It has been almost 3o years since we saw the beautiful Vanessa Bell Calloway play Princess Imani Izzi in Eddie Murphy’s hit film Coming to America, but this actress/dancer/director has been a fixture on screen ever since. She can now be seen as Lady Ella Johnson on the Bounce TV primetime soap, Saints & Sinners.
Bell Calloway hails from Toledo, Ohio. After graduating from Ohio University, she made her bones in dance and studied with Alvin Ailey and George Faison and danced on Broadway. In 1985, she landed a role on the ABC soap All My Children and continued to work steadily in TV and films. She appeared in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993), The Inkwell (1994), Crimson Tide (1995), first African American prime time soap opera Under One Roof (1995) and Daylight (1996). She had the recurring role on Hawthorne on TNT and she also appeared in Showtime comedy-drama, Shameless and film Southside with You (2016). She is also an eight-time NAACP Image Award nominee.
There is nothing not to like about Vanessa Bell Calloway. She is a purely positive presence with an impressive body of work. She spoke with TheCelebrityCafé.com about that body of work, her dual role of actor and director for Saints & Sinners, winning her battle with cancer with faith and love and support from family and friends, what she has in common with Susan Lucci, her thoughts of ageing (she's 60!) including talking about the dance video that she did with her daughters that went viral (you can view that in all of its wonder further down in this interview), what she likes to do for fun and more.
TheCelebrityCafé.com: I have a little story for you before we get going …
Vanessa Bell Calloway: Okay.
TCC: I was talking to my family and telling them that I was interviewing you and they said, "Oh, the princess from Coming to America." They started gushing and said how good you are and I realized, though, I've seen you in so many things and even if you're a supporting character, I remember your role because of your performance as much if not more than the lead. So I think that's credit to you for being such a good actor.
VBC: Thank you. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Yes, that was almost 29 years ago because that's 29 years this coming—was it June? That was 29 years ago. So thank you for remembering that [laughter].
TCC: So what's new with you?
VBC: Oh, a lot is new. I'm starring in a show called Saints & Sinners and it's on Bounce TV. And we come on Sundays at 9 o'clock. This Sunday and then the 16th of April the episode that I directed aired and I'm going to be recurring on Survivor's Remorse this coming summer when it airs and I have a BG Centric series that's starting, as a matter of fact, the first on the Centric station. So yeah, a lot's going on.
TCC: You're originally from Ohio, is that correct?
VBC: I'm originally from Ohio. I was born in Toledo, raised in Cleveland.
TCC: You are trained as a dancer. Is that correct?
VBC: That's correct. I danced. I started out my career as a dancer and I danced in New York with—I studied at Alvin Ailey for years, and I danced with a lot of small dance companies and I danced on Broadway. I danced in movies and TV. Yes, I've done dance and I sing somewhat. Not fabulously, but I do sing enough to get hired when it's—back in the day when I had to sin—I did it.
TCC: How did you know you wanted to be an actor?
VBC: You know I think it was something that I was born with. My mother always says I came out dancing, because I was a breech birth [laughter]. And ever since I was a little girl—
I was, I was a breech birth, and the doctor said, "Oh, she's danced her way out." And my mother always loved to tell that story because I actually did become a dancer. But ever since I can remember, I mean, dancing was the first thing I wanted to do. As a little girl that's all I wanted to do is dance. I used to run around and imitate everything dancing and I taught myself how to dance by getting those little books that said "I Want to be a Ballerina" and that's how I taught myself the positions. And then when I finally got some training, I mean it just was obvious that's what was meant for me to do. It's just obvious. So from that, I decided well, because I've always kind of acted as well along with the dance, so from there I decided well it's time for me to go over and do more acting and that's what I did when I was in New York. I just kind of switched over because I realized that a dancer's life is very short and I had so much of a creative energy in me that I needed outlets to do other things so that's when I started acting more and it all kind of blended together. When you're on stage you're acting and you're dancing, it started blended together now. So and then, of course, it brought me out to Los Angeles so I was exposed and got the opportunity to do more serious shows, more [inaudible] on TV, more film. And everything just opened up.
TCC: What was your first professional acting gig in movies or television?
VBC: Well, my first professional acting gig—professional means you got paid for it—was a TV commercial that aired late night in New York City, meaning that it was a local commercial. And this was in the mid-80s when hair weaves weren't very popular yet. This was one of the first hair weaves. It was called Oh, Diane! And anybody who's from New York, they'll laugh because they remember that commercial, me in that commercial. And that was really my first professional gig because I was waitressing and the people saw me and they asked me if I was in the commercial and I said, "Yes." And I got paid so that's what made it my first professional job I got paid for. But it was called Oh, Diane!
It was funny. Just to look at it now, I'm sure it's just horrible. But back then, I was on TV quite a bit, every night. You'd call me talking about Oh, Diane! And this is me.
TCC: And it paid the bills, so that's a plus.
VBC: Well, no. It didn't really pay the bills [chuckles]. It was just more exciting to do. Because that was the buyout. They give you one opportunity. You do it and then you're done. That's the where the noose comes in, because they tried to play it for years and I had people telling me to get my attorney on it, because years later after I had started making it and people started recognizing me as an actress, they were still trying to play that commercial. They were sneaking and we caught them. But no, it didn't pay the bills. But at that time it was exciting because I hadn't done anything. It was my first time in front of the camera and it was just showing me that I did have the capability of doing what I had dreamed that I could do and I would be able to become an actress. It served its purpose at that time.
TCC: You've had such a long and full career. What are some of your favorite roles?
VBC: You know, people always ask me that and I can't say I have a favorite role. I have a lot of roles that I've enjoyed for various reasons. I think what I could say about that is I've been very blessed and lucky because they all have been the iconic or cults. Like a cult-type movie and a lot of them have stood the test of time. At the time when I took them, that was taken on because I liked the part and I wanted a job quite honestly. This was a good job and I took it. But then years later when you look back and you realize that it was a blessing and it was something that really added to my career, the longevity of it and things that were memorable. So I can't say I have a favorite part. I have several favorite parts for several different reasons.
TCC: Well, please tell me about Saints & Sinners?
VBC: Well, Saints & Sinners is on Bounce TV and it's a show that I'm starring in. This is our second season. Like I said, we air Sundays at 9 o'clock on Bounce. It's about a town called Cypress which is in Georgia, fictitious city, Cypress in Georgia, and the backdrop is the church. It opened up last season with my husband, who was the pastor, getting killed and it was a “whodunit” so to speak. I'm the first lady but at the time I was a councilwoman. Now I'm the mayor, this season, I'm a widower, I'm a mother, I'm a businesswoman, but she has a lot of dirt in her past. She has a lot of stuff going on, let's just say that. So there's all these other wonderful characters with a lot of sordid pasts and a lot of problems and everything is intertwined and that makes good TV because you never want everybody to be safe and sound. All these people are intertwined with their problems and their histories and it kind of erupts periodically at different points. So it's just a fun nighttime drama that just really explores—like I said, the backdrop is the church. It doesn't really explore church people per se, but it does take— the basis is of these people belonging to the same church in the same town and they all have histories.
TCC: What's the kind of part that you want to play that you haven't played yet?
VBC: That's a very good question. I wouldn't say that I haven't played it yet, but maybe I haven't played it in the extent that I want to play it. Because I have a chance to play a lot of these things but sometimes you don't get the opportunity to play very long. I would love to do something like I'm doing now which would be a family drama but based more in reality. Like one of those shows that is really about the complications of family and not necessarily. We have a lot of visual murders in our show which is fine. But it would be really good just to have a really good strong sense of family drama with a lot of different obstacles and characters and stuff to do. But I think that a lot of things I wanted to do I've done. I know what it feels like to play a lot of different characters. And I know the ones I prefer and I know who I don't prefer. I got kind of got my fill of judges. Those aren't my favorite characters to play but I just play them when I'm asked. But it's not my favorite character.
TCC: Would you like to play deliciously dirty characters?
VCB: I have. They've been fun. I love to play deliciously dirty characters because you want people to have turmoil. You want people to have a multi-faceted personality with problems and issues and things that need to be worked out. You want that, you know? So, yeah.
TCC: Now, you also direct. What have you directed?
VBC: I've directed several shorts. This is my first ever TV show that I've directed, Saints & Sinners, which aired on April 16th, but I have directed other shorts. I'm still in the beginning of my directing career, but I enjoy it and I'm looking for more projects to do. Next season I will be directing more Saints & Sinners, so I'll get more practice.
TCC: I read that a few years ago that you had battled cancer. I was so sad to read that, but I'm happy that you won your battle. How did you deal with the diagnosis and treatments?
VBC: Well, you know I'm sure I feel like you would feel if someone told you, you had cancer. It's not anything you want to hear, but it's something you have to deal with. After I got over the shock and after my husband and my family supported me and showed me that it was just a breast and who cared and after we did looked at my options and realized that the best thing to do was to get the mastectomy. I did and I'm so glad that I did. I'm so glad that I did because I was successful and eight years later, to be honest with you I always forget that I have had cancer because it's not something I hold onto or try to remember. It happened. It's gone, I'm blessed. It's over, I did what I as asked to do medication-wise, I'm off that. I've seen my doctors and that's the reason I found it so early and I was one of the lucky ones because I did my mammograms on a regular basis and I'd seen my doctor on a regular basis so I was able to beat it, combat it in that way. It had me, I didn't have it.
TCC: But you beat it, which is great.
VBC: I beat it. It had me, I didn't have it.
TCC: What do you like to do for fun?
VBC: I love cooking and entertaining. I try to do a lot of entertaining at my house—I just had a huge 60th birthday party so that was fun planning for the last several months. I mean, I love a good party. I love a good dinner party. I love cooking and to me that's very relaxing. It's fun when you bring people together and you celebrate whatever you're celebrating or just have it just because just because. Yeah, that's what I really like doing, just being with my family and my friends and just kicking back and eating some good food, drinking some good wine and laughing and talking. That's fun.
TCC: And what are some charities that you support?
VBC: I'm on the board of Sickle Cell Foundation here in Los Angeles. K-I-S-S, KISS Foundation, which benefits children with sickle cell. But my brother passed away from sickle cell.
TCC: So, that's close to your heart. Are there any others?
VBC: That’s the main one I've done. And I do things with the homelessness and I've done a lot of things in the past with the battered women and children. But the thing that I focus on right now is the sickle cell.
TCC: And you've been nominated for several NAACP Image Awards?
VBC: Yeah, I feel the like the Susan Lucci of the Image Awards. it's because I haven't won one yet, but it's okay. I'm not dead. There's still a chance [laughter].
TCC: Oh, I think still being nominated is important. I love that.
VBC: I'm happy. I'm happy to get the nomination. At least I know that they see that I'm working hard.
TCC: And you're still around, which is a plus.
VBC: And I'm still around. How about that? So there's other opportunities.
TCC: I like that. How do you like your fans to reach out to you?
VBC: My fans reach out to me, and Twitter is one of my favorite ways and Instagram. See, I actually talk to a lot of my fans. I've met a lot of people on Twitter, who I wouldn't know if they walked up to me. I wouldn't know how they look. But we talk like we're old friends because, for the last several years, they tweet me and I answer them back. And now, we have our own dialogue. I like Twitter, actually and I like Instagram and I like talking to people. Most weeks, I'll take a day, a morning or two out of my day and I'll sit and I'll just answer my tweets. You have to get back quickly. And I think that's important to let people know that you see them because they took the time to acknowledge me. And they took the time to if you want to be my fan and to follow me and appreciate what I do. So the least I can do is to hit them back and say, "Hey, I see you. How you doing? We appreciate you. We really, appreciate you" Like, "Hey, how you doing? Yeah, you have a good day too man." Like, "Oh my God, she answered me." That's how I really communicate with my fans. Now, nobody sends you fan mail anymore. Back in the day, there was a lot of fan mail but nobody does that anymore. Instagram is the main way that I communicate.
TCC: What are your handles?
VBC: @nessabcalloway. And my Instagram is vanessabellcalloway. My name was too long for long Twitter [laughter] so I had to shorten it too.
TCC: They cut mine down too [laughter].
VBC: They wouldn't let me do my whole name. So I had to do nessabcalloway. Nessa B is my production company. That's my other name, Nessa B.
TCC: What is your production company?
VBC: Well, go to inthecompanyoffriends.tv. and I have two rough series there. You can see my latest video which I just produced. Me and my daughters dancing for my 60th birthday which has gone viral. It's over 100,000 likes, views in just a few days and that number keeps climbing. For my 60th birthday, I asked my daughters—my daughters are both dancers because I'm a dancer and they were raised as dancers. They danced here in Los Angeles with various companies but they also dance in various studios and trained with Debbie Allen who was a dear friend of mine. And my dream was to dance with my daughters since they were born and I was waiting for them to get old enough, but I wanted to dance with them and they made that come true. This past December we had a choreographer, we choreographed it and we shot it and I premiered it at my party at my birthday weekend, the weekend of March 17th and 18th was my big birthday bash in Los Angeles. 17th, 18th, and 19th, I had a three-day weekend. And I premiered my dance video and everybody loved it. People were crying, it's beautiful. So you'll see that on my website as well my Instagram. You'll see my web series, you'll see a lot of my interviews, you'll see a lot. I have a lot of stuff on my site for my production company.
TCC: I'll look forward to exploring it well, what's next up for you?
VBC: Oh, you know, now I'm vacationing a little bit. Coming down from my birthday celebration ...
TCC: I like the three day birthday weekend. That's the way to do it.
VBC: Oh, it was epic, honey. It was massive major epic. It was so much fun. I had the best time. I had more fun than you could imagine. But next up, right now I'm just doing a couple of quick vacations and back at work making Saints & Sinners is back to more meetings and conversations. We're taking meetings and doing that type of thing. But I've been resting which is very nice. She did a very nice job with an autobiographical type of biography where you talk about you and stuff. But I think she did a very good job with that.
TCC: I'll be looking forward to seeing it. I can't wait to see the dance video …
VBC: It's on YouTube.
TCC: I'll be sure to check it out.
VBC: Send your readers to that. And I also have a campaign, yes. I'm going to tell you about my campaign that I've started. It's also on my website, and the campaign I started in honor of my 60th birthday is called “how do you rock your age.” I call it “This is my 60. How do you rock your age?” Because women, we're taught that aging is bad. We're made to feel like you cannot age. I celebrate it. Women are age-shamed. Women should they be put out to pasture. And it's not about people trying to look like me at 60. I'm not suggesting that, but look your best, feel your best, but most of all, be your best. And it's not only for women of 60. It's about women of all age, when you're 20 till you die. Whatever era you're in, whatever decade, whatever age you are, learn how to embrace it. Don't be ashamed of it. Be proud of it, because there's no negotiation. Either you get older, or you're dead. It's that simple. [laughter].
There's no grey area there. If you don't have a birthday next day, that means you died. So aging is a privilege. It's not a given. And I really would love to change the mindset of people with this aging you know? Don't be ashamed of your age. You've lived a long time. You've learned a lot. Tout you knowledge. Be proud of your experience. Be proud of who you've become. Don't hide, and don't be ashamed like, "Oh my God. I'm nearly turning 50," or, "I'm turning 60. Shhh, don't tell nobody." No. You need to tell everybody because that's who you are. That's where you are in your life or you're dead. Really, it's one or the other. So women, when you go on rockyourage.com, you will see all these women who have submitted these beautiful photographs of themselves, and they give a little testimony about how they rock their age, what are their ages. And that's what we can offer to that-- the link will take you to that from my website, but it's howyourockyourage.com. And I'm encouraging women of all ages, size, colors, shapes, whatever, embrace who we are, and stand in the unique face that God has created for you and be proud of it. Don't hide from it. Don't lie about it. Don't be ashamed of it and don't let nobody make you feel ashamed because you're aging in the world. It's a privilege. God has blessed you. Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney, they'll never know what it's like to be 60. They'll never know that.
YCC: That's very sad and it's very true.
VBC: Whitney won't ever even know what it's like to be 50. Whitney will never know what it's like to be 50. She died before she was 50. So there's nothing to be ashamed of. You should be proud of it.
TCC: I agree with you. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I wish you luck in all your endeavors. Really, you're so much fun to watch. I can't wait to see your next project.
VBC: Well, tell your family I said thank you for those kind words. I appreciate that they remember me and that they like seeing me. And, I mean, as I said, the fat lady, she ain't even left the building. So any love for me, the fat lady is still in the house [laughter]. So I don't always have to know what's next. I just know there is a next. All you need is the mustard seed of faith.
I don't even need to know what's next. I know it's already written and I know there is a next. So tell your family "Look out," because I'm sure some great stuff is coming.
Vanessa Bell Calloway can be seen on Saints & Sinners Sunday nights at 9 p.m. EST on Bounce as well as on her website vanessabellcalloway.com