paramount. “You have to say those three words: I love you. And you to be able to say the other three words: I was wrong. That’s difficult sometimes for parents. If you admit wrong, some people feel you lose a level of authority. I feel just the opposite. I need my children to know that I’m not perfect; I’m going make mistakes. My delivery may be flawed at times, but I want the best for you.”
Jeanai teaches her children and has taught herself to “truly be able to forgive. You can’t harden your heart. The saddest thing in the world is not have experienced a love great enough to be hurt, to be vulnerable. Some people don’t know that type of love. That’s just a part of life, right? Like any old cut or bruise, you heal. You have to be able to forgive people without getting an ‘I’m sorry.’ You have let things go to be free, to be happy.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.