Elise Neal Talks Breaking the Internet at 50 and Creating Her Own Lane in Hollywood

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by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Elise Neal is a familiar face. She's among an ever-growing cohort of Black actors whose given name you might not always remember but whose work you don't forget. We, sometimes, refer to them by the names of their most beloved characters, not because we don't respect the actor but because they come to feel like family.

There are so few representations of Black life that when you find one that resonates, you hold on to it.

But we must hold equally tight to the creators. The Black actors who pour everything into our favorite television and film roles struggle to be recognized in a system that discards their talent.

Thankfully we, the fans, can maintain a kind of closeness through social media, where our unsung faves offer up snippets of their lives.

That's where Elise Neal (you might remember her as Yvonne in The Hughleys or Yevette in Hustle and Flow) regularly serves face and body. The actress, who turned 50 on March 14,  posts updates about her work and appearances on Twitter and Instagram, but she also publishes images that highlight a figure that's remarkable for a woman of any age.

Last week, one photo of Neal in a bikini made the digital rounds. The response highlighted how rare images of confident, sexy women over 40 remain, but also how much we need their work. Because we can't forget that the possessor of that toned frame is also a great, underutilized actress. For Harriet caught up with Elise Neal for a conversation on aging gracefully, staying fit, and creating your own.

For Harriet: Last week pictures of you broke the internet. When did you realize that your were going viral?

Elise Neal: Actually my phone started going off a lot while I was asleep. I was trying my best to ignore it. By 7 o'clock I had that thing like, “Oh my God. Something could be wrong. Somebody could be at the hospital or something could be really wrong.” I picked up the phone and then I see that it's just going crazy.

You wash your face and you're like, "Are they talking about that picture that I posted a couple of days ago?" Oh my God. It was really so surreal. 

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Photo: Instagram/TheRealNealE

FH:  There was picture of you in a bikini and there was another one that was really cute. I think you were maybe in a club celebrating your birthday in a white dress.

EN: Yes. Here's the progression. A week before my birthday, this photographer and I were going back and forth about doing a photo shoot. Then I knew I was going to have a birthday celebration on the weekend before my birthday. My birthday fell on a Monday. That's no fun for anybody. I knew I was going to be in Dallas celebrating my birthday for the weekend, so I was like, "we've got to do this photo shoot before I leave for Dallas before my birthday." I took about three different looks. Even in my post in my bikini I said "When your photographer wants to take pictures before you get to set." That's completely what that was. We were on our way somewhere to do more pictures in the look, but he wanted to test his light and test me or whatever before we got there so I took a quick pose. Then I posted it on my IG. That's when everything got started. The next day I flew for my pre-birthday party. It just all kind of happened at the same time, and it was crazy.

A photo posted by Elise Neal (@therealneale) on

FH: You mentioned that you were out celebrating your birthday last week. You celebrated your 50th birthday. Did you have any anxiety about turning 50?

EN: I think that's what's been so cool. I feel like I'm an ambassador, of sorts, at this moment of embracing life and embracing who you are. I really did not have any anxiety. Call me crazy. It's kind of how I live my life. I think everybody's life is different. Everybody has different things that allow them to do and move in the way that they want. I've always been kind of my own animal. If I'm supposed to turn 50 and start to shrivel up and die, I'd rather continue to work out, dance and love life and enjoy life like I do than do that. It's just me.

FH: Are there any mature women that you look up to who you really think are just living life like you are?

EN: Absolutely! Of course a lot of us do, but I love and admire Oprah Winfrey for the fact that she seems like this mogul who clearly has a lot of responsibility but always seems to just have a good time. She has a party with all of her friends in the entertainment business, playing cards, hanging out with Gayle.

In my opinion, your age shouldn't mean that you shouldn't be having fun. Just because I don't have kids, doesn't mean I don't have responsibilities. Just because you have kids, doesn't mean you're not supposed to have fun. Just because you have five kids doesn't mean that you still can't be sexy. I think a lot of people get stuck on what people tell you you're supposed to do and be. At the end of the day, it's your life. You've got to figure out what makes you happy.

FH: One of the reasons why your photos broke the internet is because you look great for any age. You look great for a 30 year old. How do you maintain your figure?

EN: Well, thank you very much, first of all. I will say anyone that's over 35 knows that it takes work to maintain your body and your figure. I'm just not one to shy away from that work. Am I an advocate for doing a lot of crazy things to get there? No. Because even though people want to complain about it, the easiest way to be fit and the easiest way to have a good body is to freaking work out. It really is that simple. I feel like everybody looks for a short cut. I will say that I don't eat bread.

I don't eat bread. I don't eat cheese. I don't like cheese. I don't eat a lot of sweets. I'm smart enough to portion control my food. I like the way I look and I know doing a certain type of workout and doing certain things makes me look great in my clothes. I'd rather look great in my clothes.

It's a choice. It's not even that hard. I tell people that all the time. It's so not that hard. It's more of a mental thing than it is anything else. I look at people who I think are amazing like J. Lo, Nicole Murphy, and Jada Pinkett Smith. 

You got to be Team No Excuses for yourself in your life, you know. And I'm listing the people who I look at like Nicole Murphy who has a lot of kids. I used to see her at Billy Blanks back in the day, still getting that workout in. You know, you have to do mind over matter and just make it happen

FH: There are a couple of posts on your Instagram of you working out and talking about your fitness. Is it important for you to make sure that the people who follow you know that this does not just happen?

EN: Yeah! You know I try my best, even before this whole viral craze, to just let people know it's possible, and it's not happening naturally. I try my best to let people know, yeah, I'm in the gym at midnight sometimes because that's what my schedule allows. Yeah, I'm here at Barry's Boot Camp working out. I like people to know that I'm not a natural stick. I'm from Memphis, Tennessee. I got to move this junk around. I got to work it out just like anyone else. You know I like certain foods, and then I have my cheat days where I'm eating grains and doing everything else. But in the meantime, I'm drinking a lot of water along with those grains. And then the next day I'm going to counterbalance it with a very hard work out.

FH: So let's talk about your career a little bit. Of course you've had some kind of iconic television roles. Recently you transitioned to reality TV with "Hollywood Divas." How was reality for you?

EN: I like reality TV.  I mean, I wouldn't have even put my toe in that pond if I wasn't a fan. What I'm trying to do now, because I am not returning to "Hollywood Divas", I'm wanting to own my own shows. I think I would be happier owning my own shows. I think it's way past time for me to own my own product. Right now, I'm producing my own TV show. I don't want to talk on it. My own reality show, right now. We're in the works and getting that whole finalized, and we're going to be shooting the trailer for that very soon. So I can't say too much about it, but I'm really excited about that. So that's where I am on reality.

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Neal appeared in the first seasons of Hollywood Divas on TV One
FH: That's understandable, And I will say as someone who watches the show, it does not come as a huge surprise that you might step away. 

But, let's go back, post #OscarsSoWhite there's a lot talk from black creators, black actors, black producers and directors about the importance and the need of creating your own vehicles, creating your own projects, putting your own money up. How do you feel about that?

EN: Girl, we need about five years to sit and talk on this. But in a brief moment here, I'll say this. That is so true that it is time for everyone to create their own vehicles. And not necessarily just because of the bandwagon or because it's the cool thing that everybody wants to say that they're doing.

It's more so that this town [LA] and the climate right now of entertainment is all about being in the position of power. And if you're in the position of power, then you can control more, so that's the best way to go. You don't want to be so dependent on someone else to give you something. And I'll say that that has been a downfall even of mine. I've gotten to the point where I'm getting up off my own butt and saying "No more" to the systematic way of doing it.

I think a lot of people like myself make so much money that you kind of become a robot. Then I finally go, "You know what? I could be doing this myself. I have so many connections. Let me figure this out." 

I went to the ABFF [American Black Film Festival] Honors. I knew Jeff Friday, who is the creator of ABFF,  before I started acting. We met when he used to be a producer of commercials years ago. And I see how he's been able to make this beautiful place for new filmmakers to make a name for themselves. He's got Ryan Coogler and all these other great people.  [I thought] that could be me! That could be me. Why am I sleeping?

So with that knowledge and getting ramped up from seeing that, I'm actually producing my first short film and we start shooting in two days.

A friend of mine introduced me to two other amazing female producers. Their names are Carol Shine and Alani Ford and the three of us have created this really great short film. It's called "Anywhere, USA" and cameras roll in two days.

FH: As a Black woman in Hollywood are you discouraged from striking out on your own or discouraged from speaking up about being overlooked?

EN: I'm more of a grinder. If I'm not speaking on something, it's because I'm so busy grinding to get what I want in this career that I don't take a lot of time to get on a soap box. It's not me. I'd rather be about it than talk about it. I don't think its fair, if you're not part of the solution, to continually talk on the problem. You know what I'm saying? It's kind of counterproductive. So, now that I am being about it, and creating my own, so now I feel like I'll be able to be part of the conversation because I'm trying to be part of the change, as opposed to just putting a twitter post up and complaining. That's counterproductive.

FH: Has the internet and the way that it makes it so much easier to distribute your own content and easier to create your own content been one of the reasons why you have decided to create your own projects?

EN: No, not at all. This is what I'll say about the internet. I don't like when people want to just say that they can produce, or say that they are directing, or say that they can do this and do that. I have been in this entertainment industry for over 25 years, so I think I'm qualified. I'm not trying to do something with a bad camera or just with my cell phone and possibly not make it look great or possibly not make it have great sound. I'm trying to do quality projects, and I think that's the way to go. If you want people to really respect your content, your content has to hold up to the masses, and I'm hoping that's what we create starting in the next couple of days.

I'm not trying to do anything that is not as perfect as we can make it be. And I think that comes with knowledge, that comes with great cameras, that comes with people who really know what they're doing.

FH: Is there anyone working out there, a black filmmaker, a black producer, black director, that has created something that really caught your eye recently?

EN: I'm such a fan of Ava DuVernay. I mean she's amazing to me. Her stories are amazing. She's amazing! She makes amazing movies. I look up to her and what she's been able to accomplish.

FH:  It does seem that there are a few [great] parts for Black women, particularly in television, parts that are grittier and more substantive, parts for women in their forties and fifties. Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union and Regina King are doing really great work. Do you feel like that space is opening up a little bit or is this just going to be a passing moment?

EN: It's so funny because from the outside looking in, everything seems like it's moving in a really good trajectory. But from the inside, we know the behind the scenes of things. 

I love "Being Mary Jane," and she knows it. Like, I will tweet about it sometimes, or tweet her. Like, I love that show. And let me explain why I love shows like that.

I don't think it's always necessary to go back in time for us to shine. I love a show like "Being Mary Jane" because she's a fabulous reporter with amazing clothes. But she is smart, and she is of the moment, and she is right on point to where we are today. I enjoy stories that are about us: beautiful, positive, Black women today. 

King is just an amazing actor, so it doesn't matter what she's on, she's going to kill it. So I'm very proud and happy for her. But again, us talking about three women, maybe four. Is that a big change? Five, because you can't leave out Taraji.

Is that a big change? When there's at least four hundred networks? Is that a big change? And I understand why people want to say "Oh my god, it's changing! Look at these five women!" But you've got to think there's another thousand networks. They're still not servicing us in a big way. A lot of stuff is "come and be the guest star,""come and be reoccurring," "dumb down your character so the other characters on our show can shine." That's great for those five women. That's amazing. And that's why they're getting awards. Because they are amazing. When you put us in roles that we are the stars of, we do shine.

But I want people to also remember that there's a whole lot of other networks with a whole lot of other shows where they like to dumb us down and just put us on there and not utilize us in a creative way. And I don't think that's where I want to end up.

Now, I will do it just like anyone else. I will do it because that's money. That's what we need to do. But that's not where I want to end up. So, to keep from just doing that, I am creating my own content. Because I can be the star of that. I can get writers to write for me. 

"Being Mary Jane" is a show that was written for BET with a black female lead in mind. So you have to kind of know what you want to do and then kind of do it in this town. Like I said, it's better to own your own thing. Ava DuVernay isn't really working for anybody else. You know what I'm saying? So you kind of got to go "Okay, this is what I see me as".

And I'll say this, being fifty in this town is not looked at as a great thing for most people. Personally, I don't care. But they don't necessarily want to hire me, whether I look young or not, because I am fifty. But that doesn't deter me, because I'm not a negative person. I know that I'm talented enough. I've gotten awards. I've done a lot of work. That's not it. It's more so the town wants to put their own labels on you and that's fine. But I can create it myself and be the star with myself and hire who I want, and we can go out and win awards. And then the town starts to pay attention. That's just kind of how it goes.

FH: When it comes to financing, one of the major obstacles in getting things made is people just don't have the money. They can't find the money. How do you approach financing. Have you encountered obstacles in getting things made because you just can't find people to fund it?

EN: Of course! Like I said, everybody wants to look out for self. This is me putting my toe in the water. It's a short film, so this one's not as hard. This is something that you get some investors, and you create. But this is just the toe. So I'm praying that this toe in gets people excited enough that then when I hit them with the complete film that I would ask for financing for, they've already seen the short and then we can go from there. It's baby steps, you know, baby steps. I haven't done a lot of asking, but, you know, we'll see.

FH: You are a veteran in the entertainment industry. You mentioned that you've been doing this for 25 years. Is there a role that you were offered that you turned down and you regret?

EN: Not like that so much. There's roles that I've wanted that I was close to getting that I didn't get that I was like "Dang!"

FH: Which roles?

EN: Well, I almost got Beyoncé's role in Austin Powers [Goldmember]. I was next in line for that.

That would have been so amazing. So that was kind of like "Dang!" But you know I can't beat out Beyoncé! I got a call from someone close to the production like "Elise, I saw your name and your picture up. I think you're close to getting that role." I was like "Get the hell out of here!" I got so excited, but then I got the call that she was going to do the soundtrack, and, of course, that's when it went to her. Of course, it's Beyonce! You can't compete with that. But that would probably be one.

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Elise Neal played Yvonne Hughley from 1998-2002 Photo: UPN
FH: So you were on TV. You did "The Hughleys." It seems like now people who you would have thought of as movie stars are moving to television. How do you feel about that? It seems like the stigma about TV is diminishing.

EN: And I hate the fact that that's happening now. When I was doing TV, I couldn't even do certain roles because I couldn't get out of the contract. But now everyone's embracing it. Things are just changing all over the place. But I will say it becomes a little hard for the new actors when a lot of those roles on television are being taken away by huge talent from movies. It's become a little more sticky. When you've got people like Laurence Fishburne doing TV and Lady Gaga doing TV, it's like "Well, how am I gonna compete with that?"  Angela Bassett. It's a lot of money. I mean, I hate that people who do a lot of film finally got a hint that you can make a lot of money doing TV, but they have.

FH: So you mentioned that you are leaving "Hollywood Divas." There was a little bit of friction between you and some of the other women. And there was one particular argument that I thought was really interesting. You and the other women were on a panel, and you mentioned that you are not married and you do not have children. You made the choice that you did not want to have children if you did not have a husband. After that, Golden Brooks was a little bit offended by the way that you delivered that. And there was a confrontation and it escalated. Which was kind of surprising to me. I'm interested in how frequently you find yourself having to defend the fact that you don't have children and that you're not married.

EN: I don't have to defend that, usually, at all. I think everyone is pretty clear on that your body, your choice. But I like Golden even to this day, even though we don't speak. I like Golden. I liked Golden in that moment. I think that is my problem with certain shows and certain ways that things happen on reality TV. I like my friends to still be my friends. I don't want anyone trying to taint our friendship by adding craziness to the mix to the point where they don't understand me and I don't understand them. And I would rather not do anything that does that. And that's pretty much all I want to say about that show because it's over. I'm moving on the next thing.