“I wanted to talk to you guys a little bit about myself, and just try to find the way it doesn’t come across narcissistic or this actress coming to talk about herself and this long hard journey. ‘Oh, it’s so hard to be an actress,’ right? Because you don’t want to hear that; that’s not what we’re here to do. You want to hear about the journey and the reality behind anything hard or anything that you want to become. Right? Because there is something behind that. That you have to persevere to do.
“The most important thing to remember about me from this is that I’m actually naturally not good at anything. I’m not. I’m not naturally a good singer, naturally a good actress, naturally a good dancer. And actually, those are the only things in my mind I can actually kind of do. I have to train a lot. A lot of people think there’s some sort of amount of hours it takes to become a master at anything, so if you want to be an artist or a chef or a magician — whatever it is — there’s a certain amount of time that you have to spend working on that skill. I still train to this day — I’m still in dance lessons, I still have an acting coach. I still have singing lessons… That’s not what really is cool to talk about right?
“It’s cool to talk about the red carpets and what you’re wearing and all the different celebrities that are in all the weekly’s and what they’re doing and who they’re dating. It’s not really cool to talk about the fact that I had 86 cents when I booked Vampire Diaries and I was so convinced that I was going to get killed off the show that I actually slept on an inflatable mattress for the first six months being on the show, because I was so positive and I was so in debt when I got the show that I wanted to save my money, because I thought I was going to be out of there.
“There is a type of self-awareness that we all have to have in terms of what we want to be and want to do and I was given three talking points for coming down here to talk to you guys. One of those was ‘If you can’t see it, then you can’t be it.’ It’s actually a very simple perspective that you guys have to have in your life.
“I started reading these self-help books when I was 16, because even though I was born in Switzerland to a father who worked for the U.N., when my parents got divorced, we went back down to nothing. There was no support. We were in a shitty one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. We had no money, sometimes no money for food. My car had been repossessed. We were like poor. And it’s important to have a realization of what you’re working with when you start. Right? So if you have a specific skill you really feel good about, it’s important to hone in on that.
“That’s just kind of the acting side; there’s a whole world for music that… I don’t know. It’s nice to be at a music festival as an independent artist because in a lot of ways I’m not supposed to be here. I have had — and still kind of until this day have — sometimes everything working against me… You guys ever feel like that? Like ‘I have everything working against me to make this happen. I have literally no love. I know no one. I have no money. I have no contact. How am I going to make this happen for myself? Where do I start? I’ll maybe put myself on YouTube?’ Yes. You start with what you have. If that is nothing, you start with nothing and you go.
“When I first started making music I was 14 years old and I wanted to be a beat maker. Actually, first off, I wanted to be a battle DJ. This is before Vampire Diaries. My mom, she had to work and she was a single mom. She had to drop me off at the Boys and Girls Club so I winded up getting all these old school records like Farside, Wu Tang… I was this 14-year-old tomboy that just wanted to be a beat maker. I would be at the Boys and Girls Club; she’d drop me off. All the girls would be painting their nails and I’d be doing this.
“And then I winded up getting a few different things — like all the little Disney stuff that she was talking about [referring to host introduction]. That money actually went to recording equipment. So I used all the money that I made, which wasn’t honestly that much. And background dancing. And I was an extra, and a featured extra, and a background dancer, and a stand-in, and a body double, and I used that money and I got the equipment and I was making beats in my bedroom for my mom and I, because we shared the place… I bought all this stuff and around like 16, 17, I went to meet a producer by the name of will.i.am and I was like ‘I’m this new beat maker, I’m going to be like the new Missy Elliot, I’m going to take over, you should not f*** with me, I’m going to be so dope!’ And he did. He actually listened to me — he was crazy. He actually took me on the world tour when I was 17, 18, after I had finished engineering school. They actually let me in engineering school when I hadn’t finished my high school diploma. I actually ended up finishing it while I was still in high school. And I went on a world tour — a country a day — and I didn’t really make any money, but I got to see the world.
“And then after that, I winded up back to what I started with, which was nothing, which was poor. I couldn’t really save my money because after that I didn’t wind up working again. So I was back to living with my mom after this amazing world tour, after performing for 20,000 people or whatever. I ended up auditioning for a pilot on a TV show called Vampire Diaries. But at that point, mind you, I had shot five pilots — five — that had never gotten picked up, so I was like ‘let’s shoot another pilot; it’s not going anywhere.’ And then winded up booking that.
“So, still that 14-year-old skater that makes beats in her bedroom was now getting to do acting more and all that, and I was raised thinking that’s what you were supposed to be. Especially as an African-American woman, I really like to think there is this kind of — I think of Josephine Baker, and I thought of Janet Jackson, and I thought of all these old school… even Will Smith, Jada Pinkett, these triple threats. People that really could do it all, even Jennifer Lopez, I mean, these were people that I thought and I envied that could do that, so maybe there’s someone that you guys have — for me, it was them — whatever you want, whether you’re an artist, or you’re an accountant, or you want to be an investment banker — whatever you want to do. There has to be… it’s almost like a pacemaker is the right word? Somebody that you want to… that you look at their careers, and you look at the steps they took, and you find the parallels between you and that person and then you try to match them.
“So while I was doing Vampire Diaries I was going back and forth and doing all my music stuff. I ended up releasing a record with Warner Brothers that winded up going nowhere. I left that deal. I ended up going to A&M Interscope, and then the label folded in the middle of me doing the promo and I said ‘Okay, enough.’ I don’t want to do the label situation anymore. I want to not use my masters. I’m smarter than this — I need to be smarter than this.
“Again, I thought that it was going to be easier. That was my biggest mistake. I thought that maybe because of what I looked like, I thought maybe because I had a long resume, I thought that maybe because I could dance… I don’t know, I thought it would be easier. Sometimes, if you take the harder route, even if it’s the only route you have, you will win. Sometimes you have to take the harder route to win. I always think that is the only route you can take — is the harder route to win. You can, of course, especially as a woman — there are times where you will be presented to compromise yourself in an industry. It doesn’t have to be entertainment; it can be anything. And you will be given that choice. But you will lose your power along the way. And that is all you have to maintain — your self-drive is your power and respect for yourself. So I did it the hard way and I produced my own record. By myself, with my own money from Vampire Diaries and the other stuff that I’ve been doing and I made my own record.
“So when I made the record, I finished, and I kind of sat on it for a while because I was insecure. I know maybe you guys have things you’ve been working on or maybe you’re procrastinating because there’s something about it or about yourself that you’re insecure about, yes? Something that you can think of that you’re maybe not dealing with full force because you maybe feel you don’t have the right people behind you? The right attitude for it? You don’t feel like you have what it takes; you don’t feel like it doesn’t have what it takes. I felt like that. And then I got an email from a guy named Prince saying ‘Hey, I want to work with you on your new music,’ and so I did, and I went to Minneapolis and I worked with him. Sometimes we need the validation of someone like that, which is very rare — that I got that was a gift from God. But I needed the validation from someone that is notoriously an independent artist — fiercely independent about the label and about having that image, and that winded up being enough for me. Meanwhile I’m still maintaining the balance of this character that has grown wings — this character Bonnie Bennett, who is more famous than me, let’s be honest, right? You love Bonnie Bennett.
“When they first asked me to come and speak for you guys, I honestly didn’t really know what to say or what to talk about, but they mentioned me talking about balance. Having life balance in your work. In a lot of people’s minds, I am two different people, right? I am this character on Vampire Diaries and then I am this music person and then it says here I also work for the U.N., which is true. I do.
“There is no way to balance two careers. There is no way. That’s what I didn’t realize until recently. I am either doing Vampire Diaries or I’m doing my music. It is impossible for me to go on tour if I’m shooting every day of the week. It is impossible for me to shoot every day of the week and shoot a music video and a do a bunch of promo appearances. There is no balance, so you have to find… I’m lucky that I work with a team of people and I have the support of the people that I work with that I am able to find different ways to do what I want to do and I believe in what I’m doing. And I’m lucky that I have a job that allows that — that I’m not working every day, you know what I mean?
“But let me remind you that when I booked the show I had 86 cents. A lot of people are so scared to lose everything for their dream that they hold onto the little things that they understand and they’re comfortable with. That is a mistake in my opinion. That is a mistake. You have to give it your all. I had to lose everything to stand before you. I lost everything. I had 86 cents in my account but I was $5,000 in debt and I had no car. So I’m not saying don’t have a job. If you can have one, great, but don’t just think you’re going to have a 9 to 5 and then you’re going to put a couple videos up on YouTube and you’re going to be discovered.
“I also think that we’re living in a time of this millennial age where people don’t want to work. I have an old school philosophy and I hope that everyone in this room, especially my young girls looking at me right now, will work for what you want. There is no other way to get where you want unless you work. Which means maybe not being on Instagram so much, not checking your Facebook so much, who cares what that person is wearing, get out of the mirror, focus. Really focus. I want my girls… If you have big dreams, you have to work. I wish it was easier, but it’s not.
“Besides the two balances there’s also another balance, there’s the balance of being a… this artist, right? The fame, red carpet, b.s. stuff, right? And there’s: What are you going to do with it? Which I don’t know people in Hollywood or the magazines… they really care about that much.
“If you are successful or you are popular in whatever you do and you’re getting attention — attention from men, attention from other girls — you’re just like this hot thing, right? There are a lot of popular people in here right now. Sometimes it can warp you; you start thinking you are those things and you start thinking it’s all about you. And then that creates even more insecurities, because when somebody then says, ‘You’re not that good,’ or, ‘What you’ve created isn’t that good,’ then it starts to affect you and your psyche.
“And what I do is I say, ‘Then get outside of yourself.’ The second you start to feel insecure about who you are or insecure about what you’re building or insecure about you, get outside of yourself. Go volunteer at a children’s hospital, animal shelter, picking up trash on the beach. Do what you have to do to make the world a better place, because there is someone out there that has less than you have that’s working harder than you to get where you want to get to. So there has to be a space of gratitude, of world awareness, which is why I work for the U.N. refugee agency.
“My parents — even though it sounds kind of fancy: born in Switzerland, Russian, Polish, speak all these kinds of languages — my father is seven generations Liberian. Liberian Civil War. We’re talking about genocide; we’re talking about my grandfather was lined up on the beach to be shot during the Charles Taylor regime. My mother — Russian, Polish Jew. I’m a black Jew. So no one gets more discrimination than I do, right? I’m, like, asking for it, which I do. I get more discrimination about anti-Semitism than I do about anything else because people’s religion is so… it’s sometimes what’s separating the world.
“Both of my sides — we’re talking about the Holocaust, we’re talking about the Liberian Civil War. I am literally dealing with people that have had to flee their countries and find refuge in other countries. And people are like, ‘Oh, why do you work for the refugee agency?’ That’s why, because it is a part of my history and I could easily be a refugee child.
“I went to a refugee camp in January of last year; it’s a Syrian refugee camp housing about 100,000 refugees and they all kind of looked like me — all the girls looked like me. And they were proud to be who they were. They just lost their home. So then I go back to America where I have everything I need — I have all the food, and the shelter, and clothing, and everything that I need and I’m just supposed to, what? Be that fabulous actress that everyone thinks I’m supposed to be, or just talk about Bonnie from the Vampire Diaries? It’s like, ‘Ok great, now that I have your attention, let’s find a way — whatever your passion is — find a way to make this world a better place while you are on it. Because we only have a certain amount of years here.’
“So I’m using all I know how to do — which, like I said, I’m not even very good at in the first place — to get your attention, to get some sort of notoriety so that we can help people that are displaced around the world because of political strife or… There are so many reasons there are refugees in this world.
“I don’t know what you guys are passionate about, but if you’re here, you’re here because there’s something in you that says ‘I want to learn. I want to educate myself. I want to open my third eye. I want to open myself up into… whatever.’ But I am no different than you. I just have a different outfit. I am absolutely no different than you. In fact, in many a case, I started off below you. I just hope you remember that, that when you think of me, you think of somebody that started off with less than what you had, but I never stopped. And I’m not going to stop.
“I just want you guys to leave here feeling empowered. Whatever you do, whatever you are, whoever you are, whatever you want to be — that you leave here and you feel empowered. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your sex or your religion — go after what you want. You’ll get it.”