I cannot speak for everybody, but the general consensus of my generation seems to be that growing up, the media taught us that we (Black people/textured hair) were not beautiful. When blonde hair, blue eyes, skinny, etc. is portrayed as the standard of beauty, it immediately puts everyone who’s not that at a disadvantage and essentially “othered.” The more we see People of Color embracing their natural beauty on stage, TV, in magazines, it subconsciously sends the message that this is now acceptable. Better yet, that it’s BEAUTIFUL.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Salisha Thomas, a Broadway actress, blogger, and a former Miss California. She was in the touring and Broadway companies of Beautiful the Carole King Musical, a former vocalist for Disney, and currently hosting the new podcast, Black Hair in the Big Leagues. She is slated to be in the Britney Spears Musical One More Time upon Broadway’s reopening.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 13, my school took a field trip from Fresno, California to New York City, and that’s when I saw my first Broadway show. I was sitting in the orchestra section at Wicked looking up at those amazing actors and I thought, I want to do that! Twelve years later, I made my Broadway debut and it was even better than I had dreamt. I’ve made a lot of friendships in the three years since I was welcomed into the Broadway community, and now it’s fun to call up said friends and say, “Hey, you’re coming on my podcast.” And they’re like, “Yes girl!” And I do the same for them!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
On our 5 year anniversary for Beautiful the Carole King Musical, the producers called a cast meeting to make an announcement. They shared that the real-life Carole King would be not only in the building that evening, but that she was also going to be in the show. For the final scene, instead of the actress portraying Carole coming out and sitting on the piano, the real Carole King came out, and the audience screamed so loud, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! It was a total surprise! The cast was cheering from the wings. The audience had jumped to their feet. Our show turned into a full blown concert! After the show backstage, Gayle King passed me in the hallway and said to me, “What a great show! Just — WOW!” I did a double take and looked at my producer standing in front of me and exclaimed, “That was Gayle!”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was on tour, I was so star struck of the first time I performed at The Kennedy Center. I remember dancing out onto the stage of one of the scenes, and I stopped dead in my tracks while the rest of the ensemble danced around me, I was looking out into the audience, completely dumbfounded and in awe for what felt like 5 minutes but in actuality was probably all of 31 seconds. And then I remembered that, Salisha! You have to keep dancing! Be star struck later!
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I started a podcast called Black Hair in the Big Leagues where I interview amazing Black women and men working on Broadway, television (and other industries) about their hair. Talking about hair is fun but more than that, it’s a gateway to a much bigger conversation about how we are showing up in the world as black and brown people. It’s fulfilling to create a platform that highlights and uplifts black talent in a positive way. What I love is that we are talking about something that is palatable for people of all colors and backgrounds. And in doing that, we are opening up an important conversation a lot of different types of people can benefit from. It’s tailor made for Black women, but if you have any type of curly hair, are a lover of Broadway, or even an ally, it’s a fun listen. It’s like being a fly on the wall in the dressing room of a Broadway theater.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
One of the cool things about Broadway (pre-covid at least) is that the actors on the stage are usually pretty accessible. Unlike watching a movie, after our show ends, we have to leave the building at some point. Many times, at the stage door, there will be patrons who just saw the show that want an autograph or to take a picture. And every now and then, I meet a student who’s about to start college at my Alma mater, or someone from my hometown. I love to spontaneously bring them backstage. One girl in particular who I brought back, had never stepped foot on a Broadway stage, and she had always wanted to. When I showed her the stage, she burst into tears. I remembered my first time, and so it was a really lovely moment to silently hold space with her while she discovered that some things that previously felt impossible are indeed possible.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
I cannot speak for everybody, but the general consensus of my generation seems to be that growing up, the media taught us that we (Black people/textured hair) were not beautiful. When blonde hair, blue eyes, skinny, etc. is portrayed as the standard of beauty, it immediately puts everyone who’s not that at a disadvantage and essentially “othered.” The more we see People of Color embracing their natural beauty on stage, TV, in magazines, it subconsciously sends the message that this is now acceptable. Better yet, that it’s BEAUTIFUL. When it comes to writing and creating material, who better to tell Black stories than Black people? We know it because we lived it. It’s not a guessing game or a game of telephone. It’s our truth. And thirdly, when a Black person walks into a room and there’s another Black person in that room (I’m specifically thinking about when I start rehearsals for a new show or in an audition setting), there is an unspoken sense of “I see you. You are not alone.” When microaggressions occur, there’s an odd comfort in knowing that someone else saw it happen, even if it’s never discussed.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
I think just being aware is a HUGE great first step. I get understand that people like working with their friends. But when choosing a creative team, if all your friends are white, just be aware that there’s a whole gaggle of folks not being represented.
When there is only one black person in a show, that singular black person may be very grateful for the opportunity but is hyper aware that they’ve been cast as “The Token”.”
If someone brings to your attention that something you did felt racially charged, try your best to not be defensive. And to approach the situation with an open heart and mind and be willing to listen. Doing so will dissolve the crisis much sooner and easier.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My favorite leaders are the ones with the smallest egos. They’re usually so humble and don’t go around reminding everyone of their power. I respect leaders like this so much, that I’d do almost anything for them. A great leader has a fierce passion for whatever they’re doing and a respect for everyone in the room and does way more listening and observing than anything else. And when it’s time to “Do the Thing”, they go forth boldly with conviction and confidence.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That one day there would be a pandemic and Broadway would disappear.
- If you kiss a guy in front of your cast, they’re going to be talking about it. Haha!
- I wish I had the confidence back then that I have now. It makes all the difference when getting work and also having presence on stage.
- I wish someone had told me to “Talk less. Smile more.” when in the presence of people who don’t have my best intentions at heart.
- Take the pressure off of yourself. When you’re relaxed, it’s so much easier to be the bomb!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve noticed that whenever a Black woman posts a photo of herself and publicly says that she feels beautiful, it’s a revolution. That’s because we were conditioned to not love ourselves. I wish that was a full full-blown movement that completely normalized Black beauty. So that when a Black person felt beautiful, she wouldn’t be an anomaly, but instead would be a normal aspect of society. I want the Black babies growing up today to never even question if they’re beautiful or not.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you believe something about yourself, the world will agree with you.” -Chantea McIntyre
I realized people put out content all the time. And it’s not always good. But they feel it’s good so they just do it and then the consumers eat it up. Even if it’s poor quality. That realization to me is a green light to finish the projects I start and see it through to the end. Hopefully it’s awesome and amazing and well received. But I should not be the one to slam the door on my own face if I don’t think I’m good enough. I’ve learned to ‘girl, bye’ those insecurities and just do stuff! When I believe in it, I have found that other people will believe in it too.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I love Oprah. She can sit down and talk to anyone in the world and never feel threatened. She will lift them up and highlight them in love. When she has a guest on her show, she always makes it about them. I would love to meet her, soak up her energy and any gems of wisdom she would like to share.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Instagram is @salishathomas. I have a blog at www.salishathomas.com. And the podcast I host called Black Hair in the Big Leagues is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!