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Danielle Brooks: The First Time I Saw Myself on a Billboard
Date: January 12, 2017
I was Danielle Brooks. And at the bottom of the billboard were the words “See Danielle shine.”
It was June 2012, and I had just sped out of the crowded subway into a sea of people on 34th Street. I stopped to collect myself, to figure out which way I needed to walk to get to my next errand. I was somewhere between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and couldn’t see the street sign from that far away, so I turned my head to the right. Lo and behold, there it was, right above H&M: a beautiful collage of 13 diverse faces for the new hit television series “Orange Is the New Black” — me among them.
Just five years before this day, I was packing my toothbrush, my most beloved family photos and my favorite walking shoes. I was headed to the Juilliard School. Seventeen years old. Bright, bushy-tailed, with a head full of bushy hair, ready to sprout into a world unlike Simpsonville, S.C., the rural area where I grew up.
I never would have guessed a year after graduating, now 22, I would see my face on a billboard. The feeling was exhilarating. I stood there witnessing thousands of people walk by my face, glance at my face. My heart was so happy I almost forgot why I was even in Herald Square to begin with.
When I was a kid, the famous Apollo Theater had come to my hometown to audition kids for “Showtime at the Apollo.” My parents had allowed me to audition not once, not twice, but three times.
For this chubby, dark-haired, chocolate 11-year-old, the third time was not the charm. I remember crying as I walked back to the car with my father. “Danielle, only one out of thousands of thousands of people will make it,” he reminded me, referring to the entertainment business. I remember thinking to myself: Well, I want to be that one.
After four years of fictional incarceration and three other billboards for “Orange Is the New Black,” I was offered the indescribable chance to play Sofia in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” I had no idea that it would even be possible to do both at the same time. Thank God everyone was willing to play ball, and let me play on both Team Purple and Team Orange.
Months before starting rehearsals for the show, the other two leads and I had glammed up for our first promo shoot. By the time we were headed into previews, taking those photos had vanished from my memory until one random fall day.
My best friend had come to visit from South Carolina. As we were walking through the subway station, I turned to my left, and that happy-heart feeling crept over me once more. There it was, my second ad for the second-biggest gig of my career. We cried a bit, giggled a bit, took an us-ie (you might call it a selfie) and headed to the theater for her first Broadway show. She was so proud of her friend, and I was so proud to make her proud.
In my fifth year as a professional actress, another experience came my way — modeling. Christian Siriano had dressed me for awards shows, and we had built a great working relationship but also a true friendship. He had graciously asked if I wanted to be his muse for his new line for Lane Bryant. Knowing that its mission statement focused on empowering women, I was sure this would be a good fit for me and what I stood for. Without hesitation, I said yes.
Soon after, Lane Bryant approached me to be one of the faces of its fall campaign. I was thrilled! After shooting photos, I received an email showing me how the ad team planned on using them: on billboards, subway ads and double-decker buses in Los Angeles and New York. I was so excited.
One night, I was on set and my manager sent me a text: Check your email, but make sure you are sitting. I was getting anxious, and of course the service up in Rockland County, where we shoot “Orange,” was as slow as molasses. I sat as instructed, trying to take deep patient breaths, waiting for the email to come through.
It finally opened, and there it was — a sketch photo of me on a billboard in Times Square. Not just any billboard, but the one Sean Combs, also known as Diddy, was hogging for years. Eighteen stories high. It would be replaced with the nearly 17-story image of this semi-known, curly-haired-and-curvy girl from South Carolina in a leotard and heels. Yeah, I needed to sit.
As soon as the billboard went up, people started to post pictures of it. The first time I saw it in person, I was in a car, being driven home from “The Color Purple.”
“OMG,” I screamed. “That’s me. Those are my thighs. Pull over.”
I felt like my parents had when they first met Oprah. They were so excited they got out of the car before it was fully parked. That was me now. I started to cry.
To be blessed with all I’ve received in life leaves me speechless. What made this different? This was the first time I was on a billboard by myself. I wasn’t in a costume. I wasn’t Taystee. I wasn’t Sofia. I was Danielle Brooks. And at the bottom of the billboard were the words “See Danielle shine.”
No denying I was shining. The sky was shining that night something special. Not from the LED lights or neon signs of Times Square, but because the dreams of that determined 11-year-old girl with dark skin and kinky hair had been realized. For the first time, the possibilities felt limitless, and I quietly said to myself, “Dad, I made it!”
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