Screenwriter, producer, and actress Lena Waithe is making the TV guest-spot rounds this week. Tonight she’ll appear on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen before sitting in as a guest judge on tomorrow’s episode of Top Chef.
Waithe, who’s best known for her work on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, is a triple threat who’s been taking over TV screens since she got her start in 2007. The Columbia College Chicago alumna has certainly been busy in the industry creating groundbreaking work all while making television history before her 35th birthday.
Here’s everything you need to know about Lena Waithe:
1. Waithe Got Her Start in TV By Working as a Crew Member
After earning her degree in Cinema and Television Arts in 2006, Waithe worked as an assistant to an executive producer on the UPN/CW series Girlfriends. The series starred Tracee Ellis Ross of Black-ish fame and ran for eight seasons before ending in 2008. She also served as a production staff member for E! Live from the Red Carpet, before providing assistance on other projects like The Secret Life of Bees and Notorious.
In 2014, Waithe scored her first acting gig when she won a small role on Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback. In the episode “Valerie Faces the Critics,” Waithe plays Summer, one of the critics interviewing Valerie Cherish on a press junket after the actress is nominated for an Emmy Award.
2. Waithe’s Breakthrough Role was on Aziz Ansari’s Netflix Show, Master of None
For two seasons, Waithe played Denise, Dev’s friend. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Waithe said that her character was not originally supposed to be black or gay but Ansari wanted the character’s personality to reflect Waithe’s own, so the part was re-written to fit.
Waithe also serves as a writer on the show having written the standout episode from Season 2 called “Thanksgiving.”
3. The Writer/Producer/Actress is an Emmy Award Winner
In 2017, Waithe along with Ansari won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. The writer made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win the category.
In the winning episode “Thanksgiving,” a 12-year-old Denise starts to realize she’s attracted to women. Since Dev’s family doesn’t celebrate the holiday, he spends it with Denise’s family every year. Denise comes out to Dev, telling him she’s nervous about telling her family because, she says, LGBT issues are touchy in black families. The story then jumps ahead to 2006, where Denise finally comes out to her mother (played by Angela Bassett), and later to 2015 when Denise starts bringing girlfriends over for Thanksgiving dinner. The critically-acclaimed episode was based on Waithe’s own experience of coming out as a lesbian.
When accepting her Emmy, Waithe talked about the importance of diversity in our entertainment and culture at large. “The things that make us different — those are our superpowers,” she said. She urged viewers who feel outside of the mainstream to don a superhero cape every day “and go out there and conquer the world. It would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
4. Waithe’s Showtime Show The Chi was Renewed for a Second Season
After working with Ansari, Waithe created The Chi, a series about life in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The show tells the story of “a fateful turn of events that sends shockwaves through a community on the Southside of Chicago and connects the lives of Emmett, Brandon, Ronnie and Kevin in unexpected ways.”
Waithe created and executive produced the series along with Common (John Wick Chapter 2) and Elwood Reid (The Bridge). The cast includes Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Jacob Latimore (Sleight), Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Queen of Katwe), and Alex Hibbert (Moonlight).
Showtime‘s official description reads: “Kevin (Hibbert) is the pre-teen who must step past shattered illusions and embrace the normal rites of childhood, while Brandon (Mitchell) the dreamer makes his own nearly impossible leap of faith to succeed in life and love with girlfriend Jerrika. Emmett (Latimore) is the carefree teen is thrust into complex responsibility with guidance from his mother Jada, and Ronnie (Mwine) is the drifter whose struggle to love and be loved calls into question his every pursuit.”
5. Waithe is Engaged to Longtime Girlfriend, Alana Mayo
Mayo, 34, is a content executive and head of production and development at Michael B. Jordan’s Outlier Society. She’s “on a mission to shift the culture with innovative storytelling that spans a range of genres, cultures and demographics,” according to Essence.
In an interview with Glamour Mayo said, “People who are looked at as ‘other’ are kicking ass in the industry right now. They are setting themselves up for incredible longevity and creating paths for a ton of people to come in behind them, so it won’t really matter when the powers that be don’t feel this to be valuable anymore…we’re trying to build something that feels like a legacy and not like a moment.”
For Waithe, her fiancé helps her keep her feet on the ground. “She definitely helps to keep me grounded…When I get home from winning an Emmy, she’s like, ‘Don’t forget to take out the recycling.’ It’s those things that I think are really helpful. She’s so laid back about it all.”