Vanessa Bell Calloway On Turning 60, Ageism In Hollywood And Finally Being A Leading Lady On TV
It’s been almost 30 years since Vanessa Bell Calloway played one-foot hopping Princess Imani Izzi in Coming to America. Since then, she’s come quite a long way not only in Hollywood, but in life in general. She’s currently the star of the Sunday night Bounce TV hit Saints & Sinners, is set to have a recurring role on the Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, has a film called A Preacher’s Son coming to Netflix soon and two popular web series under her belt: In the Company of Friends and Cookin’ and Hookin’ Up.
But one of the biggest things she’s prepping for is to turn 60 on March 20. She’s celebrating by not only having a “Sexty Sixty” birthday party, but by helping other women celebrate their age with her campaign, How Do You Rock Your Age? We talked to the beauty about this major milestone, the reason for this inspiring campaign (which you, no matter your age, shape, whatever, can submit photos and testimonies to) and how it is getting older in the entertainment industry.
MadameNoire: What are you most excited about when it comes to turning 60?
Vanessa Bell Calloway: I’m just excited that I’m alive. Whitney Houston will never see 60. We know that for a fact. Prince will never turn 60. We know that for a fact. So the fact that God has blessed me with another year, to have a great family, my girls are grown and doing well — I’m just excited about the next decade. Work is great. I mean, my life is good right now. I think a lot of it has to do with not only do I work hard, but I have a great energy and a good, positive outlook. So I’m most excited about continuing with my life and just embracing who I’m going to be in the next 10 years. I’m going to change a little bit, and I’ve already changed a little bit. You see things differently. Your body changes. But I’m excited to continue embracing who I am and to try to offer more of who I am to the world.
MN: Why did you launch your new campaign, “How Do You Rock Your Age?”
VBC: It’s about looking great, feeling great, but most of all, looking the best you can, feeling the best you can and being the best you can. The reason I am embracing this is because women, we are taught that when we age it’s negative. We’re treated like we are sent out to the pasture to die. Men get kudos for getting gray hair and getting older and more distinguished. They get “distinguished” and we just get “old.” It’s like, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to stop our lives? Nobody is going to be 40 forever. Life goes on! You can be eternally 40 but that means you’re dead. I think instead of women buying into this whole facade of “I’ve gained weight, I don’t look the same,” — yeah, most men don’t either. Embrace it and let’s help each other. If you want to work out and look the best you can after you work out, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a size six or four, that just means you’re getting yourself together the best way you can to embrace life. Embrace who you are and stop being ashamed and hiding the fact that you’re 60, 65, 70. Shout it from the mountaintop because that means you’ve been on this earth. Whatever you’re doing you’re proud of. Most women have families, we raise kids, we have husbands, we run businesses, we do a lot, and you can’t do that at 25. You have to live a little bit to get those things accomplished. Be proud of not only your accomplishments, but the age and who you are and great space that God has uniquely created for you at whatever point in your life you are.
And I want women in their 20s to celebrate it too because that’s a different era. That’s a different look and feel in itself. And if they can look at us being positive, then they have something to look forward to. They’ll go into their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s knowing some of the positive things they should do so when they reach that, they’re not depressed about turning 50 or 60. They’re energized and excited. So I think it’s really important that we encourage women.
I’m sick of it. I get penalized in Hollywood for two things. The funniest thing is I get penalized because I don’t look 60. Well, let’s change that! What does 60 look like? Why can’t I play someone’s mother? I could have a 40-year-old kid. Why do I have to look broke down, old and have gray hair for you to feel good about me being 60? I get penalized because they say, ‘You don’t look old enough.’ But I am! Let’s change that narrative. Let’s stop making women have to look a certain way in TV and film as 50, 60 and 70. Now if you look older for your age, then that’s fine. There are those women, too! But I don’t look older and I’m not the only one. We’re taking care of ourselves differently. The way our mothers and their friends looked, we’re not doing that. So let’s not be penalized because we don’t look broke down at 60. Let’s change the narrative.
MN: As an actress preparing to turn 60, aside from people saying you look too young, what other ageism experiences have you experienced in the industry?
VBC: Ageism is very prevalent in Hollywood. They want women to just…go to the pasture. All the men, when they get a part and they have to get a wife, they never hire a peer. Their wives are always 15 years younger than them. That’s a form of ageism we have to deal with all of the time. They don’t see us as “sexy.” They get someone younger to play the sexy part. But we can be the police chief, office woman or head of this and frumpy. That’s the part they want us to do. I’m sick of it.
MN: How have you managed to continue to look so flawless after all this time?
VBC: I’ve always been healthy because I was a concert dancer for years. Moving has been a part of my life since I was 11, 12 years old. I don’t know what it’s like not to move. I can’t not move. Working out is a part of my life. I’ve been a healthy eater since college. I stopped drinking sodas when I was in high school. For years I didn’t eat red meat. I went back and ate a little bit but now I don’t eat it. There are a lot of things I’ve always done because what I realized is that, as you grow older, you have to change habits. You can’t do what you did in your 20s. I can’t do what I did in my 30s. I can’t eat the way that I did in my 40s. I constantly pay attention to the things that have to be let go from my diet. I work out. I eat healthy. And you have to keep a good, positive mental attitude as well. So yeah, I’m definitely conscious of everything I do.
MN: I saw that Tina Knowles-Lawson shared her story on your How Do You Rock Your Age website. How did she get involved with this project?
We’re friends and she’s a wonderful person. I call her “the queen.” And she loved the idea. We’re peers. She respects me as a mother and a wife and I respect her as a mother and a wife. We’ve both raised girls and we’ve both done a great job of it. When you can get somebody like that to admit their age and say, “Hey, I look great! This how I rock my age. I’m proud to be who I am,” it really helps to encourage other women. So I’m very grateful that she immediately said “Yes, I will help you with your campaign.”
MN: Are you excited about Season 2 of Saints & Sinners? I know this is your first show as the protagonist.
VBC: I’m excited to be back. You know, anytime you get to be the lead of a show it’s an honor. Just recently, the last five or six years, have Black women been the leads of shows. Or as we call it, number one on the call sheet. Just recently! Since Scandal. So it’s an honor because there was a time when Black women, I don’t care how good you were, you maybe got the girlfriend at best on a weekly series. But you damn sure weren’t getting the part that the White girl was up for. You can believe that. You weren’t going to be number one on the call sheet. That was not happening. So with the success of these other shows, it’s happening. And it’s nice to have the feeling, before I get too old and die, that I’m finally number one on the call sheet, and I deserve it. I’ve worked hard. And I’m good. I can carry it. So it’s very exciting to return. I directed an episode this season and that was a lot of fun. Next season I hope to direct some more. The show is good, the show is picking up steam. We’re picking up new audience members. And the potential of the show is really great. I call it “The Little Show That Could,” like the little engine that could. So yes, very excited to come back to Saints and Sinners and I’m very grateful.